Nov 1, 2002
Real Living with Multiple Sclerosis
SOME RESEARCHERS urge its use as a supplement for individuals with MS, while others point to a dearth of clinical research on its benefits. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) is funding studies on its use in the MS population, but stresses that no benefits have been proven.
"It" is vitamin D, and increasing the amount in your body can literally be as easy as stepping outside. Yet the jury is still out as to what, if any, role it plays in MS.
Role of vitamin D
While vitamin D can be found in some foods, it's primarily delivered through sunlight. The vitamin is instrumental in increasing calcium levels in the body. This is why low levels of vitamin D are linked to reduced bone density.
Moreover, researchers have discovered that immune cells in the body are equipped with vitamin D hormone receptors. Discoveries such as this led to the study of MS-like diseases in mice and the impact that vitamin D supplementation has on animal autoimmune diseases.
One reason that vitamin D deficiency has been potentially attributed to the development of MS has been the fact that prevalence rates for the disease are lower in some areas where exposure to the vitamin, either through sunlight or diet, are high. In Switzerland, MS prevalence is dramatically below rates seen in the general population in high-altitude areas and much higher in lowaltitude regions. This is possibly due to low light intensity in low-lying regions and high light intensity in high-lying areas.
In Norway, MS rates are higher inland and lower on the coast. Researchers attribute this to increased consumption of vitamin-D-rich fish in coastal areas.
The NMSS is understandably leery about embracing a treatment that hasn't been vigorously studied. The NMSS on-line Sourcebook (www.nationalmssociety.org/Sourcebook-- Vitamins.asp) states that vitamin deficiency hasn't been shown to be a cause of MS, "and, therefore, there is no rationale to add more vitamins to the diet or take vitamin injections as a treatment for MS. There have never been any controlled studies which support claims that vitamins have improved MS symptoms." Moreover, anecdotal reports of improvement in MS symptoms following ingestion of vitamin supplements, according to Sourcebook, can probably be attributed to a placebo effect, in which any benefit is due to the psychological effect of receiving treatment.
The NMSS further states that while vitamin therapy hasn't been shown to treat MS symptoms, "it is well known that large doses of certain vitamins are harmful." In the case of vitamin D, too much has been associated with liver damage, according to the NMSS. "People with MS who feel they are not getting sufficient nutrients in their diet," according to the NMSS Sourcebook, "should ask their doctor, nurse, or the local chapter of the National MS Society for referral to a registered dietitian."
Still, the NMSS is committed to determining if vitamin D is linked in any way to MS and is funding, or helping fund, several studies of the nutrient. Felicia Cosman, MD, a researcher at Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, NY, is trying to determine if vitamin D supplementation can prevent bone loss in women with MS, a population that has reduced vitamin D levels and a higher risk of osteoporosis. The double blind, controlled, NMSS-funded trial will compare 100 mg vitamin D supplementation to an inactive control (placebo). The investigators are also studying whether vitamin D deficiency may be a cause of increased incidence of falls and other symptoms of reduced muscle strength.
The NMSS is also funding a study led by Margherita Cantorna, PhD, from the Department of Nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Cantorna and her colleagues have shown that vitamin D supplements can "reverse or prevent" a disease seen in mice that's similar to MS. Her current study looks to determine if a similar effect can be seen in individuals with MS.
Further, Colleen Hayes, PhD, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
has gathered evidence that vitamin D can lead to the production of beneficial
immune chemicals, or cytokines, in mice with MS-like disease and reverse
or prevent its occurrence.
© 2002 Real Living with Multiple Sclerosis