(CBS News) A little bit of sunshine never hurt anyone. Now, a new study shows that the "sunshine" vitamin - vitamin D - may help speed up the recovery of tuberculosis patients.
Before antibiotics were readily available, doctors would to send their patients to receive heliotherapy - basically prescribed sunbathing. The practice was stopped since more effective antibiotics were invented, but physicians have often wondered why the sunshine treatment seemed to somewhat work.
Researchers at Queen Mary at the University of London decided to test out the old treatment with modern day antibiotics. What they discovered was that when coupled together, antibiotics and high doses of vitamin D - which is created in the body when it is exposed the sun - helped people recover faster from tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease that normally attacks the lungs, according to the World Health Organization. It is caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium. In 2010, 8.8 million people contracted tuberculosis, and 1.4 million people died from the disease. About 95 percent of the cases were found in low and middle-income countries, and it is still the one of the top three worldwide causes of death for women between the ages of 15 to 44.
The researchers tested 95 subjects with tuberculosis who were currently in London hospitals and institutions. All of the group was given antibiotics, but 44 members were given an additional high dose vitamin D and the other 51 members received a sugar placebo pill.
After just 23 days, the tuberculosis bacterium was gone from the sputum or phlegm from deep in the lungs of the patients who received the vitamin D supplement. It took 36 days for those on the placebo. The patients who had taken the vitamin D also had less inflammation during the treatment period.
"This is important, because sometimes these inflammatory responses can cause tissue damage leading to the development of cavities in the lung," Dr Adrian Martineau, senior lecturer in respiratory infection and immunity at the Blizard Institute which is part of Queen Mary, University of London, said in a press release. " If we can help these cavities to heal more quickly, then patients should be infectious for a shorter period of time, and they may also suffer less lung damage."
The BBC reported that because tuberculosis attacks a part of the lungs known as the scaffolding, it allows more infection to come in. The infection also creates tiny divots in the lungs where the bacteria can reside.
"If we can help these cavities to heal more quickly, then patients should be infectious for a shorter period of time, and they may also suffer less lung damage," Martineau explained to the BBC.
Peter Davies, the secretary of the charity TB Alert, told the BBC that the study was "excellent." He was especially excited for the possibility that vitamin D supplements might help prevent latent tuberculosis - which hangs out in the body and turns into full blown tuberculosis in 10 percent of the cases - from developing.
"That would be a massive revolution if it was shown to work," he said.
Martineau said he and his team hope to see if even higher doses and different forms of vitamin D may be more effective.
The study appeared online in PNAS on Sept. 3.