Vitamin D pills may do more than help build bone health. New Harvard University research has found that adequate levels of the “sunshine vitamin” cut the odds of developing adult-onset type 1 diabetes by half.
The finding, which is based on an analysis of the medical charts of millions of U.S. military service personnel, suggests vitamin D supplements could play a leading role in preventing the autoimmune disease.
"It is surprising that a serious disease such as type 1 diabetes could perhaps be prevented by a simple and safe intervention," said Kassandra Munger, a research associate in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health who led the study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Past studies have suggested vitamin D deficiency might raise the risk for developing type 1 diabetes, once called juvenile-onset or insulin-dependent diabetes, in which the body's immune system attacks and disables insulin-making cells in the pancreas. About 5 percent of the 26 million Americans with diabetes have type 1, which usually develops after age 20, according to the American Diabetes Association. Research has also suggested inadequate vitamin D in adulthood may be an important risk factor for autoimmune diseases in general.
But the new Harvard study is among the first to show vitamin D may actually prevent type 1 diabetes.
For the study, researchers examined blood samples collected from eight million military personnel since the mid-1980s. Identifying 310 individuals diagnosed with type 1 diabetes between 1997 and 2009, the team examined blood samples taken before onset of the disease, and compared them with those of 613 similar people who did not develop diabetes.
The researchers found young adults with higher blood levels of vitamin D had about half the risk of developing type 1 diabetes than those with the lowest levels of the vitamin.
"The risk of type 1 diabetes appears to be increased even at vitamin D levels that are commonly regarded as normal, suggesting that a substantial proportion of the population could benefit from increased vitamin D intake," said co-researcher Alberto Ascherio, a Harvard professor of epidemiology and nutrition.
An estimated 1 billion people worldwide have inadequate levels of vitamin D. Sun exposure is a good source of vitamin D, but salmon, fortified milk, and supplements also provide it.
"Whereas it is premature to recommend universal use of vitamin D supplements for prevention of type 1 diabetes, the possibility that many cases could be prevented by supplementation with 1,000-4,000 IU/day, which is largely considered safe, is enticing," the researchers said.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
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