Nutritional Medicine  MS   Vitamin D


Tuesday February 23,2010

JUST two days after landing in Australia for a family holiday, Kirsten McLaughlin began to feel better. The 35-year-old mother wasn’t just enjoying the feel-good buzz we all enjoy on a well-deserved break. Kirsten, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) four years ago, found that her symptoms – particularly her crippling fatigue – had improved in the strong sunshine.

A month later, the family flew back to the UK and Kirsten, a former tae kwon do champion, became just as ill as before. Her son Ryan recalls: “The effects of the sun on mum were amazing. I did some research and found that sunshine produces vitamin D. I also found that Scotland, which does not get much sun, has one of the highest rates of MS in the world.”

Last year Ryan, 14, from Drumchapel, Glasgow, launched the Shine on Scotland campaign. Its aim is to ensure all children and pregnant women in Scotland receive free vitamin D supplements. “I don’t want other people to go through what my mum has been through,” he says. “I believe that taking vitamin D will prevent thousands of people developing MS.”

Ryan’s campaign is backed by many neurologists and author JK Rowling, whose late mother had the disease. It is becoming increasingly clear that vitamin D and some other environmental and genetic factors have a significant role to play in MS.

Until a few years ago scientists had little understanding of what caused the disease. All they knew was it becomes more prevalent the further you are from the equator and that there is a genetic element. It was also thought a virus might trigger the disease.

Recent research, however, means scientists might soon be able to predict those at risk of developing MS and even prevent some cases.

Gavin Giovannoni is a professor of neurology at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry and the co-author of a report into environmental factors affecting MS to be published next month.

“It’s clear one reason some people are more likely to get MS the further they live from the equator is the lack of sunlight,” he says. “The incidence of the disease has been increasing over the past few decades, particularly in women. It’s no coincidence that this has happened at the same time women have begun to avoid the sun and that sunblock has been put in make-up products.”

“Since the Islamic revolution there has been an epidemic of MS in women,” says Professor Giovannoni. “This can only be because they are now covered from head to toe and are no longer exposed to the sun.”

Research has also shown babies born in April or May – who grew in the womb during the winter months – are the most likely to get MS in later life, while those born in November are at much lower risk.

Another study published last year found evidence vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy and infancy could increase a child’s risk of developing MS later in life.

The study established a direct relationship between a gene variant known as DRB1*1501 and vitamin D. While one in 1,000 people in the UK are likely to develop MS, this number rises to around one in 300 among those carrying a single copy of the variant and one in 100 of those carrying two copies.

Professor Giovannoni says: “Lack of vitamin D doesn’t cause MS on its own but it’s an important factor. Supplementing with the vitamin could mean some people who are susceptible to MS don’t go on to develop it.

“We’ve also identified a link between MS and the Epstein-Barr virus, which is responsible for glandular fever. If you don’t get the virus, your chance of getting MS is almost zero.

“The problem is 95 per cent of the population is infected with Epstein-Barr at some time. Scientists are working on a vaccine to prevent the virus and if they are successful, it could potentially have a massive impact on rates of MS.”

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, of the MS Society, says: “Researchers have thought for a long time that a combination of genes make some people more susceptible to developing MS.

However these are also common in the general population. Genes are only part of the story though and other environmental factors, such as vitamin D deficiency, exposure to certain viruses and lifestyle factors like smoking have also been implicated in MS.”

The French government has recently begun giving vitamin D to pregnant women. Professor Giovannoni, who says low levels of vitamin D are also implicated in many other diseases such as cancer and Type 2 diabetes, believes the same should be done in the UK.

He says: “We estimate that if you are vitamin D replete throughout your life you can probably lower your risk of developing MS by up to 85 per cent. I am sufficiently convinced to be giving my own daughters vitamin D supplements.”