A plant-based diet may not only be the safest treatment for multiple sclerosis, it may also be the most effective.
Images thanks to kenjisekine / Flickr
Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable and frightening degenerative autoimmune inflammatory disease of the central nervous system in which your body attacks your own nerves. It often strikes in the prime of life and can cause symptoms in the brain--cognitive impairment, in the eye--painful loss of vision, tremor, weakness, loss of bladder control, pain, and fatigue.
The most frequently prescribed drug, for multiple sclerosis is beta interferon, which can make you feel lousy and cost $30,000 a year, but hey--it might be worthwhile if, it actually worked. We learned last year that it doesn't seem to prevent or delay long-term disability.
That leaves chemo drugs like mitoxantrone that causes irreversible heart damage in 1 out of every 8 people who go on the drug and treatment-related acute leukemia—it causes leukemia in nearly 1% of people who take it. But hey, MS is no walk in the park. If only there was a cheap, simple, safe, side effect free solution that also just so happened to be the most effective treatment for MS ever described.
Dr. Roy Swank, who we lost at age 99 was a distinguished neurologist whose research culminated in over 170 scientific papers. Let's look at a few.
As far back as 1950, we knew there were areas in the world that had a lot of MS--North America, Europe—and other places—Africa and Asia—that hardly had any. And now we have all these migration studies showing that if you move from a high risk area to a low risk area your risk drops, and vice versa. So it seemed less genetics, and more lifestyle.
Dr. Swank had an idea, as he recounts in an interview with Dr. John McDougall, at the ripe young age of 84: "it seems possible to me that this could be a matter of food, because the further north you go the less vegetarian a life is led and the more people are carnivores you might say, they spend a lot more time eating meat."
After looking at the multiple sclerosis data from world war two in occupied countries where meat and dairy were rationed, and his famous study in '52 finding the frequency of MS directly related to the amount of saturated animal fat consumed daily in different areas of Norway, he concluded it might be the animal fat, so he decided to put it to the test, by restricting people's intake of saturated animal fat.
Here's his first 47 patients before cutting out about 90% of the saturated fat from their diet, and here's after… showing a decrease in both the frequency and severity of MS attacks. Normally, you're lucky if you can get people to stick to a diet for 6 months, and so that's why most dietary trials last a year at the most. This is reporting results from the first 3 and a half years.
Then came the 5 and a half year follow-up—he adds about another 100 patients. Then the 7 year follow-up, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Then the 20 year follow-up, 34 year follow-up.
How did they do? If you can get to people early in their disease, when they're only mildly disabled, and restrict their saturated fat intake, Dr. Swank showed he could stop their disease in 95% of cases—no further disability 34 years later. But if they started slacking on their diet—even years in, their disease could become reactivated. They felt so great they were like hey I can cheat a little bit, I got this disease under control. But eating just 8 grams of saturated fat more a day was accompanied by a striking increase in disability and a near tripling of the death rate.
How about a 50 year follow-up! They were able to track down 15 of the original patients that stuck to the diet, now in their 70's and 80's, with multiple sclerosis for over 50 years, and 13 out of 15, were walking around normal in all respects. They were active and, evidently, unusually youthful looking. Conclusion: "This study indicated that, in all probability, MS is caused largely by consumption of saturated animal fat.
He thought it was the sludging of the blood caused by even a single meal of saturated fats that can clog tiny capillaries that feed our nervous system. See diets rich in saturated fat and cholesterol can thicken the blood, and make our red cells sticky. A single meal of sausage and eggs… can stick our blood cells together like rolls of quarters. And this kind of hyperaggregation can lead to a reduction of blood flow and oxygenation of our tissues.
If you put someone's blood through a machine that sucks out about 90% of the cholesterol in their blood, you can demonstrate an immediate improvement in microcirculation in the heart muscle, but what about the brain?
The eyes are the windows… to your brain. You can visualize—in real-time—changes in blood vessel function in the retina at the back of the eye, which gives you a sense of what's happening further back in the brain. And if you lower the cholesterol level in the blood, you can immediately get a significant improvement in vasodilation, the little veins open wider and let the blood flow.
So yes, it could be the animal fat leading to clogging of our capillaries, but now we know animal fats can have all sorts of other deleterious effects such as inflammation, so who knows what the actual mechanism may be by which cutting animal fat can cut MS progression. Regardless, patients with MS that follow a diet with no more than 10 or 15 grams of saturated fat can expect to survive and thrive to a ripe old age. Of course cutting out saturated fat completely might be better, given that heart disease is our number one killer.
The bottom line is that the results Dr. Swank published remain the most effective, treatment of multiple sclerosis ever reported in the peer reviewed medical literature. In patients with early stage MS, 95% were without progression of their disease 34 years later after adopting his low saturated fat dietary program. Even patients with initially advanced disease showed significant benefit. To date, no medication or invasive procedure has ever even come close, to demonstrating such success."
Doesn't cost $30,000 dollars; doesn't give you leukemia—and works, better!
Of course this all begs one big obvious question: If Dr. Swanks results are so stunningly impressive, why haven’t other physicians, neurologists, or centers adopted this method of treatment? Good question.
One reason may be that MRI machines weren't invented until the 1970s. MRIs are how we track the progress of MS today. We don't have to rely on patients’ subjective reports or doctor's clinical judgements, we can see the disease get better or worse right there in black and white.
It's like in the 1970's when Nathan Pritikin appeared to reverse heart disease by the thousands but no one took him seriously until angiography was invented and the likes of Ornish and Essylstein could hold up images like this, proving conclusively that a plant-based diet could literally open up arteries, right there in black and white.
So what we need is someone to repeat Swanks experiment today, with MRI scans every step of the way… and, I'm happy to report that exact experiment was just completed, by Dr. John McDougall. Dr. Swank was one of Dr. McDougall's medical mentors, and Dr. McDougall is one of mine. Study enrollment was completed last year and we should have the results sometime soon.
To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.
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I touched on this in my live 2013 year-in-review lecture More Than an Apple a Day, but I’m excited to be able to take a deeper dive into this extraordinary story.
Those interested in supporting Dr. McDougall’s landmark study (headed by Dr. Dennis Bourdette, M.D. and under the supervision of Dr. Vijayshree Yadav) can donate to his nonprofit McDougall Research & Education Foundation (you can also donate to NutritionFacts.org to help keep us bringing you similarly underreported yet life-saving science by clicking on the Donate button above).
Another reason Dr. Swank’s work hasn’t been embraced may be The Tomato Effect.
Other videos on the role diet may play in neurological disorders include:
What’s in sausage and eggs that may cause so much inflammation? See my video series on endotoxins described in my blog How Does Meat Cause Inflammation?
Where is saturated fat found? See Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero.
Those unfamiliar with Pritikin can watch a short introduction in Engineering a Cure, and Ornish and Esselstyn’s great work is profiled in videos like Our Number One Killer Can Be Stopped and China Study on Sudden Cardiac Death.
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