Vitamin D is increasingly being recognized as a powerful super-nutrient essential for good health. Although vitamin D deficiency has been linked with a growing list of illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and autoimmune diseases, until now scientists have not been able to show how it could trigger so many different disorders.
Research has now found that vitamin D protects the body against a range of serious illnesses by binding to the DNA of the body's cells and directly controlling the genes implicated in diseases such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes and cancer.
This is the first time that scientists have found direct evidence to suggest that this amazing substance, which is made by the skin in the presence of sunlight, directly controls a network of genes linked with a wide variety of serious disorders.
The latest study suggests a possible mechanism by showing that vitamin D binds directly to parts of the human genome that house the genes known to be linked with these serious autoimmune disorders, which result from a person's immune system attacking the body's own tissues. One of the researchers said:
"A surprisingly large number of genes that have been highlighted by gene-associated studies in autoimmunity and cancer seem to be regulated by vitamin D,"
"This is indirect, but intriguing evidence that vitamin D will prove to be a major player in the key gene-environment interactions that expose us to diseases."
The researchers analyzed human cells that had been stimulated by the active form of vitamin D. They found that the vitamin D receptor protein bonded to a total of 2,776 sites along the DNA of the genome. They also found that the vitamin had a significant effect on altering the activity of 229 genes located near to these sites.
"We screened the whole genome and found all the sites where vitamin D binds. The evidence is now quite solid that not only is there binding but we've been able to show that it actually affects the functioning of the gene. It's not just sticking to that region, it's actually altering gene expression," the study author said.
"We show there's an excess of genes that are associated with a bunch of autoimmune conditions that seem to have the vitamin D regulation feature. I don't think we can say [this is] cause and effect, but it's not a coincidence. It is clearly not there by chance. There's a very substantial bias among these genes that have been highlighted as playing a role in these autoimmune conditions, and that have turned out to be regulated by vitamin D," he explained.
Another of the authors said the findings suggest vitamin D supplements may be important.
"There is now evidence supporting a role for vitamin D in susceptibility to a host of diseases. Vitamin D supplements during pregnancy and the early years could have a beneficial effect on a child's health in later life."
Vitamin D is created in the body from cholesterol. It influences the entire body - receptors that respond to this vitamin have been found in almost every type of human cell, from the brain to bones.
This new research provides evidence that vitamin D does more than just aid in the absorption of calcium and bone formation - it is also involved in multiple repair and maintenance functions, affects thousands of different genes, regulates the immune system, and much, much more.
These ground-breaking findings highlight the importance of having adequate levels of vitamin D in the body, but many people, unless they have taken specific measures to address it, are likely to be deficient in this important nutrient.
Ways to Get Vitamin D
Vitamin D is produced naturally by the skin but only in the presence of sunlight. Sunshine contains ultraviolet light B (UVB) which converts a substance in the skin, called 7-dehydrocholesterol, into vitamin D3. This can then be converted by the liver and kidneys into the biologically active form of vitamin D.
The vitamin is also present in relatively high amounts in fish and shellfish, and in lower amounts in eggs and dairy produce.
By far the easiest and best way of delivering enough vitamin D to the body is to expose skin to direct sunlight for a few minutes each day.
Research Paper Details:
Ramagopalan SV, Heger A, Berlanga AJ, et al. A ChIP-seq-defined genome-wide map of vitamin D receptor binding: Associations with disease and evolution. Genome Research, 2010.