Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune condition affecting the brain and spinal cord. For reasons not fully understood, your body’s immune cells start attacking the protective sheaths around your nerves in these areas. Like most autoimmune diseases, the disease affects more women than men. The prognosis is often not good. People living with MS can often expect to become slowly more and more disabled. The ability to walk, to drive, to read, to control one’s bladder, are all affected. This is bad enough if you get the diagnosis at age 70, but so often the diagnosis comes when you’re 30 (which happens to be the mean age of onset).
There are about 350,000 people living in the US with MS, and it’s seen more in people living further from the equator. One important theory tied to this observation is that perhaps a lack of vitamin D from the sun in people who are bundled up through much of the year is to blame. Another theory is tied to meat and dairy consumption. People living further from the equator have tended to eat more meat and dairy, perhaps tied to the lack of access to fruits, vegetables, and grains due to the shorter growing season. Put patients with MS on a low saturated fat, plant focused diet, and they appear to do better. Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Neal Barnard’s team (Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine), Dr. Michael Greger (nutritionfacts.org) and Dr. Conor Kerley from the Center For Nutrition Studies all have nice reviews of the topic and do a good job covering the work of Dr. Roy Swank who was one of the first proponents of implicating diet in MS (see links below).
So what can you do that might prevent MS? You could move to the equator, especially if you’re still a kid (geography may play a bigger role in the prepubertal years). That might be a bit of a stretch for most of us. What might be easier? If you smoke, quit, as tobacco use is a risk factor. Switch to a low fat, plant based diet which is naturally low in saturated fats and salt. Get outside for some exercise and vitamin D. If you have MS, in addition to working with your neurologist, follow the above recommendations, and also pack your diet full of antioxidants and microbiome-feeding fiber (green smoothies are one efficient way), really focus on stress management through meditation, prayer, yoga, and the like. Connect with loved ones in your circle of friends and family. Make sure you’re getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night. And most of all, don’t give up hope.