Is vitamin D your best protection from swine flu?

Monday, September 28, 2009 14:47
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ND_blog_SwineD_1009_fin Dr. John Cannell is convinced that the swine flu epidemic could be vastly curtailed with vitamin supplementation.  (Cannell is the Executive Director of the Vitamin D Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about the perils of vitamin D deficiency.)

Anecdotal reports support vitamin D as flu preventive

Cannell has been campaigning to get the NIH and CDC to investigate claims that vitamin D supplementation (2,000 to 5,000IU per day) confers virtual immunity against swine flu.   As evidence, he presents reports from two physicians, one from a long-term care facility in Wisconsin and one with a private practice in Georgia. Both doctors use aggressive vitamin D supplementation with their patients–and both report that their patient populations were virtually untouched by flu when it swept through their facilities and practice communities. You can read testimonials from the physicians on the Vitamin D Council website.

As supporting evidence, Cannell notes that vitamin D is involved in immune response and that low vitamin D status appears to increase one's susceptibility to respiratory infections.  Some researchers theorize that the reason that the flu season tends to peak in winter is that this is when most people's vitamin D levels are lowest. (This was not the case with H1N1, however, which had a robust summer season.)

Are public health officials dropping the ball?

So far, neither the CDC nor the NIH appear interested in investigating this further, although Canada's public health agency is adapting its current study on vitamin D and influenza to include the H1N1 virus.

But with H1N1 breathing down our necks, the results of this and other research will come far too late to protect us from this year's swine flu threat. Cannell argues that people have nothing to lose from vitamin D supplementation and much to gain.

Some researchers fear vitamin D could backfire

But is there really nothing to lose from vitamin D supplementation? An group of researchers from the U.S. and Australia isn't so sure. Their research suggests that vitamin D supplementation may actually suppress immune response. Interestingly, increasing vitamin D levels by exposing the skin to sunlight or UV-B rays does not appear to have this immuno-suppressive effect. (Here's a link to their entire paper, published in Autoimmunity Reviews.)

Since this paper was published earlier this year, I've been eager to hear some sort of response or analysis from Cannell and the crew at Vitamin D Council but haven't seen anything from them yet.I can see why the CDC is not ready to jump on the vitamin D supplement bandwagon quite yet.

What's your best move?

Where does this leave us in regard to this flu season? I think people (and their physicians) are going to have to weigh the evidence–all of which is preliminary–and decide for themselves whether the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks.  

Perhaps the best compromise is to get as much vitamin D as possible through natural sunlight. As we get into winter (here in the Northern hemisphere), your best bet at stimulating vitamin D production is to get outside at mid-day and bare as much skin as you can.  For those who missed it, here's a calculator that will help you calculate how many minutes a day you'd need to cover your vitamin D requirements.

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