It has long been thought that Vitamin D, which is made naturally by people’s bodies if they get plenty of sunlight (hence its label the ‘sunshine vitami’) is vital for healthy bones. Now, it is thought that it also has a key role to play in boosting the immune system.
The immune system uses vitamin D to make antimicrobial weapons that puncture holes in bacteria and viruses, but as vitamin D is made in the skin while out in the sun, many people have low levels during winter.
The QMUL Study
To date, trials on using supplements to prevent infections have given mixed results, so a team of researchers From Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) pooled data on 11,321 people from 25 separate trials. They looked at respiratory tract infections – which covers a wide range of illnesses from a sniffle to flu to pneumonia. These are just the sort of infections which can significantly impact on the cost of sickness absence faced by employers today.
This latest research, published in the British Medical Journal, claims that Vitamin D supplements could spare more than three million people from colds or flu in the UK each year.
Overall, the study said one person would be spared infection for every 33 taking vitamin D supplements. This is more effective than flu vaccination, which needs to treat 40 to prevent one case, although flu is far more serious than the common cold. The researchers therefore argue that food should be fortified with the vitamin.
There were greater benefits for those taking pills daily or weekly – rather than in monthly super-doses – and in people who were deficient in the first place.
One of the researchers, Prof Adrian Martineau, said: “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.”
However, there is considerable debate about the importance of the latest study:
- Public Health England (PHE) says the infections data is not conclusive, although it does recommend that supplements should be taken for improved bone and muscle health. PHE already advises everyone to take vitamin D supplements in autumn and winter for the sake of healthy bones and muscles.
They are recommended all year round for some people who get little sunlight on their skin, including people in care homes or those who cover up.
Prof Louis Levy, the head of nutrition science at PHE, said: “The evidence on vitamin D and infection is inconsistent and this study does not provide sufficient evidence to support recommending vitamin D for reducing the risk of respiratory tract infections.”
- But Prof Martin Hewison, from the University of Birmingham and the Society for Endocrinology, said the findings were “striking”.
“I agree with the authors that this study supports a new indication for vitamin D beyond its established benefits for bone health,” he added.
- And the research wing of the NHS, the National Institute for Health Research which funded the study, said the findings were “worthy of serious further debate”.
Occupational health experts advise employers to take heed
Forward thinking employers will reap rewards from promoting a better understanding of health and nutrition in their workforce, both in terms of improved productivity and reduced cost of sickness absence.
Ensuring that your employees have the information and support they need to make healthy lifestyle choices can make a huge difference to your business. Leading occupational health providers, Medigold Health, can advise businesses how best to do this, including ideas for how to improve nutrition at work in a fun, engaging ways.
Contact us today for advice about encouraging your employees to make healthy lifestyle choices.