Multiple Sclerosis, an autoimmune disorder that affects two million people worldwide and is daignosed in 350,000 Americans each year, is one of the more frustrating conditions in medicine because, despite decades of study, researchers have been unable to find a cure for the condition or identify what causes it.
The disease strikes young adults in the prime of their lives--affecting more women than men--and it can often seem that we all know someone among our families, friends or colleagues who suffers with MS. Among public figures, talk show host Montel Williams, actresses Annette Funicello and Teri Garr, the singer Lena Horne and FOX's own Neil Cavuto all have M.S.
However, a study by the Harvard School of Public Health reported today in the Journal of the American Medical Association linking Vitamin D to a lowered risk of MS offers some new hope in the quest to understand this mysterious disease.
The study of more than 7 million U.S. military personnel compared the levels of Vitamin D in the bloodstream of 257 white members of the military who had multiple sclerosis with those who did not have the disorder. Researchers found that the risk of developing multiple sclerosis was highest for those individuals with the lowest levels of vitamin D in their blood. For those with higher blood levels of vitamin D, the risk for multiple sclerosis was significantly lower. (The study did not show a connection between vitamin D levels and M.S. in blacks and Latinos, possibly because there were not enough blacks or Latinos participating in the study.)
It's important to note that the study did not determine whether increasing vitamin D levels will actually prevent multiple sclerosis. Additional studies are necessary to determine if taking vitamin D supplements would decrease the risk of developing multiple sclerosis.
People with multiple sclerosis can appear perfectly healthy or severely disabled, or within a wide range in between. To understand how vitamin D may affect multiple sclerosis, first we must understand what M.S. is, and also how vitamin D works in the body.
M.S. is an autoimmune disorder that affects the cells of the central nervous system. Nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are surrounded by a layer of cells called myelin. In patients affected by M.S., the myelin becomes inflamed or damaged. The term "multiple sclerosis" means "multiple scars"and refers to the scars on these myelin sheaths.
Some symptoms of multiple sclerosis include fatigue, vision problems, decreased sensations, muscle weakness and depression. In more severe cases it can also cause impaired mobility and disability.
In a healthy body, the major function of vitamin D is to regulate the blood levels of calcium and phosphorous, which is why vitamin D is tied to bone growth. Since the 1930s, milk has been fortified with vitamin D2 and vitamin D3 to minimize the risk of vitamin D deficiency. Prior to the introduction of fortified milk, a condition known as rickets was a major health problem in the United States. Since the introduction of fortified milk, rickets has essentially been eliminated in the United States.
Vitamin D is found naturally in fish liver oils such as cod liver oil, and in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna and eel. It is also found in whole eggs and shiitake mushrooms. Most people, however, cannot get enough vitamin D from their diet, so exposure to sunlight is the most common source of this essential vitamin--thus vitamin D's reputation as the "sunshine vitamin."
When skin is exposed to UVB ultraviolet radiation for even a short period of time, it can create as much as 10,000 IU (international units) of vitamin D. In comparison, the FDA's suggested daily value for vitamin D is just 400 IU. Some recent studies have also suggested a correlation between vitamin D intake and cancer, with research showing that additional vitamin D intake may reduce the risk of colon, breast and ovarian cancer.
So how might vitamin D reduce the risk of developing multiple sclerosis?
The truth is, today's study does not tell us that. Future studies will likely investigate the relationship between vitamin D and the growth and healing of the myelin layer of cells which insulate the nerves. Hopefully, future research will show us not only how to help reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis, but how to repair the damaged myelin layer and provide a better life for the many individuals suffering from multiple sclerosis.
Learn more about multiple sclerosis from these sources on the web:
Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.