By Dr. Mercola
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, neurodegenerative disease of the nerves in your brain and spinal column, caused by a demyelization process. In MS, your immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin, which is a protective coating around your nerve fibers.
This leads to disruptions in the messages sent around your brain and spinal cord, leading to symptoms such as trouble balancing, muscle weakness, tremors, pain, and fatigue.
Researchers have long been searching for a method to repair this damage to the myelin, and thereby slow, stop or even reverse the course of the disease.
While your body does have the ability to repair myelin naturally, this process tends to become less effective as you get older. Now, however, researchers have uncovered a natural option that might play a major role in boosting the repair of damaged myelin in people with MS: vitamin D.
Vitamin D Might Help Regenerate Damaged Myelin
The RXR gamma receptor protein is known to be involved in the repair of myelin. Researchers from the University of Cambridge revealed that the vitamin D receptor protein is also involved and pairs with RXR gamma during this process.1 According to the University of Cambridge:2
“By adding vitamin D to brain stem cells where the proteins were present, they found the production rate of oligodendrocytes (myelin making cells) increased by 80 percent.
When they blocked the vitamin D receptor to stop it from working, the RXR gamma protein alone was unable to stimulate the production of oligodendrocytes.”
The researchers noted that the study “provides significant evidence that vitamin D is also involved in the regeneration of myelin” once MS has developed, and they hope to create a myelin repair drug that works by targeting the vitamin D receptor (currently, the typical prescription for MS focuses on highly toxic medications like prednisone and interferon).3
Susan Kohlhaas, head of biomedical research at the MS Society, stated, however, that she’d like to see more studies to reveal whether taking vitamin D supplements could be an effective treatment for MS.4
Vitamin D Deficiency Is Prevalent Among People with MS
There’s no need to wait for further research to optimize your vitamin D levels, especially if you have a condition like MS.
Research presented at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine (AANEM) shows that vitamin D deficiency is surprisingly prevalent both among those diagnosed with MS and patients suffering other neuromuscular conditions.5
In this case, vitamin D deficiency was defined as a 25(OH)D3 level of 30 ng/ml or less. Of patients diagnosed with a neuromuscular condition, 48 percent were deficient in vitamin D.
Only 14 percent were above “normal,” which here constituted a vitamin D level of 40 ng/ml (to maximally benefit from vitamin D, you likely need a level of 40 to 60 ng/ml). According to one of the authors:
“While the connection between vitamin D deficiency and neurologic disease is likely complex and not yet fully understood, this study may prompt physicians to consider checking vitamin D levels in their patients with neurologic conditions and supplementing when necessary.”
Sensible Sun Exposure Associated with MS Risk
About a dozen studies have noted a strong link between MS and vitamin D deficiency, including lack of sun exposure. It is through sunlight exposure that your body is able to produce vitamin D.
For example, a number of studies have confirmed that your risk of MS increases the farther away you live from the equator, suggesting lack of sun exposure amplifies your risk.6
People born in April or May, just after the darker, colder winter months, have also been found to be significantly more likely to have MS than those born during October and November (after the sunny summer months). Researchers concluded:7
“Month of birth has a significant effect on subsequent MS risk. This is likely to be due to ultraviolet light exposure and maternal vitamin D levels, as demonstrated by the relationship between risk and latitude.”
Evidence presented in the journal Dermato-Endocrinology even confirmed that exposure to the sun in appropriate and measured timeframes has a number of health benefits unrelated to vitamin D production, such as protecting against and suppressing symptoms of MS.8
Vitamin D Deficiency May Be Putting Your Health at Risk
It’s incredibly easy to boost your vitamin D levels, so there’s no reason to put your health at risk from low status … yet researchers such as Dr. Michael Holick estimate that 50 percent of the general population is at risk of vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency.
If you’re among them, your risk of not only multiple sclerosis, but also diabetes and other metabolic disorders may be significantly increased. In a study of more than 100 people, those with low vitamin D levels were more likely to have type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes, or metabolic syndrome, regardless of their weight.9
Dementia is also directly linked to vitamin D. Seniors who have low vitamin D levels may double their risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.10 As noted by the authors, “This adds to the ongoing debate about the role of vitamin D in nonskeletal conditions.”
Incidence of several types of cancer could also be slashed in half if more people increased their vitamin D levels.
As mentioned by Dr. Holick, one of the Nurses’ Health Studies showed that nurses who had the highest blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D, averaging about 50 ng/ml, reduced their risk of developing breast cancer by as much as 50 percent.
Similarly, a Canadian study done by senior investigator of research Julia Knight, Ph.D., showed that women who reported having the most sun exposure as a teenager and young adult had almost a 70 percent reduced risk of developing breast cancer.
One of Dr. Holick’s studies showed that healthy volunteers taking 2,000 IUs of vitamin D per day for a few months upregulated 291 different genes that control up to 80 different metabolic processes.
This included improving DNA repair to having effect on autoxidation (oxidation that occurs in the presence of oxygen and /or UV radiation, which has implications for aging and cancer, for example), boosting your immune system, and many other biological processes.
How to Optimize Your Vitamin D Levels
I believe sensible sun exposure is the ideal way to optimize your vitamin D levels. As a general rule, you’ll want to expose large amounts of bare skin to the sun until it turns the lightest shade of pink, if you’re light-skinned.
