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Is Low Vitamin D Making Your Diabetes Worse?

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Studies reveal the link between vitamin D deficiency and a person’s risk for diabetes.

Diabetes mellitus (commonly known as diabetes) is, “a group of diseases that affect how your body uses blood sugar (glucose).” Glucose is one of the body’s main fuels. Diabetes is basically having too much glucose in the blood for a prolonged period of time. If not properly managed, diabetes can lead to severe health problems, even death.

Estimates from the International Diabetes Federation say that nearly 285 million people, or 7% of the world's population, suffer from diabetes. This number is predicted to reach over 435 million by 2030. In the US alone, about 79 million people have pre-diabetes.

Types of Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes happens when the pancreas can’t make enough insulin. In the past, it was known as ‘insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus’ (IDDM) or ‘juvenile diabetes’. It is managed through insulin therapy. Exercise and a diabetic diet are also crucial to managing type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is, also known as ‘adult-onset diabetes.’ Most people can manage it by modifying their diet and getting regular exercise. Some people may also need medications to regulate their blood sugar. Others may eventually need insulin shots.

About 90% of all cases of diabetes are type 2. The other 10% are type 1 diabetes. Cases of adult-onset diabetes have drastically increased since the 1980s. One of the main factors behind this trend is increased obesity. However, another factor which is being explored more and more is the link between vitamin D deficiency and a person’s risk for diabetes.

Vitamin D, the ‘Sunshine Vitamin’

This fat-soluble vitamin helps the body absorb calcium, magnesium and phosphate. Many people are aware of its role in promoting healthy growth and strong bones to prevent conditions like rickets (osteomalacia or malformed bones) in children and soft bones (osteomalacia) in adults. The ‘sunshine vitamin’ also plays a role in metabolism, immune system functioning and other body processes.

Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin because it is produced naturally by the human body when direct sunlight strikes the skin. However, modern life in America causes many people to spend 90% or more of their lives indoors. Most people in the US don’t get outside long enough or at the right times of day for their bodies to produce enough vitamin D. As a result, many Americans are vitamin D deficient.

Although it can be gotten from food, there are few foods which naturally have vitamin D. Fish like salmon, tuna and others are good sources of vitamin D. Pork, eggs and some mushrooms also contain vitamin D. Also, many foods, like milk and cereals, are fortified with vitamin D. Most people who are vitamin D deficient take a dietary supplement, an inexpensive way to get the vitamin.

How Does Vitamin D Affect Diabetes?

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) says, “Vitamin D deficiency and diabetes have one major trait in common: both are pandemic.” In the past, some researchers theorized that vitamin D has a direct effect on diabetes.

Diabetes Control

In 2010, Esther Krug, MD, an endocrinologist at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, explored the role of vitamin D in diabetes control. Krug had previously observed that diabetes control is worse in individuals who are vitamin D deficient.

Although Krug could not demonstrate that low vitamin D leads to diabetes, people who have a hard time controlling their diabetes frequently have a vitamin D deficiency.

A Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

A 2015 Spanish study also observed that people who are vitamin D deficient may have a bigger risk for type 2 diabetes. The study also showed that a person’s vitamin D level is more closely linked to glucose metabolism and blood sugar levels than BMI (body mass index). This means that vitamin D deficiency is a greater factor for diabetes than being overweight.

Vitamin D and Developing Diabetes

The ADA cites evidence that vitamin D deficiency is a possible factor for developing both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The ADA lists the following findings:


Type 1 diabetes

Some studies show that people living in higher latitudes (further away from the equator) have more incidences of type 1 diabetes. This could be related to people getting less sunshine and having lower levels of vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.
A year-long study in northern Finland collected data on almost 11,000 children. It examined the link between vitamin D supplementation and rickets (soft and weak bones in children, usually related to vitamin D deficiency). It also examined how vitamin D supplementation relates to the development of type 1 diabetes. According to the findings, kids who took, “2,000 IU of vitamin D daily were 80% less likely to develop type 1 diabetes.” 
In other studies, early childhood vitamin D supplementation decreased the risk of developing type 1 diabetes by almost 30%.
Because vitamin D helps prevent type 1 diabetes in children, some researchers suggest that pregnant women and nursing mothers need supplements to maintain optimal vitamin D serum levels. The research points out that adequate vitamin D in mothers can help reduce their children’s chances of developing type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 Diabetes
An observational study of more than 80,000 women aged 20 and older was done by the Nurses Health Study. It showed an increased risk of type 2 diabetes in women with low vitamin D. For these women, “a combined daily intake of > 800 IU of vitamin D and 1,000 mg of calcium reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by 33%.”
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III study (done between 1988 and 1994) showed low levels of vitamin D may predict a person’s future development of type 2 diabetes.
Other research shows that increasing vitamin D to normal levels reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 55%.
Not having enough vitamin D and calcium seems to hinder glycemic control (the effect that food has on blood sugar levels). Also, vitamin D supplementation could be necessary for optimizing glucose metabolism.

Vitamin D Treatment for Diabetes

In the past, vitamin D deficiency was believed to be a risk factor for glucose intolerance. According to the ADA, scientific evidence shows that treating a person with vitamin D improves glucose tolerance and insulin resistance. In general, low vitamin D levels reduce insulin secretion. Specifically, low vitamin D may hinder calcium's effect on insulin secretion.

However, in lab tests, vitamin D-deficient animals have experienced improved insulin secretion with vitamin D supplementation. The ADA also states that vitamin D has indirect effects on insulin secretion:

  • Enhances insulin responsiveness for glucose transport
  • Improves insulin action by stimulating the expression of insulin receptors
  • Has an indirect effect on insulin action (possibly through a calcium effect on insulin secretion)
  • Has a direct effect on cytokines (small proteins that are important in cell signaling) and improves systemic inflammation

The Significance of Vitamin D for Diabetes

The positive effects of vitamin D in the body are many. It helps regulate metabolism, helps build strong bones and boosts the immune system. Also, being vitamin D deficient can aggravate existing health issues like diabetes.

According to the research, a person’s vitamin D levels could contribute more to the development of diabetes than being overweight. Also, for those who already have diabetes, low vitamin D levels can make it even more difficult to manage the condition. Knowing this, everyone who is diabetic should consult their physician, get their vitamin D levels checked and, if necessary, strongly consider taking a supplement. 





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