By Dr. Mercola
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, degenerative disease of the nerves in your brain and spinal column, caused by the immune-mediated destruction of myelin, the insulating substance around the nerves in your central nervous system.
While the exact causes are unknown, it's becoming clear that environmental factors play a role, and among them exposure to sunlight (or lack thereof) is rising to the top.
It is through sunlight exposure that your body is able to produce vitamin D, and new research has revealed that it is of crucial importance to maintain adequate vitamin D levels even prior to birth, while in utero.
Your Birth Month and Mom's Vitamin D Levels May Influence Your MS Risk
Researchers reviewed data from more than 150,000 MS patients, including those living at higher latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, where sunlight is generally insufficient to produce vitamin D from October through March.
The scientists found that those who were born in April or May, just after the darker, colder winter months, were significantly more likely to have MS than those born during October and November (after the summer months).
A large number of studies have confirmed that your risk of MS increases the farther away you live from the equator.1 In fact, a lack of sunlight was identified as a risk factor for MS as early as 1922. Within the United States, your risk of developing MS roughly doubles if you spend your childhood – up to the age of 15 – in northern states than if you live in the south.
There is also a likely relationship between ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) from the sun and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which causes glandular fever and might play an indirect role in MS as an activator of the underlying disease process.
After evaluating the relationships between these three variables: MS prevalence, Epstein-Barr virus prevalence, and UVB intensity, researchers found that UVB exposure alone could explain 61 percent of the variations of MS cases across England. When they combined UVB exposure and incidence of glandular fever, 72 percent of the variations could be explained.2
Vitamin D may positively affect MS by altering chemicals called cytokines, which modulate your immune system and can either reduce or increase inflammation depending on their levels and proportions.
Therefore, one of the best things you can do for your health in general is also one of the best preventive strategies against autoimmune diseases like MS – getting enough regular sun exposure so your body can produce optimal amounts of vitamin D. If you're a woman who is pregnant, optimizing your vitamin D levels is not only important for yourself, but also for your baby.
Another Crucial Way to Prevent or Treat MS
In a recent interview I had with Dr. Woody Monte, professor emeritus at Arizona State University in food and chemistry, he explained that methanol and the subsequent conversion to formaldehyde from certain processed foods and foods containing aspartame is a major culprit in a variety of diseases, especially MS.
Even though aspartame is touted as natural it has a synthetic methyl group on one of the amino acids that rapidly breaks down to methanol (wood alcohol or methyl alcohol). Methyl alcohol, after it is taken up by the body as a "Trojan Horse" into susceptible tissues like the brain, converts rapidly into formaldehyde. This causes severe damage to proteins and DNA that can contribute to many serious and chronic diseases, such as cancer, autism, Alzheimer's disease, and multiple sclerosis. He explains:
"Multiple sclerosis behaves sort of a like an autoimmune disease. How can methanol cause this? The formaldehyde is what causes it."
Methyl alcohol can slip through your blood-brain barrier, and your brain is one of the areas where you find alcohol dehydrogenase, which converts methyl alcohol to formaldehyde. This causes the destruction of myelin basic protein, which is one of the triggers for MS.
"We know that methyl alcohol is known to be a demyelinating agent," Dr. Monte says. "We don't know why. In general, it's accepted as a demyelinating agent. You have the symptoms associated with the demyelination, and they're identical between multiple sclerosis and methanol poisoning, and people who consume aspartame."