This typically occurs in about half the time it would normally take you to burn. So if you know you tend to get sunburned after 30 minutes, you’d want to stay in the sun for about 15 minutes. Those with darker skin may need to pay closer attention to notice when this slight reddening occurs.
It’s nearly impossible to give any firm recommendations for how long you need to stay in the sun to optimize vitamin D production, as it varies greatly depending on a number of factors, such as:
Antioxidant levels and diet in general Age Skin color and/or current tan level Use of sunscreen Latitude and altitude (elevation) Cloud cover and pollution Ozone layer Surface reflection Season Time of day Weight
While sunlight is the ideal way to optimize your vitamin D, winter and working indoors prevent more than 90 percent of those reading this article from achieving ideal levels.
A high-quality tanning bed is your next best option, but if your circumstances don’t allow you to access the sun or a high-quality tanning bed, then you really have only one option if you want to raise your vitamin D, and that is to take a vitamin D3 supplement.
As a general guideline, research by GrassrootsHealth suggests adults need about 8,000 IUs per day to achieve a serum level of 40 ng/ml.
However, to find out what dosage is best for you make sure to get tested, and take steps to optimize your levels accordingly. The vitamin D test you’re looking for is called 25(OH)D or 25-hydroxyvitamin D. This is the officially recognized marker of overall D status and is most strongly associated with overall health. The other vitamin D test available, called 1,25-dihydroxy vitamin D (1,25(OH)D), is not very useful for determining vitamin D sufficiency.
If you do opt for a vitamin D3 supplement, you also need to boost your intake of vitamin K2 through food and/or a supplement, as well as continue to get your levels tested to be sure you’re safely within the therapeutic range.
Nutrition for Your Mitochondria May Benefit MS
I believe optimizing your vitamin D level is of great importance if you have MS, but it’s not the only factor. Dr. Terry Wahls, who reversed multiple sclerosis after seven years of deterioration simply by changing her diet, discovered that MS patients’ brains tend to shrink.
This roused her curiosity and led her to research other diseases that have similar brain shrinkage, namely Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases. One common denominator is poorly functioning mitochondria. Mitochondria are like little “batteries” in your cells that manage the energy supply to the cell. Unless you consume the correct nutrients, eventual mitochondrial malfunction is the result.
She discovered three nutrients in particular that are essential for proper mitochondrial function:
- Animal-based omega-3 fat
- Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), or better yet the reduced version known as ubiquinol
The breakfast I currently enjoy, which is based on coconut oil, is also designed to improve the health of your mitochondria. Your myelin also needs specific nutrients to function properly, such as:
- Vitamin B1
- Vitamin B9
- Vitamin B12
- Animal-based omega-3 fat
The neurotransmitters in your brain also need specific nutrients, including sulfur and vitamin B6, for optimal functioning. Eventually, Dr. Wahls designed her own eating plan, based on the nutrients she knew she needed for optimal mitochondrial, myelin, and neurotransmitter function, because while your body can create some nutrients, others must be provided through your diet. Dr. Wahl eliminated processed foods, grains, and starches from her diet and began to eat the foods that follow.
3 cups daily (equal to one dinner plate, piled high) of green leaves, such as kale, which are high in vitamins B, A, C, K, and minerals 3 cups daily of sulfur-rich vegetables from the cabbage and onion families, mushrooms, and asparagus 3 cups daily of brightly colored vegetables, fruits, and/or berries, which are good sources of antioxidants Wild-caught fish for animal-based omega-3s Grass-fed meat Organ meats for vitamins, minerals, and CoQ10 Seaweed for iodine and selenium
Dr. Wahl began to notice significant improvement in just three months, and at the nine-month mark of her new diet, she was able to go on an 18-mile bike ride. This is the power of nutrition!
More Natural Strategies for Multiple Sclerosis
MS can be a challenging disease to treat, which is why it’s best to consult a natural health care provider who can help you attack it from multiple angles, including the dietary, environmental, and emotional elements. For instance, aspartame and mercury toxicity have been known to mimic diseases such as MS, so addressing this possibility, if it applies to you, should be at the top of your list — in addition to adjusting your diet, not in lieu of dietary changes.
Certain supplements may also be useful, such as low-dose Naltrexone (LDN), along with alpha-lipoic acid. Naltrexone (generic name) is a pharmacologically active opioid antagonist conventionally used to treat drug and alcohol addiction – normally at doses of 50 milligrams (mg) to 300 mg.
As such, it’s been an FDA-approved drug for over two decades. However, researchers have found that at very low dosages (3 mg to 4.5 mg), Naltrexone has immune-modulating properties that may be able to successfully treat a wide range of autoimmune diseases including MS.
When you take LDN at bedtime, it blocks your opioid receptors for a few hours in the middle of the night, and is believed to up-regulate vital elements of your immune system by increasing your body’s production of metenkephalin and endorphins (your natural opioids), hence improving immune function.
More often than not, some form of hidden emotional wound can also be found in patients suffering with autoimmune diseases like MS.
Strategies like meditation, prayer, and energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) are particularly effective and need to be part of your overall treatment strategy in order to truly address the root of your illness, as well as help you cope with symptoms. Again, working with a holistic health care provider can help you to determine the best overall strategy for you.