Linking Vitamin D Deficiency to Inflammatory Bowel Disease

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Abstract

Inflammatory bowel disease is associated with industrialization, and its incidence has increased markedly over time. The prospect of reversing these trends motivates the search for the agent(s) involved. Modernity entails several physical and behavioral modifications that compromise both the photosynthesis of cholecalciferol in the skin and of its bioavailability. Although deficiency in this “vitamin” has therefore emerged as a leading candidate, and despite the publication of a randomized control trial that showed a trend toward statistically significant benefit in Crohn's disease, its causal agency has yet to be demonstrated by an adequately powered study. We discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the case being made by epidemiologists, geneticists, clinicians, and basic researchers, and consolidate their findings into a model that provides mechanistic plausibility to the claim. Specifically, converging data sets suggest that local activation of vitamin D coordinates the activity of the innate and adaptive arms of immunity, and of the intestinal epithelium, in a manner that promotes barrier integrity, facilitates the clearance of translocated flora, and diverts CD4 T cell development away from inflammatory phenotypes. Because smoking is an important risk-altering exposure, we also discuss its newly established melanizing effect and other emerging evidence linking tobacco use to immune function through vitamin D pathways.

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