In the last 5 years, there has been a remarkable change in our understanding of the health benefits of vitamin D. The classical actions of vitamin D as a determinant of mineral metabolism and rachitic bone disease have been expanded to include a broader role in skeletal homoeostasis and prevalent bone disorders such as osteoporosis. However, it is the nonskeletal function of vitamin D that has attracted most attention. Although pluripotent responses to vitamin D have been recognized for many years, our new perspective on nonclassical vitamin D function stems from two more recent concepts. The first is that impaired, vitamin D status is common to many populations across the globe. This has prompted studies to explore the health impact of suboptimal circulating levels of vitamin D, with association studies linking vitamin D 'insufficiency' to several chronic health problems including autoimmune and cardiovascular disease, hypertension and common cancers. In support of a broader role for vitamin D in human health, studies in vitro and using animal models have highlighted immunomodulatory and anticancer effects of vitamin D that appear to depend on localized activation of vitamin D. The conclusion from these reports is that many nonclassical actions of vitamin D are independent of conventional vitamin D endocrinology and are therefore more sensitive to variations in vitamin D status. The current review summarizes these developments, with specific reference to the newly identified effects of vitamin D on the immune system, but also highlights the challenges in translating these observations to clinical practice.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.