High doses of vitamin D speeds the recovery of tuberculosis patients, according to a new study.
The inspiration for testing the idea, scientists from Queen Mary University of London and other British hospitals said, was that 19th-century tuberculosis patients were sent to the mountains to lie in the sun. Ultraviolet B rays in sunshine convert cholesterol in the skin into vitamin D.
In the decades before antibiotics, doctors knew that TB patients sometimes recovered, or at least lived longer, at high altitudes. Spas for wealthy patients were built in the Alps, the Rockies and other mountain ranges.
Some doctors thought alpine air was the reason TB patients fared better, but others believed in “heliotherapy.” Even bedridden patients were wheeled out onto sun decks.
Vitamin D seems to prevent lung damage by slowing down inflammatory responses to the TB bacterium. Since it does not interfere with the action of antibiotics, it may be useful in other illnesses, like pneumonia, according to the authors of the study, published online by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week.
In a clinical trial of 95 patients on antibiotics, those who also got vitamin D had less inflammation, and the mycobacteria in their lung phlegm cleared up 13 days earlier on average.
Tuberculosis kills 1.5 million people a year and is a common co-infection in people with AIDS. Drug-resistant strains are becoming more common.