Vitamin D and TB

the original vitamin D source for humans

The wisdom of experience now has a scientific explanation.  In the early 20th Century, heliotherapy was a known effective treatment for tuberculosis (TB).  Heliotherapy was simple: put the patients in sunshine, preferably all day long.  It worked, although the method wasn’t understood.  There was some thought that sunlight or heat killed the actual bacteria.  Eventually some medical scientists figured out that sunlight caused more vitamin D production in the patients’ skin,, and that perhaps it was something about the vitamin D that killed TB.  Despite not understanding the process, an entire TB sanitarium industry was based on heliotherapy, located in sunny climates so that patients could be outside all year long.

Some recent research clarifies why this works.  Using serum from subjects who had either sufficient or insufficient vitamin D levels, researchers measured the immune response to TB.  Vitamin D is involved in specific immune responses against TB bacteria.  The researchers found that the vitamin-D-dependent immune responses only worked in serum from vitamin D sufficient subjects.  Deficiency allowed TB bacteria to grow and colonize.

This is just one more interesting piece in the vitamin D story.  What it says is that vitamin D deficiency appears to create a friendly environment for TB bacteria.  What it doesn’t say is that high doses of vitamin D will prevent or cure TB.  The next step in research is to investigate whether giving vitamin D to optimize blood levels can prevent TB infection, or perhaps hasten a cure.

TB in Texas: Coincidentally, a report today says that 100 people in Texas have tested positive for TB, including a teacher who may have spread it to students.  The report notes that racial/ethnic minorities are more susceptible to infection.  They also have darker skin tone and are more likely to be vitamin D deficient.  Perhaps some alert doctor will decide to test these infected people for vitamin D.


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