An easily obtainable nutrient, vitamin D, is essential to the human body. Moreover, a recent study shows that the level of vitamin D in the body seems to have an effect on the severity of multiple sclerosis (MS) attacks. The study, conducted by Ellen Mowry at the Hopkins School of Medicine, correlates low vitamin D level with symptoms from multiple sclerosis patients.
When a person suffers from multiple sclerosis attacks, the immune system destroys the fatty protein, myelin, in Schwan cells surrounding neurons in the spinal cord and brain. The myelin sheath helps nerve cells send signals by speeding up the propagation of the action potential down the axon. The immune attack causes inflammation and subsequently affects nerve cells’ ability to transmit signals.
Because of the reduced ability for neurons to transmit signals, people under MS attacks may feel muscle weakness and blurred vision. In addition, more frequent attacks at increasing severity will likely cause patients to be disabled permanently, as their immune system destroys their nerve cells. Currently, there are not treatments that can completely cure the disease; there are only treatments to control the attacks and help patients recover from a MS attack.
In an attempt to understand more about multiple sclerosis, Mowry conducted a study to determine whether vitamin D levels affect MS symptoms. The researchers used blood samples taken from patients and MRI images of their brains to accurately record the severity of MS attacks and their vitamin D levels.
By using MRIs and contrasting dyes, the researchers are able to look for active signs of multiple sclerosis. MRI images show brain lesions caused by multiple sclerosis attacks. As a result, researchers can use the images to link the severity of the attacks to the level of vitamin D obtained from the blood samples.
The finding suggests that a 10ng/ml increase in vitamin D concentrations in the body can reduce the chances of new lesions by 15% and lead to a 32% decrease in areas of active disease. The decrease in spots of active disease is especially important, since those areas are treated with medication that can cause permanent damage to the nerves.
An increase in vitamin D levels is connected to a decrease in disabilities caused by MS. However, Mowry warns patients not to take vitamin D supplements to reduce their symptoms, since more research is needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the supplements and possible side-effects.
Using her data, it is now possible for Mowry to expect new signs of diseases (such as lesions and disease spots) using the level of vitamin D in the body from the previous year. The effect that a lower vitamin D level has on MS attacks seems to be consistent when accounting for other factors, such as age and gender.
There also appears to be a relationship between MS attacks and vitamin D levels, independent of factors such as current treatments and prior smoking history. When new and active symptoms suggest that MS is not under control, doctors can then revise their treatments.
Despite the significances of this study, the implications are not clear. Some of the data that the researchers used required patients to record their own episodes of MS attacks, which are less accurate than the data obtained from MRI scans.
Also, the report focuses on the effects of low vitamin D levels. There is no correlation between consuming vitamin D supplements and MS attacks. Similarly, there is no data linking vitamin D to disorders concerning the immune system.
Mowry cautions patients to consult with their doctors before using vitamin D supplements, since the vitamin is a hormone and further research is needed to illustrate whether taking supplements will alleviate MS symptoms.