Multiple Sclerosis and Multiple Risk Factors

Multiple sclerosis (MS) researchers have often suspected that there are multiple factors that cause MS. New research published in Neurology on April 19, 2011, reports that the combination of two circumstances, little exposure to sunlight and a history of having the Epstein-Barr virus (mononucleosis), increases your risk of developing MS.

There are few diseases as disruptive and debilitating as multiple sclerosis. MS affects your ability to walk, speak, and see. When you have MS, the protective coating around the nerves, called the myelin sheath, is damaged. This causes your nerve impulses to act irregularly and also for the nerves to be inflamed. In addition to being painful, this inflammation triggers an autoimmune dysfunction, resulting in more nerve damage.

Doctors have determined that, like many other medical diseases, if you have a family history of MS, your likelihood of developing the disease is higher than someone who does not have the same medical background.

Scotland has the highest incidence of MS in the world; in Africa there is virtually no one with t he disease. This phenomenon doesn’t have as much to do with one’s DNA, though, as it does to one’s exposure to sunlight.

George C. Ebers, M.D., of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and a member of the American Academy of Neurology reported on a prospective study (mentioned above) conducted in hospitals all over the United Kingdom (where the prevalence of MS is high). After fellow researchers identified 56,681 cases of multiple sclerosis and 14,621 cases of infectious mononucleosis, they found that 61 percent of all patients with MS had low vitamin D; 72 percent had both a low vitamin D and a history of Epstein-Barr.

Exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus causes no symptoms in some and infectious mononucleosis (mono) in others. Often called the kissing disease, mono presents with a high fever, swollen glands, and extreme fatigue. Regardless of whether someone’s experience with mono is symptomatic or non-symptomatic, an individual will carry antibodies for the virus.

Dr. Doug Brown, head of biomedical research at the MS Society notes, “Vitamin D has been closely studied in recent years and is thought to be a key factor in the development of MS.” Other well-respected researchers, including J.J. Cannell. M.D., of the Vitamin D Council, concur that low vitamin D levels put one at a higher risk for MS (and many, many other conditions).

Dr. Ebers concluded, “It’s possible that vitamin D deficiency may lead to an abnormal response to the Epstein-Barr virus,” Ebers said. Based on this study, it seems likely that this response could also increase your risk of MS.

Reference: Ramagopalan, S.V., et al. Relationship of UV exposure to prevalence of multiple sclerosis in England, Neurology, April 19, 2011; Pages: 1410-1414

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