Vitamin D May Be Helpful in Multiple Sclerosis


A small study conducted by researchers at Penn State that a daily dose of vitamin D causes changes in blood chemistry that indicate positive effects for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune illness.

Dr. Margherita Cantorna, assistant professor of nutrition, says the study has not been in progress long enough to observe changes in the clinical symptoms of the disease in the participants. However, blood samples drawn after just 6 months of vitamin D supplementation show an increase in transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-?1) that is associated with the remission and suppression of the immune response, which produces symptoms in MS patients. In addition, the researchers found a decrease in interleukin-2, which is associated with the cells that induce MS.

MS is a disease in which the victim's own immune system attacks the spinal cord and brain. The disease afflicts about 350,000 people in the United States, and its cause is thought to be a complex interaction of genetics and environmental forces.

Dr. Cantorna and others hypothesize that one crucial environmental factor involved in the development of MS is the amount of sunlight a person receives. Exposure to sunlight catalyzes the production of vitamin D in the skin. In low sunlight, the skin produces significantly less vitamin D.

In support of a connection among sunlight, vitamin D, and MS, she points out that the incidence of the disease is nearly zero near the equator and increases with latitude in both hemispheres. In addition, Switzerland has high MS rates at low altitudes and low MS rates at high altitudes. Ultraviolet light is more intense at higher altitudes, resulting in the manufacture of more vitamin D by the skin.

Although Dr. Cantorna's research and the geographical distribution of MS suggest a connection between vitamin D and MS, she cautions that the vitamin's exact role is still unclear.

“I think that if you are an MS patient, it would be best to continue to follow your personal physician's advice,” said a College of Health and Human Development faculty member.

Since vitamin D can be toxic in high doses, it would not be a good idea to begin taking vitamin D pills available over the counter in large amounts.

The recommended dose of vitamin D for adults is 400 International Units (IU). Patients in the study were given 1000 IU.

“On the other hand, since adequate amounts of vitamin D are difficult to get from diet and because MS patients often have to stay out of the sun, they might want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement at the current recommended daily requirement level,” said Dr. Cantorna. “There are potential benefits for bone health and for the immune, system as well.”

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