Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a very harsh disease. Although its causes are not completely understood, it is believed to be an autoimmune condition in which the body’s own immune system has gone awry, attacking its own nervous system as if it were an outside invader. The course of this illness is unpredictable, but relentless, with the person gradually losing muscle control, balance and sensation. By the age of 45-50, many will need to use a cane, walker or wheelchair to get around; and, by the age of 60, the most severely afflicted will be confined to a bed.
Unfortunately there is not much that can be done to slow down this cruel disease. The medications currently available do very little to help. However, a research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found a promising treatment that they believe can halt – or even reverse – MS: Vitamin D.
Dr. Colleen Hayes, the biochemistry professor in charge of the study, has been following this “vitamin D hypothesis” for 25 years now, with the goal of discovering a way to prevent and treat the condition. She says some studies have linked low vitamin D with an increased risk for the disease. And, Hayes and her research team have been able to gain some understanding of the processes involved in how vitamin D protects against MS. They have also been able to explain how it might interact with estrogen to influence how the disease behaves in women.
For their most recent study, Hayes’ team compared a single dose of Vitamin D (in the form of calcitriol) with a dose of a type of drug which is often prescribed for MS patients when they are experiencing especially bad symptoms called a glucocorticoid. Vitamin D outperformed the drug, causing 92 percent of the mice studied to go into remission for nine days. By contrast, glucocorticoid treatment caused only 58 percent of the mice treated with it to go into remission for a period of only six days.
The team then followed up by giving the mice a once-a-week dose of the vitamin, which was able to reverse the disease and sustain remission of symptoms indefinitely.
Unfortunately, calcitriol can also have the side effect of raising calcium levels in the blood, which Hayes wanted to avoid, so she then decided to try yet another regimen. This time she gave the mice one dose of calcitriol, followed by ongoing dietary vitamin D supplementation. She described this treatment as a “runaway success,” with 100 percent of the mice responding to it.
Hayes notes that MS patients should not get too excited yet. While vitamin D seems to reverse the disease in mice, these results may not apply to humans. Clinical trials will be necessary to see if people can be helped by this treatment.
However, Hayes feels very optimistic that this treatment can reverse MS, saying that she hopes that one day treatment will be as simple giving patients a dose of calcitriol and telling them to increase the vitamin D in their diet. Her dream, she says, is that doctors will be able to tell patients that they are only going to experience the one neurological episode which brought them in for a consultation and that supplementation will reverse and cure the disease.
The treatment protocol was described in an August 2013 article in the Journal of Neuroimmunology.
Written by: Nancy Schimelpfening