Vitamin D is a curious thing. It comes from the sun and has potential benefits in fighting a number of conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, depression and even some kinds of cancer. However, too much sun (or artificial tanning) can be damaging, possibly leading to either skin cancer or "vitamin D toxicity."
But what role, if any, does Vitamin D play with multiple sclerosis?
The Genetics of MS
When analyzing the demographics of patients with MS, researchers have found a striking correlation between fair-skinned people (generally of non-Equatorial ancestry) and multiple sclerosis. Studies have shown differences in geographic distribution of MS as well; those at higher altitudes with greater exposure to the sun were less likely to develop MS than those at sea level, even in a similar geographic region.
MS is also genetic. The risk of developing MS is increased by 10 to 30 times if a member of your immediate family has the condition. That would suggest a genetic link between MS and vitamin D.
[SLIDESHOW: Top 10 Common Myths About MS - Busted!]
A 2011 study from Oxford University found that a rare gene that causes reduced levels of vitamin D appears to be directly linked to multiple sclerosis. The researchers actually isolated the gene that "affects a key enzyme which leads people with it to have lower levels of vitamin D," according to a BBC report. The study looked at 35 people with MS whose parents did not have the condition. Of those 35, all of the MS patients had inherited the genetic mutation from their parents.
Though this study sheds light onto the genetics of MS, not all with the genetic mutation have MS, though the risk is increased. This caused Dr. Doug Brown of the MS Society (UK) to conclude, "This shines more light on the potential role of vitamin D deficiency on increasing the risk of developing MS."
Vitamin D as Protection Against MS
Scientists have examined vitamin D's role in preventing MS, beginning with a 1997 study on mice. It concluded that supplementation of vitamin D3 was effective in preventing the mouse-version of MS. Environmental factors, it concluded, may combine with genetic factors to cause MS in patients. This specific study, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that low-light conditions led to lower production of vitamin D3, which increased the risk of MS.
A 2008 study from UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School followed up on this study, concluding that vitamin D can protect against "certain immune mediated disorders including multiple sclerosis." The researchers used the geographic distribution of MS to identify the problem and, similar to the Wisconsin-Madison study, found that vitamin D may help prevent MS.
Vitamin D and Relapses
In addition to the links between genetics and the causes of MS, there is also evidence that vitamin D can be helpful even after diagnosis. Higher levels of vitamin D and exposure to sunlight appear to lower the risk of relapses in people with Relapsing-Remitting MS. The study, published in the Annals of Neurology, tested 145 patients with MS over a three year period. Though the conclusions admittedly did not identify the cause of the onset of a relapse, chief investigator Bruce Taylor stated, "We found that higher levels of vitamin D are associated with reduced likelihood of a relapse in MS."
Additionally, the study found that those with lower vitamin D levels suffered more relapses than those who had higher levels.
Though the research does not yet reveal the cause of MS or the reason for relapses, it clearly is moving in the right direction.
BBC News. (8 December 2011). "Rare gene links vitamin D and multiple sclerosis." BBC News: Health. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-16086004.
Hayes, C.E., Cantorbam M.T., DeLuca, H.F. (October 1997). "Vitamin D and multiple sclerosis." Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, vol. 216 (1): 21-27. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9316607.
Our Staff Reporter. (23 May 2011). "Vitamin D speeds up recovery in multiple sclerosis: study." The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/International/23-May-2011/Vitamin-D-speeds-up-recovery-in-multiple-sclerosis-study.
Raghuwanshi, A., Joshi, S.S., Chistakos, S. (1 October 2008). "Vitamin D and multiple sclerosis." Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, vol. 105 (2): 338-343. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18655192.
Published On: July 05, 2012