REGINA – On the day when local celebrities chug glasses of root beer in one of the biggest fundraisers supporting multiple sclerosis research, a new study confirms better prevention of MS could start with more sunshine.
“Using a large group of 38,000 people around the world, we provided evidence that supports the notion that lack of vitamin D causes multiple sclerosis,” said Brent Richards, a McGill University researcher.
The study, posted to the PLOS Medicine journal, may explain why people in northern countries, such as Canada, tend to have higher rates of MS.
A lot of the vitamin D you get comes from sunlight. Our body first converts it to a precursor of vitamin D, before heading to the liver, where we metabolize. After moving to the kidney, it becomes the active form of vitamin D, which strengthens bones and boosts your neurological and immune systems.
“Not all those people are going to get MS … It’s just the risk factor that happens to be easily correctable.”
Past studies may have only shown sick people stay inside more – and out of the sun – but Richards says having the disease doesn’t change his latest results.
“It has always been unclear whether or not it was vitamin D itself or something associated with vitamin D that influences MS risk,” Richards said. “What we did was use genetic markers of low vitamin D levels.”
Richards says those markers are with you from birth.
MS Society of Canada president Yves Savoie calls the new findings compelling.
“How this happens and whether you could prevent MS by supplementing vitamin D, and at what level you need to supplement, those are questions that still elude us,” Savoie said.
In the winter, about 40 per cent of Canadians are deficient in vitamin D. Those winters are even longer in Saskatchewan, which has among the highest rates of MS in the world.
“Saskatoon and Regina, just take the shift in latitude, and you can correlate the difference in risk of multiple sclerosis,” Savoie said. “The further south you go to the equator, the less risk of MS you’ll have.”
Richards says the sooner, and younger, those low vitamin D levels are increased through supplements (most multivitamins would accomplish this) or diet changes, the better.
“Not all those people are going to get MS. This is just one of the risk factors. It’s just the risk factor that happens to be easily correctable.”