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Low Vitamin D Levels Linked to Diabetes Risk

May 3, 2011

Lower levels of vitamin D circulating in the bloodstream are tied to a higher risk of developing diabetes.

After following more than 5,000 people for 5 years, the researchers found those with lower than average vitamin D levels had a 57 percent increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes compared to people with levels in the recommended range. 

Lead author Dr. Claudia Gagnon, a fellow at the Western Hospital at the University of Melbourne in Australia stated that, “Studies like ours have suggested that blood levels of vitamin D higher than what is recommended for bone health may be necessary to reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.”

The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get about 600 IU of vitamin D a day to maintain circulating levels in the desirable range.

Past studies have shown that vitamin D may also help keep blood sugar levels under control (Diabetes Care, Feb. 2011).

In Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, the body can’t use insulin it produces efficiently to control blood sugar levels. Vitamin D may play a role by increasing the release of insulin, Gagnon said.

To see whether circulating D levels and calcium consumption influenced insulin sensitivity and diabetes risk, Gagnon’s team measured the vitamin D blood levels of 5,200 people without diabetes. After 5 years, about 200 of them had developed diabetes, and the researchers measured everyone’s vitamin D levels again.

The researchers found that twice as many people (6 in 100) with low blood levels of vitamin D later developed diabetes, compared to those with blood levels in the normal range (3 in 100).

When the researchers took into consideration risk factors for diabetes such as age, waist circumference, and a family history of the disease, the increased risk from low D levels translated to 57 percent, relative to those with higher levels.

Calcium is also thought to participate in insulin release, but the researchers found no link between the mineral and risk of developing diabetes later. Gagnon noted that, “Lower levels of vitamin D in the blood were associated with an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, however, our findings do not prove cause and effect.”

Further studies are needed, Gagnon’s group writes in the journal Diabetes Care, both to directly test whether vitamin D supplements make a difference in diabetes risk, and if so, to determine the optimal circulating D levels to minimize that risk.

Vitamin D has also been linked to lower risks of asthma, heart disease, and certain cancers. However, there hasn’t been much evidence showing that taking supplements helps these conditions.

The sun is the major vitamin D source for most people, but salmon and fortified dairy products also contain a lot.

Diabetes Care, online March 23, 2011.