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Animal Fats and MS

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As a person who has MS, I read with great interest “STAT”, an article by Maria Bustillos that appeared recently on the Longreads website. Bustillos describes her very unpleasant experiences when her 24-year-old daughter was diagnosed with MS. She also advances the hypothesis that animal fats are an important and overlooked factor in the cause and progression of MS.

If Bustillos is right, then removing animal fats from your diet should alleviate – or even eliminate – many symptoms of MS. I hope she is right. Controlling MS through diet would be much simpler and less costly than many other alternatives. However, I have my doubts and I would like to summarize them here.

By way of background, I am a sixty-something Caucasian male who was diagnosed with MS in 2008. I have the remitting-relapsing form of the disease and have not had a relapse for almost eight years. I am also an active volunteer for the National MS Society (NMSS). I participate in their fundraisers – Bike MS, Walk MS, etc. – and I currently serve on the Board of Trustees for the Colorado-Wyoming chapter.

The Animal Fats Hypothesis

Based on her readings, Bustillos proposes that animal fats are a significant factor in causing MS and/or exacerbating its symptoms. She writes, “Animal fats appear to play a significant role in making MS patients sicker; fish oils help keep them healthier.” Based on this analysis, Bustillos recommends a vegan-plus-fish diet to manage MS. Let’s call this the animal fats hypothesis or AF for short.

Another Hypothesis

While the AF hypothesis is useful, many other hypotheses about MS exist. One that I find especially intriguing is what I’ll call the clostridium hypothesis as proposed by Dr. Timothy Vartanian and his colleagues at the Weill Cornell Medical College.

The clostridium hypothesis derives from research conducted in the Faroe Islands, an isolated chain in the north Atlantic. Prior to World War II, the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands – the Faroese — had never recorded a case of MS. During World War II, the British established a naval resupply station in the islands and brought in scores of troops and pack animals, especially mules. The first recorded case of MS occurred in 1943 and heralded the beginning of an MS epidemic. Researchers have documented three successive epidemic waves since then.

What changed in the Faroe Islands to enable the rise of MS? Dr. Vartanian and his colleagues suspect – but certainly haven’t proven – that the cause is a specialized subtype of the bacterium clostridium perfringens. The subtype produces the epsilon toxin, which can degrade the myelin sheath that protects the nervous system. Degraded myelin is a hallmark of MS.

Clostridium is associated with grazing animals and is often found in the soil where they feed. Vartanian’s team has found the epsilon-producing form of clostridium in soil samples from the Faroe Islands and also in stool samples of people who have MS – both in the Faroes and elsewhere. Dr. Vartanian and his team suspect that British pack animals introduced clostridium perfringens to the Faroe Islands and created an environmental trigger for MS. There’s no conclusive proof of this hypothesis but clostridium is certainly a bacterium of interest.

MS has traditionally been viewed as an autoimmune disease. For unknown reasons, the immune system attacks the body and degrades myelin. The clostridium hypothesis suggests that the immune system is reacting to a bacterial infection. It’s a very different model and potentially yields very different therapies.

Could a change in diet have caused the eruption of MS in the Faroe Islands? It’s possible but I haven’t found any evidence that the Faroese changed their diet substantially during or after World War II.

I’ve highlighted the clostridium hypothesis because I think it’s very intriguing. But there are many other hypotheses as well. One, for instance, suggests that MS is related to a deficiency in Vitamin D. This is based on the observation that the incidence of MS is higher the farther one is from the equator. Presumably one gets less Vitamin D from the sun in far northern or southern latitudes.

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