Inheriting genetic risk factors for multiple sclerosis (MS) is not sufficient to cause this demyelinating disease of the central nervous system; exposure to environmental risk factors is also required. MS may be preventable if these unidentified environmental factors can be avoided. MS prevalence increases with decreasing solar radiation, suggesting that sunlight may be protective in MS. Since the vitamin D endocrine system is exquisitely responsive to sunlight, and MS prevalence is highest where environmental supplies of vitamin D are lowest, we have proposed that the hormone, 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol (1,25-(OH)2D3), may protect genetically-susceptible individuals from developing MS.
Evidence consistent with this hypothesis comes not only from geographic studies, but also genetic and biological studies. Over-representation of the vitamin D receptor gene b allele was found in Japanese MS patients, suggesting it may confer MS susceptibility. Fish oil is an excellent vitamin D source, and diets rich in fish may lower MS prevalence or severity. Vitamin D deficiency afflicts most MS patients, as demonstrated by their low bone mass and high fracture rates.
However, the clearest evidence that vitamin D may be a natural inhibitor of MS comes from experiments with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), a model of MS. Treatment of mice with 1,25-(OH)2D3 completely inhibited EAE induction and progression. The hormone stimulated the synthesis of two anti-encephalitogenic cytokines, interleukin 4 and transforming growth factor β-1, and influenced inflammatory cell trafficking or apoptosis. If vitamin D is a natural inhibitor of MS, providing supplemental vitamin D to individuals who are at risk for MS would be advisable.