“The sunshine vitamin”, also known as vitamin D, is vital for healthy bones and a strong immune system, says an analysis published in the British Medical Journal. This study also suggests that foods should be fortified with the vitamin.
Public Health England (PHE), however, argues that the infections data is not conclusive, although it does recommend the supplements to improve bone and muscle health.
According to the research, the immune system uses vitamin D to make antimicrobial weapons that puncture holes in bacteria and viruses. As vitamin D is made in the skin while out in the sun, many people, particularly in the UK, have low levels during colder seasons.
Trials on using supplements to prevent infections have so far given varied results, so researchers pooled data on 11,321 people from 25 separate trials to try to gain a more conclusive result. The team at Queen Mary University of London looked at respiratory tract infections, which covers a wide range of illnesses from a runny nose to flu to pneumonia.
The study overall said one person would be spared infection for every 33 taking vitamin D supplements. That is more effective than a flu vaccination, which needs to treat 40 to prevent one case, although flu is far more serious than the common cold.
There were more beneficial results for those taking pills daily or weekly, rather than in monthly super-doses and in people who were lacking vitamin D in the first place. The main purpose of vitamin D supplements is to normalise the level of calcium and phosphate in the body, which are crucial for the growth and maintenance of healthy bones, teeth and muscles.
In extreme cases, low levels of vitamin D can cause rickets in children, where the bones become soft and weak and, in some cases, misshapen as they continue to grow. In adults, vitamin D deficiency can lead to osteomalacia, which leads to severe bone pain and muscle aches.
One of the researchers taking party in the study, Professor Adrian Martineau, commented: “Assuming a UK population of 65 million, and that 70% have at least one acute respiratory infection each year, then daily or weekly vitamin D supplements will mean 3.25 million fewer people would get at least one acute respiratory infection a year.”
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