The Importance of Vitamin D to the Immune System

You might be surprised to learn that a low blood level of vitamin D increases the risk of developing a thyroid illness known as Hashimoto’s disease.

Indeed, in some medical studies vitamin D supplementation may help to reverse this disease. In these studies, robust supplementation significantly reduced the blood markers for Hashimoto’s disease.

Hashimoto’s disease (HD) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks and slowly kills the thyroid gland. It is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in technologically advanced countries.

The symptoms of HD are quite variable depending on how badly the thyroid has been damaged. Early in the disease there is often an increased release of thyroid hormone. Symptoms may resemble that of hyperthyroidism such as weight loss, high blood pressure and a rapid heart rate.

Blood tests at this time may suggest, but not always, a hyperthyroid state.

As the disease progresses, more thyroid tissue is damaged. At this time the symptoms of HD mimic a sluggish thyroid gland or even frank hypothyroidism.

At this time blood tests often fall within the “normal” range. However, common symptoms include fatigue, dry skin, weight gain and “brain fog.”

In 1922 British physician Edward Mellanby discovered a substance that cured rickets (a severe bone wasting illness from vitamin D deficiency). He named it vitamin D since it was the fourth vitamin to be discovered.

However, vitamin D is not a vitamin. It is made in the body and classified as a hormone. Vitamin D is commonly associated with healthy bones, but it is also critical for the proper functioning of the immune system and may play an important role in the treatment of HD.

Over the past few years several research studies on the role of vitamin D and HD have been published in the medical literature. Most of the studies have demonstrated that vitamin D improves HD, but a few have indicated no benefit.

There are differences in the methodologies of these studies and that may be the reason for the different findings.

A few studies have discovered a strong correlation between low vitamin D levels and an increased risk of developing HD. Other studies revealed that vitamin D supplementation in those with HD and low vitamin D levels resulted in a significant improvement in the blood tests for HD.

One interesting study published in the Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences revealed that a low vitamin D level significantly reduced the blood flow to the thyroid gland, theoretically accelerating the damage caused by HD. The researchers theorized that a robust level of vitamin D may increase the blood flow to the thyroid and slow this damage.

Many autoimmune illnesses are impacted by vitamin D deficiency/insufficiency. This is not surprising since vitamin D plays an important role in the functioning of the immune system on many levels.

Select supplements and a specific diet may also impact HD, but vitamin D seems to have the greatest effect. I strongly recommend vitamin D for HD and can attest to its benefit.

Patrick B. Massey, MD, PH.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network

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