Good News About Multiple Sclerosis: It Can Be Helped By Diet
Michael Franklin explains
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease of the nervous system in which the myelin sheath surrounding nerve tissue in the brain and spinal cord deteriorates. The first symptoms are often mild and they include minor visual disturbances, tingling, numbness and a weakness in the extremities, slight stiffness of an arm or leg, uncoordination or loss of balance, temporary loss of bladder or bowel control. All these symptoms may come and go with more severe symptoms occurring later. In two-thirds of cases onset is between age 20 and 40 and women slightly outnumber men.
One of the problems faced by MS sufferers is the lack of fast, decisive diagnosis. When patients get their first symptoms they go to their GP, are referred to a neurologist, put through various neurological tests and often not told that they have MS for quite some time. Sometimes they have to wait until they are visibly disabled before they get a definite diagnosis.
This is very unfortunate because the sooner that treatment is instituted the better. That treatment, in the first instance, should involve looking very closely at one’s diet. Why? Because the evidence is compelling. More compelling, in fact, than that for almost any other serious illness with the exception of coeliac disease, which is entirely linked to diet.
The bad news about saturated fat
The reasons for this are epidemiological. MS is a disease of temperate climate zones and is virtually unknown in the tropics. Britain, New Zealand, the northern United States, Canada, and northern Europe and Scandinavia are the areas where its incidence is highest. If you look at a map of the world you will see that these are the areas where there is a high consumption of dairy products. Areas where the incidence of MS is lowest are those where little milk is drunk and these are often areas where there is a high consumption of fish and vegetable oils. Most interesting of all in this respect is Norway where rates of MS are high in inland areas where dairy farming is practised and very low in coastal areas where people eat more fish.
One of the first doctors to notice these worldwide differences in the distribution of MS was Professor Roy Swank from Oregon in the USA and it was he who did outstanding research on the link between MS and the consumption of saturated fat. His study on 144 patients was published in The Lancet in July 1990 and what is remarkable about it is that Swank had studied his subjects for as long as 34 years - much, much longer than in most medical trials.
The evidence from Swank’s trial was extremely convincing. An amazing 95% of patients who at the start of the trial had definite neurological signs but minimal disability remained only mildly disabled after 30 years if they stuck to a diet that contained less than 20 grams of saturated fat a day. After 30 years with MS they were still able to walk and, in a great number of cases, they were still able to work. In contrast, defaulting on the diet, even after 5-10 years of adherence to it, was almost always followed by a reactivation of symptoms. The lowest consumers of saturated fat, who ate an average of 17 grams a day, showed little worsening of disability and a low death rate over the 34 years of the study. An increase in fat intake to more than 25 grams of saturated fat a day produced a striking increase in disability and a near trebling of the death rate.
Further research on fats in the diet produced the following results:
A study published in the British Medical Journal in 1973 showed that the frequency and severity of further attacks of MS symptoms could be reduced by adding sunflower oil to the daily diet.
A 1989 British trial conducted by Professor David Bates studied 312 patients with MS who were still able to walk and who had the relapsing/remitting type of MS. The conclusion was that MS patients should supplement their diet both with omega 6 fatty acids such as those from sunflower oil and with the omega 3 fatty acids contained in fish oils.
Saturated fats are those found in butter, cheese, cream, ice cream, lard, coconut, all fatty meats such as pork, bacon, goose, salami, sausages and duck and all hydrogenated fats of the kind found in chocolate, margarine and most processed foods. There are also hidden saturated fats in foods such as pastries, biscuits, cakes, fried foods and even sometimes in products such as peanut butter. All these should be avoided and the daily intake of saturated fat should be no more than 10 grams a day.
Other studies of MS patients and fats suggest that MS sufferers may have a defect in essential fatty acid absorption or transport and that by eating a diet rich in EFAs and taking them as supplements this problem can be held in check.
