Can diet cure MS?

June 5, 2009 at 12:09 pm

by Sally Beare, dip BCNH – Nutritional Therapist

When the well-known Hollywood writer and musician Roger MacDougall was diagnosed with MS in 1953, it seemed as though there was little hope for him. The orthodox view of MS is that it is debilitating at best and terminal at worst, and sure enough, within a few years MacDougall was unable to use his legs, eyes, or fingers and he could not stand upright.

Yet 30 years later, MacDougall’s eyesight was restored, he could run up and down stairs, and he led a fully active life until eventually dying in his 80s with no symptoms of MS.  This, he claimed, was entirely due to changing his diet. After making the changes, Macdougall’s condition stopped deteriorating and he began to make slow but steady progress back to good health.  In his own words, ‘instead of a wheelchair-confined cabbage I became a normal human being again.’  MS sufferers can go into periods of remission, but Macdougall’s neurologist had to admit that he had never witnessed such a spectacular and long-lasting one.

MacDougall began by removing foods from his diet which he felt his body was reacting badly to.  The simple tests we now have to identify food allergens were not available then, but the foods he removed were the two most common culprits – gluten and dairy products – and he also removed animal fats and sugar.  MS is an autoimmune disease, so removing potential
saboteurs of the immune system (such as wheat and dairy) makes perfect
sense.  Saturated fats and sugar are also harmful in a number of ways and
Macdougall found that it was necessary to remove them too.

Macdougall’s diet ended up resembling that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, before modern man started to grow cereals, keep dairy cows and use sugar: it is the diet which drove evolution and to which our biochemistry is best suited.  It seems logical that what is good for our bodies generally might also be able to reverse specific ‘incurable’ diseases such as MS.  The hunter-gatherer diet, also known as the Paleolithic diet, is today gaining in popularity as a treatment for other modern degenerative conditions including heart disease and cancer.

The hunter-gatherer diet was high in essential fatty acids (EFAs), but the
modern diet is woefully lacking in these.  MS is characterized by destruction
of the myelin sheath surrounding nerve fibres in the brain and spinal chord,
and myelin requires EFAs for correct structure and functioning.  The myelin is destroyed by immune cells attacking it, seemingly in a case of mistaken
identity, and saturated fats interfere with EFA function.  Thus you can see
how EFA deficiency, saturated fats and a faulty immune system all fit together in the MS jigsaw and how logical the dietary solutions are.  There are other aspects of MS such as possible connections with viruses and lack of vitamin D, the ‘sunshine’ vitamin which is involved in autoimmunity – people in colder climates are at much greater risk.  These factors also have dietary and lifestyle solutions: viruses can be kept at bay by an immune system kept robust with the right diet, whilst vitamin D comes from sunlight and some dietary sources such as eggs.

After finding such success with his diet, Macdougall produced a booklet which he hoped would help other sufferers.  He found that the diet worked well for some but not for all and came to the conclusion that since no two individuals are exactly alike, the exact correct diet would also vary according to a person’s own particular food intolerances and metabolic processes.  Some people’s immune systems can tolerate cheese but not eggs; others can have barley but not corn.  Therefore, a logical first step for any MS sufferer wanting to change their diet would be to have a test for food allergens and intolerances.  A diet can then be tailored with the help of a nutritionist who has knowledge of the specific nutrients required for MS sufferers.

A useful companion for those wishing to embark on this journey is the Multiple Sclerosis Diet Book by the late Dr Roy Swank.  Swank devised his diet in 1948 after finding that there was a high incidence of MS in dairy-farming areas of Norway where high amounts of saturated fats were consumed, whereas the fishing communities on the coast had a very low incidence.  As one would expect, the diet is very similar to the Macdougall diet.

Over the following 5 decades Dr Swank treated over 5,000 MS patients with
remarkable success.  A study of his work which was published in the Lancet
showed that 95% of those who followed the diet did not deteriorate over the
decades, whereas those who did not follow the diet did.  Furthermore, those
who followed the diet had a reduced risk of heart disease and other illnesses.
Unfortunately a lack of double-blind testing has meant that the orthodox
medical community is dismissive of Swank’s work.  However, a look at the
reviews of his book on Amazon shows that a great many people with MS
have benefited hugely from the diet and astounded their neurologists with
their recoveries.  More information is available on the Swank MS Foundation website, http://www.swankmsdiet.org.

MS patients wanting to try a dietary cure must be just that – patient. They
must also be determined. It was more than four years after changing his diet
before Macdougall was able to do up a button on his shirt and he also knew
that he could not relax his dietary regime for a moment or he might suffer a
relapse.  However, quick fixes are not available.  There is no drug yet in
existence which can cure the disease – drugs can manage symptoms, but
there can be unpleasant side effects including increased cancer risk and
osteoporosis.

If you are an MS sufferer or if you know someone who has MS, there is every
reason to believe that a dietary solution can bring you hope.  Giving up the
foods which are all around us can be hard, and it is all too easy to give up if
change isn’t immediate.  But slow and steady wins the race, and who knows,
in the years and decades hence you could even find yourself in better health
than those around you.

Sally Beare works as a nutritional therapist at the Natural Health Clinic in
Bristol.  She is the author of the Anti-Ageing Book (Piatkus, UK, 2003) and
50 Secrets of the World’s Longest-Living People (Avalon, USA, 2006).

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