If you read Don’t Die Early, you know I’m a firm believer on the benefits of adequate levels of vitamin D. I learned a great deal about vitamin D by reading the writings of Dr. John Cannell, who founded the Vitamin D Council as a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching the world about the importance of adequate vitamin D levels. As Dr. Cannell attests, and many researchers and practitioners are learning, vitamin D has far-reaching implications for an amazing array of conditions affecting us today, including heart disease, MS, and Alzheimers.
I’m very pleased to see more and more studies showing the benefits of maintaining vitamin D levels, even if it means (gasp!) spending time in the sun on a regular basis.
The first study that caught my eye was published last month in the Journal of Internal Medicine. In this study, researchers studied 30,000 Swedish women for 20 years, correlating sunlight exposure to overall mortality. In the words of the researchers, avoiding the sun “is a risk factor for death of a similar magnitude as smoking.” Read that again: avoiding the sun causes as much harm as smoking. Specifically, the researchers showed the women who avoided the sun not only died earlier, but they also had a higher incidence of a number of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. The study was also able to show that the benefits of sunlight exposure increased in proportion to the amount of exposure—the more time in the sun, the less likely the participants were to suffer the diseases cited.
The next three studies all discuss vitamin D in the context of multiple sclerosis, both in treating and in preventing.
In the study Vitamin D Status During Pregnancy and Risk of Multiple Sclerosis in Offspring of Women in the Finnish Maternity Cohort, Finnish researchers identified individuals with MS and examined blood samples that had been taken from their mothers during the pregnancy and stored. The researchers found that, as compared to non-MS control group, mothers with those who developed MS were twice as likely to be vitamin D deficient. Past studies have shown little or no correlation between vitamin D levels during pregnancy and the risk of MS, but researchers observed that previous studies suffered from limitations of poor controls and small sample size.
Researchers have a number of theories to explain why low vitamin D levels increase the risk of developing MS, including vitamin D’s suppression of pro-inflammatory T-cell populations and the critical role that vitamin D plays in the formation of myelin.
As many will point out, however, correlation is not causation and to fully understand the role that vitamin D plays in prevent MS, it’s important to try and identify whether vitamin D deficiency is simply correlated with increased risk of MS or if it’s truly part of the cause.
To help show that the vitamin D connection with MS is causal (that is, actually is a cause and not just an unrelated correlation), another study examined those with genetic anomalies that produce low vitamin D levels to see how their low D levels correlate with increased risk of MS. The thinking here is: because the low vitamin D levels in these individuals are genetic, there are no lifestyle factors that might complicate the picture. In other words, if there’s an increased risk of MS among everyone with genetically low vitamin D, it gives strength to the argument that the vitamin D levels are playing a role because the various lifestyle factors among those studied will be randomized and will cancel out.
What did these researchers find? Much the same as other research: Those with genetically low vitamin D levels had twice the risk of developing MS.
And what about those with MS? Can vitamin D possibly bring some benefit? Researchers at Johns Hopkins say “yes,” it can. By supplementing MS sufferers who have low vitamin D levels for a period of six months researchers checked the patients’ blood and found “pleiotropic immunomodulatory effects” in the blood of those receiving therapeutic vitamin D dosages. (“Pleiotropic immunomodulatory effects” is a mouthful, but in this usage it means that the vitamin D supplementation brought multiple beneficial changes to the immune system that reduce the attacks on the MS patients’ nervous system.)
This is just a few articles released quite recently but there’s no shortage of research showing the benefits of vitamin D, best obtained by responsible sunlight exposure (“responsible” means don’t let your skin burn) and absent sunlight exposure, via vitamin D supplementation.
When I think of Dr. Terry Wahl’s completely reversing her MS with dietary changes and all of the research showing the benefits of sun exposure and vitamin D, it only reinforces what I already believe: good food that is devoid of grains, sugars, vegetable oils, and other toxins, coupled with time in the sun and fresh air, are some of our best preventive medicine tools.
Ok. I’ve spent enough time in front of my computer. It’s time for a walk in the sunshine.