Dr. Monte believes many diseases such as MS can be prevented if we start avoiding methanol. It's not only aspartame but also certain additional processed foods that are problematic. When fruits and vegetables are canned, for instance, the methanol becomes liberated from the pectin. At room temperature, it only takes one month for 10 percent of the methanol to be released. After about six months, virtually all of the methanol is liberated. Items to avoid, especially if you have MS or symptoms of MS, include:
Cigarettes Tomato sauces, unless first simmered at least 3 hours, no lid on pan Diet foods and drinks with aspartame Smoked food of any kind, particularly fish and meat Fruit and vegetable products and their juices in bottles, cans, or pouches Chewing gum, most chewing gum in the USA contains aspartame Jellies, jams, and marmalades not made fresh and kept refrigerated Slivovitz and other fruit schnapps Black currant and tomato juice products, fresh or processed Overly ripe or near rotting fruits or vegetables
The Real Way to Prevent Premature Birth
Optimizing your vitamin D levels during pregnancy is important for lowering your baby's future MS risk, as well as a number of other reasons, including helping to prevent premature birth. Worldwide, 15 million babies are born premature (prior to 37 weeks' gestation), and 1.1 million die as a result. The reasons why some babies come early are poorly understood, but a recent study in the Lancet3 detailed five interventions they said would result in a 5 percent decrease in premature births by 2015:
- Reducing rates of labor inductions and elective Caesarean sections (C-sections) unless medically necessary
- Not smoking while pregnant
- Reducing the number of embryos transferred if fertility treatments are used
- Using cervical cerclage (a procedure that uses stiches to help keep the cervix closed) on women with short cervixes
- Giving progesterone supplementation to women with high-risk pregnancies
These recommendations came in response to a recent comprehensive report from experts in 11 countries, "Born Too Soon: The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth."4 In most of the countries for which data was available, premature births have doubled from 3 percent to 6 percent since 1995.
In the United States, however, 12 percent of births are premature, which is a rate similar to those found in less developed countries. Out of 184 countries in the report, the United States ranks a dismal 130th for premature births. It's unfortunate that both the report and the Lancet researchers neglected to mention vitamin D, as research suggests it may reduce your risk of premature birth by half.
As I've discussed on numerous occasions, vitamin D is a critical nutrient for optimal health and is best obtained from sun exposure or a safe tanning bed. However, many are taking oral vitamin D, which can actually be problematic unless you're also getting sufficient amounts of vitamin K2. In fact, this is a really crucial point that has not been emphasized enough in the past: If you opt for oral vitamin D, you need to also consume in your food or take supplemental vitamin K2.
Because when you take vitamin D, your body creates more vitamin K2-dependent proteins – the proteins that help move the calcium around in your body. But you need vitamin K2 to activate those proteins. If they're not activated, the calcium in your body will not be properly distributed and can lead to weaker bones and hardened arteries. In short, vitamin K2 ensures the calcium is deposited and removed from the appropriate areas. By taking vitamin D, you're creating an increased demand for K2. And vitamin D and K2 work together to strengthen your bones and improve your heart health.
Optimizing Vitamin D Levels May Save 500,000 Babies a Year
The Lancet researchers estimated that their five interventions could prevent 58,000 preterm births a year, but research presented by U.S. researchers Drs. Hollis and Wagner at an international vitamin D research conference found vitamin D supplementation may save the lives of 500,000 premature babies annually.5 Their findings included:
- Mothers who took 4,000 IU's (ten times the RDA of 400 IU) of vitamin D during pregnancy had their risk of premature birth reduced by half
- Premature babies born to women taking high doses of vitamin D were reduced by half at both 32 and 37 weeks; there were also fewer babies who were born "small for dates"
- Women taking high doses of vitamin D had a 25 percent reduction in infections, particularly respiratory infections such as colds and flu, as well as fewer infections of the vagina and the gums
- The "core morbidities of pregnancy" were reduced by 30 percent in the women who took the high-dose vitamin D. (Including diabetes, high blood pressure, and pre-eclampsia – a potentially deadly increase in blood pressure and fluid accompanied by low platelets)
- Babies getting the highest amounts of vitamin D after birth had fewer colds and less eczema
Tips for Optimizing Your Vitamin D During Pregnancy and Anytime – Fortified Foods are Not Enough
Many people believe that drinking vitamin-D-fortified milk is enough to support healthy vitamin D levels, but it is very difficult to get enough vitamin D from food sources alone. Very few foods naturally contain vitamin D – and those that do will not contain enough to optimize your levels, even if you include fortified foods in the mix.
Additionally, it's important to realize that not all food sources provide the same kind of vitamin D. Plant sources provide you with D2. The more beneficial D3 can only be obtained through animal-based sources such as salmon, which has about 450 IUs per serving. While other animal-based foods do contain some naturally occurring vitamin D, it is typically at very low levels. One large egg yolk, for instance, contains just 41 IUs of vitamin D.
Consuming these foods is not likely to give you enough vitamin D, as it appears as though most adults need at least 8,000 IU's of vitamin D a day in order to raise their serum levels to healthy levels.6
The best way to optimize your levels is to expose large portions of your skin to the sun. Contrary to popular belief, the best time to be in the sun for vitamin D production is actually as near to solar noon as possible (you need to figure in Daylight Saving Time, which typically pushes solar noon to 1 p.m. for most).
