Vitamin D for chronic inflammation, MS and (possibly) autism

The more we learn, the more it becomes evident that chronic inflammation is a universal troublemaker that plays a part in almost every ongoing health condition.

Acute inflammation is one of the most beneficial, and often life-saving, defense mechanisms of the body. Acute inflammation is what gives us a fever when our bodies are fighting a virus, a sore throat in response to strep bacteria, or a swollen ankle after a hard fall. In every case like these, inflammation helps promote recovery.

However, chronic inflammation is a superfluous and harmful process. It’s a healthy process that forgot when to stop and no longer serves a useful purpose. What causes it?

According to recent British research, air pollution – something most of us breathe on a daily basis – can cause it. See Exposure to toxins like mercury or lead can also be a cause, as can too much copper, iron, or even calcium in the blood. Studies have shown that a progressive shift in the human diet from consuming mostly omega-3 fats to mostly omega-6 can also set the stage for chronic inflammation (see “The Omega-3 Connection” by Andrew Stoll, MD). Finally, a simple lack of vitamin D can be the culprit.

The prevailing view used to be (and it’s one that is still held by many) that heart disease came from too much cholesterol in the blood. This theory could never be reconciled with the fact that cholesterol is a poor predictor of heart disease. A newer blood test called hs-CRP has been found to predict heart disease far better than cholesterol. Hs-CRP is nothing more than a marker of chronic inflammation.

Osteoporosis was thought to come from lack of calcium or changes in hormone levels, but recent research shows that chronic inflammation can cause it as well (Nature, 2004; 428: 758-763). To understand how this can be, keep in mind that inflammation needs calcium to sustain itself. Bones are a huge reservoir of calcium and, given the life-saving properties of acute inflammation, the body developed a mechanism to get calcium out of bones when needed to support inflammation. This works well for short periods of time, but leads to disaster when it goes on without end.

Vitamin D is the one nutrient that was shown to help both heart disease and osteoporosis. The reason may be that vitamin D controls inflammation, and people who are deficient in this vitamin lose one of the body’s key mechanisms that regulate the inflammatory process (J Nutr 1998; 128: 68-72).

MS is also a condition that can be helped with vitamin D. In MS there is an inflammatory process in the brain whereby a protective substance called myelin is gradually and progressively destroyed. In animal models of MS, vitamin D supplementation helped re-grow previously destroyed myelin (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 1996; 93: 7861-7864). Although this has not been studied in humans, you can find countless reports on the internet of people with MS who benefited from taking vitamin D.

Inflammation and loss of myelin can often be demonstrated also in autism and sometimes in severe cases of ADHD. Could vitamin D help in these cases as well? I don’t know, but it’s worth considering and at least testing children to determine if they need this vitamin.

The only test that accurately reflects vitamin D status is the one called 25-hydroxy vitamin D. Since the vast majority of Americans are deficient in this vitamin, reference ranges given by labs are therefore incorrect and the true optimal ranges are between 50 and 65 ng/dl. Levels below 50 are associated with sub-optimal status of this vitamin and can lead to developing symptoms of deficiency. Given that vitamin D can also be made in the body from exposure to sunlight, appropriate supplementation varies from person to person and must be established by monitoring blood levels (for a detailed discussion of these points, with references, see the website indicated below).

Another thing to consider is that vitamin D interacts vitamin A, also a fat-soluble vitamin. While these vitamins have complementary and synergistic actions (Eur J Biochem 1995; 231:
517-527), vitamin A also antagonizes the effects of vitamin D (J bone Miner Res 2001 Oct; 16 (10): 1899-905). This only becomes a problem if individuals who are deficient in vitamin D take extra vitamin A, including from cod liver oil, which contains mostly vitamin A and not enough vitamin D for proper balance.

For a detailed analysis of the far-reaching benefits of vitamin D for conditions ranging from cancer to autoimmune disease, depression, chronic pain and more, visit As with any other vitamin, the key to establishing if you can benefit from it is to find out if you need it. But you don’t want to overdo it, either, as too much vitamin D can be toxic – so consult your healthcare professional.

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