New Canadian research is offering hope that some day preventing multiple sclerosis will be as simple as popping a vitamin D pill each day.
A study of 250 Canadian children suffering their first symptoms of the disease has made the surprising discovery that those with low levels of the "sunshine vitamin" are far more likely to develop a full-blown case of it than those who have sufficient amounts.
Twenty eight percent of children with the lowest blood levels of vitamin D at the time of diagnosis went on to suffering a second attack related to multiple sclerosis, compared with only seven percent for those with higher levels of vitamin D.
Previous research has found that 66 percent of those with multiple sclerosis have outright vitamin D deficiencies or have insufficient blood levels of the vitamin.
The current study suggests that vitamin D may play a role in prevention of multiple sclerosis.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the brain and spinal cord that arises when the body's immune system attacks the protective myelin cells of the central nervous system. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, blurred vision, muscle stiffness and co-ordination difficulties.
Researchers suspect vitamin D works to prevent this autoimmune disease by short-circuiting the attack on the myelin.
About 1,000 new cases of the disease will be diagnosed this year in Canada, and an estimated 55,000 to 75,000 people are currently living with it. Women are far more likely to be stricken than men.
Currently, the Institute of Medicine recommends a daily vitamin D3 intake of 200 IU for children. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends 1,000 IU (international units) of the vitamin D3 daily during the fall and winter months.
One cup (250 ml) of skim milk has 100 IU of vitamin D while 3.5 ounces of canned salmon provides up to 860 IU.
Although doctors do not yet know for sure what dose of vitamin D might protect against multiple sclerosis, it is likely to be well above current Health Canada recommendations of 200-600 IU per day.
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