MS (multiple sclerosis). Beat it with sun exposure!

MS (multiple sclerosis). Beat it with sun exposure!

MS can be prevented. By Marc Sorenson, EdD

MS (Multiple sclerosis MS) is an autoimmune disease in which T-cells initiate an inflammatory response against myelin, the protective cover of nerves.[1], [2] Hence, This process, known as demyelination, leaves the nerves bare and susceptible to “short circuiting.” MS is a debilitating, sometimes painful disease that may be fatal.

Symptoms and prevalence of MS:

Here are some of the symptoms of MS, as listed by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs
  • Electric-shock sensations that occur with certain neck movements
  • Tremor, lack of coordination or unsteady gait
  • Partial or complete loss of vision and
  • Problems with sexual, bowel and bladder function.

Nearly one million people are living with MS in the United States.

Salient points regarding MS and sun exposure:

It has long been known that there is an inverse association between sunlight and MS. So In other words, the greater the sunlight exposure, the lesser the risk of contracting MS. For example, it has been known for decades that those who live closer to the equator had a lower risk of multiple sclerosis (MS).[3] And in fact, the risk of MS in far northern areas is more than 100 times greater than it is in equatorial areas, where sunlight is intense, and the rate of MS approaches zero.[4], [5], [6]  Sunlight is usually much more intense at low latitudes than high latitudes.

Sunlight, MS and relapse rate.

MS also goes through periods of remission and then relapse, and of course, it is important to avoid relapse as much as possible. A sunlight and disease relationship was also noted in MS relapse rate: Each degree of latitude increase was associated with a 1% increase in the odds of having relapses over the previous year.[7] A 1% increase may not seem impressive. Yet, in a country with a 30% higher latitude, the increased risk of relapse would be 30%. And, the increased risk of disability would be 60-90%. This is exceptionally important, since MS damages the cerebral cortex of the brain. And, that damage is more severe during the relapse phase.[8]

Does sun exposure during youth confer protection against the disease?

Australian research compared the numbers of daily hours subjects spent in the sun when they were six to fifteen years of age.[9] Adults who were in the lowest “childhood sun-exposure” category were three times as likely to develop MS as those in the highest category.

What part does vitamin D play in sunlight’s protection against MS?

Most scientists conclude that vitamin D production, by sun stimulation of skin, leads to the irrefutable correlation between high sun exposure and low MS risk. On the surface, this conclusion seems entirely plausible, since summer sun exposure at midday can produce up to 20,000 international Units in 20 minutes. However, correlation does not prove causation.

Consider this: As with certain other diseases, sun exposure may have a positive influence on multiple sclerosis, independent of vitamin D production:

Researchers used animals with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) (an experimental form of MS deliberately induced in animals in a laboratory setting) to determine the relative influences of UVR [sunlight] and vitamin D on the disease. They concluded, “These results suggest UVR [sun] is likely suppressing disease independent of vitamin D production, and vitamin D supplementation alone may not replace the ability of sun (UV) to reduce MS susceptibility.”[10] Later on, some of these same researchers investigated the mechanism by which sun exposure suppressed the disease and determined that UV light selectively inhibits spinal cord inflammation and demyelination.[11]Thus, it is light, not vitamin D, that protects against MS.

More on sun exposure, vitamin D and MS

Another study showed that sun exposure, while obviously being critical in the production of vitamin D, had its own profound influence in lessening the degeneration of nerves (neurodegeneration) in those with MS.[12] By measuring whole brain volume (WBV) and grey-matter volume (GMV) utilizing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the scientists determined that greater summer sun exposure predicted greater WBV and GMV in MS patients. Interestingly though, when 25(OH)D levels were measured, they had no influence on the positive effects of sun exposure with WBV or GMV. The researchers concluded: “Sun exposure may have direct effects on MRI measures of neurodegeneration in MS, independently of vitamin D.”  Sun exposure is known to increase the quantity of brain-derived neurotropic factor, which is essential for the protection and replenishing of nerve cells. Could it be one of the photoproducts beyond vitamin D that protects against MS? Time will tell after more research is done.

