(NaturalNews) Low levels of vitamin D may increase a person's risk of developing type 1 diabetes, according to a study conducted by researchers from Harvard School of Public Health and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
In contrast to type 2 diabetes, which typically occurs when the body becomes desensitized to the blood-sugar-lowering hormone, insulin, type 1 diabetes is a disease in which the body's own immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.
The researchers analyzed blood samples from almost 1,000 members of the U.S. military whose blood had been collected from the Department of Defense Serum Repository. They compared the blood of 310 people who later developed type 1 diabetes with 613 controls who had never developed the disease.
Among non-Hispanic whites, the researchers found that vitamin D blood levels greater than or equal to 100 nmol per liter were associated with a 44 percent lower risk of developing type 1 diabetes over a 5.4-year followup, compared with those whose blood levels were lower than 75 nmol/L. In some cases, maintaining adequate vitamin D levels could actually reduce the diabetes risk by up to 60 percent.
No connection between vitamin D and type 1 diabetes was found in black or Hispanic participants.
Vitamin D fights autoimmune diseases
The researchers became interested in the possibility of a link between vitamin D and type 1 diabetes after conducting research that showed a link between vitamin D and multiple sclerosis, another autoimmune disease.
"Multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes are both autoimmune disorders, and the studies basically showed the same thing," said researcher Bruce W. Hollis of the Medical University of South Carolina. "The papers have shown that you need to take three to four thousand units per day to attain appropriate blood levels to prevent diseases."
Although prior research into type 1 diabetes has focused on genetic rather than environmental factors, this may be because it has focused mostly on childhood onset, said senior study author Alberto Ascherio. Adult onset of the disease is significantly more likely to be affected by environmental factors such as vitamin deficiency, he noted.
"Normal" vitamin D levels not enough
One of the study's most surprising findings was that even vitamin levels typically considered healthy might still be too low to prevent type 1 diabetes.
"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," Ascherio said.
This suggests that even more people than previously believed should be increasing their sun exposure. Hollis noted that just 20 minutes of unprotected skin exposure during peak sunlight hours can cause the body to release approximately 20,000 IU of vitamin D into the blood within the next 24 hours.
Although further research will be needed before any firm recommendations about vitamin D intake or blood levels can be made, the researchers noted that supplements of 1,000 to 4,000 IU per day are widely considered safe. In addition, it is impossible to get too much vitamin D from sunlight.
"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 wrote.
"It is surprising that a serious disease such as type 1 diabetes could perhaps be prevented by a simple and safe intervention," lead author Kassandra Munger said, commenting on the study's findings.
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