Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) a preventable disease

Just over a year ago a student of mine motivated me to look into multiple Sclerosis. Bruce put up a slide quoting the official authorities saying there was no link between MS and nutrition. He then presented a slide with more than 40 peer reviewed scientific papers on the link between MS and nutrition. Along with Bruce it continually confuses me as to why such supposed authorities continue to deny the existence of nutritional treatments and even worse the role of poor nutrition in the causes. Since inspiring me I have now seen dozens of people suffering from MS begin a new life through really simple changes in nutrition and one of the simplest changes follows on from one of my earlier articles on vitamin D. Many Australians just don’t get enough sun anymore. But more on that later. What is even more important is that this information can help prevent the development of MS in the beginning.

There is now overwhelming evidence of the risk of developing MS is linked to a number of environmental factors such as excessive dietary intake of saturated fats and deficiencies in polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamin D and antioxidants 1,2. As a result of these findings good nutrition appears critical in limiting the development and ongoing effects of MS and enhance quality of life while limiting the risk of secondary conditions 3.

Over the past 200 years MS has significantly increased in incidence and prevalence. MS is a disease that effects an estimated 2.5 million people worldwide with over 18, 000 people in Australia with the disease, the incidence rate in Australia is increasing by 7% each year and financially costs approximately 2 billion dollars each year 4. It is twice as common in females (who have lower vitamin D than males) as in males and is the most frequent neurodegenerative disease in young adults 5,1. Geographically MS is common across northern Europe, Scandinavia and across the US and is much higher in incidence among whites then other racial groups 5.The disease is very rare in Japan, the Indian subcontinent and is unknown to black Africans however these groups are at significant risk to developing MS, when they go to other places to live, which supports the concept that an environmental factor is responsible for MS 5.

MS is a chronic, degenerative and autoimmune initiated inflammatory disease of the central nervous system, which may involve the brain, optic nerve or spinal cord and is characterized by demyelination 5,6. That is the myelin, that wraps around and insulates the nerve axons in the central nervous system, suffers self-destruction and degeneration 7. This means damaged myelin results in damaged nerve axons and causes the various disabilities of MS7. It is worth noting here that myelin is around 80% lipids (fats) and cholesterol (which I have written on in past articles) makes up an indispensable component of myelin membranes 8. The inflammatory reactions are poorly controlled and result in substantial damage to the myelin 7. As a result of demyelination MS patients suffer functional impairments such as abnormal walking mechanics, poor balance, muscle weakness and fatigue which result in individuals reduced ability to perform activities of daily living 9.

The single most important factor linked to the development of MS is a reduced supply of vitamin D 7, which I have written on extensively in the past. Research has shown that the active hormonal form of vitamin D, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin is a natural immune system regulator with anti-inflammatory action 10. Vitamin D is received from two sources, diet and sunshine, however it is considered diet provides insignificant amounts and therefore sensible exposure to sunlight is considered the most effective source 11. Even Scandinavian diets (rich in oily fish) scarcely exceed a few hundred IU/d of vitamin D 12. Sunshine is therefore the principal natural source of vitamin D, providing approximately 90% of requirements. Sunbathing can provide 10,000–20,000 IU in 15–30 min, but this will only last a few weeks before it needs to be replenished 13,14. It is interesting to note that women generally have lower serum levels than men 15,16 and have significantly higher levels of MS.

There is a 41% decrease in MS risk for every 50 nanomoles per liter increase in vitamin D (1,25-hydroxyvitamin) in the blood. The prevalence of MS is highest where environmental supplies of vitamin D are lowest 18. There is significant epidemiological data from Australia that shows a very strong correlation between vitamin D supply from ultraviolet (UV) radiation and MS prevalence 7. The correlation is indeed stronger than that of UV radiation exposure and melanoma development 7. Globally countries of high latitudes with insufficient UV radiation for most of the year report a higher incidence of MS 19,20. One case-control study has also shown that vitamin D status in individuals at the time of diagnosis of MS is significantly lower then healthy controls, indicating a further link 19.

It is theorized that vitamin D deficiencies may lead to an increase in T-helper cell autoimmune responses and therefore resulting in excessive damage to the myelin and MS symptoms 21.

Vitamin D supply through dietary intake also appears critical, as it has been reported that through vitamin D supplements there is an inverse relationship with MS 19. The role of vitamin D is supported by animal studies where mouse models have shown that vitamin D deficient mice succumb faster to MS but once administered with vitamin D the symptoms diminish 22.

The idea that an increase in saturated fats in modern diets may result in increased risks for MS (and diabetes type 2) has been known since the early 1950’s and reinforced on several occasions 23. Epidemiological studies in Norway have shown inland farming communities with high intake of animal products had higher MS incidence rates then coastal communities where consumption of fish is high while subsequent studies have also shown a negative correlation between MS and the consumption of fish, fruits and vegetables 23. Any wonder the rates of MS are increasing so fast in Australia knowing the poor diet most kids are having. It has been shown that MS sufferers have deficiencies in essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), primarily the omega 3 fats which is demonstrated in that the lipid and fatty acid composition in plaque tissue from the MS brain is altered compared to the normal brain white matter 1.

It is believed that humans evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of approximately 1:1 where as in western diets the ratio is varied between 15:1 – 20:1 24. We just have too much vegetable oil (omega 6) in our diet. It is literally added liberally to all processed foods.

