Connection between Vitamin D Deficiency and Two Bowel Diseases

Research at Penn State University has demonstrated a connection between vitamin D deficiency and two bowel diseases that occur in one of every 1000 people in North America and Europe.

Dr. Margherita T. Cantorna, Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Director of the research project, says, “Our experiments show that vitamin D deficiency worsens the symptoms of Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Treatment with vitamin D for as little as two weeks lessens the symptoms of these inflammatory bowel diseases in mice.”

Dr. Cantoma presented her research at the Experimental Biology conference in San Diego in April 2000. Her co-authors were Carey Munsick and Candace Bemiss. Their paper is the first in which researchers have reported a connection between vitamin D deficiency and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

“Vitamin D deficiency is more common in people who have inflammatory bowel disease,” Dr. Cantorna states. “In addition, the anti-inflammatory drugs often used to treat IBD can cause bone loss as a side effect. Vitamin D taken in combination with these drugs may be able to reduce the effective dose of anti-inflammatory needed to treat the disease and decrease bone loss as well as treat the vitamin deficiency.”

In her research conducted at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Cantorna had demonstrated a connection between vitamin D and two other autoimmune diseases, arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Autoimmune diseases are disorders of the immune system in which the body attacks itself. In arthritis, for example, the immune system attacks the joints; in multiple sclerosis, the spinal cord and brain; and in IBD, the intestines.

“Since we had previously shown a connection between other autoimmune diseases and vitamin D, it seemed reasonable to explore the possibility of a connection in this case,” she notes.

However, she points out other factors suggesting a link of vitamin D with IBD. For example, she notes that IBD is more prevalent in North America and Northern Europe, where people receive less sunlight. Vitamin D is manufactured in the skin on exposure to sunlight, and people make significantly less in northern climates, especially in the winter. The incidence of IBD in Canada, for example, is the highest in the world.

“I think that if you are a patient who has been diagnosed with IBD, it would be best to continue to follow your personal physician's advice,” says Dr. Cantorna. “It wouldn't be a good idea to begin taking the vitamin D pills available over-the-counter because of possible problems with absorption. However, for healthy people, it makes sense to make sure that you are vitamin D adequate.”

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