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Could sunshine play a role in preventing diabetes?

There’s nothing like turning your face to the sun to feel its warm rays, especially after a long winter. However, the benefits of sunshine go further than skin deep. Exposure to the sun leads to a boost in vitamin D levels, which are responsible for improving bone growth and have been linked to strengthening the immune system and preventing mental illnesses including depression.

Yet one lesser-known benefit is the role vitamin D can play in preventing the development of diabetes. Studies have found that vitamin D helps improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that manages blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of developing an insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Valeria Hirschler, a doctor and the principal researcher in the Department of Nutrition and Diabetes at Durand Hospital, recently presented her findings on this topic at the International Diabetes Federation Congress. She tells us more about her research. 

Morressier: Could you briefly explain your background and the research findings you presented at IDF?

Valeria Hirschler: The research I presented at IDF examines the prevalence of risk factors for type 2 diabetes in Indigenous Argentinian school children living at 4000m above sea level. In a previous study that my research group and I performed in the same community, we found a high prevalence of vitamin deficiency and insufficiency in Indigenous children living at 3750m above sea level. We also found an inverse association between vitamin D and glucose concentration in this community, suggesting that low vitamin D levels are linked to the development of type 2 diabetes in the future.

Our research is significant as it highlights that the path towards developing type 2 diabetes can be corrected with a timely medical intervention if a vitamin D deficiency is detected. Unfortunately, data on age-specific vitamin D levels in Argentinean Indigenous children from similar ethnic backgrounds but living at different altitudes is scarce. The objective of this study was to determine the association of vitamin D levels with age, gender, altitude, and risk factors for type 2 diabetes in two similar Indigenous communities living at different altitudes.

Morressier: What inspired you to do this research?

Hirschler: Previous research found that lower vitamin D levels are associated with higher altitudes and higher insulin concentrations, suggesting that high altitudes could result in a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes in the future. In addition, children living 3750m above sea level were seven times more likely to have a vitamin D deficiency compared with children living 1400m above sea level.

To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine associations of vitamin D and type 2 diabetes markers in children living at different altitudes from a similar background. Our findings show that low vitamin D status is associated with higher levels of insulin and higher altitudes.

Morressier: What do you see as the most exciting developments in the treatment and management of diabetes in the future?

Hirschler: The artificial pancreas is the most exciting development in the treatment of type 1 diabetes. This is a system of devices that automates blood sugar management and mimics the glucose regulating function of a healthy pancreas. I see the artificial pancreas becoming more widely used by type 1 diabetes sufferers in the future.

Morressier: What was your main learning from the International Diabetes Federation conference?

Hirschler: IDF provided me with many learning opportunities. One of the key takeaways I took from the conference was the prevalence, incidence and treatment of diabetes in different ethnic groups and in different countries, which was very relevant for my own research. Meeting and having discussions with colleagues from other countries that investigated similar issues in other ethnic groups was also beneficial to my work.


Image credit: Dapo Oni 

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