These essential fatty acids, linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid are extremely important for MS sufferers. Linoleic acid, the omega 6 family of fatty acids, should be taken in the diet in the form of sunflower seeds or sunflower or safflower oil (NB: Do not cook with these oils - just take them neat or use them on salads) in addition to taking supplements of GLA which is the active ingredient in evening primrose oil, borage oil and blackcurrant oil. Alpha-linolenic acid, the omega 3 series, should be taken in the diet in the form of oily fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon or sardines at least three times a week, or by taking supplements of linseed or flax oil (they are the same thing) or EPA and DHA, the oils which are found in fish oil.
Food intolerances are very important in MS and there are several cases of people who have found almost complete remission of their symptoms by identifying and removing those foods to which they are intolerant. The first person to reveal publicly how much he had been helped by this approach was the playwright, Roger MacDougall. He was firmly diagnosed as having MS in 1953 and within a few years his eyesight, legs, fingers and speech were badly affected and he was in a wheelchair. With great determination, he tried to eliminate the foods that exacerbated his symptoms and found initially that they were foods containing gluten, which is found in wheat, rye and barley. MacDougall eliminated all these grains as well as eating an extremely low sugar diet and one low in dairy products. The result was that by the time he was 80 he was still fully mobile and able to walk unaided.
Actor and film director, Bryan Forbes, found to his dismay that he was getting the symptoms of MS, got in touch with Roger MacDougall, and has since managed to stay almost entirely symptom free by avoiding gluten and by taking various vitamin and mineral supplements.
It is important for MS sufferers to see if their symptoms are improved by avoiding gluten, but practitioners who treat MS patients with diet and nutritional supplements have found that milk and all other cow’s milk products are even more commonly implicated than the gluten containing grains. This is not surprising, when you think about it, because it ties in with the epidemiological MS map of the world referred to at the beginning of this article. The temperate zones of the world are those where cattle and sheep are reared in large numbers and where, therefore, cow’s milk and sheep’s milk are commonly drunk. In Japan, which is in the same latitude, almost no milk is used in the diet and there is an extremely low incidence of MS.
So a trial exclusion diet of the gluten containing grains and of all milk products and foods containing them can be vital for anyone with MS who wants to make a determined attempt to improve their health. Bear in mind that other foods may also be implicated and that food intolerances are unique to each particular person.
Candida albicans is one of several yeast organisms present in everyone’s gut, but in some people it proliferates and grows out of control. It is often implicated in MS. In his book, The Yeast Connection, Dr William Crook mentions several cases of patients with MS who came to him and were found to have candida. In all their cases, as their candida improved, so did their MS symptoms - not surprising, as candida can cause a whole host of symptoms, some of which can mimic those of MS.
Mercury leaking from amalgam fillings in teeth has also been implicated in cases of MS and, again, from an epidemiological viewpoint, this is not surprising because MS is highest in those areas of the world where sugar consumption is high. High sugar consumption leads to teeth decay which in turn leads to mercury fillings. Excessive sugar consumption is also one of the factors involved in candida overgrowth.
Vitamins B1, B12 and zinc and magnesium are often seriously deficient in MS patients. Supplementation with B12 and magnesium is especially helpful for those with motor function loss.
A 1990 study found that MS patients have low levels of the antioxidant enzyme, glutathione peroxidase. Vitamin E and the trace element, selenium, are precursors of this and so they, too, would be valuable supplements for MS sufferers. As Judy Graham, herself an MS sufferer, says in her book, "Nutrition has had the best results so far of any kind of therapy in controlling MS."
If you would like to read more about MS and, in particular, the fascinating details of Dr Swank’s and other trials, then read Judy Graham’s book Multiple Sclerosis: The Self-Help Guide. It’s by far and away the best book on the subject and is so readable that it could be read with enjoyment not just by MS sufferers, but by anyone interested in health. Udo Erasmus’ fascinating book Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill is also very interesting.
It would be wrong to raise false hope for anyone who already has a definite diagnosis of MS, but the evidence of dietary connection is strong and is something that should be looked at by all MS sufferers who are in the early stages of their illness.
The Allergy and Nutrition Centre
London, Sussex and Oxford