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Sunny Benefits: How Oral Vitamin D May Help Slow Down HIV Progression

It already has been scientifically established that vitamin D, which our bodies make by absorbing sunlight, can boost the immune system.

But of course we also know that too much sun can lead to skin cancer. Although modern medications can render a person with HIV a near-normal immune system, people who have the disease still are at slightly higher risk for skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

But research published last week in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Science shows that a vitamin D supplement taken orally can provide benefits to boost the immune systems of people with HIV and even stave off infections among those who do not have the virus.

“Vitamin D may be a simple, cost-effective intervention, particularly in resource-poor settings, to reduce HIV-1 risk and disease progression,” the researchers concluded.

The study was led by Nina Jablonski, a Penn State University anthropologist. Anthropologists study scientific phenomena within communities.

In this study, Jablonski and a team of international researchers examined blood samples from people living in Cape Town, South Africa, where HIV infection rates are particularly high. The researchers drew samples of blood from residents indigenous to Cape Town as well as people who had relocated there from other places with varying amounts of sunlight.

Those indigenous to Cape Town tend to have lighter pigmented skin, because Cape Town has winters with relatively little sunlight. Immigrants from places closer to the equator, such as Xhosa, have darker pigment.

Those with lighter skin tend to make more of the substance needed to produce vitamin D, because those with darker skin have adapted to the effects of the sun.

“The researchers found that both groups exhibited vitamin D deficiency during the winter, with women in both groups being more deficient, on average, than the men,” Penn State reported in a news release. “Because of vitamin D's impact on the immune system, the researchers provided six weeks of supplemental vitamin D3 to 30 of the Xhosa participants, which brought 77 percent of the participants to optimal vitamin D status.”

Sunscreen use was not a factor in the study. Among 100 young, healthy subjects, researchers examined how blood samples responded to HIV infection.

“High-dosage oral vitamin D3 supplementation attenuated HIV-1 replication, increased circulating white blood cells, and reversed winter-associated anemia,” the researchers reported in the news release. “Vitamin D3 presents a low-cost supplementation to improve HIV-associated immunity.”

Research published last year in The Journal of Infectious Diseases showed that low concentrations of vitamin D leads to increased risk of HIV progression among people starting antiretroviral therapy, AIDSMAP reported. The study included participants from around the world, including the United States. Among African Americans in the U.S., 92 percent had low levels of vitamin D at baseline.

Always remember to consult with your doctor before beginning any vitamin regimen.