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February 8, 2011

Higher vitamin D levels equal lower risk of multiple sclerosis

Higher vitamin D levels equal lower risk of multiple sclerosis

The February 8, 2011 issue of the journal Neurology® reports a protective effect for high vitamin D levels and sun exposure against the risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS). Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder characterized by progressive damage to the nerves' myelin sheathes. Symptoms include weakness, numbness, dizziness and other disturbances that can come and go for decades. The disease is diagnosed after an initial demyelinating event during which symptoms are experienced. Research has found a greater incidence of the disease in higher latitudes that are exposed to less sunlight, which reduces the body's production of vitamin D.

Robyn Lucas, PhD, of Australian National University in Canberra and colleagues compared 216 men and women aged 18 to 59 who had experienced their first event to 395 individuals who had no symptoms of the disease. The subjects were matched for age, gender and region of residence.

Dr Lucas' team discovered that the risk of having a first demyelinating event, which was estimated to be between two to nine cases per 100,000 people per year, was reduced by 30 percent for every 1,000 kilojoule increase in ultraviolet light exposure. Additionally, those with the most sun damage to their skin were 60 percent less likely to have a first event compared to participants with the least damage. Having a high level of serum vitamin D also proved to be protective.

"Previous studies have found similar results, but this is the first study to look at people who have just had the first symptoms of MS and haven't even been diagnosed with the disease yet," Dr Lucas remarked. "Other studies have looked at people who already have MS—then it's hard to know whether having the disease led them to change their habits in the sun or in their diet."

"Added together, the differences in sun exposure, vitamin D levels and skin type accounted for a 32-percent increase in a diagnosed first event from the low to the high latitude regions of Australia," she noted.

Despite the study's finding concerning the protective benefit of sun exposure, Dr Lucas cautioned that sunbathing and tanning beds have risks that outweigh their benefits, and sun exposure has not been shown to help people who already have multiple sclerosis. "Further research should evaluate both sun exposure and vitamin D for the prevention of MS," she said.

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Multiple sclerosis

Vitamin D is emerging as a far more important immune system component than was previously appreciated. Long known to play a key role in the regulation of calcium and in the formation and maintenance of healthy bones, vitamin D is now known to influence cell differentiation, function, and survival (Montero-Odasso M et al 2005). In fact, the most bioactive form of vitamin D acts as a hormone in the body, and receptors for it have been discovered in a wide range of tissues.

Vitamin D may also be involved in preventing MS. This was originally inferred from epidemiological data. Scientists noted that MS is more prevalent in people living at higher latitudes (in either the Northern or Southern hemispheres) where sunlight is weaker, particularly in winter. The most bioactive form of vitamin D is generated in the body through a biosynthetic process that begins with, and is dependent on, exposure of the bare skin to sunlight.

In 2004, scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health published the results of two long-term studies on women's health and nutrition. Researchers looked at dietary and supplemental intake of vitamin D as it related to the incidence of MS. Gleaned from the Nurses' Health Study (more than 92,000 women followed from 1980 to 2000) and the Nurses' Health Study II (more than 95,000 women followed from 1991 to 2001), the data support a protective effect for vitamin D against MS, especially for women who consume more than 400 international units (IU) daily of vitamin D from supplements, but not from food sources (Munger KL et al 2004).

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