Health News Digest

September 24, 2007

Vitamin D: Unsung Superhero?

Vitamin D

By  Michael D. Shaw

As we are all being subjected to a seemingly endless stream of political rhetoric, most of what we hear about health care is all negative. Are you ready for some good, maybe even sensationally good news?

I’m talking about Vitamin D (specifically D3), and its newfound properties of immune enhancement…

While the introduction of pharmaceutical antibiotics in 1941 (with Penicillin) was a huge boon, it would take less than four decades for their indiscriminate use to cause the problem of germ resistance. As such, with the looming prospects of bio-terror, and such naturally occurring threats as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), research has been directed towards various methods of strengthening our immune systems.

Natural immunity is not prone to creating resistant strains of pathogens, of course, and if a single means of enhancing immunity could be deployed, this would be far more efficient and effective than attempting to distribute a single-purpose drug for a suspected bio-terror agent.

In the early 1990s, a particular class of so-called host defense peptides was identified, which is remarkably effective against a wide variety of pathogens. They are called cathelicidins, and have been found in many mammals, including humans.

In September, 2004, a research group based in Montreal, Canada found that Vitamin D stimulates the production of human cathelicidin (hCAP-18), and thus directly regulates antimicrobial innate immune responses. More recent findings (April, 2007) from Dr. Gill Diamond et al., of the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, show that Vitamin D induces the production of cathelicidin in normal human bronchial epithelial cells.

Immunologists have long observed that our natural immunity can vary tremendously across populations, but could never explain why. Could differing levels of Vitamin D be the answer?

A Finnish study—published this month—indicates a strong correlation between Vitamin D insufficiency and acute respiratory tract infection.

Ironically, Vitamin D was used to treat tuberculosis in the pre-antibiotic era, and it was often noticed that children suffering from rickets (caused by a Vitamin D deficiency) were prone to chronic infections. Physicians in India note that Vitamin D deficiency in tuberculosis is a cause, rather than a symptom of the disease.

In 1981, R. Edgar Hope-Simpson (famed for proving that shingles was caused by reactivation of the chickenpox virus) proposed that a “seasonal stimulus” intimately associated with solar radiation explained the remarkable seasonality of epidemic influenza. In a widely cited review article entitled Epidemic influenza and Vitamin D, Dr. John J. Cannell et al., concluded that Vitamin D, or lack of it, may be Hope-Simpson’s “seasonal stimulus,” as people tend to get less sunlight in the winter, and sunlight promotes Vitamin D synthesis in the body.

Cannell has even suggested that the skyrocketing rates of autism since the 1980s may be tied into lack of sun exposure, in the wake of sometimes hysterical public campaigns discouraging being out in the sun. Certainly, epidemiological sorting of autism incidence by latitude whereby equatorial peoples tend to get more sun, would be beneficial here, but has not yet been done.

The most striking findings on Vitamin D concern cancer. Results published in June, 2007 from Creighton University looked at 1,179 postmenopausal Caucasian women over 55, some of whom were put on Vitamin D and calcium supplements. The supplement group had 60-77 percent fewer incidences of cancer over the four years of the study than the control group.

Cedric F. Garland, Dr.P.H., cancer prevention specialist at the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego and colleagues estimate that 250,000 cases of colorectal cancer and 350,000 cases of breast cancer could be prevented worldwide by increasing intake of Vitamin D, particularly in countries north of the equator.

That such an inexpensive supplement could have such profound effects is welcome news in light of the American Cancer Society’s new emphasis on health care access as “key to winning the war against cancer.” The old bromide of early detection is trotted out, as is the implication that lack of insurance might impede early detection. Does this mean, as health care maverick Bill Sardi suggests, that the Society has given up on this notion of “prevention,” since cancer rates have probably only dropped because of lifestyle improvements, and not medical intervention?

As I have stated on more than one occasion, early detection and its relation to survival longevity rate is merely a statistical aberration. Since the survival longevity is dated from the time of first detection of the cancer, BY DEFINITION early detection means you will live longer, regardless of treatment!

To this baby boomer, at least, the Vitamin D connection looks wonderful, and should be pursued more aggressively.