Vitamin D

What is vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a steroid hormone whose production and metabolism begins in the skin with exposure to ultra violet beta rays. It was initially identified in relation to the role of vitamin D deficiency in the development of rickets, and has been long recognised to be a critical component in bone health and the maintenance of calcium balance in the body.

Vitamin D deficiency

In the past three decades vitamin D deficiency has been associated with a multitude of diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, auto-immune diseases and diabetes. Almost simultaneously, concerns about the relationship between excessive exposure to sunlight and the development of skin cancer have resulted in many people avoiding the sun altogether. Consequently, vitamin D deficiency is becoming epidemic, even in countries such as New Zealand and Australia which have plentiful sunshine.

Because the food supply in New Zealand remains almost entirely free of vitamin D fortification, we are able to conduct studies here which are not confounded by dietary intake.

Why is vitamin D research important?

In many cases, the evidence for a role of vitamin D deficiency in the development of a certain disease is lacking. Often large population studies can suggest a strong association between a particular disease and low vitamin D levels, but such research does not establish cause and effect. Randomised, placebo-controlled trials are required to provide conclusive evidence

Researchers at Massey University were the first to conduct such a trial and demonstrate a role for vitamin D deficiency in the development of insulin resistance, a condition which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

Studies

Studies currently in the pipeline for the Vitamin D Research Centre include investigations into the affect of vitamin D supplementation on markers of bone turnover, skin diseases, metabolic syndrome and erectile dysfunction. We are also interested in identifying the risk factors for vitamin D deficiency in New Zealand pre-schoolers, and looking at the relationship between vitamin D status and recent history of respiratory illness, asthma and allergy in children.


Another important area of vitamin D research is establishing the relationship between disease risk in situations of vitamin D deficiency, and the presence of particular genetic variants of the vitamin D receptor.

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