Could the vitamin aisle at your local pharmacy be the key for control of multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms? There are promising signs, but it’s too soon to start taking any supplements to get relief.
Natural treatments for pain, muscle weakness, or fatigue are appealing to people with MS, says Kathleen Costello, NP, of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“People want to know what they can do, what lifestyle changes they can make, that may have an impact on the MS disease process, symptoms, and quality of life,” Costello says. Because studies still don’t prove that any vitamin will make a big difference, she says you should talk to your doctor before you decide to take a supplement.
Vitamin D Shows Promise
Researchers have been interested in the links between vitamin D and MS for many years. Now, some are exploring it as a possible way to ease MS symptoms.
Vitamin D helps bones, nerves, muscles, and the immune system stay healthy. It also reduces inflammation.
If you have too little of it, that could raise your risk of getting MS. For people who already have the condition, low vitamin D also may mean more inflammation, Costello says.
Your doctor will probably recommend a supplement if blood tests show your vitamin D levels are too low, says Dean Wingerchuk, MD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. “However, we don’t yet know the optimal target level of vitamin D” for people with MS.
Doctors are studying whether adding vitamin D to your regular MS drug treatments might be worthwhile, says Pavan Bhargava, MD, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
He and his colleagues studied people with MS who took a high dose of vitamin D supplements every day for 6 months. Blood tests showed they had lower levels of immune cells called T cells, and that can cause inflammation and damage your nerve fibers.
Despite some promising signs, it’s too early to say whether vitamin D will ease your MS symptoms, Bhargava says.
What About Other Vitamins?
Scientists also want to know how vitamins, whether in supplements or in foods you eat, may affect your MS. But it’s hard to say for sure at this point.
B vitamins. People who have very low levels of vitamin B12 can have symptoms that look like MS. And some studies have found that people with the condition tend to have too little of the nutrient more often than others. If your doctor sees that you’re not getting enough B12, a supplement would probably help ease symptoms, Wingerchuk says.
Scientists are looking at other B vitamins, too. “Recent studies in Europe suggest that the B vitamin biotin, also known as vitamin H, could help slow progressive forms of MS, but more study is needed,” Wingerchuk says.
Some people with MS may take supplements with high doses of vitamin B6 to give them more energy. But there’s not much evidence on whether it helps.
Vitamin C. Despite its reputation as an immune-system booster, there’s no proof at all that it helps MS symptoms, Wingerchuk says.
Watch your dose. Don’t forget: Vitamins may be natural, but it can be dangerous to take a lot of them.
“Some people are tempted to think that ‘if some is good, then more must be better,’ and decide to take large doses of supplements,” Wingerchuk says.
Overdoing vitamin D could cause nausea, vomiting, confusion, heart rhythm problems, or weakness. Even too much vitamin C may cause an upset stomach, kidney stones, or make you absorb too much iron from your food.
Be a Smart, Safe Shopper
How do you know which vitamins are the best? The FDA doesn’t regulate these products. “This means that you’re not guaranteed that what’s in the bottle matches what the label says about the type of product it is or the dose,” Wingerchuk warns.
But the agency offers Good Manufacturing Practices that supplement companies are supposed to follow, he says.
Look for seals of approval on bottles from organizations that independently check the quality of vitamins sold over the counter, including the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (USP), NSF International, and consumerlab.com, Wingerchuk says.