Vitamin D May Prevent Flu and Asthma

Thursday, March 11, 2010
The AJCN just published a new controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness of vitamin D supplements on flu and asthma (1). Dr. Hiroyuki Ida's group gave Japanese schoolchildren (10 years average age) 1,200 IU of vitamin D3 or placebo per day from December through March. They found that children taking vitamin D had a significantly lower incidence of influenza A but not influenza B. These are two strains of flu that each accounted for roughly half the flu incidence in this population. Sadly, if you add the total flu incidence for A and B together (which the authors don't do in their tables), vitamin D supplementation didn't reduce total flu incidence significantly.

They also found that in the subset of children not already taking vitamin D supplements, the effect was greater, with unsupplemented children contracting nearly three times as many influenza A infections as children receiving vitamin D. They didn't analyze the influenza B or total influenza incidence in that way, so we don't know if prior supplementation makes a difference there.

The most striking finding of the paper is that the vitamin D group suffered from 6 times fewer asthma attacks than the placebo group. This needs to be repeated but it's consistent with other data and I find it very encouraging.

The paper did have some limitations. They didn't measure vitamin D status so they have no way to know exactly how effective their pill-based supplements were.

Another problem is that they began collecting data immediately after beginning supplementation. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that can take 3 months to reach maximum concentration in the body following supplementation. By the time the children were reaching their maximum serum concentration of vitamin D, the trial was over. It would be nice to see the next trial begin supplementation in the fall and look at flu incidence in the winter.

This paper comes on the heels of another showing that vitamin D is necessary for the activation of an immune cell called the killer T cell (2). These are important for resistance to infections and cancer. Overall, these papers add to the accumulating evidence that vitamin D is important for the proper functioning of the human immune system. However, mice may not be the best model for use in studying vitamin D biology. From the first paper:
The evolution of different mechanisms for the regulation of PLC-γ1 activity in human and mouse T cells parallels the development of divergent VDR-dependent and VDR-independent antimicrobial pathways in human and mouse macrophages31, respectively, and may reflect the fact that mice are nocturnal animals with fur and humans are daytime creatures that synthesize vitamin D in the skin after exposure to ultraviolet light.
In other words, mice don't use vitamin D in the same way as humans because they have a different evolutionary relationship to it.