Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Vitamin D helps terminally ill patients survive

It is widely known that vitamins are good for your health, and many people take vitamin supplements in an effort to improve their health. They come in different flavours, labelled with letters A, B, C, D, E and K, and are vital to our survival even though we require only small amounts of them. Scientists are still studying vitamins, even though their existence has been known for many years. A recent study revealed that vitamin D, which is known for its beneficial effect on bone health, can help critically ill patients survive. Therefore it may be worthwhile for clinicians to issue vitamin D supplements for patients at intensive care.

Vitamin D is unique in the sense that we can produce it ourselves, under the influence of sunlight. Other vitamins need to be obtained through food, as the body has no means of producing them. This is peculiar, as making things from sunlight is typical plant behaviour: they create organic molecules in a process called photosynthesis under influence of sunlight. Vitamin D is spread throughout the blood in much the same way as hormones, and functions by maintaining calcium and phosphate levels, both necessary for bone production and maintenance.

Life saver
Vitamin D and its functions have been known for a long time, but their life-saving capabilities were not previously observed. Scientists from the University of Tel Aviv noted that patients at the intensive care unit in hospitals with sufficient vitamin D manage to hold on to life much longer than those with insufficient levels. The difference is rather big, as it resulted in an increase of the average number of days survived from 15 to 24. It may have something to do with the immune system, which also benefits from vitamin D's presence: it is known that the number of infection-fighting cells is increased if levels are sufficient.

While living 9 days longer at an intensive care unit in a hospital does not seem much of a victory, its implications are more far reaching. A significant increase in the number of days lived when a patient is terminally ill suggests it may be a potential life safer. If we can find the way by which vitamin D delays death, we may be able to find a mechanism that helps treatment of those in dire need. It also gives doctors more time to figure out a possible therapeutic strategy, which of course only makes sense if the patient is alive. All in all it is interesting to see what future studies will reveal on how vitamin D asserts its behaviour in the critically ill.

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