Physicians have suspected for some time that Vitamin D may play a role in the control of blood sugar and prevent the onset of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Studies have already shown that a vitamin D supplement taken during pregnancy or in infancy can reduce the risk of Type 1 diabetes.
Now, a new, large-scale study is getting underway funded by the National Institutes of Health, to determine if Vitamin D can control or prevent Type 2 diabetes.
What is Vitamin D’s role in your body?
You’re probably familiar with the fact that along with calcium, Vitamin D is critical for building and maintaining bone mass. But Vitamin D plays a much wider role in your body, affecting many system-wide functions. Chronically low levels of Vitamin D are associated with many chronic diseases, most famously rickets.
In the new study, scientists are examining
- the ability of vitamin D to influence certain cells in the pancreas (pancreatic beta-cells) known to store and release insulin
- if vitamin D influences insulin sensitivity by stimulating insulin receptors
- if vitamin D affects insulin secretion and sensitivity by regulating calcium levels in cells
- if vitamin D boosts the level of T-cells in your body, which would influence the steps leading to Type 1 diabetes
If vitamin D is found to influence or regulate these systems in your body, it could go a long way towards explaining why Type 2 diabetes has become epidemic. The theory goes that the typical high-carb, high in red meat, low-D diet of most Americans results in levels of the vitamin far below what’s needed for proper function. Additionally, our sedentary, mostly indoor lifestyle leaves little opportunity for our bodies to synthesize vitamin D by way of sunlight.
In an analysis from the Nurses Health Study, there was a statistically significant association with lower risk of type 2 diabetes among women who reported the highest intake of both vitamin D and calcium… A statistically significant association between higher vitamin D status and lower risk of incident type 2 diabetes was also reported among men in the Mini-Finland Health Survey. – National Institutes of Health
How can you get enough vitamin D?
The answer to that question is shockingly simple: eat the right foods and spend some time in the sun.
Many foods are rich in vitamin D, primarily those in the fish family (see below). Additionally, your body can produce much of the vitamin D it needs simply by exposing your skin to direct sunlight. Ultraviolet radiation penetrates uncovered skin and converts certain fat-dwelling substances in your cells into the precursor for vitamin D3. The season of the year, cloud cover, smog, and the amount of melanin in your skin all affect how much is produced. Fortunately, the vitamin D produced this way is stored in your liver and fat cells and can be drawn upon as needed by your body.
It’s important to note that this synthesis of vitamin D by sunlight can only happen outdoors by allowing the sun to directly shine on your skin. Sitting near a sunny window won’t help at all. Ten to thirty minutes of midday sun exposure (10 am-3 pm) at least twice each week to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen is usually sufficient to build enough D reserves. Despite its importance in synthesizing vitamin D, don’t go on a massive D-quest and expose your skin to direct sunlight for hours at a time. UV radiation from sunlight and tanning beds has the potential to act as a carcinogen in your body, causing metastatic melanoma. Everything in moderation.
Foods that are naturally high in Vitamin D (does not include foods fortified with vitamin D)
- Cod Liver Oil
- Shiitake and Button Mushrooms
- Beef Liver
- Sockeye Salmon
If you’re diabetic, maintain your “D”
It all once again, comes down to a healthy diet and moderate amounts of exercise. Diabetics and non-diabetics alike should be cutting down on their red meat intake, and swapping it for the fish mentioned above. It is also recommended that 1/2 of the food on your plate at lunch and dinner be vegetables, preferably fresh. You can easily get enough sunlight to produce Vitamin D by exercising outdoors a few times a week, by simply walking for 20-30 minutes and making sure the sun is hitting your face, hands, and arms (assuming you don’t have a health condition which prohibits this).
As part of your diabetes management, have your physician check your vitamin D levels to make sure they’re sufficient. If they’re lacking, start on a complete vitamin D supplement, start exercising outdoors, and follow the dietary guidelines above. However, don’t make the mistake of taking a vitamin D supplement in lieu of getting it through diet and sunlight – too much vitamin D in this form has been associated with kidney stones and other complications. Many foods not on the list are fortified with vitamin D: milk, cereals, orange juice, yogurt and cheese, but check each product’s label, as amounts differ.
The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that “nutrients should come primarily from foods. Foods in nutrient-dense, mostly intact forms contain not only the essential vitamins and minerals that are often contained in nutrient supplements, but also dietary fiber and other naturally occurring substances that may have positive health effects. …Dietary supplements…may be advantageous in specific situations to increase intake of a specific vitamin or mineral.”