Fighting malnutrition: High-dose vitamin D aids weight gain and brain development, suggests study

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

High-dose vitamin D supplements have been shown to improve weight gain and the development of language and motor skills in malnourished children, according to a new trial.

The data comes from a trial involving 185 severely malnourished children who were all given high energy food sachets, but then randomised to either receive high-dose vitamin D or a placebo.

Supplementation with vitamin D in addition to the high energy food sachets was found to drive higher weight gain and better development of language and motor skills in malnourished child when compared to the energy sachets alone, said the team – led by Dr Javeria Saleem from University of the Punjab and Queen Mary University of London.

"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,”​ commented Saleem.

Study senior author, Professor Adrian Martineau from Queen Mary University of London, noted that the study 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,”​ he commented. “We are also planning a larger trial in Pakistan to investigate whether high-dose vitamin D could reduce mortality in children with severe malnutrition."

RCT data

Study participants in Pakistan. (Credit: University of the Punjab).

The trial, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​, analysed data from 185 severely malnourished children aged between six and 58 months. All children in the trail were given an eight-week course of high-energy food sachets, but 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, the team found that the vitamin D supplementation led to clinically significant improvements in weight, which supplemented children on average gaining an extra 0.26 kg compared to the control group.

Vitamin D also resulted in substantial reductions in the proportion of children with delayed motor development, delayed language development and delayed global development – all of which are defined by reaching certain milestones such as learning to walk or talk.

Promise for malnutrition

The team noted that in Pakistan there are an estimated 1.4 million children living with severe acute malnutrition – which places them at increased risk of long-term effects on their physical and mental health.

While high energy food sachets are the standard treatment for the condition, the team note that they contain relatively modest amounts of vitamin D.

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

Source: The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Volume 107, Issue 5, 1 May 2018, Pages 725–733, doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqy027
“High-dose vitamin D3 in the treatment of severe acute malnutrition: a multicenter double-blind randomized controlled trial”
Authors: Javeria Saleem, et al

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