Vitamin D, Kids, and MS Risk
Research presented at last week's big, international multiple sclerosis (MS) research conference in Montreal adds to the growing suspicion that a deficiency of Vitamin D may be linked to developing the disease.
Researchers led by Brenda Banwell a pediatric MS specialist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, and Heather Hanwell (and, yes, their names are in fact that similar), a graduate student in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto -- shared compelling evidence showing that kids with early signs of MS were likely to have low levels of Vitamin D in their blood.
Their tracked 117 children who'd had a "demyelinating event" -- an episode of numbness or tingling in an extremity or of temporary blindness, for instance, that signals damage to the myelin and often is the first symptom of MS, an autoimmune disease in which the central nervous system is damaged when immune cells attack the myelin sheath that coats and protects nerve cells. Nineteen of those kids were diagnosed with MS within a year of experiencing that event. Analysis of blood drawn when they were examined showed that 17 of the kids with MS had insufficient Vitamin D. Overall, the kids with the lowest Vitamin D levels had the highest risk of being diagnosed with MS.
The Vitamin D/MS connection is interesting for many reasons, including the fact that the prevalence of the disease increases with distance from the equator. One theory is that, because the body produces Vitamin D when exposed to sunshine, those who get too little sun exposure may have too little Vitamin D.
In addition to its well-established role in preventing rickets, Vitamin D is thought to be beneficial in preventing inflammation, some cancers, and immune-system problems, in addition to its role in building strong bones and hence warding off osteoperosis. The vitamin is found in fortified milk, cheese, butter, fish, and fortified cereal. Current dietary guidelines list an "adequate intake" of Vitamin D as 200 International Units for people (including infants and children) through age 50; adults between 51 and 70 need at least 400 IU, and people over 70 need 600 IU. Some argue that those amounts may not be enough.
But nobody really knows how much IS enough. Nor do we know whether taking Vitamin D supplements delivers the same benefit as getting the vitamin through your regular diet or producing it through sun exposure. Some have gone so far as to suggest that wearing sunscreen has put our health at risk by diminishing the amount of Vitamin D we get from sunshine.
As a person with MS, I appreciate that so many researchers are devoting their careers to figuring out what causes this maddeningly unpredictable disease, which creates inconvenient symptoms in some and is completely disabling to others, and how to curb, cure or prevent it. Until they make their big breakthrough -- or, as is more likely, their series of smaller breakthroughs -- I'll keep taking my daily meds and hoping for the best.
As for my own kids, I'm not inclined to start pumping them full of Vitamin D supplements. (Though I did give them multivitamins containing Vitamin D when I was breast-feeding them; babies who are exclusively breast-fed don't get enough of this nutrient.) But I will make sure they drink their milk. And I will be sure they get plenty of sunshine, using sunscreen when that seems appropriate but going without for short periods when the sun's not intense.
Are you concerned about your Vitamin D intake? Do you take Vitamin D supplements for your general health or to guard against specific diseases? And do you and your kids get enough sunshine, especially as the days grow shorter?
Jennifer LaRue Huget
September 23, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Chronic Conditions
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