SCARBOROUGH, Maine - In the world of supplements, some are more popular than others. For more than a decade, vitamin D has been a star. It's taken for skin conditions, bone health, cancer prevention, and as a boost for the immune system. Vitamin D is also used to prevent diabetes. But whether it can actually reduce the risk of developing the chronic disease is up for debate. A nation-wide study seeks to find the answer, and Maine Medical Center Research Institute is helping in that effort.
The number of people with diabetes is growing around the globe. According to the Maine Center for Disease Control, about 120,000 Maine adults have the disease. The most common form - type 2, where the body does not use insulin properly - can cause heart disease, as well as nerve, kidney, blood vessel and eye damage.
Dr. Irwin Brodsky of Maine Medical Partners Diabetes Center in Scarborough has spent nearly three decades working on diabetes, and says it's a challenge to treat.
"Diabetes is a disease that has to do with food storage," Brodsky says. "So every time one eats food, if one has diabetes, one has to think about the relationship of that food to a disease - blood sugar. That happens so many times during the day that, after awhile, there's mental burnout from the disease and having to deal with it every day."
Brodsky is also the principal investigator in Maine for what's called the "D2D" Study. It's the first large-scale trial to determine whether vitamin D can prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes. Funded by the National Institute of Health, the nationwide study seeks to recruit 2,400 people who are pre-diabetic to participate.
"I'm JoAnne Albright, and I'm a patient in the D2D study." Years ago, Albright developed gestational diabetes while she was pregnant. Her dad had diabetes. These are both risk factors for developing the disease herself. And, at age 63, Albright has higher than normal blood glucose levels.
As a D2D study participant, every day Albright takes either vitamin D or a placebo. She doesn't know which, and neither does Dr. Brodsky. Albright also comes in every three to six months to give blood samples.
"Well, knowing what diabetes can do to your body, I want to stay healthy as long as I possibly can and not be a burden to our children," Albright says. "But, also, I don't want them to be wondering - when they're my age - wondering what they can do if they're in the same spot, having type 2 diabetes. It seems like we should do the research and pass it forward."
A possible link between vitamin D and type 2 diabetes has been identified in research. Vitamin D is found in the same parts of the body where insulin is made, raising the question whether the supplement could improve the body's ability to produce insulin. Vitamin D can also reduce inflammation, and inflammation can make people resistant to insulin.
But these correlations don't prove cause and effect. And Dr. Brodsky says it's important to know definitively. "Vitamin D is a very hot topic around country, and it's become a multi-billion dollar industry," Brodsky says. "People put a lot of faith in vitamin D. If faith is in a pill or vitamin is infiltrating our society, somebody ought to study whether or not it actually helps."
What is known to help prevent diabetes are a healthy diet and exercise. The D2D study educates participants on helpful lifestyle modifications. Seventy-nine-year-old participant George Price says even though he's always been conscious about staying lean and eating healthy, he now has extra motivation. "I've had more energy and interest in doing the exercise," Price says.
Price is one of 48 people currently in the Maine site study. Dr. Irwin Brodsky says he needs 77 more to complete the four-year study and provide evidence whether vitamin D can prevent type 2 diabetes and help improve the health of millions of people at risk for it.