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Vitamin D deficiency linked to autoimmune diseases and some cancers PDF Print Email

Scientists have found that vitamin D deficiency plays a key role in causing autoimmune diseases, some cancers and type 1 diabetes, after scientists found over 200 genes that it directly influences.


Research recently published in the journal Genome Research, adds weight to the theory that vitamin D deficiency plays a key role in causing autoimmune diseases, after scientists found over 200 genes that it directly influences.


The researchers created a map of the specific locations on the human genome where vitamin D binds to DNA through proteins called vitamin D receptors. Vitamin D activates these receptors and influences the behaviour of genes that are associated with particular characteristics. The study showed that the vitamin D receptor was found in over 2,700 binding sites. Many of these sites were near genes that are associated with common autoimmune diseases and certain types of cancer.

In particular, the researchers found that vitamin D had a significant effect on genes associated with multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and type 1 diabetes. Vitamin D receptor binding was also found in regions on the genome that are linked with cancers such as leukaemia and colorectal cancer.

Vitamin D is produced naturally by your body when your skin is exposed to sunlight.  Many people don’t get enough from these sources. This is especially true if you live in a region that is nearer to the North or South Pole than to the equator (for example the UK, Canada or southern Argentina), where the sunlight needed to make vitamin D is only strong enough during the summer.


It’s already well known that vitamin D deficiency affects bone development, leading to conditions such as rickets, but this study supports previous research showing that vitamin D plays a role in the development of other diseases. Bupa recommends taking vitamin D supplements to reduce the chance of developing cancer by 26 percent. Taking at least 1,500 to 2,000 international units (IU) a day, which equates to three to four high-strength capsules (12.5 micrograms/capsule),will reduce your risk of developing a number of cancers as well as various bone-related conditions such as osteoporosis and osteomalacia.

Dr Virginia Warren, Assistant Medical Director at Bupa, commented on the research: “It is exciting that these researchers have shown that vitamin D is involved in determining the extent to which more than 200 genes are turned on. Vitamin D insufficiency is common in the UK and deficiency happens too. Optimal levels of vitamin D can be achieved with supplements and/or spending time in summer sun without sunscreen but being careful not to let the skin get red or burn.”


Key facts:

One billion people worldwide have vitamin D deficiency.

Around one in six middle-aged white people in Britain have vitamin D deficiency at the end of winter, and one in 30 still do at the end of summer. Levels of insufficiency - when vitamin D levels are below normal - are higher, at nearly one in two people at the end of winter and one in six at the end of summer.

Vitamin D can be found in oily fish, such as salmon, sardines or mackerel, and in fortified breakfast cereals. It is also produced naturally by your skin when it is exposed to sunlight.

In the UK, some groups of people (such as those of Asian origin or those who are housebound) are at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency because of low vitamin D intake from food and/or inadequate exposure of skin to sunshine.

Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, which are needed to help keep bones and teeth healthy.