April 18, 2000 -- People with ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, two types of inflammatory bowel disease, may have worse symptoms if don't get enough vitamin D, animal studies suggest.
Research presented this week at an experimental biology meeting showed that mice genetically engineered to develop inflammatory bowel disease had more symptoms and more intestinal damage if they were also deprived of vitamin D. A special vitamin D supplement prevented much of the damage -- but experts warn that too much vitamin D can also be dangerous.
Margherita T. Cantorna, PhD, and colleagues from Penn State University report that the mice with inflammatory bowel disease became much sicker if they did not get enough vitamin D because the vitamin appears to tame some of the immune cells that otherwise run wild and damage the tissues of the intestine.
"We can say that there may be clinical benefit from making certain that patients with inflammatory bowel disease are not deficient in vitamin D," Cantorna tells WebMD. Cantorna is assistant professor of nutrition at the Penn State University College of Health and Human Development in University Park.
Cantorna's group genetically engineered mice to develop symptoms resembling inflammatory bowel disease at a very early age. The mice that were kept deficient in vitamin D developed severe intestinal damage and died a short time later. Those that were given supplemental vitamin D fared well, and none of them died.
Some mice were also treated with a special high-potency preparation of vitamin D. This greatly reduced the amount of intestinal damage in the mice with inflammatory bowel disease. Cantorna tells WebMD that the experimental supplement is too toxic to be used to treat humans who have inflammatory bowel disease because it can cause severe problems with calcium metabolism. Her group is currently working on research they hope will lead to the development of a safer version of the high-potency vitamin D.
If you have inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn's disease, Cantorna recommends having your physician check your vitamin D levels regularly, because many people with these digestive problems do have vitamin D deficiency.
"Vitamin D supplementation is not something to try at home," she says. "Because of the risk of side effects, it should be done only under medical supervision."
- A study on mice shows that a deficiency in vitamin D can aggravate the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.
- Many people with digestive problems have a vitamin D deficiency, and a physician can easily check this with a lab test.
- Those who want to take vitamin D supplements should do so only under the supervision of a doctor, because too much vitamin D can be harmful.