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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease affecting the fatty sheath that covers nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. This sheath, made of a substance called myelin, normally insulates the nerve fibers, allowing nerve impulses to move swiftly and efficiently between brain, spinal cord, and body. In MS, patchy areas of this insulating material are destroyed and replaced by scar tissue, which results in the slowing or blocking of nerve signals. People with MS may experience symptoms such as blurred vision, muscle weakness and spasticity, difficulty walking, poor coordination, bladder problems, numbness, and fatigue. In its most common form, the disease begins between the ages of 20 and 40 with an initial attack of symptoms followed by partial or complete remission. Further attacks usually follow and can eventually lead to progressive disability. Another form of the disease progresses more quickly.
Although the cause of MS isn't known for sure, scientists generally assume that MS is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the body's own myelin cells. Scientists theorize that something, perhaps a toxin or virus, triggers this autoimmune response in susceptible people. Not everyone appears to be equally susceptible. Gene studies suggest that genetics plays a role in who gets the disease, but other factors seem to be important as well. For example, MS tends to be more common the farther one goes from the equator.
There is no cure as yet for MS, but several new drugs—including two forms of the substance interferon ( Avonex and Betaseron), and an unrelated drug, glatiramer acetate (Copaxone)—appear able to reduce the frequency of relapses in people with certain forms of MS and slow the rate of progression of the disease. Other medications reduce the severity of acute attacks or treat specific symptoms such as muscle spasticity.
Proposed Natural Treatments
While there are no well-documented natural treatments for multiple sclerosis, there are a few options that may provide some help.
There is some evidence that changing the type and amount of fat in the diet might alter the course of MS. Based on observations from population studies linking diets lower in fat or saturated fat to lower rates of MS, physician R.L. Swank developed a special low-fat diet for MS in which unsaturated fats replace most saturated fat. This approach, called the Swank diet, has been used by many people with MS. When he analyzed the long-term effects of the diet on his patients, Swank found that those adhering closely to the diet for 20 to 34 years developed significantly less disability than those who ate more saturated fat. 5,6<![CDATA]> Because these were not controlled trials, they do not actually prove that the Swank diet works. Nonetheless, the possible connection between MS and fatty acids continues to arouse interest, and a variety of essential fatty acids have been proposed as possible treatments for MS (see below). Although a link between fat intake and MS is intriguing, research has not yet provided clear-cut evidence that any of these treatments help.
One of the omega-6 essential fatty acids, linoleic acid, is found in high concentration in sunflower and safflower oil as well as in lower concentrations in most other vegetable oils. Several researchers have investigated whether linoleic acid in the form of sunflower seed oil can help MS, but the results of their research were equivocal.
Three groups of investigators performed
Another researcher suggests that these studies may have been too short—that it may take far longer than 2 years for linoleic acid to exert its effects on myelin.
Although interesting, this type of after-the-fact analysis must be interpreted with caution. More studies are needed to confirm whether linoleic acid, taken early in the course of MS or at other times, has the power to prevent, delay, or improve disability. In the three double-blind studies described above, participants received 17 to 20 g of linoleic acid per day, the equivalent of 1 ounce of sunflower seed oil.
Other Essential Fatty Acids
There has been much excitement about other essential fatty acids as treatments for MS, including those found in fish oil (omega-3) and evening primrose oil (omega-6). However, current evidence does not yet support this concept.
Blood tests among people with MS have found lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their body fluids and tissues compared to those without MS.
Similarly, while some researchers have suggested that
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the
Early evidence suggests that threonine, a naturally occurring amino acid, might be able to decrease the muscle spasticity that often occurs with MS.
Two small double-blind studies found a modest but
Vitamin B 12
Because several studies have found MS to be occasionally associated with vitamin B
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the
Our bodies normally obtain vitamin D in one of two ways: through our diet or through exposure of our skin to the sun. More than one group of researchers has noted that areas with less sunshine tend to have a higher incidence of MS, unless the residents eat more fish that is rich in vitamin D.
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the
Phenylalanine and TENS
Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, meaning that we need it for life and our bodies can't manufacture it from other chemicals. We normally obtain all the phenylalanine we need for nutritional purposes from high-protein foods. Supplemental phenylalanine has been studied for MS only in combination with another treatment called transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS), a portable electrical device used to decrease pain and muscle spasticity.
Two small double-blind trials compared phenylalanine to placebo among a total of 16 people with MS being treated with TENS.
A special form of
A small double-blind trial suggests that neural therapy, a treatment related to
Use of bee stings or injected bee venom for MS has generated a great deal of interest over the years, despite a lack of reliable research supporting its use. The one meaningful study, reported in 2005, failed to find any benefit.
Other treatments sometimes suggested for MS include adenosine monophosphate (AMP),
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