The Link Between Vitamin D, MS, and Your Genes

Many researchers have speculated that there must be a link between Vitamin D and multiple sclerosis (MS) based on the distribution of cases at certain latitudes. There are increased numbers of MS cases in areas that don’t get as much sunlight, and thus residents of those areas are more likely to have lower vitamin D levels.[ref][ref]

MS is an autoimmune disease that is thought to be caused partially by genetics and partially by environmental factors.  Genetically, susceptibility to multiple sclerosis has been linked to quite a few different genes that give a slight increase to the risk, but one that stands out as a strong risk factor is in the HLA family of genes.  The HLA genes code for the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins that are an integral part of our immune system.

HLA-DRB1*1501 is a variant that is linked to a higher risk of MS, with studies estimating that people who are homozygous for HLA-DRB1*1501 have up to 6 times the normal risk for MS.

This ties into vitamin D levels because vitamin D regulates the expression of HLA-DRB1. From a 2009 study on the topic: “It was found that vitamin D specifically interacts with HLA-DRB1*1501 to influence its expression. This study, therefore, provides more direct support for the already strong epidemiological evidence implicating sunlight and vitamin D in the determination of MS risk, and implies that vitamin D supplementation at critical time periods may be key to disease prevention.” [ref]

If you have genetic data from someplace like 23andMe or AncestryDNA, the HLA-DRB1*1501 type corresponds to rs3135388 – the A allele.[ref]

Check your 23andMe results for rs3135388 (v4, v5):

  •  A/A: 6x increase in risk for MS, Vitamin D may help
  • A/G: 3x increase in risk for MS, Vitamin D may help
  • G/G: no increased risk for MS


My take away:  If you are at an increased risk for MS due to the HLA-DRB1*1501 haplotype, you may want to get your Vitamin D levels checked.  Read more from the Vitamin D Council on how to get your daily D.  Note that there are 15 other SNPs also thought to be associated in some way with Multiple Sclerosis.

More information:

Author Information:   Debbie Moon
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. She holds a Master of Science in Biological Sciences from Clemson University and an undergraduate degree in engineering from Colorado School of Mines. Debbie is a science communicator who is passionate about explaining evidence-based health information. Her goal with Genetic Lifehacks is to bridge the gap between the research hidden in scientific journals and everyone's ability to use that information. To contact Debbie, visit the contact page.