As we continue through Multiple Sclerosis awareness month, many of you may be wondering what causes MS, or more importantly, what can we do to prevent it? Since Multiple Sclerosis is a brain illness, there are many risk factors that can contribute to the likelihood of getting this disease. Many of these are the same risk factors you’ve read about for other health conditions like heart attack, cancer, and diabetes because they have to do with inflammation in the body.
Inflammation is a touchy subject. Acute inflammation is actually part of the body’s natural healing process. For example, what would happen if you sprained your ankle and there was no inflammation that occurred? The swelling, pain, and heat that occurs in the ankle after an acute injury is your extremely intelligent body’s way of warning you to stay off of it, so the injury doesn’t get worse and that all of the appropriate cells, blood, and nutrients are rushing to that area to begin the healing process. Pretty amazing, right?
Chronic inflammation on the other hand is not so amazing. Things like obesity, smoking, alcohol, and a poor diet can contribute to chronic inflammation in the body that can dramatically increase the risk of developing Multiple Sclerosis. Combine that with a genetic predisposition and a neck injury like a whiplash, and your chances go up even higher. Since most of us realize that those things are risk factors for essentially all diseases and health problems, we won’t touch much on them.
One thing that is often overlooked in MS is Vitamin D. A number of studies have shown that those that do not get adequate vitamin D are more likely to develop Multiple Sclerosis. Did you know that the greatest source of quality vitamin D is actually the sun? Thanks to the largest organ in our body (our SKIN), cholesterol is converted to the most bioavailable version of vitamin D possible by absorbing the UVB rays from the sun. Ironically, the National MS Society states that MS is much more common in white Anglo-Saxon decent who live in the northern hemisphere of the world. It’s no surprise then that those who experience less sunlight throughout their lives are more likely to get MS.
Vitamin-D is one of four fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) that make up a very critical component of both our immune system and hormones. It’s also extremely important for bone growth and remodeling. Since Multiple Sclerosis is an auto-immune condition (where the immune system attacks itself) it makes sense that a lack of vitamin D would wreak havoc on our immune system in ways that could promote the onset of brain illness like MS.
So, should you stand out in the sun for hours and fry like an egg to prevent MS? The obvious answer is NO, unless you want to increase your chances of skin cancer. However, getting out in the sun on a regular basis between the hours of 12:00pm-3:00pm for about 15-20 minutes without sunscreen is the best way to absorb the necessary amounts of vitamin D to support your immune system. Usually people apply sunscreen before they ever expose themselves to UVB which will block nearly ALL of the appropriate absorption of vitamin D regardless of what SPF you use. The key is to spend the first 15 or so minutes in the sun with a good portion of your skin exposed (face, arms, legs, and if possible, chest and back in sports bra or bathing suit) and THEN apply your sunblock.
As spring is upon us here in Colorado Springs there is no reason why most, if not all of us, can’t get the appropriate amount of vitamin D from being outside. After all, we have some of the most beautiful outdoors on the planet! If work or family life completely prevents you from being outside, the appropriate supplementation is the D3 liquid version of vitamin D at a dosage of 5000 iu per day. Personally, I suggest managing your time in a way that allows you to get some outdoor exposure at least a few times a week for just 10-15 minutes at a time. It truly is earth’s greatest vitamin.