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A new study in Australia suggests that obtaining Vitamin D through sun exposure may help prevent the onset of multiple sclerosis as well as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and some types of cancer.
Multiple sclerosis (MS), which currently afflicts roughly 2.5 million people worldwide, is an autoimmune disorder that affects the brain and spinal cord and causes damage to the protective layer surrounding an individual’s nerve cells. As a consequence, the brain becomes less effective at communicating with the body as nerve impulses are slowed or, in severe cases, stopped entirely. Although very little is known about what causes MS, medical professionals believe environmental precursors, genetics, a virus or a combination of all three are factors in the onset of the disease.
In a recent study led by the University of Oxford, scientists monitored the vitamin D receptor binding sites in humans and observed a connection between the lipid-soluble vitamin and the activity of 229 genes. In explaining the significance of this finding, lead researcher Dr. Andreas Heger said, “Our study shows quite dramatically the wide-ranging influence that vitamin D exerts over our health.”
Similar studies in Scotland have correlated the country’s dreary weather with disease incidence as well as the population’s general vitamin D deficiency. One study by writer and scientist Oliver Gillie revealed that, on average, Scottish people were twice as likely to be vitamin D-deficient, and had vitamin D levels four times lower than those of their English neighbors, who receive approximately 400 more hours a year of sunlight than the Scottish. Accordingly, Scotland also ranks one of the highest countries in reported cases of MS. These findings have prompted a number of campaigns countrywide to encourage and educate citizens on the benefits of receiving adequate vitamin D.
The evidence linking vitamin D obtained through sun exposure and general health, including the prevention of MS, is so compelling that many scientists are claiming it is one of the most, if not the most, important nutrients for humans.
According to UCSB molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Seng Hui Low, “The evidence is quite compelling that vitamin D could prevent multiple sclerosis or even prevent relapses in patients.”
While tanning salons may seem like a viable source for the fat-soluble vitamin in areas other than sunny Santa Barbara, they may actually be counterproductive for those trying to get healthier because of the beds’ other associated health risks.
“It is not advisable to frequently visit tanning salons as an effort to increase vitamin D synthesis because of the risk of skin cancer,” Low said.
Although the studies do not necessarily prove that sufficient vitamin D eliminates the risk of developing MS, medical practitioners will likely begin to prescribe it as a preventative measure to reduce the incidence of MS in light of the recent findings.
For all of those interested in skipping lecture for the beach to reap all the health-promoting benefits, here is some cautionary information: The body only needs five to 15 minutes to promote the internal vitamin D production needed daily. Consequently, sunbathing for longer is not necessarily advantageous, especially for fair-skinned people. Still, my fellow Gauchos, summer is just around the corner and I encourage you all to get outside, get your vitamins and look good doing it.