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Can vitamin D change genes to fight disease?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
First study shows how vitamin D changes gene expression - but at higher levels.

Do you think you are getting enough vitamin D? New evidence shows for the first time, even if your level is not low, higher levels of the vitamin could have an important role for fighting heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases and infection. Research shows how vitamin D changes gene expression when levels in the bloodstream are higher to boost immune defenses.

Boosting levels of the so-called sunshine vitamin in the body could help fight a variety of diseases even for people whose vitamin D status is considered normal, according to the findings based from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM).

Gene analysis gives clues about vitamin D role in immunity

Researchers studied 8 healthy men and women who were vitamin D deficient of insufficient at the start of the investigation and whose average age was 27.

For two months, 3 of the participants took 400 International Units (IUs) of vitamin D per day and 5 received 2,000 IUs daily.

The researchers took blood samples to measure white blood cells at the beginning and at the end of the study.

Researchers analyze more than 22, 500 genes to see if their activity declined or increased in response to higher levels of the vitamin.

At the end of the study the group that took 2000 IUs had sufficient vitamin D status of 34 ng/ml. The group that received 400 IUs was considered insufficient at 25 ng/mL. Vitamin D status is measureable with a simple blood test.

Deficiency is considered

Higher vitamin D level favorably alters gene activity

The researchers specifically found a higher level of vitamin D favorably alters gene expression discovered in 291 genes that included 160 biologic pathways linked to cancer, autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases and cardiovascular disease (CVD).

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New genes were also discovered that relate to vitamin D status. The researchers looked at gene sequences of DNA bases that interact with vitamin D receptors to regulate how are genes are expressed, frequently referred to as epigenetics. To ensure accuracy of their findings 12 genes that don’t change expression were examined that remained stable through the study period.

Do you take extra vitamin D for specific health conditions? It may be that higher levels have a more important role in boosting immunity that is implicated in a variety of diseases including cancer.

No one has yet to determine what level is optimal for human health, making it difficult to know how much is too much. The vitamin can also have side effects if you take too much.

Michael F. Holick, PhD, MD, professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at BUSM, corresponding author and leading vitamin D expert said in a press release that more studies are needed to confirm the researchers’ observations.

He adds, “… the data demonstrates that improving vitamin D status can have a dramatic effect on gene expression in our immune cells and may help explain the role of vitamin D in reducing the risk for CVD, cancer and other diseases."

One autoimmune disease vitamin D status has been linked to is multiple sclerosis. Studies have suggested the vitamin can improve outcomes for cancer patients, could help thwart heart disease and even treat Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the Vitamin D Council, levels of 25(OH) D, the form that is measureable in the blood up to 100 ng/mL “implies a degree of safety… since concentrations twice this amount have yet to ever be associated with toxicity.”

It should be noted that too much vitamin D during pregnancy might contribute to infant food allergies, found in a recent study.

This study is the first to look at how higher levels of the vitamin could help healthy people without low levels because of how vitamin D has now been found to change gene expression. Do you think we are all getting enough vitamin D with current recommendations?

March 21, 2013

Image credit: Morguefile

This article updated May 1, 2013