While most readers here are fairly familiar with the theory and research that suggests vitamin D deficiency increases one’s risk of getting multiple sclerosis (MS), there are a few more theories that implicate other factors contributing to disease incidence. One such factor is the Epstein–Barr virus.
Epstein–Barr virus (EBV) is a virus of the herpes family. Most people become infected with it at some point in their life and gain immunity against it, and the virus remains asymptomatic. About 90% of adults have evidence of previous infection. In adolescence, primary infection of EBV presents itself as infectious mononucleosis, popularized as the “kissing disease.” Adolescents and young adults who have not already developed immunity against EBV can get infectious mononucleosis.
Research shows that those who get infectious mononucleosis have a two to threefold increased risk of getting MS. MS risk is very low in individuals who are EBV negative.
Furthermore, those who have elevated antibodies against the EBV antigen EBNA1 have a higher risk of developing MS later in life; the higher number of antibodies to EBNA1, the higher your risk.
Recently, there has been interest if vitamin D plays a role at all in these antibodies to EBNA1. It turns out it does.
Researchers out of Sweden looked at MS patients and matched them with healthy controls. They found that those with lower vitamin D levels had high antibodies against EBNA1, while those with higher vitamin D levels had lower levels of antibodies against EBNA1.
The next logical question is, does vitamin D supplementation reduce the number of antibodies against EBNA1? If so, this would prove a causative relationship in vitamin D influencing the number of antibodies.
In the most recent issue of Multiple Sclerosis, a research team led by Dr Giylio Disanto and Dr Sreeram Ramagopalan show that vitamin D supplementation does indeed reduce the number of antibodies against EBNA1.
They collected samples from 15 relapsing MS patients who were supplemented with 20,000 IU/day vitamin D3 for 12 weeks. They measured their circulating antibody levels against EBNA1 at baseline and at follow-up.
They found that the initial antibody levels (mean=77.98, SD=37.16) were significantly reduced after vitamin D supplementation (mean=62.27, SD=28.05). They found the antibodies decreased the most in patients with particularly high antibody levels before supplementation.
What does this mean? There may be some kind of interaction between EBV and vitamin D that leads to MS later in life, thus making the EBV and vitamin D deficiency theories somehow interlinked, though researchers don’t fully understand the mechanisms at play.
The researchers call for further research in the area. Further research will be able to clarify how vitamin D deficiency and EBV work in leading to MS onset and help set guidelines and action plans to prevent MS.