Increased blood levels of vitamin D may help both prevent and treat Crohn’s disease, an incurable, often debilitating gastrointestinal disorder, research has shown.
Crohn’s disease is a form of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which afflicts between 10 and 20 percent of the U.S. population at some point in their lives. There is no known cause or cure for IBS, nor is there any known way to prevent flare ups of the disease. IBS is characterized most commonly by intense abdominal pain, gas, bloating, cramps and alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea.
Flareups of Crohn’s disease can involve any part of the digestive tract, but most commonly affect the lower area of the small intestine (the ileum), resulting in painful swelling and diarrhea. Crohn’s disease appears to involve a significant genetic component, with 20 percent of sufferers having at least one close relative who also suffers from some form of IBS.
Researchers believe that Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disorder, with flareups caused by the body’s immune system attacking its own gastrointestinal tract, perhaps due to an underlying impairment in the way the immune system deals with intestinal bacteria.
Because vitamin D appears to play an important role in regulating the immune system and has been linked with preventing or treating other autoimmune disorders, there is solid theoretical reason to believe that it may provide a benefit in Crohn’s disease as well. But does the research support this hypothesis?
Vitamin D among most effective treatments
In a study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in 2009, researchers from Christian Medical College in Vellore, India compared vitamin D blood levels in 34 Crohn’s disease patients and 34 matched controls. They found that not only were Crohn’s disease patients significantly more likely to have poor vitamin D status than healthy patients, but lower vitamin D levels were also significantly and independently correlated with increased severity of the disease.
Another study was conducted by researchers from McGill University Health Centre and the Universite de Montreal and published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 2010. In this study, researchers discovered that vitamin D acts directly on the genes beta defensin 2 and NOD2, both of which have been linked to Crohn’s disease. Beta defensin 2 is known to encode for an anti-microbial proteins, while NOD2 helps alert cells to the presence of invasive microbes. Failure of NOD2 is known to prevent the immune system from reacting properly to intestinal infections.
“This discovery is exciting, since it shows how an over-the-counter supplement such as vitamin D could help people defend themselves against Crohn’s disease,” researcher Marc J. Servant said. “We have identified a new treatment avenue for people with Crohn’s disease or other inflammatory bowel diseases.”
Finally, a study conducted by researchers from the University of Sheffield, England, and published in the journal BMJ Case Reports in December 2012 suggests that vitamin D supplementation may help reduce the severity of IBS flareups or even prevent them altogether. The research was sparked by a case study about women who had suffered from IBS for 25 years and who had been unable to get reliable relief from any mainstream or alternative therapies. After hearing that some people use vitamin D mega-doses to treat their IBS, the woman began a supplementation program that restored her to practically normal digestive health.
Intrigued by this case, the researchers searched for Internet forums where IBS patients discussed using vitamin D supplementation. They found that among 37 patients who reported using the therapy, 70 percent experienced significant improvements in their IBS symptoms.
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