Vitamin D, or the “sunshine vitamin,” is actually made in our skin when it is exposed to sunlight. This vitamin is a vital cog in a machinery that performs a wide range of functions inside our body. More recently, scientists have uncovered the connection between vitamin D and diabetes. Studies suggest that vitamin D can have positive effects on people with type 2 diabetes.
Apart from healthy bones, vitamin D is also helpful in the proper functioning of muscles as well as our immune system. Vitamin D also protects us from:
- Cancers (like that of breast, prostate, colon)
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Multiple sclerosis
What Does Research Say about Vitamin D Deficiency and Diabetes?
For years, vitamin D was known for its role in bone health. New research is now concluding that this vitamin can actually have an important role in the overall health of a person. Doctors believe that there is an unmistakable link between vitamin D and diabetes. This is because studies have conclusively indicated that people with low levels of vitamin D are at a higher risk of developing diabetes, later in life.
A study on 668 elderly individuals, who lived in the northern latitudes (where getting enough sunshine is a problem), found that these individuals were at a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes due to vitamin D deficiency. The researchers went on to say that vitamin D sufficiency provides protection against type 2 diabetes.
A 2011 review looked at various studies that examined how much vitamin D people were getting, by conducting a blood test that assessed the amount of vitamin D in their blood. These people were then followed to see if they got type 2 diabetes later in life. It was found that people with higher amounts of vitamin D in the blood (> 25ng/ml) had a decreased chance of getting type 2 diabetes as compared to people with low levels of vitamin D (< 14ng/ml).
Another study concluded that vitamin D deficiency inhibits the secretion of insulin from the pancreas. Now we all know how important normal levels of insulin are for the regulation of blood glucose levels. If insulin secretion is hampered in any way, it results in raised blood glucose levels and in turn can lead to full-blown diabetes.
There is also conclusive proof of the connection of vitamin D deficiency and many metabolic problems like heart diseases, obesity, raised lipid levels in the blood and high blood pressure. All of these are also associated with diabetes as health complications. Thus, sufficient amounts of vitamin D are necessary to protect us from diabetes and the other complications. Researchers believe that treatment of vitamin D deficiency can prevent AND treat diabetes. The role of vitamin D in diabetes was proved in a study where 92 adults at high risk of getting type 2 diabetes were given short term vitamin D supplementation. It improved the functioning of beta cells of the pancreas and helped control blood sugar levels.
How Does Vitamin D Act?
Scientists have identified specific receptors on beta cells of the pancreas (the ones that make insulin) that “turn on” only if vitamin D binds to them. This means that sufficient amounts of vitamin D are necessary for proper functioning of the beta cells.
Vitamin D is also known to regulate calcium in our body. Calcium, in turn, helps to control the release of insulin. This implies that any alterations in calcium levels can seriously impair the ability of beta cells to release sufficient amounts of insulin, leading to raised blood sugar levels.
Vitamin D also affects our immune system. In type 2 diabetes, there is destruction of pancreatic beta cells due to the inflammation reaction of the immune system. Vitamin D is able to stop this inflammation reaction and the eventual destruction of beta cells. This results in healthy beta cells producing sufficient amounts of insulin to control blood sugar levels.
Natural Sources of Vitamin D
The best source of vitamin D is sunshine! Two hours of sun per week, which is around 20 minutes per day (preferably the mild morning sun) with exposure to hands and face is sufficient to provide required levels of vitamin D. Food sources of vitamin D include:
- Fatty fish (tuna, mackerel, and salmon)
- Foods fortified with vitamin D (some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals)
- Beef liver
- Egg yolks
How Much of it Helps?
If you are a healthy individual, you will require an optimal dosage of vitamin D that is called RDA, or recommended dietary allowance. This amount is 600 IU/day for ages 1 to 70 and 800 IU/day for people above 70 years of age. The Endocrine Society recommends the following dosage for people who are at risk of a deficiency – 600 to 1000 IU/day for ages 1 to 18 years; 1500 to 2000 IU/day for ages 19 years and above.
These aren’t universally accepted dosages but are close enough. You need to talk to your doctor to understand your risks and health status before starting on a vitamin D supplementation, if need be. These are dosages you need to add through either diet or dietary supplements, if you do not get any safe sun exposure. But considering that all of us do get some sun exposure, it is better to first find out how much vitamin D you already have and supplement for the balance. A blood test will tell you how much vitamin D your body has. A healthy range is between 20 and 50 ng/ml. A test result below 12 ng/ml indicates deficiency.
According to principles of Functional Medicine that we at Sepalika swear by, vitamin D levels of 60 ng/ml are considered optimal. In case of vitamin D insufficiency, a dose of up to 60,000 IU per week, complemented with regular testing, can help achieve these levels.
Make sure that the supplement contains Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) and not vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol). The latter is a poor substitute. Also, Vitamin D3 is a fat-soluble vitamin, so it can build up in the tissues if you supplement too much. To be safe, always take a blood test before starting D3 supplementation and re-test at least after 3 months (unless your doctor recommends you to do so sooner) to make sure you aren’t getting too much.
Is Vitamin D Safe?
Vitamin D when taken as a supplement is safe up to 4000 IU/day or when applied on the skin in the form of vitamin D lotions, for up to three months.
When used on the skin, allergic reactions (irritation and rash) can occur due to either vitamin D (rare) or due to a compound in the preparation (likely). There is a strong correlation between vitamin D and blood sugar levels. People with diabetes need to consult their doctors before starting on a vitamin D supplement. People with blood pressure disorders need to be cautious with vitamin D supplementation as it affects blood pressure.
People suffering from headaches, heart disease, lymph cancer, tuberculosis, kidney disease, liver disease, lung disorders, skin disorders, stomach disorders, and thyroid disorders need to consult their doctors before starting vitamin D supplementation.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not overdose on their vitamin D supplementation. They also need the same dosage as non-pregnant or non-breastfeeding women do. Pregnant women should never take more than the recommended dosage as it can negatively affect the fetus.
Are There any Side Effects of Vitamin D?
Vitamin D may show the following side effects:
- Loss of appetite
- Dry mouth
- Metallic taste
Vitamin D may increase calcium levels in people with:
This may lead to kidney stones in such people.
Final Verdict on Vitamin D and Diabetes
Vitamin D is the easiest vitamin to take – all you need is sunshine! Unfortunately, we do not get enough sunshine, or rather the right amounts of ultraviolet radiation that we actually need, owing to environmental pollution, our sedentary lifestyles, the use of heavy sunscreens, the clothing that we wear, our skin color or the fact that we live in places that don’t get enough sunshine. This is where dietary sources of vitamin D come into the picture. If you cannot get enough vitamin D from your diet, you need to rely on a high quality vitamin D supplement.
The importance of vitamin D in the overall health of our bodies is proven beyond doubt. In fact, vitamin D sufficiency decreases our risk of death via most of the natural causes. Vitamin D has a clear advantage in people with diabetes. It has been proven that vitamin D supplementation not only reduces the risks of getting diabetes, but can also have positive effects on people suffering from diabetes.
Dietary supplements such as vitamin D can help you in your fight against chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes. Supplementation with vitamin D, and diabetes prevention are intricately linked. Diabetes is a dietary disorder that is reversible with the help of a healthy, holistic diet, an active lifestyle and a positive mental outlook.