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Vitamin D3: Treatment for irritable bowel syndrome?

Posted on: December 27, 2012   by  John Cannell, MD


Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or spastic colon is a common condition characterized by chronic abdominal pain, discomfort, bloating, and alteration of bowel habits. As a functional bowel disorder, IBS has no known organic cause, with either diarrhea or constipation predominating, although they may alternate. There is no known cure, and it is more common after an infection.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK conducted a unique type of study after reporting on a case of IBS that remitted after “high dose” vitamin D.

Sprake EF, Grant VA, Corfe BM. Vitamin D3 as a novel treatment for irritable bowel syndrome: single case leads to critical analysis of patient-centred data. BMJ Case Rep. 2012 Dec 13;2012.

They reported that:

“A 41-year-old woman with a 25-year history of severe, diarrhea-predominant IBS reported significant improvement in symptoms, following initiation of high-dose vitamin D3 supplementation approximately 3 years ago. IBS diagnosis was first made in general practice approximately 20 years ago. Drug treatments included antispasmodic therapies, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and antibacterial and antiprotozoal agents, but these were reported to provide little relief.

A lactose-free diet, gluten free diet, and other diets provided some relief but regular flare-ups continued to occur. Alternative therapies including counseling, hypnotherapy and colonic irrigation were also undertaken, as well as trials of other supplementary therapies including caprylic acid, garlic oil, peppermint tea, aloe vera and probiotic drinks. Again, these provided the subject with minimal relief from her symptoms. The patient identified vitamin D3 as a potential therapy via social media.

The patient now takes 2000–4000 IU vitamin D3 daily. Dosage varies according to season, 2000 IU in summer and 3–4000 IU in winter. Since commencing this supplementation regime, the subject experienced significant improvement in symptoms and now experiences near normal bowel habits. In 3 years of supplementation, relapses only occur if supplementation is ceased. Furthermore, the subject reports resolution of comorbid symptoms of depression and anxiety disorder.”

Then the authors did something remarkable, they  went on the internet and identified forums and websites of patients reporting use of vitamin D for IBS. Thirty-seven IBS sufferers were identified and who reported their personal experiences with vitamin D. Of these, approximately 70% remarked that such supplementation benefited their condition, with daily doses of vitamin D3 “as high as 5000–10000 IU.”

One woman on the internet reported:

“I suffer from IBS-D and have been for about 4 years now…my doctor finally put me on 50,000IU once a week for about 6 months. In that time frame I got remarkably better. I actually started to have a life again. My symptoms went away almost completely (with small episodes three times a month as opposed to every single day more than (sic) once a day).”

Another reported:

“I… have had IBS for about 20 years… in August 2009…I began taking 3000 IU of Vitamin D… surely but slowly, I stopped having the crazy urgency to go, and began to have normal bowel movements… I then began taking 5000 IU of vitamin D a day… and since then … I feel I have turned the tide on IBS… from going many times a day, staying at home from work… now I go… one, and maybe 2 a day… Do I think vitamin D has helped, absolutely… because I’ve been taking everything else for years.”

A third reported:

“When my prescription (for vitamin D) ran out my doctor told me to take over the counter vitamins once a day again… The longer I was off the high dose vitamin D the sicker I got… the day after I started the high dose vitamin D, I felt better quickly.”

The authors were quick to point out that not all patients reported that their IBS responded to vitamin D and that those not responding are likely not to post on internet forums.

This report is rather important and highlights the need to communicate effectively, precisely and openly on the web and through social media channels. I believe much of the advancement in vitamin D awareness and push for research is due to anecdotal reports just like we have here. While some doctors claim this has led to vitamin D being over-hyped, I feel this is the nature of the 21st century, and that the world of health would be well-advised to listen to what the masses are reporting on social media.

For those with IBS, bulk forming agents such as high fiber diets and both pre and probiotics remain important in treatment. While there is some interest and anecdotal evidence that vitamin D may help, the authors called for further studies in the area, and I know they are underway.

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