High doses of the “sunshine” vitamin D can help people with tuberculosis recover more quickly, researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). For several decades, heliotherapy – encouraging (tuberculosis) patients to soak up the sun’s rays – has been used in Swiss clinics successfully. The authors say they have now shown why this type of therapy is beneficial.

Vitamin D3 is synthesized by the skin when it is exposed to sunlight, specifically ultraviolet light of UVB type at wavelengths between 270 and 300 nm.

In this study, Dr Adrian Martineau and team gave tuberculosis patients high vitamin D doses alongside their normal antibiotic treatment. They found that the patients recovered much more quickly. This is the first study to focus on the effects vitamin D might have on the immune responses of patients receiving therapy for an infectious disease.

The authors believe that when high doses of vitamin D are administered to TB patients, the body’s inflammatory response to infection is dampened down, which results in less damage to the lungs and faster recovery.

Dr. Martineau believes that vitamin D supplementation may also speed up recovery in other diseases, including pneumonia.

Dr. Martineau said:

“These findings are very significant. They indicate that vitamin D may have a role in accelerating resolution of inflammatory responses in tuberculosis patients. This is important, because sometimes these inflammatory responses can cause tissue damage leading to the development of cavities in the lung. If we can help these cavities to heal more quickly, then patients should be infectious for a shorter period of time, and they may also suffer less lung damage.

“More broadly, the ability of vitamin D to dampen down inflammatory responses without compromising the actions of antibiotics raises the possibility that supplementation might also have benefits in patients receiving antimicrobial therapy for pneumonia, sepsis and other lung infections.”

In this study, 95 patients, all of them with tuberculosis, were randomly selected into two groups during the first eight weeks of treatment:

  • The vitamin D group (44 patients) – they received standard antibiotic treatment plus high doses of vitamin D
  • The placebo group (51 patients) – they received standard antibiotic treatment plus placebo supplements

Dr Anna Coussens, from the National Institute for Medical Research, part of the Medical Research Council, UK, took blood samples from all the participants and measured levels of inflammatory markers. She also carried out statistical analyses to find out what the effects of vitamin D on the immune response were.

Dr Coussens said:

“We found that a large number of these inflammatory markers fell further and faster in patients receiving vitamin D.”

The scientists found that:

  • In the vitamin D group – it took 23 days for Mycobacterium tuberculosis to be cleared from the participants’ sputum
  • In the placebo group – it took 36 days until no more Mycobacterium tuberculosis was detected in the participants’ sputum

Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.

The authors said that larger studies need to be performed to confirm their findings before the addition of vitamin D supplements can be recommended for patients with TB. Dr. Martineau said “We are hoping to do more work to evaluate the effects of higher doses and different forms of vitamin D to see if they have a more dramatic effect.”

Several studies have shown that vitamin D helps improve lung function as well as treating respiratory diseases, while others have linked some respiratory conditions to vitamin D deficiency:

A 2011 study found that up to one-third of all Americans aged 1 year or more have inadequate levels of vitamin D.

Written by Christian Nordqvist