The connection between vitamin D and arthritis is moderately established in the medical community. Many people have long recognized that vitamin D is critical to bone health. The effects of vitamin D extend to the immune system as well, which means its deficiency may be responsible for rheumatoid arthritis. A shortage of vitamin D may also contribute to the progression of osteoarthritis, a disease that weakens cartilage and changes joint structure.
Vitamin D deficiency has been well-founded as a risk factor for rickets, a childhood disease in which bones lack the vitamin D necessary for calcium absorption. Adults with vitamin D deficiencies may be susceptible to osteomalacia, a disease that softens bones, and osteoporosis, a disease that thins bones.
Some autoimmune conditions may also be connected to a vitamin D deficiency. Among these are such conditions as multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes. A number of health care professionals further believe a connection exists between abnormally low levels of vitamin D and arthritis. This deficiency may subsequently cause backaches, soft-tissue rheumatism or inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
One function of vitamin D is to act like a steroid hormone within the body. It binds to joint tissue and prevents damage. RA, however, is a disease that afflicts the joints. With this condition, the immune system erroneously attacks tissues, thus eroding cartilage and impairing physical movement. Unlike osteoarthritis, RA afflicts the lining of joints and may cause eventual bone erosion and deformity.
One connection between vitamin D and arthritis may relate to the nutrient’s modulation of the immune system. Vitamin D is necessary for healthy cell production and immune functions. Without this vitamin, the body may see normal tissues as foreign pathogens, as with RA. Increasing vitamin D intake may therefore be one way to prevent the onset of rheumatoid arthritis.
Women are reportedly more likely to develop RA than men, and those who live in northern latitudes may be at even greater risk. This suggests that vitamin D, which is readily supplied by the sun’s ultraviolet rays, may play a role in the development of RA. Although no cure exists for RA, vitamin D supplements may help to alleviate some of its symptoms.
Vitamin D may also help to promote heart health, a factor that sometimes raises concerns in RA patients. Rheumatoid arthritis can spread beyond body tissues and afflict organs, one example of which is the heart. Vitamin D, however, may play a key role in preventing heart disease, which in turn may reduce the risk for heart attack and stroke.
The link between vitamin D and arthritis extends to osteoarthritis as well. Osteoarthritis weakens cartilage, and the underlying joint may undergo subsequent changes. Vitamin D deficiency may impair the body’s defenses against such changes, thereby allowing the effects of osteoarthritis to progress. Patients with low bone mineral density, such as the elderly, may have an increased risk for the development and worsening of osteoarthritis.
Although vitamin D may not prevent osteoarthritis, it may help to stop its advancement. This appears to be particularly true of the knees, which are key areas for osteoarthritis to develop. When treating arthritis, vitamin D supplements may also help to reduce the pain and disability often associated with the disease.