Many other studies have concluded that MS risk is reduced by sun exposure, independently of vitamin D. I would suggest that you read about that research in my book, Embrace the Sun, which is co-authored by Dr. William Grant. Also follow this link to read more about this subject: .

The most recent research on Sunlight, multiple sclerosis and vitamin D.

In 2018, research showed that living in areas of high sunlight exposure during the ages of 5-15 years, was associated with a 45-55% reduced risk of the disease. The authors of this research also noted that higher summer sun exposure in high sunlight areas was also associated with a reduced risk. So, this would indicate that we need to not only live in areas of high sun exposure to reduce MS, but also to be sure to spend plenty of time outdoors.

In 2019, other research showed that MS prevalence is strongly positively associated with increasing latitude and that the gradient is increasing, suggesting that potentially modifiable environmental factors, such as sun exposure, are still strongly associated with MS risk. The researchers also stated that “it is important to acknowledge that UVR effects need not solely be via vitamin D.” Again, this statement means to me that sun exposure always works to reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis, but it is not certain that vitamin D is the key. If it is not the key, then taking vitamin D supplements will be of no value for the disease.

The bottom line: Soak up plenty of non-burning sun, being sure not to burn. It will help to reduce the risk.

[1] Racke, M. Immunopathogenesis of multiple sclerosis. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2009 Oct–Dec; 12(4): 215–220.

[2] Markovic-Plese S, McFarland HF. Immunopathogenesis of the multiple sclerosis lesion. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep 2001;1:257-62

[3] Acheson ED. Some comments on the relationship of the distribution of multiple sclerosis to latitude, solar radiation, and other variables. Acta Neurol Scand 1960;35:132-47.

[4] Alter M, Yamoor M, Harshe M. Multiple sclerosis and nutrition. Arch Neurol l974;31:267-72.

[5] Kurtkze, J. Geography in multiple sclerosis. J Neurol 1977;215:1-26.

[6] Hayes CE, Cantorna MT, DeLuca HF.Vitamin D and multiple sclerosis. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 1997;216:21-27

[7] Jelinek GA, Marck CH, Weiland TJ, Pereira N, van der Meer DM, Hadgkiss EJ. Latitude, sun exposure and vitamin D supplementation: associations with quality of life and disease outcomes in a large international cohort of people with multiple sclerosis. BMC Neurol. 2015 Aug 5;15:132.

[8] Gracien RM, Jurcoane A, Wagner M, Reitz SC, er C, Volz S, Hof SM, Fleischer V, Droby A, Steinmetz H, Groppa S, Hattingen E, Deichmann R, Klein JC. Multimodal quantitative MRI assessment of cortical damage in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. J Magn Reson Imaging. 2016  6. 10.1002.

[9] van der Mei IA, Ponsonby AL, Dwyer T, Blizzard L, Simmons R, Taylor BV, Butzkueven H, Kilpatrick T. Past exposure to sun, skin phenotype, and risk of multiple sclerosis: case-control study. BMJ 2003;327:316-321.

[10] Becklund BR, Severson KS, Vang SV, DeLuca HF. UV radiation suppresses experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis independent of vitamin D production. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010;107:6418-23.

[11] Wang Y, Marling SJ, Beaver EF, Severson KS, Deluca HF. UV light selectively inhibits spinal cord inflammation and demyelination in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis. Arch Biochem Biophys. 2015  1;567:75-82

[12] Zivadinov R, Treu CN, Weinstock-Guttman B, Turner C, Bergsland N, O’Connor K, Dwyer MG, Carl E, Ramasamy DP, Qu J, Ramanathan M. Interdependence and contributions of sun exposure and vitamin D to MRI measures in multiple sclerosis. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2013 Oct;84(10):1075-

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