This is because while UVA rays are quite constant during ALL hours of daylight, throughout the entire year, UVB are low in morning and evening and high at midday. So to use the sun to maximize your vitamin D production and minimize your risk of skin damage, the middle of the day (roughly between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.) is the ideal and safest time. During this UVB-intense period you will likely need the shortest sun exposure time to produce the most vitamin D.
How Long Should You Be in the Sun?
As far as the optimal length of exposure, you only need enough to have your skin turn the lightest shade of pink. This may only be a few minutes for those who have very pale skin.
Once you have reached this point your body will not make any additional vitamin D and any further exposure will only result in damage to your skin. Most people with fair skin will max out their vitamin D production in just 10-20 minutes, or, again, when their skin starts turning the lightest shade of pink. Some will need less, others more. The darker your skin, the longer exposure you will need to optimize your vitamin D production.
From a health perspective it doesn't make much sense to expose your skin to the sun when it is lower than 50 degrees above the horizon because you will not receive any valuable UVB rays, but you will expose yourself to the more dangerous and potentially deadly UVA rays. UVA's have a longer wavelength than UVB and can more easily penetrate the ozone layer and other obstacles (like clouds and pollution) on their way from the sun to the earth. So while it will give you a tan (mainly by oxidizing melanin instead of producing new melanin), unless the companion UVB rays are available you're likely doing more harm than good and should probably stay out of the sun to protect your skin.
During the times of the year when UVB rays are not present where you live you essentially have two options: You can use a safe tanning bed or, as a last resort, you can swallow oral vitamin D3.
What are the Optimal Levels to Aim For?
I would strongly encourage you to have your blood level checked to confirm that your sun exposure is putting you at the right level, as there are many variables that can influence this, including the darkness of your skin, your age and your geographical location. If it isn't, or if sun exposure or a safe tanning bed are not practical options for you, then you should consider supplementing with oral vitamin D3. Unless you get a deep dark tan, which is a pretty good indicator that your vitamin D levels are where they need to be, it is wise to get your blood levels checked – that is the only way to know for certain you have reached therapeutic levels.
Please do take this information to heart, especially if you're pregnant, as it's estimated that 85 percent of the American public is vitamin D deficient - which is why it is likely you could be also. Researchers have noted that vitamin D deficiency is prevalent in adults of all ages who have increased skin pigmentation (such as those whose ancestors are from Africa, the Middle East, or India), or who always wear sun protection or limit their outdoor activities.7
If You're Taking Oral Vitamin D, Make Sure You're Also Taking Vitamin K2
As mentioned briefly earlier, there is evidence that the safety of vitamin D is dependent on vitamin K, and that vitamin D toxicity (although very rare with the D3 form) is actually mitigated by vitamin K2 deficiency. According to Dr. Cees Vermeer, one of the world's top researchers in the field of vitamin K, nearly everyone is deficient in vitamin K – just like most are deficient in vitamin D. Vitamin K2 activates a protein hormone called osteocalcin, produced by osteoblasts, which is needed to bind calcium into the matrix of your bone. Osteocalcin also appears to help prevent calcium from depositing into your arteries.
In other words, without the help of vitamin K2, the calcium that your vitamin D so effectively lets in might be working AGAINST you – by building up your coronary arteries and other soft tissues rather than your bones.
Vitamin K and vitamin D also work together to increase Matrix GLA Protein (or MGP), the protein responsible for protecting your blood vessels from calcification. So if you take oral vitamin D, ideally you should take vitamin K2 as well. As for dietary sources, cheese and especially cheese curd is an excellent source of K2. The starter ferment for both regular cheese and curd cheese contains bacteria – lactococci and proprionic acids bacteria – which both produce K2.
You can also obtain vitamin K2 by eating natto daily, but many Westerners do not enjoy the taste and texture of this fermented soy food. If you don't care for the taste of natto, the next best thing is a high-quality K2 supplement. You should take 100 mcg of vitamin K2 per 1,000 IU's of vitamin D (remember you must always take your vitamin K supplement with fat since it is fat-soluble and won't be absorbed without it).