The fight to find a cure for multiple sclerosis (MS) is ongoing. In North America, it has become an issue for many charitable organizations, which are striving to find both the cause and potential cure for this devastating disease. MS is a progressively degenerative autoimmune disease that, strangely, seems primarily to affect people born in developed nations in the Northern hemisphere north of the 37th parallel, which stretches from Santa Cruz, California to Virginia.
It also typically affects women twice as often as men and is usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 to 40. This relatively young age of diagnosis makes it one of the most prevalent disabling neurological disorders affecting youth and young adults around the world.
As it currently stands, doctors and scientists still do not understand the causes of the disease, nor do they know any cure. The consensus now is that this autoimmune disease targets the central nervous system, specifically something called myelin. Myelin is a sheath that envelops the nerves and protects them from damage and inflammation.
When MS damages the myelin sheath, it can cause painful episodes of inflammation, leading to minor to major disruptions of nerve signaling. People who suffer from MS experience increasingly severe episodes; symptoms including dizziness, tremors, depression, fatigue, and bladder impairment, just to name a few.
What is Vitamin D?
While scientists continue searching for answers, some interesting theories already are in development. One of the most promising ideas (both for discovering a cause as well as developing a cure) is managing levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin. It is produced by your own body when natural sunlight is absorbed through the skin.
Vitamin D is essential for bone strength, and researchers have linked vitamin D deficiency to increased risk for rickets during childhood and osteomalacia (softening of the bones) in adults. While sunshine is everywhere, vitamin D remains a difficult one to consume safely in the proper amount, making vitamin D deficiency an issue for many. Once your body produces vitamin D, its basic job is improving the function of intercellular communication and improving overall bone health and strength.
What is the Relationship Between Vitamin D and MS?
A slew of important studies recently have linked vitamin D and MS. These were conducted through some of the most prestigious medical research centers around the globe. In 2014, the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology published a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health. It explored the idea that vitamin D deficiency was a common trend in people who have multiple sclerosis. What’s more, this seemed to be especially true in individuals who had been recently diagnosed to be in the disease’s early stages.
The study authors discovered that through increasing vitamin D levels in the early stages of MS, it was possible to reduce the frequency and severity of the inflammation episodes, potentially slowing down the disease’s progression. They also reported that vitamin D supplementation was able to have a synergistic effect when combined with a traditional drug that is used to reduce MS symptoms.
Another study in 2017 published in the journal Neurology discovered that prenatal levels of vitamin D could have a substantial effect on future MS risk levels. The researchers in this study found a strong link between low levels of vitamin D during pregnancy (a common prenatal condition) and an increased risk for the future development of MS. The study suggested taking a prenatal vitamin containing appropriate levels of vitamin D during pregnancy may mitigate this risk.
Some of this preliminary research suggests that because vitamin D has been known to repair and protect the myelin sheath, this is why it also assists with improving the quality of life for MS patients. As people age, and especially women of Northern European heritage, they tend to experience a natural decrease in vitamin D levels. Perhaps this is why MS develops as people age, and also why it specifically targets women who live in northern latitudes.
How To Increase Vitamin D Naturally
The best news about vitamin D deficiency and its potential link to MS is that increasing vitamin D levels is easy. The most efficient way to get safe, effective levels of vitamin D is through a supplement. Your current levels can be measured through a simple blood test, and a medical professional can assess the correct amount to prescribe. The recommended daily intake of vitamin D is 200 IU (international units) for those under 50, 400 IU for those 50 to 70 and 600 IU for those older than 70. Some doctors recommend people with MS should at least double that amount. But depending on where you live (and what kind of sun exposure you get) the recommended dose can be much higher.
Norway’s Food Safety Authority even upped the recommendation to 20 micrograms (800 IU) per day in 2013 and advised people not to neglect sun exposure, and to supplement with foods high in vitamin D, such as cod liver oil and other oily fish.
Even the Vikings understood the importance of this practice, and reportedly rubbed cod liver oil into their skin for muscle pain and consumed whole cod livers dipped in cod liver oil for a double whammy.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends 20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) of serum concentration of 25-hydroxy vitamin D as an adequate level, or 600 IUs a day up to age 70 and 800 IUs if you’re over 70, but many vitamin D researchers believe that’s not even enough to prevent osteomalacia, let alone take advantage of vitamin D’s additional health benefits.
Fortunately, vitamin D supplements are readily available, but due to government nutrition recommendations for children and the elderly, only informed choices will help people stay on track with the vitamin D levels that will offer optimal health. If you can’t get enough sunshine for whatever reason, then you can take a vitamin D3 supplement.
As a general guideline, research by GrassrootsHealth suggests adults need about 8,000 IUs per day to achieve a serum level of 40 ng/ml. If you do opt for a vitamin D supplement, please remember that you also need to boost your intake of vitamin K2 through food and/or a supplement, as well as get your levels tested to be sure you’re safely within the therapeutic range.
Vitamin D in Food
Foods containing vitamin D and their recommended dietary allowance (RDA), according to the George Mateljan Foundation, a not-for-profit food and nutrition science organization, include:
- Four ounces of wild-caught Alaskan sockeye salmon — 128 percent of the RDA
- 3.2 ounces of sardines — 44 percent of the RDA
- One egg — 11 percent of the RDA
- Shiitake mushrooms — 5 percent of the RDA
Keep in mind that the RDA is far lower than necessary to raise your vitamin D levels into the therapeutic range, so it’s difficult to achieve enough vitamin D from dietary sources alone. In addition, it’s ideal to get your vitamin D from sunlight because the sun offers a wealth of health benefits above and beyond vitamin D.