NYT: The MS Recovery Diet

I was excited to see the New York Times review a book about recovering from MS through diet. Ann Sawyer and Judith Bachrach penned The MS Recovery Diet to show that it's possible to regain lost function in MS through diet. The cover even claims it's possible to live symptom-free. For some people who are very strict on the diet, it is entirely possible.

Here is part of the NYT interview with Ms. Sawyer:

“This approach is simple, it doesn’t cost anything and nobody is making money from it. We’re not saying the diet is a cure; it’s a way to control the symptoms of MS. Walking around watching what you eat is a lot better than sitting in a wheelchair.” [MED NAUSEUM COULDN'T AGREE MORE!!]

Before she started the diet, Ms. Bachrach, a former dancer and movement instructor, could not even use a wheelchair because her upper body had become too weak to manipulate it. She was 35 when she learned she had MS; by 49, she was mostly bedridden. Then, in 2006, she met Ms. Sawyer and decided to try the diet she suggested.

“After one week on this diet, I regained feeling in my toes,” she wrote. “After about six weeks, I also gained incrementally in terms of endurance and muscular rebound. I was even able to walk back down to the waterfall on my land, to carry firewood, to empty the ash bucket, to make a spaghetti sauce and to stay up to greet my husband on his late return from a trip, all in one day, and still felt just fine.

“There is no doubt that on this diet, my good days are definitely better. I continue to gain new sensations, mobility, strength and endurance every month.”

The first tenet is to replace saturated fats with monounsaturated fats. This is the only part of the diet with which I'd quibble since there are only two studies showing saturated fats actually cause ill health. Michael Pollan posits that fats have been unfairly demonized since most studies mix all fats -- including trans fats -- into the same category.

At any rate, I was encouraged by the reasoning behind the other dietary restrictions, which are based on common food intolerances, like wheat and dairy, and the theory of molecular mimicry. Molecular mimicry is when your body makes antibodies to a partially digested food protein, and since the antibodies are not all that specific, they can mistake your own tissues for that food protein and attack them. In MS, of course, your antibodies target the myelin sheaths that act like the plastic insulation on electric wire. Here's how the NYT describes it:
The theory behind the “recovery diet” is that in susceptible people, partly digested proteins stimulate an allergy-like immune response, resulting in antibodies that mistake myelin for the offending protein. These antibodies can then enter the brain and attack the myelin sheath, disrupting nerve conduction and eventually causing death of the axons. The goal the authors suggest is to identify and eliminate culprit foods from the diet to quiet the immune response.
I've lived through the same health changes as Ms. Sawyer and can definitively say this will work in many people with MS. I was bedridden for 3.5 years until I changed my diet to eliminate foods to which testing showed I'm intolerant - i.e. the foods to which my body was making antibodies. The diet becomes your new wheelchair - without it you are immobilized by your symptoms. But, I'd rather have a pain-in-the-butt diet than be in actual pain.

I've helped many people reduce symptoms of chronic illness (autism, PDD, dyslexia, MS, lupus, psoriasis, arthritis, chronic fatigue, etc.) and the benefits are amazing. The diet gets to the root of the problem-- preventing symptoms, unlike most pharmaceutical drugs which just mask symptoms.

To get tested for food intolerances, follow these four steps:
  1. Begin with a blood screening for celiac disease at your internist's or gastroenterologist's office. That test is a yes/no for celiac in your MD's mind, however, if any of the scores are higher than zero, count yourself among the gluten intolerant and try a gluten-free diet.
  2. If the blood test is totally negative, follow up with a stool test for wheat and dairy from www.enterolab.com.
  3. If the enterolab test is positive and removing wheat and dairy don't do it for you after trying to strictly eliminate these foods for 3 - 4 months, then get a 96-food IgG Food Intolerance Panel (finger stick) to see if other foods are causing your problems. Here is one source for the panel: Vitamin Research Products. (Note: VRP calls it an "allergy" panel, but technically it is a food intolerance panel measuring IgG antibodies, not the IgE classic allergies you would already be aware of having.)
  4. Finally, see a nutritionist or naturopath to balance your diet and heal your gut so you can add more foods back. This will allow you to get by with eliminating as few foods as possible over the long term, and gut health gives a big boost to your overall health.
Let food be thy medicine; and thy medicine thy food. - Hippocrates


SeaSpray said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jared Bond said...

