Take Your Flu Pill: Vitamin D
Vitamin D may be a multi-purpose germ fighter. An article by Janet Roloff in Science News1 gathered evidence from several research labs that strongly suggests this molecule triggers the formation of one of the body’s effective antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal agents: cathelicidin. In its activated form, vitamin D binds to a short section of DNA called a “response element” that strongly increases activity of the cathelicidin gene.
Since vitamin D is produced in the skin with moderate exposure to UV rays in sunlight, a healthy body outdoors appears to have a built-in response system. Mona Stahle (Karolinska Institute, Sweden) was studying vitamin D response in the skin when she heard about cathelicidin production by vitamin D. She remarked, “It just came to me—an intuitive thought—that maybe the sun, through vitamin D production, might help regulate the skin’s antimicrobial response.”
By describing a convergence of independent research avenues, Loloff showed the linkage between this vitamin and the immune system via genetics. Healthy vitamin-triggered cathelicidin pathways appear to be beneficial for the prevention of rickets, tuberculosis, and even the common flu. Her story ends confirming an anecdotal observation in the first paragraph: prisoners treated for vitamin D deficiency in one facility developed almost no flu symptoms, while those in others had infection rates as high as 10%.
1Janet Roloff, “The Antibiotic Vitamin,” Science News, Week of Nov. 11, 2006; Vol. 170, No. 20, p. 312.
Loloff’s article reads like a detective story. Several teams working independently put together pieces that appear to relate vitamin D to cathelicidin production, and that to disease prevention. Cause-effect relationships in health are tricky to establish, but this one seems to make sense. Of course, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Vitamin D overdose can be toxic – to say nothing of sunburn.
This article is another example of healthy science with no need for evolutionary theory. The E word was absent in the article and would have been superfluous. The observations support design: an integrated system of inputs and outputs, checks and balances, and parts that fit together. It looks like another example of irreducible complexity. Notice especially how the chemical response of vitamin D is finely tuned to the energy of UV rays, emitted by the sun, that are able to penetrate Earth’s atmosphere, which screens most UV radiation. Not only that, but the molecules are positioned in skin to the depth where the radiation reaches. In short, the whole system is tuned, from the molecular reaction, to the gene network, to the tissue structure of skin, to the whole body, to the environment on Earth’s surface, to the planetary atmosphere, to the type of star.
Science should seek to understand how things work for the end goal of improving health, safety and societal welfare. The findings from these studies could directly benefit third-world countries with multitudes of poor people afflicted with unnecessary diseases. A little applied knowledge discovered through scientific (e.g., systematic) investigation of nature’s designs could pay a big dividend in health and comfort for millions of people. Shouldn’t that be the goal of science?
For your Thanksgiving meal, consider adding some good sources of vitamin D. You don’t have to substitute cod liver oil for turkey, but a balanced diet should take this essential nutrient into account. And instead of watching the football game inside this year, how about getting into a good game yourself in the healthful outdoor sunshine?