What's the link between vitamin D and the risk of MS?

We have known for a number of years that people living closer to the equator have a lower risk of MS than those living further from the equator. Close to the equator, people get more sun exposure, and sun exposure is needed for vitamin D production. Because of this connection, researchers decided to investigate whether vitamin D could protect people from getting MS.

A US study looked at looked at the effects of vitamin D on the risk of MS in over 187,000 female nurses participating in the Nurses' Health Study. Researchers found that women who took daily vitamin D supplements containing at least 400 IU (international units) had a 40% lower risk of getting MS compared with women who did not take vitamin D supplements.

So how does vitamin D work to reduce MS risk? It's not completely understood yet. Vitamin D may help prevent cells in the immune system from attacking the myelin coating of nerves (these attacks lead to nerve damage and MS symptoms).

What do the study results mean to you? First of all, don't reach for the high-dose vitamin D supplements. Health Canada recommends 600 to 800 IU of vitamin D per day. The amount of vitamin D needed to get a benefit in the study was at least 400 IU per day. This means that you can get this amount of vitamin D through a healthy diet, supplemented by a daily multivitamin (if recommended by your doctor). If you don't have MS, getting at least 400 IU of vitamin D each day may reduce your risk. If you have MS, this study doesn't provide any information about whether vitamin D will help you. However, getting enough vitamin D is good for your overall health.

The study also raises many questions for future research. Does vitamin D reduce MS risk in men too? Can vitamin D help treat the symptoms of MS or slow disease progression in people who already have the condition? What are the roles of other vitamins in preventing or treating MS? When is the best age to start taking vitamin D? Could smaller doses of vitamin D also work? The study was not designed to answer these questions, so more research is needed.

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