Unlocking vitamin D’s autoimmune superpowers

The connection between autoimmune diseases and vitamin D deficiency is becoming clearer and clearer…

A large study conducted by Harvard researchers last year showed that women with low vitamin D levels were 43 percent more likely to develop multiple sclerosis (MS) than women with adequate levels.

Past research also linked low vitamin D levels to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, psoriatic arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

So if you want to prevent autoimmune diseases, the science is clear — you need to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D.

But for people who already have autoimmune diseases, it’s not as simple as popping a vitamin D supplement and watching symptoms magically disappear.

That doesn’t mean vitamin D can’t help you if you have an autoimmune disease. But there are a few vitamin D secrets you need to understand if you’ve already been diagnosed…

The difference between autoimmune prevention and treatment

Researchers from the University of Birmingham in the UK recently confirmed that vitamin D is effective at preventing the inflammation that leads to autoimmune diseases. But things get a bit trickier once an autoimmune disease has already developed.

In their study, these researchers looked at vitamin D’s role in rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints. They came away with a few important findings that could impact how people with autoimmune diseases use vitamin D.

First, they found that vitamin D’s impact on blood cells is not the same as its impact on cells from the body part that’s most affected by the autoimmune disease.

For example, in this latest study, researchers tested vitamin D’s effect on the blood of people with rheumatoid arthritis and on cells from their joints. Vitamin D reduced inflammation in the blood, but the inflamed joint cells were much less sensitive to it. That means, vitamin D’s inflammation-fighting powers aren’t as effective in the area where people with autoimmune diseases need it most.

But why would inflamed joint cells respond differently to vitamin D than blood cells?

Well, researchers suspect it’s because the inflamed joint cells are more committed to inflammation and less likely to change than other cells in the body. But they do have all the parts necessary to respond to vitamin D. Which means, there’s still hope that vitamin D can make a difference in autoimmune diseases.

Now, this finding is big news, because blood is used in most studies to gauge inflammation levels. And a lot of previous studies showed that vitamin D substantially lowered inflammation in autoimmune disease sufferers’ blood—but does that mean it lowered inflammation in the joints, bowel, central nervous system, or whatever other body part the immune system is attacking? Based on this study, not necessarily.

That doesn’t mean people with autoimmune diseases shouldn’t take vitamin D. Vitamin D helps regulate the immune system and suppresses inflammation. And since a misfiring immune system and inflammation are the two biggest driving factors behind autoimmunity, vitamin D could still be the missing link in autoimmune disease treatment.

Researchers believe that since cells affected by autoimmune disorders are less sensitive to vitamin D, it may just take much higher doses than what’s currently being doled out to have an impact on these diseases.  They also think there may be ways to correct these cells’ insensitivity to vitamin D…but that will take more research to figure out.

So based on this research, here’s a summary of the two important tips you need to understand about vitamin D if you have an autoimmune disease:

  • People with autoimmune diseases may have vitamin D insensitivity in the cells most affected by their disease, but these cells still have the mechanisms necessary to absorb vitamin D.
  • It may take high doses of vitamin D to make a difference in existing autoimmune diseases.

What should you do about your D?

If you have an autoimmune disease, it’s still important to check your vitamin D levels and make sure you’re getting enough. The fact is, people with autoimmune diseases are more likely to be low. And vitamin D affects your health in so many ways that go beyond your disease symptoms.

You may also want to talk to a trusted healthcare professional about taking high doses of vitamin D. Some research shows it could have benefits for people with autoimmune diseases. One 2007 study, for example, found that giving people with multiple sclerosis 40,000 IU of D3 a day reduced their brain lesions in half.

There’s also a Brazilian neurologist, professor and researcher named Dr. Cicero Galli Coimbra who’s gained quite a reputation for successfully treating people with multiple sclerosis using high doses of vitamin D. He recommends 10,000 IU of vitamin D per day for people with neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases.

Of course, when it comes to high-dose vitamin D there’s always the risk of vitamin D toxicity, which can cause abdominal pain, poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, confusion, bone pain, bowel problems and muscle weakness. So don’t go rogue and start taking massive amounts of vitamin D on your own. Work with a professional who can keep you healthy and safe.

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Sources:

  1. Diniz Lopes Marques, et al. “The importance of vitamin D levels in autoimmune diseases.” — Revista Brasileira de Reumatologia. Feb. 2010; 50(1).
  2. M. Kimball, et al. “Safety of vitamin D3 in adults with multiple sclerosis.” — The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Sept. 2007; 86(3):645-651.
  3. Maintaining sufficient vitamin D levels may help to prevent rheumatoid arthritis — MedicalXpress. Retrieved November 21, 2017.
  4. Jeffery, et al. “Decreased sensitivity to 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 in T cells from the rheumatoid joint.” — Journal of Autoimmunity, 2017.
  5. Vitamin D – the cure for autoimmune diseases? — Vitamin D and Multiple Sclerosis. Retrieved November 21, 2017.
  6. Am I getting too much vitamin D? — Vitamin D Council. Retrieved November 21, 2017.
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.