Vitamin D Deficiency And Autoimmunity: What’s The Link?
Recently, under one of our Facebook posts, there was a discussion about the importance of vitamin D in autoimmune diseases and the link between vitamin D deficiency and autoimmunity. We at FindMeCure welcome your thoughts and suggestions because opening up a dialogue with patient communities is important to us. Your experiences, observations, insights and perspective are valuable and we love hearing from you in our comment section whether here, on the blog, or on one of our social media platforms. We also encourage you to share and exchange tips and words of affirmation and support with other people who are going through similar life experiences.
That being said, inspired by the conversation on Facebook, we decided to share some information about recent research on vitamin D deficiency and its link to autoimmune disease. Taking into account the scientific studies done on the topic is as important as considering the stories of people who have personal experience with it. We want you to keep in mind that more research comes up with new information and better approaches all the time, so it’s easy for a piece like this one to become a little outdated in a few years.
The role of vitamin D
Traditionally vitamin D has been associated with the bone metabolism (it’s why not only calcium but also vitamin D is important for healthy bones) but surfacing research focuses on the role it plays in the body’s immune system. Vitamin D signalling is linked to processes that regulate the immune responses and there are vitamin D receptors in many cell lineages of the immune system such as activated T cells. What this means is that it’s worth investigating whether vitamin D has anything to do with either the development or the prevention of autoimmune diseases – and if so, how important its part is.
Vitamin D deficiency
According to a 2006 study, 36% of otherwise healthy adolescents and 57% of adults in the U.S. are vitamin D deficient and the number is likely to be even higher. Why? Because it has been recently discovered that optimal vitamin D levels need to be higher than we previously thought. We can easily see why this is the case – vitamin D is one of the nutrients we can’t get enough of by simply shifting our diets and introducing more of a particular food group. The human body is designed to produce vitamin D as a result of sun exposure but modern life has made it difficult to get enough hours in the sun. This is also why vitamin D deficiency is not limited to certain climates and it’s still a concern even in sunny parts of the world.
What we know so far is that vitamin D plays an important role in our health – the strength of our bones, our cardiovascular condition, and even our immune system. Low levels of vitamin D is certainly not good news but is it indicative of a higher risk of autoimmune disease?
Vitamin D and autoimmune diseases
Although we now know that vitamin D plays a big part in the immune system, there is conflicting research on whether its deficiency puts people at a higher risk for autoimmune disease. While some medical professionals and researchers believe that vitamin D deficiency could be an overlooked risk, others suggest that people who live with autoimmune diseases are deficient in vitamin D as a result of the disease itself. It seems to be ‘the chicken or the egg’ situation, so let’s take a look at both arguments.
According to a recent study on “The Implication of Vitamin D and Autoimmunity: a Comprehensive Review”, vitamin D has an immunomodulatory effect. The review interprets the evidence it has gathered to suggest that vitamin D levels are associated with risk of multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes and Lupus. Both impaired vitamin D signalling and vitamin D deficiency according to the study may be a contributing factor to autoimmunity and thus the authors suggest, supplementation could be a prospective treatment.
Another review, however, suggests that it could be the other way around and low levels of vitamin D in patients instead of a cause for the autoimmune disease could simply be the result of it. The study also cautions that vitamin D supplementation could actually exacerbate the symptoms. The reason for this is that vitamin D found in food and supplements (25-hydroxyvitamin D) is not really a vitamin but a secosteroid and it has a similar effect to corticosteroids. This form of vitamin D rather than activating inactivates its receptor – Vitamin D nuclear receptor (VDR).
The paper also proposes that given the widespread of bacteria in the human body (90% of the cells being estimated as non-human) autoimmune diseases may actually be caused by pathogens. By inhibiting the immune response, 25-hydroxyvitamin D initially lowers inflammation but in the long turn, it suppresses the immune system’s ability to fight, thus allowing the bacteria to spread.
We want you to keep in mind that none of these theses has been sufficiently researched and so far the causes of autoimmunity are unknown. More clinical studies are needed in order to determine whether vitamin D supplementation is a good or bad idea.
Should you take supplements?
If you live with an autoimmune disease, it’s likely that this is not the answer you were looking for. The truth is, contradictory research findings make it hard to give a clear-cut solution. So what do you do now? You can keep on searching for that one treatment that works for you with the help of your treatment team. If after seeking a second opinion (or as many as you need) you and your healthcare provider come to the conclusion that vitamin D supplementation is the right choice for you, then that’s what you should do.
If, however, you’re not completely sure about the course of action needed and you believe the cause of your disease should determine the treatment, you can join a clinical trial looking into autoimmunity and what is behind it. You can also join a trial testing an innovative treatment or even vitamin D supplementation if you want to try it under the care and close monitoring of medical professionals. This is an answer that we simply can’t give you. What we can do is make it easy for you to find prospective clinical trials in your area.