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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?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  September 23, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chronic Conditions  
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you ask some good questions: Are you concerned about your Vitamin D intake?

yes i am. i am truly the "fairest of them all", and strenuously avoid exposure to the sun, because (a) i burn like mad, and (b) skin cancer runs in the family. my blonde hair and blue eyes also run in the family, and my 4 children also burn. so yes, we all take vitamin D supplements now. my husband & i were tested because our primary care physician is actually a geriatrician (we are in our late 40's-early 50's) and he saw a disturbing pattern of acute Vit-D deficiencies in his elderly patients.

Do you take Vitamin D supplements for your general health or to guard against specific diseases?

for us it's a "general health" issue.

And do you and your kids get enough sunshine, especially as the days grow shorter?

no, and they never will. ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution, man has been eroding the earth's atmosphere with pollutants and toxins, simultaneously destroying the quality of the topsoil in which we grow our crops. the result is that even short-term exposure to the sun is now dangerous, and our produce isn't as potent as it was say 200 years ago. we now have a critical need to supplement our diets with chemical (inorganic) vitamins and minerals to protect our bodies against disesase and harm.

this is an interesting wrinkle in investigative medicine. i would never have made a rational leap from Vit-D to M.S. thank you for the "heads up".

Posted by: sleepwalker | September 23, 2008 9:26 AM | Report abuse

I'm not concerned at all about my vitamin D intake; I figure the 5,000 IU a day or so I've been taking for the last couple of years is perfectly adequate. (No, there's no reason to worry about toxicity at that level; Reinhold Vieth, of the University of Toronto, wrote an excellent article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in 1999, reviewing the literature, and finding no credible reports of toxicity at doses below 40,000 IU/day.) As for getting vitamin D through the skin versus through diet, Vieth has pointed out that furbearing animals get most of their vitamin D via licking their fur; since we share most of our biochemistry with them, the oral route should be alright for us, too.

As for the big MS breakthrough, I believe this has occurred, that the main cause of MS has been identified, that it is the stealth bacterium Chlamydia pneumoniae, and that MS can usually be cured using the right combination of antibiotics. But the case for this is rather complicated, and a comments section such as this does not seem to be the proper venue for making it.

Posted by: Norman Yarvin | September 23, 2008 10:51 PM | Report abuse

What does Jennifer Huget have against a good multi vitamin supplement for kids? Why take the chance? And for adults, too. They're inexpensive and safe.

Posted by: Jon Katze | September 23, 2008 11:17 PM | Report abuse

If you're uneasy about Vit. D supplements, be aware that milk is fortified with a Vit. D supplement -- milk does not naturally contain significant amounts. There are a few foods, such as shrimp, that are naturally good sources.

Posted by: ZF | September 24, 2008 12:29 PM | Report abuse

At a recent visit to my doctor's office, I mentioned that I had recently started taking a 400 mg Vitamin D supplement and that I was thinking of increasing it to 1000 mg/day for fall/winter. The reply was that almost ALL the patients they have tested for Vitamin D levels have been found to be deficient! Why? Sunscreen? Too much indoors stuff? Less natural vitamins in our food supply these days? I eat very healthy food, but I am still going to take the supplement.

Posted by: beabar | September 24, 2008 1:24 PM | Report abuse

I'm not convinced that multivitamins are safe. Who tests them?

There are tests that show that certain amounts of certain vitamins are not toxic...but what I mean is who is testing the Flintstones (or Gummi Bear vitamins, or whatever brand)for containing what they say they contain? With food and "diet supplements" generally, I don't think there is much oversight.

Posted by: Michelle | September 24, 2008 2:36 PM | Report abuse

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