PULLMAN, Wash. – Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a nasty disease that attacks the central nervous system. Various people with MS experience different symptoms, and even for one person symptoms may vary over time. Some common complaints are numbness, coordination and balance issues, vision problems, dizziness, depression, hearing and memory problems and fatigue.
MS ain’t for sissies.
The cause of MS has long been a mystery. It’s likely that both genetic and environmental factors combine to determine who will come down with the malady. Some researchers have pointed out a connection between the time of year a baby is born and the prevalence of MS later in life. But why should that be so?
Researchers led by Oxford scientist Sreeram Ramagopalan recently published a study in JAMA Neurology outlining evidence that babies born in May have low levels of vitamin D in their blood. When you recall that our bodies make vitamin D when we are bathed in sunlight, the result makes sense: decreased sunlight for mothers during long and dark winters means less vitamin D in mom’s system for the baby.
Babies born in the fall, by contrast, might well enjoy the benefit of their mothers catching a few rays during the bright summer. Ramagopalan’s results show that blood samples from 100 newborn babies’ umbilical cords indicate that May children had 20 percent less vitamin D than November babies.
Another difference between spring and fall babies that the study described was a difference in T cells (immune system cells). Researchers found that spring babies had twice as many T cells as autumn children. Immune system cells are important because they are capable of attacking the body’s own cells, as they do in MS as outlined by WebMD.
According to National Public Radio’s Shots website, an Australian study in 2011 indicated that a lack of sunlight and low vitamin D were risk factors for an early symptom of MS.
“I’m convinced,” Ramagopalan is reported to have said to Shots. Convinced, that is, that low vitamin D is a factor that puts a person at risk of getting MS.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society has started to fund a study that will give people who already have MS some vitamin D supplements to see if the vitamin can slow the progression of the disease.
Even Ramagopalan agrees there is a lot of hope being pinned to vitamin D with respect to various medical conditions.
“I don’t think it’s linked to everything,” he told Shots. But he also thinks even healthy adults should be taking vitamin D supplements. A number of American authorities appear much more skeptical than Ramagopalan on that point. Check with your doctor and have your vitamin D level measured before you start a regimen of pills.
As all too common with medical science, next to nothing about MS can be predicted when it comes to individuals, rather than groups. Famous “Mouseketeer” Annette Funicello, who died recently of MS, was born in the fall, not the spring.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.