Vitamin D supplement
For healthy adults, doctors recommend a daily vitamin D dose of 400 IU. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

New research shows vitamin D doesn’t just help alleviate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis—it may actually help people avoid the disease altogether.

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, can affect a person’s brain, spinal cord and eyesight by eating away at the protective covering of the nerves. The disease can manifest itself mildly, or it can be debilitating.

There’s no single identifiable cause, although there are suspected factors, such as genetics and environmental factors including where you live, smoking and exposure to viruses.

So how to combat it? Vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” may help.

Here’s the scoop: Patients with MS tend to have low levels of vitamin D, so doctors have been using it to treat symptoms for more than 10 years. But now research shows that getting enough vitamin D may help you avoid it altogether.

That’s important news, especially for people with a family member who has MS, said Danita Vanderkodde, a physician assistant and MS certified specialist with the Spectrum Health Medical Group-Neurology.

Why? In the general population, about 1 in 750 people develop the disease. But if you have a family member with MS, your odds are 1 in 40.

“I see that in my practice,” Vanderkodde said. “Many of my patients with MS tell me about another family member who also has it.”

Experts say there’s an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency among Americans.

Eating right isn’t enough because vitamin D doesn’t occur naturally in most foods. That’s why many products such as milk, cereal and orange juice are vitamin D-fortified.

In theory, you can get enough vitamin D by spending 10 minutes or more in the sun each day. But it doesn’t always happen. This may be due to our use of sunscreen, our tendency to stay indoors or, in Michigan, a general lack of warm and sunny days. This may also explain why populations in northern climates have a higher incidence of MS than those living near the equator.

Vanderkodde’s advice: Consider a vitamin D supplement—it’s an easy and inexpensive way to improve your odds of staying healthy. She recommends taking it in moderation to avoid potential complications like kidney damage or high levels of calcium in the blood.

Although there’s some controversy about whether it actually helps people avoid diabetes, heart disease and many autoimmune diseases, vitamin D may be a good idea. For healthy adults, the recommended daily allowance is 400 IU, a level that’s based on the amount of vitamin D in a tablespoon of cod liver oil. For children, ask your pediatrician for advice.

We’ve learned a lot in the past 20 years.

“When I went to medical school, we thought vitamin D’s only role was to carry calcium to bones,” Vanderkodde said. “But now we know that it helps regulate our immune system.”

Vanderkodde recommends 1,000 – 2000 IU of vitamin D3 per day for MS patients because it can modify or slow the course of the disease, help them manage symptoms and improve their overall function. It also reduces the frequency of relapses.

MS is unpredictable. It interrupts the communication between the brain and other parts of the body. Some of the 2.3 million patients worldwide have very few symptoms, while others may lose their ability to see clearly, write, speak or walk.

“There’s no cure, but today we can choose from 12 different therapies that reduce the damage of this progressive disease,” Vanderkodde said. “MS is treatable, and vitamin D is an important part of the treatment.”