Supplementation with vitamin D might decrease the severity and slow the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS), according to a study conducted by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and Bayer HealthCare, and published in the journal JAMA Neurology.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
MS is a degenerative central nervous system disorder, believed to result from malfunction of the immune system. There is no cure for the disease, which can lead to problems with everything from muscle strength and control to balance, vision and even cognitive function. Approximately 2.5 million people worldwide suffer from MS.
Previous studies have linked the risk of developing autoimmune disorders generally and MS specifically with low levels of vitamin D. In addition, studies of long-term MS patients have shown a correlation between lower vitamin D levels and more severe disease symptoms. Such studies have been unable to determine, however, whether low vitamin D levels cause more severe disease symptoms, or vice versa.
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For the new study, researchers examined data from 465 MS patients who had enrolled in the BENEFIT (Betaseron in Newly Emerging Multiple Sclerosis for Initial Treatment) trial between 2002 and 2003, and who lived in Canada, Israel or one of 18 European countries.
The BENEFIT trial was designed to examine how the effectiveness of interferon beta-1b treatment for MS changed depending on when the drug was administered, but researchers also collected data on vitamin D levels at the beginning of the study and every two years thereafter.
The researchers found that, over the course of five years, early-stage MS patients with adequate vitamin D levels at the time of diagnosis had a 57 percent lower rate of new brain lesions, a 57 percent lower relapse rate and a 25 percent lower annual increase in lesion volume than patients with lower vitamin D levels. Such patients also had significantly less brain volume loss, a major predictor of disability.
The findings suggest that vitamin D actively protects the brain from the symptoms and progression of MS, and that it also makes the particular drug studied even more effective.
“The benefits of vitamin D appeared to be additive to those of interferon beta-1b, a drug that is very effective in reducing MS activity,” lead author Alberto Ascherio said. “The findings of our study indicate that identifying and correcting vitamin D insufficiency should become part of the standard of care for newly diagnosed MS patients.”
The study is only the latest to strengthen the links between vitamin D and improved MS outcomes. For example, a 2012 study found that that, among people with relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), “always” wearing sunscreen was associated with a 1.8 times higher disability rate than “sometimes” or “never” wearing sunscreen. Lifetime sun sensitivity (defined as an inability to spend more than 30 minutes in the sun without burning) was also associated with a 1.8 times higher disability rates, while spending at least as much time in the sun each day as the average non-MS patient was associated with a 30 percent lower disability rate.
Another study, published in Acta Neurologica Scandinavica in 2013, found that increased exposure to sunlight decreased rates of depression and fatigue among MS patients.
Vitamin D deficiency remains widespread, particularly in regions farther from the equator. However, your body can make all the vitamin D you need from a short amount of unprotected sun exposure to the face and hands each day — just 15 to 30 minutes for light-skinned people, and more for those with darker skin.
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