Autoimmune disorders are illnesses in which the body attacks itself. In multiple sclerosis, for instance, the body views its own central nervous system as an invader–and the immune system over-responds to the perceived threat, causing a host of neurological problems including partial or full paralysis, loss of vision, headaches, seizures, and other symptoms. In rheumatoid arthritis, another autoimmune disorder, the body attacks the joints, causing painful swelling, pain, inflammation, and organ problems.
With still other similar disorders, the body fights its own digestive tract; Crohn’s Disorder is a well-known disease in which the body attacks the small intenstine, the colon, or both. The symptoms include pain, bleeding, constant diarhhea, and attack fairly young people (twenties to forties). The riddle of many disorders like Crohn’s and multiple sclerosis is that the patients are often fairly young; they have immune systems that are strong enough to mount a fierce campaign against the body.
Autoimmune diseases are on the rise in the United States, especially multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s, and lupus (in which the organs are affected by the immune response). Medical researchers have found a genetic link in most families, which helps to explain some illnesses, but in other cases researchers have been stumped: why the increase in these disorders?
Vitamin D deficiency may be the missing link. In a 2004 study, researchers found that women who take a multivitamin that includes vitamin D have a 40% reduced risk of developing multiple sclerosis. In 2006 the Journal of the American Medical Association printed a journal article outlining how doctors have found that among white persons in their research study, higher vitamin D levels were associated with lower rates of multiple sclerosis. The study’s results were clear: higher levels of vitamin D may protect against deveoping multiple sclerosis for caucasians.
A deficiency in vitamin D is becoming more common in the Northern Hemisphere. People go outside in the sun less often in the modern world; in the north, less sunshine in general means less vitamin D exposure from sunshine, and over the past twenty-five years people have used sunscreen in greater numbers. While sunscreen has been a wonderful protective technique for avoid skin cancer, it has created a new problem: it blocks vitamin D absorption. In turn, this has led to lower vitamin D rates, and may explain the rise in autoimmune disorders.
In addition, recent endocrinological research shows that optimal vitamin D levels should be much higher than what most doctors use to measure “normal” levels. Most doctors view a vitamin D test result of 25 or higher to be normal, but some research shows that levels as high as 50 or 60 are much better for overall health. Levels below 20 place women at serious risk for developing breast cancer.
Vitamin D deficiency and multiple sclerosis is a crucial link that researchers will continue to explore. Doctors are encouraing patients to consume a total of 1000 International Units (IU) of vitamin D3 (not D2, which is less easily absorbed) each day. Those living in the Northern Hemisphere should consider taking a supplement in the winter, and if you experience depression, anxiety, or classic autoimmune symptoms, check with your doctor about getting a vitamin D test. Supplementiation is easy, and may be a protective measure against developing MS and other such disorders.