Public Release: 

Vitamin D improves weight gain and brain development in malnourished children

High dose vitamin D supplements improve weight gain and the development of language and motor skills in malnourished children, according to a study led by University of the Punjab, Pakistan, and Queen Mary University of London

Queen Mary University of London

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Credit: University of the Punjab

High dose vitamin D supplements improve weight gain and the development of language and motor skills in malnourished children, according to a study led by University of the Punjab, Pakistan, and Queen Mary University of London.

Vitamin D - the 'sunshine vitamin' - is well known for its beneficial effects on bone and muscle health, and a study by Queen Mary researchers last year found that it could also protect against colds and flu. Now new research from the team is revealing further benefits.

Lead author Dr Javeria Saleem from University of the Punjab and Queen Mary University of London said: "High-dose vitamin D significantly boosted weight gain in malnourished children. This could be a game-changer in the management of severe acute malnutrition, which affects 20 million children worldwide."

Senior author Professor Adrian Martineau from Queen Mary University of London added: "This is the first clinical trial in humans to show that vitamin D can affect brain development, lending weight to the idea that vitamin D has important effects on the central nervous system.

"Further trials in other settings are now needed to see whether our findings can be reproduced elsewhere. We are also planning a larger trial in Pakistan to investigate whether high-dose vitamin D could reduce mortality in children with severe malnutrition."

The study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, took place in Pakistan, where an estimated 1.4 million children live with severe acute malnutrition and are at increased risk of long-term effects on their physical and mental health.

High energy food sachets are the standard treatment for the condition, but they contain relatively modest amounts of vitamin D.

In the study, 185 severely malnourished children aged 6-58 months were treated with an eight-week course of high energy food sachets, and were also randomised to either receive additional high-dose vitamin D (two doses of 200,000 international units / 5 milligrams, given by mouth) or placebo.

After eight weeks, vitamin D supplementation led to clinically significant improvements in weight (on average gaining an extra 0.26 kg compared to the control group).

Vitamin D supplementation also resulted in substantial reductions in the proportion of children with delayed motor development, delayed language development and delayed global development (reaching certain milestones such as learning to walk or talk).

Senior author Dr Rubeena Zakar from University of the Punjab added: "Our findings could be a great help to the Health Ministry of Pakistan in dealing with the issue of malnutrition."

The study was funded by the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan.

The researchers say their study has some limitations including that it did not look at varying the dose of vitamin D to see if a lower dose would have been sufficient to boost weight gain and brain development. While they saw no overt adverse reactions, the possibility of side effects arising with clinical use of this high dose of vitamin D cannot be excluded.

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For more information, please contact:

Joel Winston
Public Relations Manager (School of Medicine and Dentistry)
Queen Mary University of London
j.winston@qmul.ac.uk
Tel: +44 (0)20 7882 7943 / +44 (0)7970 096 188

Notes to the editor

  • Photos from the study are available here: http://bit.ly/2I3jBxe

  • Research paper: High-dose vitamin D3 in the treatment of severe acute malnutrition: a multi-center double-blind randomized controlled trial. Javeria Saleem, Rubeena Zakar, Muhammad Z. Zakar, Mulugeta Belay, Marion Rowe, Peter M Timms, Robert Scragg, Adrian R Martineau. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi 10.1093/ajcn/nqy027

Available here after the embargo lifts: https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy027

About Queen Mary University of London

Queen Mary University of London is one of the UK's leading universities with 25,332 students representing more than 160 nationalities.

A member of the Russell Group, we work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our research. In the most recent national assessment of the quality of research, we were placed ninth in the UK amongst multi-faculty universities (Research Excellence Framework 2014).

As well as our main site at Mile End - which is home to one of the largest self-contained residential campuses in London - we have campuses at Whitechapel, Charterhouse Square, and West Smithfield dedicated to the study of medicine and dentistry, and a base for legal studies at Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Queen Mary began life as the People's Palace, a Victorian philanthropic project designed to bring culture, recreation and education to the people of the East End. We also have roots in Westfield College, one of the first colleges to provide higher education to women; St Bartholomew's Hospital, one of the first public hospitals in Europe; and The London, one of England's first medical schools.

About University of the Punjab

Established in 1882 at Lahore, the University of the Punjab is the largest and the oldest seat of higher learning in Pakistan. Located in the historical and culturally alive city of Lahore, this University has played a leading role in higher education in the country. The University strives to provide a conducive environment for the pursuit of the academic activities. The University comprises of 5 Campuses, 13 Faculties, 10 Constituent Colleges, over 73 Departments, Centres, Institutes, and 614 affiliated colleges. It has over 818 permanent faculty members involved in teaching/research and over 36,000 on campus students.

Department of Public Health, Institute of Social and Cultural Studies (ISCS) at the University of Punjab, is serving with the mission of transmitting knowledge and advanced Institute of social research. The Institute offers specialized training on various dimensions of cross-fertilized social research and practice. Having multidisciplinary compound, the institute is home to various research programs in the fields of Public Health, Population Studies and Reproductive Health, Sociology, Gender Studies, Development Studies, Criminology and, Peace and Security Studies.

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