I thought I'd let you know that Barry Groves provides two historical examples of doctors treating MS patients using nothing but low-carb diets (meaning less than 70g of carbs a day), in his book "Trick and Treat". One is Austrian doctor Wolfgang Lutz, who treated 53 patients starting in 1957, and Polish doctor Jan Kwasnieski who treated 212 patients over 30 years (date unknown). Both of these doctors claimed that there was ALWAYS a halt of the disease as long as the diet was kept, and for patients who had had symptoms for less than 5 years, there often was full remission of the disease. Kwasnieski in particular also claimed eating animal brains was a helpful part of the recovery diet. I should note that brains have been eaten traditionally in many cultures and pose no health risks, provided they are from healthy animals. Cultures like the French still eat brains.

I'm not sure how you feel about low-carb diets, but I believe they are the healthiest for anybody, not just MS people. The "MS Recovery Diet" book you reviewed says no saturated fats, yet the patients that were helped or cured by doctors I mentioned above were eating LOTS of saturated fats, in the forms of meats, cheeses, butter, and eggs. Barry Groves' book also argues for saturated fats being the best source of energy; for example, he lists reputable historical accounts of pemmican, being nothing but saturated fat and dried meat, being an amazing food that people could thrive on exclusively for years (p 78-84). His book is chock full of damning evidence and is well worth the price, if you'd like to know more. Also a good source on the healthiness of saturated fats is westonaprice.org.

BTW, I found this blog looking for a digital version of "Gut and Psychology Syndrome". Thanks for putting up a blurb on that.

Alix said...


Thanks so much for your comment. I agree with you on the odd recommendation for a low fat diet in MS. The fact that myelin is made of fat and that it is disintegrating raises a red flag for me. I think this is one of those old health fads that will take a long time to die. A great article by Gary Taubes appeared in the NYT a few years ago: What If It's All Been a Big, Fat Lie? It's great. His book, Good Calories, Bad Calories is excellent, too.

Anonymous said...

A low saturated fat diet is not an odd recommendation when dealing with MS. Regardless of how you feel about saturated fat and its implication for the general public evidence indicates that saturated fat is bad for MS patients. Look up the Swank diet. In this long term study 95% of patients who followed a diet low in saturated fat found that the disease process stabilized.

Since MS is disease which commonly goes into remission anecdotal evidence of cures is not meaningful. If you can site a study that shows saturated fat is not harmful to MS patients please do so. Otherwise you may be misleading people with this disease.

Alix said...

You bring up a good point. Not all saturated fats are the same. The problem with most diets that include saturated fats is the fats are from beef - beef that has been raised on corn and completely altered in terms of fat content and nutrition. Grass fed beef rivals fish in level of Omega 3s, for example. It also has CLA which is heart healthy. We have literally bastardized our meat and now claim it's bad for us -- studies say so after all, but we don't study people consuming beef in its natural form. So, you are right, there are no studies showing whether or not including healthier saturated fats have an effect in MS or not. I suspect the results of such a study would be very different.

In general, diets that emphasize managing the glycemic load rather than low fat diets are healthier for those with chronic illness.

Anonymous said...

There seems to be a misconception of Dr. Swank's work. The effects of a high saturated fat diet is a weakening of the Blood Brain Barrier. This weakening make it possible for proteins( like those found in gluten and dairy) to cross the BBB into the central nervous system setting of inflammation and a immune system response the results of which is damage to the CNS in the form of lesions. Large amounts of saturated fats, carbohydrates and sugar should be avoided. Plant based foods should be the basis of ones diet augmented by meats like fish and white meat chicken.

Here is a study that begins to shed some light on Dr. Swanks insight.