People suffering from multiple sclerosis or at risk of developing it can live more rewarding lives when they increase and monitor their vitamin D levels.
Your body makes vitamin D in skin, the largest organ, when it’s exposed to sunlight. Higher vitamin D levels lower the risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS), and boosting vitamin D also appears to be beneficial for curbing disease relapses and even putting symptoms into remission.
Vitamin D is one of several natural remedies for MS that continues to draw the intrigue of researchers. Several organizations are using vitamin D and sunlight studies to formulate guidelines so they can inform patients, motivate them to get exposure to sunlight and take supplements when needed, and offer specific dosing.
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that helps to regulate calcium and phosphorus in your body. Vitamin D is found in food such as fish, eggs, and milk.
Besides playing a role in MS, a vitamin D deficiency is thought to be associated with many other health conditions such as autoimmune conditions, allergies, asthma, COVID-19, heart disease, and others. Worldwide, a lack of vitamin D is a concern, particularly in colder climates and countries with longer winters. Experts say at least 1 billion people are deficient in vitamin D around the world.
While the inner workings of the relationship are still somewhat of a mystery, the positive connection between vitamin D and MS is readily accepted as fact by MS organizations worldwide.
“There is also remarkable consistency between many studies using different measures of vitamin D—assessing amount of sun exposure, vitamin D blood levels, or eating foods high in vitamin D in different populations worldwide—with nearly all pointing to vitamin D being an important risk factor for MS,” Munger said.
One of the complications of diagnosing MS is the long list of possible symptoms that vary from one person to another and even fluctuate within a person over time.
The more common symptoms, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, are dysesthesia (a squeezing sensation around the torso), fatigue, walking difficulties, numbness, tingling, stiffness or spasms in muscles of the legs, weakness, vision problems, vertigo, significant pain, itching, cognitive changes, and emotional changes. Also common are bladder, bowel, and sexual problems, as well as depression.
Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?It’s wise to test your vitamin D level as soon as you learn you have MS, either through your general practitioner or by using an online lab.
Everyone aged 4 and older should have 125 micrograms of vitamin D daily, the equivalent of 5,000 international units (IU). By comparison, an egg offers about 0.9 micrograms of vitamin D—all from the yolk. This recommended daily intake is for the general population; those with MS need a higher dose to get the same benefits, according to Overcoming MS, a nonprofit based in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Overcoming MS recommends a vitamin D supplement of 5,000 IU to 10,000 IU and says the risk of overdosing on vitamin D is rare.
“The results of the first test (after MS diagnosis) often show that vitamin D levels are low, which may be what brings on the attack,” the organization states on its website. “If vitamin D levels are very low, it can be brought up quickly with a one-off megadose of vitamin D3 (e.g., 600,000 IU), followed by regular capsules or sprays.”
Sunlight and Vitamin DBecause vitamin D primarily comes from the sun, it’s essential to be outside without covering, which includes sunscreen.
“Sun exposure is the primary way most people get vitamin D. Ten to 20 minutes of skin exposure can produce the equivalent of 10,000 IU of vitamin D. Compare that to diet where a serving of salmon has about 400 IU,” Munger said.
Studies have also continued to show a higher occurrence of MS among people who live the farthest from the equator.
It’s fairly easy to get vitamin D from sunlight, though it must be weighed against the fact that heat can exacerbate MS symptoms.
What Is the Right Form of Vitamin D?Vitamin D is found in two major forms—D2 and D3. Vitamin D2 is a man-made form added to fortify foods, and vitamin D3 is the type synthesized in the skin and mostly found in animal-based foods.
“At this time, firm conclusions about different effects of the two forms of vitamin D cannot be drawn; however, it would appear that at low doses, D2 and D3 are equivalent, but at high doses, D2 is less effective than D3,” according to a 2011 Institute of Medicine Committee report reviewing intakes for vitamin D.
That same year, a study of 33 healthy adults followed for 12 weeks determined that D3 is 87 percent more potent in raising and maintaining vitamin D in the body and produces two- to three-fold greater storage of vitamin D than D2. The study was published in Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
Can You Prevent MS or Relapses?Certain people are at risk of developing MS and having relapses. Vitamin D plays a role in both circumstances.
If you have an identical twin with MS, you also have a 25 percent chance of being diagnosed, according to Overcoming MS. An immediate family member (parent, sibling, or child) with MS gives you a 1 in 10 chance of also developing the disease.
But getting adequate sun exposure and supplementing with vitamin D are strategies that can improve your chances of staying healthy. Others are quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, managing stress, and exercising regularly.
The biggest key to prevention seems to be sunlight exposure at a young age.
Newborns with low levels of vitamin D were found to have an increased risk of MS, according to research of 521 patients published in the journal Neurology in 2017.
Besides vitamin D, MS patients are finding additional support and symptom improvement in natural solutions such as diet, exercise, meditation, emotional regulation, and sleep support.