Do Vitamins and Other Supplements Really Benefit People with MS?
The roles that supplemental vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants play in our health as MS patients are anything but clear-cut. Studies done to show effects on multiple sclerosis continue to yield contradictory results. While the debate continues, let’s review what science has investigated and what things we can do to handle the confusion. Anecdotal evidence is what most of us use to make decisions when clinical data isn’t available, but we can also follow some basic criteria to make reasonably informed decisions.
Vitamin D is known to play a role in regulating calcium and phosphorus and is instrumental in building healthy bones. It’s also been long suspected of playing a role in immune and nervous system function since some of those cells have vitamin D receptors. Exactly what role it plays has yet to be discovered. Our bodies cannot make vitamin D without skin exposure to solar rays, and therefore, much of the focus remains on the question of efficacy in using supplemental D.
What the research tells us:
Numerous studies have been conducted across several continents that, when read one after another, show a dizzying array of contradictions. And though research has found that getting lots of sun exposure during childhood reduces the risk of developing MS, it also qualifies that by adding that there might be other properties in sunlight besides D that provide a neuroprotective benefit. Another qualifier involves where a child is receiving sun exposure. A child who spends summers outdoors in a tropical zone such as Cuba will receive a much higher intensity of sun exposure than one growing up in Michigan—and will receive it year-round.
A recent study published in the March 2016 issue of JAMA Neurology claims that pregnant women with low D may pass along an increased risk of MS to their children.
Treating MS with D:
Studies that treated MS patients with large doses of vitamin D supplements showed conflicting results. In some studies, the patients’ MRIs showed a reduction in active lesions and relapses when vitamin D supplements were given along with a beta-interferon. Still, in other studies, no such difference was measured. Researchers generally advise MS patients to get 15-30 minutes of sun exposure daily, preferably when the sun is highest. An alternative UVB source such as a tanning bed is also an option. Like so many other treatments, dosing with D3 affects no two patients in the same way. Until more interventional studies are done, its benefits remain in the realm of “theoretical.”
Numerous studies are available online that will provide many hours of absorbing reading. To get started, see the reference section below. If you are thinking about trying vitamin D therapy, it’s important to make an informed decision by doing your own research and discussing D therapy with your doctors and alternative medicine practitioners.
Vitamins A, B, C, and E:
Vitamins A, C, and E are antioxidant vitamins. They are thought to prevent damage caused by free radicals. Researchers recommend that it is safer to consume these from eating fruits and vegetables rather than from supplements. Safety has not been established for the supplemental version. There is also what researchers call a “theoretical” risk in taking substances such as antioxidants that stimulate the immune system. Those of us with autoimmune diseases need to assess the risk by considering how active our MS is and keeping track of how our bodies have reacted to green tea and other substances that include immuno-stimulants.
Vitamin B complex includes thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), and cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12). While this array of B vitamins work together in beneficial ways, some studies claim that B6—pyridoxine—can reduce inflammation in autoimmune disease.
Vitamin B12 is thought to support nervous system function. And, while some earlier studies have suggested an association between vitamin B12 deficiency and MS, a 2012 contradicted such findings. As of now, researchers advise against routinely testing people with MS for B12 deficiency because Vitamin B12 supplements have not been shown to improve symptoms of MS.
These provide Omega-3 fatty acids, in the group called polyunsaturated fats which are considered a healthy fat that lowers the risk of heart disease. It can be found in salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel. Studies giving MS patients Omega-3 supplements along with Avonex, Betaseron, Copaxone, or Rebif showed it could reduce the efficacy of those MS disease-modifying therapies. Researchers do not recommend using Omega-3s in place of those disease-modifying drugs. Omega-3 can also interact negatively with anti-coagulant drugs such as Warfarin and aspirin. Patients with comorbidities who want to take this supplement should discuss using fish oil with their doctors.
Researchers agree that getting these nutrients from food is far healthier than taking them in supplement form. People with MS may, from time to time, face challenges trying to maintain a healthy diet, however. In this case, adding supplements is a desirable alternative.
Personally, this author tends towards the conservative in MS care. I put enormous stock in the scientific method, in large randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trials whose results have been duplicated in several other large trials. That said, I have gradually complemented my FDA-approved medications with natural vitamins and various other supplements, most of which have not been evaluated by the FDA for safety and effectiveness. I rely on information from reputable sources about these substances—vitamins in particular, as they are studied and accepted by many in the medical establishment—and on a combination of anecdotal evidence and establishment recommendations for other substances commonly used in non-western medicine.
It doesn’t hurt to be open-minded about the possibility that substances deemed relatively safe could be effective in treating MS—and that they might be proven to do so in some future clinical studies.1-5
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