A Hot Idea to Reduce Your Risk for Multiple SclerosisVitamin D
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
For those of you who live in colder climates with limited sun at certain points during the year, I can imagine you are excited for the upcoming months of summer. Pretty soon it will be time for the beach, barbecues and all sorts of fun outdoor activities.
And while it is very important to practice safe sun exposure to avoid skin cancer such as melanoma (and let’s face it, no one wants premature wrinkles either!), it is also critical to get enough sun so that our bodies can produce vitamin D. In fact, as contradictory as it sounds, credible sources have found that the right amount of sun may actually help prevent skin cancer and site specific cancer, including liver and prostate, as well as overall cancer. And this can all be traced to the fact that vitamin D is so crucial for maintaining our overall health.
But there is yet another reason why sun exposure and vitamin D are so important for disease prevention.
A recent study found that getting adequate sun over the course of your lifetime may help prevent multiple sclerosis (MS).
What is multiple sclerosis (MS)?
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, usually progressive, autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. It is an inflammatory disease that causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue. It affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.
Symptoms of this disease may include muscle weakness or spasms, which can cause you to drop things or fall, vision problems, eye pain and odd eye movements, dizziness, problems controlling your bowels or bladder, sensitivity to heat and trouble thinking clearly.
Multiple sclerosis is believed to affect more than 2.3 million people worldwide. Reportedly, more than 400,000 people in the United States have MS, and about 10,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men being diagnosed with the disease.
The cause of MS is still unknown. Some medical professionals believe the disease can be triggered by environmental factors (like a virus) in people who may be genetically predisposed.
This recent study involved 151 women with MS (average age was 40 with onset of disease) and 235 women without MS (the control group). Most of the women were Caucasian and had fair to medium skin tones. They lived in different locations around the United States with varying climates.
The women completed questionnaires asking about their personal sun exposure during summer, winter and their overall lifetime so far. From there, the women were divided into the categories of low, moderate and high UV-B exposure. (There are three main types of ultraviolet (UV) rays).
“The amount of UV exposure a person gets depends on the strength of the rays, the length of time the skin is exposed, and whether the skin is protected with clothing or sunscreen,” reports the American Cancer Society.
UV rays are strongest between 10am and 4pm.
High summer sun exposure was characterized as more than 10 hours per week, and in the winter was characterized as more than 4 hours per week.
Here is what the researchers discovered:
- In total, 22% of women with MS had high exposure at ages 5 to 15 years, while 41% had low exposure.
- Women who lived in sunnier climates and had the highest exposure to UV-B rays had a 45% lower risk of MS compared with those living in areas with the lowest exposure.
- For specific age groups, participants aged 5 to 15 years who lived in areas with high levels of UV-B rays had a 51% reduced risk of MS compared with the lowest group.
- The women who spent more time outside between ages 5 to 15 years in high UV-B regions were 55% less likely to develop MS compared with those in the lowest-exposure group.
“The link (between sun exposure and MS prevention) is likely due to the fact that sun exposure helps the body produce vitamin D, of which low levels have been associated with MS development,” according to this report.
Having an adequate vitamin D intake may also be beneficial to people who have already been diagnosed with MS. It may help slow the progression of the disease.
“People who live closer to the equator are exposed to greater amounts of sunlight year-round. As a result, they tend to have higher levels of naturally-produced vitamin D, which is thought to support immune function and may help protect against immune-mediated diseases like MS,” says the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
And since MS tends to be diagnosed in very young people, it is important for children to get adequate sun exposure.
So how much sun exposure should you be getting?
It’s different for everyone. Keep in mind, how much vitamin D you produce from sunlight depends on time of day, where you live and your skin tone. You never want to burn your skin.
According to one source, a very fair skinned person may only need 15 minutes of summer sun exposure to get the job done. But a dark skinned person may need a couple of hours.
And exposing a large area of your skin, like your back as opposed to just your face and arms, may help you better get your vitamin D from the sun.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that 10 to 15 minutes of sunshine (without wearing sunscreen) three times a week is enough, but you should use sunscreen “after a few minutes in the sun.”
The only way to know if you have a vitamin D deficiency is to get tested. You can do this with a nutrient test. Not only will you be able to know your vitamin D level, but you will also be able to pinpoint other vitamins and minerals that you may be deficient in or even have too much of. And being nutritionally balanced, is key in preventing and managing all types of disease.
Once you know where you stand, you can work with a competent healthcare professional to possibly tweak your diet and start taking supplements. It is difficult to get all of the vitamin D you need from food, so many people, especially those who do not get a lot of sun, have to resort to supplements.
If you are concerned you are getting too much sun, speak with a dermatologist and wear protective clothing and sunscreen the majority of the time you are in the sun.
How else can you be proactive about multiple sclerosis?
- Do not smoke! According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there is evidence that smoking plays an important role in MS. Studies have shown that smoking increases a person’s risk of developing MS and is associated with more severe disease and more rapid disease progression. Fortunately, the evidence also suggests that stopping smoking — whether before or after the onset of MS — is associated with a slower progression of disability.
- Watch your weight. Keep in mind, MS is an inflammatory disease. And excess weight can further contribute to inflammation in the body.
- Watch your alcohol consumption. Alcohol affects the central nervous system and may cause inflammation in the body.
- Watch your diet. “There is some evidence that a diet low in saturated fats and supplemented by Omega-3 (from fatty fishes, cod-liver oil, or flaxseed oil) and Omega-6 (fatty acids from sunflower or safflower seed oil and possibly evening primrose oil) may have some benefit for people with MS,” reports the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
It is also important to stay hydrated and watch your sodium intake. There is no specific diet that is recommended for preventing MS or for people who already have it, but evidence has shown that eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and natural foods that are nutrient-dense may help.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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