Vitamin D and MS: What we’ve learned over the past year

It’s been over a year since my last major update on vitamin D in which I summarized highlights from the Vitamin D Consensus Workshop, and since that time, research exploring the link between vitamin D and MS has been brimming with activity and new progress. Vitamin D deficiency has long been suspected to be a risk factor for developing MS after the initial observations that our high latitude and low sunlight exposure in Canada correlates strongly with our high rate of MS. What set this past year apart was that it was marked by the steady emergence of new studies suggesting that vitamin D may have potential therapeutic benefits beyond influencing MS risk.

One of these studies was published just last week in the journal PLoS ONE, and rounded out a string of studies examining the neuroprotective and remyelinating potential of vitamin D. The study, led by University of Calgary researchers Drs. Luanne Metz and V. Wee Yong and funded in part by the MS Scientific Research Foundation, had two parts: part 1 involved studying the effects of biologically active vitamin D on the survival of nerve cells grown in cell culture when exposed to activated T cells, while in part 2 they wanted to determine if vitamin D could reduce nerve fibre loss in mice with an MS-like disease. In both cases, the researchers found that vitamin D could reduce the loss of nerve fibres and cells during an inflammatory attack, suggesting that vitamin D supplementation could have therapeutic benefits for people living with MS.

These results follow right on the heels of a similar study from a group at University of Cambridge, who showed that vitamin D interacts with another protein to stimulate myelin-producing cells to repair damaged myelin in rats with an MS-like disease. These findings went hand in hand with a study from earlier this year, which showed for the first time that vitamin D can boost repair of the brain by stimulating the activity of neural stem cells. I’m confident that these studies will pave the way for a more informed discussion and larger clinical trials examining the effectiveness and safety of vitamin D supplementation for treating the symptoms and disease course of MS.

Going back to vitamin D and MS risk, one study that made a big splash in the scientific community came out of McGill University by Dr. Brent Richards and colleagues. The group used a sophisticated genetic analysis technique to identify genes that affect vitamin D levels in the blood and determine if those genes are associated with MS risk. They found that low activity or expression of genes strongly linked to vitamin D status were associated with higher levels of MS. This could be perhaps the most convincing genetic evidence so far that low vitamin D levels increase the risk for MS.

Canada has the highest rate of MS in the world, and given that many of us aren’t getting enough vitamin D, there’s no better time than the present to be having the conversation about how much vitamin D is enough to promote good health for Canadians. To that end, the MS Society is working closely with the Vitamin D Society and other health charities to develop a Canadian Vitamin D Consensus, which is meant to educate Canadians on the importance of vitamin D levels for good health. We’re also exploring ways to establish evidence-informed guidelines around vitamin D that will help people affected by MS achieve improved health and quality of life. Finally, we recently launched a Vitamin D page on our research website to provide a one-stop resource on the current knowledge and research linking vitamin D and MS. With 2015 now wrapping up, I’m confident that 2016 will maintain the momentum of vitamin D research and bring us new answers to unresolved questions about the link between vitamin D and MS.

Categories Research

National vice-president, research, past MS researcher, and PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from University of Ottawa. Leads the MS Society's research program to find the cure for MS and improve the quality of life for people affected by the disease.

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