A large study conducted over a 35 year period showed MS patients on a diet with low saturated fat and supplementation with cod liver oil provided long term benefits on mortality, relapse severity and disability, particularly if initiated during the earliest stages of MS 25. The results of this have shown that MS patients can expect to survive and be ambulant and otherwise normal to an advanced age if following an extreme low fat diet and omega-3 supplementation 26. The rarity of MS in the Japanese, whose diet consist of low saturated fat and high omega-3 fatty acids is another indication of the role of omega 3 oils in MS 27. There is now significant evidence to show it is a contributing factor to the development of the disease in conjunction with other environmental factors 7.

The development of MS is also believed to be linked to oxidant stress in the body from a lack of antioxidants 28. Along with other possible environmental factors the actual role of oxidative stress in patients with MS is poorly understood 29. The brain and nervous system are particularly susceptible to oxidative damage due to the low content of antioxidants in this area of the body due to them having to be imported 30.

Studies have shown that oxidative stress causes an activation where the production of pro-inflammatory chemical messengers called cytokines occurs which then contributes to the process of demyelination 31. Having sufficient antioxidants therefore ensures neuroprotection through suppression of inflammation, this limits the effects of MS 29,31,32.

Oligodendrocytes, a particular type of brain cell, that produce the extensive myelin sheaths are known to be particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress, this helps explain the lack of remyelination during remission stages 1. Oxidation (free radicals) literally stops the repair work on any damage to the myelin sheath.

In helping to prevent and restrict the development of MS there are a number of recommendations that can be applied as determined through scientific studies:
• Regular moderate sun exposure (15-30 min/day)
• Decreased intake of saturated fat and omega-6 PUFA accompanied with an increased consumption of omega-3 PUFA through consumption of fish and supplementation
• Daily supplement of vitamin D to ensure circulating level of vitamin D remains between 100 – 150 nanomoles per liter
• Consume at least 5-7 serves of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables each day and supplement.

Acknowledgements. Bruce Greatwitch

1. Meeteren et. al. 2005
2. Liuzzi et. al. 2007
3. Timmerman, Stuifbergin 1999
4. MS research Australia 2008
5. Undurti 2003
6. Kanwar, 2005
7. Embry 2004
8. Saher et al 2005
9. White et. al. 2004
10. Van Amerongen 2004
11. Cantorna, Mahon 2004
12. Mark and Carson, 2006
13. Hollis, 2005
14. Vieth, 2007
15. Yetley, 2008
16. Zadshir et al 2005
17. Anonymous 2007
18. VanAmerongen et. al. 2004
19. Barnes et. al. 2007
20. Kampman et. al. 2007
21. Toohey 2004
22. Mandavilli 2007
23. Nordvik et. al. 2000
24. Simopoulos 2002
25. Swank cited in Weinstock-Guttman et. al. 2005
26. Swank, Goodwin 2003
27. Undurti 2003
28. Lutskii, Esaulenko 2007
29. Koch et. al. 2006
30. Syburra, Passi, 1999
31. Gonsette 2008
32. Gilgun-Sherki et. al. 2004


  1. hmm, this is going to take some thought. I have MS and I have a pretty good diet. As I said, it will require some thought.
    Thanks for it.

  2. Ray Peat believes that polyunsaturated fat is actually the culprit-

    "The observation that multiple sclerosis is associated with the consumption of pork and horsemeat, but not beef, lamb, or goat, is very interesting, since the fat of those animals is essentially like the fats of the plant materials that they eat, meaning that it is extremely high in linoleic and linolenic acids. The rumen of cows, sheep, and goats contains bacteria that convert the polyunsaturated fats into more saturated fats. Unsaturated fats inhibit the enzymes that digest protein, and MS patients have been reported to have poor digestion of meat (Gupta, et al., 1977).

    The polyunsaturated fats are in themselves toxic to mitochondria, and suppress glucose oxidation, and inhibit the thyroid function, with the same suppressive effect on the ability to oxidize glucose, but they are also turned, enzymically, into the prostaglandins, and non-enzymically, by spontaneous lipid peroxidation, into the toxic isoprostanes. The isoprostanes, and some of the prostaglandins, are elevated in the brain and other tissues of people with MS.

    Lipid peroxidation is very high in multiple sclerosis. Nitric oxide (whose synthesis is promoted by estrogen in most parts of the brain) is a free radical that activates peroxidation.

    Lipid peroxidation selectively destroys, naturally, the unstable polyunsaturated fats. In atherosclerosis, the blood vessel plaques contain very little unsaturated fat. This is because they are peroxidized so rapidly, but their high ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats has been used to argue that the polyunsaturated oils are "heart protective." Similar arguments are often made in MS, though some studies don't support the idea that there is a lack of any of the unsaturated fats."


  3. The consumption of the fats in the studies is fairly common in the developed world but there are other possible factors being considered given that MS is an autoimmune disease. One of these is the sudden (as in last 100 years or so) removal of common parasites like hookworm from populations in the developed world that are still relatively common in the developing world. Since humans evolved in the presence of these parasites it will be interesting to see what (and if) ongoing clinical research reveals about the interactions between parasite waste products and the human immune system and possible links between this and a number of autoimmune conditions. Dr Dingle - have you had a chance to review any of that research? I'd be interested to hear your views.

  4. No we haven't had a chance to look into these studies Grendel. If you find any interesting ones feel free to forward them to me via email