Vitamin D can speed up recovery in tuberculosis (TB) patients, say researchers.
It suggests that the 19th century practice of sending patients to retreats to soak up the sun’s rays could have done some good.
The latest study found patients recovered more quickly from the infection lung disease if they combined antibiotics with exposure to sunlight.
The findings, from Queen Mary University, suggest high doses of the vitamin dampen down the body’s inflammatory response to infection, reducing damage to the lungs.
Study leader Adrian Martineau, said: ‘Sometimes these inflammatory responses can cause tissue damage leading to … cavities in the lung.
‘If we can help these cavities to heal more quickly, then patients should be infectious for a shorter period of time, and they may also suffer less lung damage.’
The researchers also said they think vitamin D’s ability to dampen inflammatory responses without interfering with the action of antibiotics suggests supplements might be useful for patients taking antibiotics for diseases like pneumonia, sepsis and other lung infections.
TB, which people in wealthier parts of the world often mistakenly believe to be a thing of the past, is proving a tough disease to beat. In 2010, it infected 8.8 million people worldwide and killed 1.4 million.
Drug-resistant cases of Tuberculosis are on the rise in the UK, according to figures released in July. In 2010, there were 342 cases which could not be dealt with by traditional antibiotics, while in 2011, this figure rose to 431.
The infection destroys lung tissue, causing patients to cough up the bacteria which then spreads through the air and can be inhaled by others.
In recent years, rates of drug-resistant TB have been spreading fast across the world, causing alarm among public health officials and prompting calls for more research into new and more effective treatments.
The researchers, whose study was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, split 95 TB patients who were on standard antibiotic treatment into two groups. For the first eight weeks of their treatment, 44 of them were also given high dose vitamin D, while the remaining 51 got placebos.
Anna Coussens from Britain’s National Institute for Medical Research measured signs of inflammation in blood samples to see what effect the vitamin D had on immune responses.
‘We found that a large number of these inflammatory markers fell further and faster in patients receiving vitamin D,’ she said.
The researchers also found that Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that cause TB, cleared from the phlegm coughed up from deep in the lungs faster in patients on vitamin D, taking an average of 23 days to become undetectable under the microscope compared to 36 days in those on placebo.
Martineau said it was too early to recommend all TB patients take high-dose vitamin D alongside antibiotics, as more research with a larger group of patients was needed first.