Vitamin D and pneumonia risk



Sunlight and longer days are returning to the Northern hemisphere, which means more opportunity for sun exposure.  And when intense sunlight hits skin, vitamin D is produced.  Summer is also a low point for flu and colds, and a new study suggests that vitamin D may have something to do with that.

photo: Donna P Feldman

photo: Donna P Feldman

This study was done in Finland, land of long, dark cold winters, with little possibility for vitamin D production.  Over 700 people aged 53-73 were followed for almost 10 years.  Vitamin D status was compared to risk for being hospitalized for pneumonia.  The mean serum vitamin D for this group was insufficient, at 17.8 ng/ml.  Not surprising, given the location in Finland.  Analysis showed that subjects with the lowest vitamin D levels had a risk for pneumonia that was 2.6 times higher than subjects with the highest vitamin D levels.  The authors concluded that very low vitamin D created almost as much risk for pneumonia as smoking.

This isn’t the first time vitamin D levels have been linked to lung disease.  Over 100 years ago, sanitariums for treatment of tuberculosis were located in high altitude sunny locations.  Even before vitamin D was officially identified, medical providers recognized that something about sunshine helped TB patients.  More recently studies have linked risk for TB and flu to vitamin D status.  However, most of these studies simply compare blood levels to disease risk.  More research is needed to clarify if raising blood vitamin D to some specific level will significantly lower risk for lung diseases like flu, TB and pneumonia.

What if you have pneumonia or TB?  Will vitamin D supplements help you?  Again, there isn’t evidence that vitamin D is a cure-all, although certainly if you’re deficient, increasing your intake to normalize your serum levels can’t hurt you.  There is a lag time between increasing intake and significantly improving blood levels.  If you’ve got active disease, you’re probably already being treated with medications, so the role of vitamin D in recovery may not be clear.

The best plan: keep your vitamin D levels adequate with adequate intake.  A simple blood test will tell you where you stand.


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