Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects approximately 2.8 million people worldwide. The prevalence has increased substantially since 1990 with diagnoses increasing by up to 30 percent across the globe. Shockingly, more cases of pediatric MS are being reported. The youngest age of onset of MS in the medical literature is in a two-year-old child. The disease affects more women than men and is as high as 4:1 in some countries. MS is a condition with an unknown cause and there is no cure. Symptoms vary widely between individuals and the future is unpredictable for those diagnosed.
The global distribution of MS has also changed over the past few decades. Epidemiologists have suggested that MS patterns are not uniform worldwide and this has been noted since the early 1920s. The highest prevalence was generally seen in the Western world with Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand having the highest numbers. Developing countries, such as those in Asia, Africa, and South America, had the lowest prevalence (however these could be due to reporting rates and unreliable data collection).
Despite being established in the early 1970s, this distribution of MS prevalence remains widely used. However, over the past couple of decades, the incidence of MS has increased in all corners of the globe, including those developing countries where it was previously extremely rare. It has been reported that as nations prosper, so do the rates of MS.
So what could possibly lead to this geographical pattern of MS? One theory is the excess consumption of saturated fats in the Western diet.
My MS story
As a content writer and recipe developer for SheSapiens, I haven’t yet shared my personal story of why I’m so passionate about plant-based nutrition.
After waking up one morning in August 2015 not quite feeling right, I noticed the vision in one of my eyes was unusual. Wearing glasses for most of my adult life, I just assumed I was due to see my optometrist. As the day went on, I began to worry. Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t only a change in my eyesight that was concerning but I had trouble thinking, speaking, walking and doing everyday tasks. To look at me you would think I didn’t look any different from the day before. But I knew something was terribly wrong.
Fast forward to six weeks later when I found myself sitting across from a neurologist who told me I had multiple sclerosis. Those words hit me hard. I had two small children, with the youngest only two, and I worked part-time in a busy laboratory. The doctor told me that I’d more than likely progress to disability and be wheelchair-bound within ten years, or so the statistics showed. I’d rely on my family for my personal care. I’d lose my independence and I would no longer contribute to the family unit. The future was bleak and I felt depressed.
Having skills in research and a background in science I decided this wasn’t going to be my fate. I soon found a plethora of evidence that MS, like many chronic Western diseases, is promoted by our diets and lifestyles. I found that what we choose to put in our bodies and how we live our lives has a huge impact on our health.
It’s not all in the genes
We blame many of our chronic illnesses on our genes. If our parents suffered from a particular condition, then we think it’s likely that we will suffer the same fate. However, this isn’t always the case.
Studies on identical twins indicate that they have a 24% risk of developing MS, while the corresponding risk for a non-identical twin is only 3%. If genes were solely responsible for determining who develops MS, both identical twins would have the disease. Hence, there must be other factors at play that determine whether someone is going to be diagnosed with MS or not.
Although there is evidence that genes play a role in the likelihood of developing MS, other environmental influences can increase the risk of developing the disease. Smoking – including passive smoking – increases a person’s chances of developing MS and leads to the progression of the disease. In 2001, the Nurses’ Health Study found the risk of getting MS was 1.6 times greater for smokers, and 1.2 times greater for past smokers than for women who had never smoked before.
Low vitamin D levels can also increase a person’s risk of developing MS. Vitamin D has anti-inflammatory, anti-infectious, immunomodulatory and anti-cancer properties. It is also a factor in the onset of autoimmune diseases such as MS, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Low vitamin D levels can be caused by inadequate UVB exposure which may be due to where we live on the planet, the colour of our skin, our weight, the type of clothing we wear and whether we use sunscreen.
Managing stress is also important for good health, particularly for people with MS. Stress has also been shown to affect relapse rate and exacerbate existing symptoms. A stressful life event can trigger disease activity in people with MS within a 6 week period. Therefore, managing stress through exercise, mindfulness and meditation can be very helpful in preventing relapses and managing MS symptoms.
Diet and MS, the evidence
Several long-term studies show a close connection between saturated fats and the development and progression of MS. High levels of saturated fats are also linked to other chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and obesity, as outlined in a previous article. Obesity can cause immune stimulation and inflammation, which can worsen MS symptoms.
In 1990, Professor Roy Swank published an article in The Lancet, a high-profile scientific journal, that showed a correlation between saturated fat intake and disability for people with MS. Professor Swank first noticed that there was a higher incidence of MS in countries where saturated fat consumption was high. At the end of his 34-year study, those on a low saturated fat diet (≤20 g fat/day) ‘showed significantly less deterioration and much lower death rates than did those who consumed more fat than prescribed’.
Professor George Jelinek, a medical doctor from Australia, was diagnosed with MS in 1999. He watched his own mother become incapacitated and later die with MS and didn’t want this to be his fate. His background in medicine and experience as Editor-in-Chief of a major medical journal gave him the tools to sort through the medical literature on MS. What he found shocked him and he gained hope that remaining well after a diagnosis of MS was a definite possibility. He went on to write a book ‘Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis’ (2001) which outlined lifestyle recommendations that are now referred to as the Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis (OMS) Program.
Animal products are a common source of saturated fats in our diets. These include beef, pork, chicken, fish and eggs. Dairy is one of the most concentrated sources of saturated fats, particularly cheese. Even low-fat animal products – such as when the skin or visible fat is trimmed – doesn’t remove all of the saturated fats, as these are embedded in the muscle cells of the animal. Some plant-based foods also contain high levels of saturated fats. Oil, particularly tropical oils – palm and coconut – and some nuts, are high in saturated fats. All of these sources of saturated fats should be avoided to live well for anyone, but particularly those with MS.
Recovering from multiple sclerosis
Changing my diet and lifestyle has turned my health around. By adopting a low-fat, whole-food, plant-based diet I have not only lost 22 kilograms of excess body weight but I’ve managed to reverse my MS symptoms. Incorporating a variety of lifestyle interventions, including daily meditation practice, exercise and supplementation with vitamin D, has helped me immensely. I have not experienced any further relapses and a recent MRI has shown that one of my lesions has faded. I no longer take medication.
I want to make a note here, though, that taking medication can definitely help people with MS. It helped me in the early years after my diagnosis. If I am to ever experience increased disease activity or progression of MS I will definitely look to medicine as a way of preventing disability. Like any chronic illness, if we want to manage the severity or even reverse symptoms, we need to do whatever it takes to be well.
However, prevention is better than a cure. Adopting a healthy plant-based diet can help anyone, even those not yet diagnosed with a chronic health condition.
There is hope. MS doesn’t have to be a debilitating and destructive disease. If we appreciate and embrace the scientific evidence around diet and lifestyle, then those diagnosed, like myself, can lead normal and productive lives. The way we fuel our bodies can allow us to regain control of our future. As science has shown, a low-fat, whole-food, plant-based diet can help create a positive outcome for all of us.