Multiple Sclerosis: New Data That Plants Provide Relief

Why would a cardiologist comment on multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune and inflammatory disease of the nervous system that can lead to severely disabling manifestations? While I have patients with MS in my preventive clinic, my primary focus is applying natural therapies to coronary heart disease to halt and reverse atherosclerosis. I primarily advise plant based diets low or absent in added fats, a therapy proven to reverse atherosclerosis.

Who would have imagined that the same diet that heals heart disease may also heal MS? Indeed, the dietary therapy that has been studied with the greatest efficacy and duration for MS is a predominantly plant based diet low in fat, called the Swank Diet.

Who was Swank? Dr. Roy Swank served as Professor of Neurology at the Oregon Health and Sciences University and passed away in 2008 at age 99 years. He theorized that the increased incidence of MS in northern countries might be due to decreased plant based foods and increased animal foods and embarked on studying a diet plan that was low in saturated fats from dairy and meat while high in fruits and vegetables. The diet had a goal of <20 grams of saturated fat a day. He published his first 3.5 years of observation treating patients in this manner in 1953. He reported a decrease in the frequency and severity of MS attacks. He continued to add patients and reported on follow up that exceeded a remarkable 34 years of this nutritional treatment. The greatest benefit was seen in those that began the diet early in their MS course. After deaths from non-MS causes were excluded, a startling 95% survived and remained physically active. The patients that increased their saturated fat intake over time had a striking increase in average disability and death. Dr. Swank later tracked down patients on his diet for 50 years and reported on 13 of them who continued to do well and had youthful appearances. Dr. Swank concluded that in all probability, “MS is caused largely by the consumption of saturated animal fat.”

The actual mechanism of the Swank Diet on ameliorating the symptoms of MS are unknown but theories have been proposed. Whatever the exact mechanism, the Swank Diet has been hailed as the “most effective treatment of MS ever reported in the peer review literature.

Brand new data from John Hopkins University now supports the notion that the healthier the diet, the fewer the problems in MS patients, just as Dr. Swank suggested. In original research published in Neurology, the quality of diet and the symptoms and disability of patients with MS were analyzed. A registry with dietary information in 6,989 patients with MS who answered a detailed questionnaire estimated their intake of fruit, vegetable, legumes, whole grains, added sugars and red and processed meats was evaluated. A healthy diet score was assigned to each participant. Patients with MS in the highest category of healthy diet score had the lowest level of disability and depression. They also had the least fatigue, pain and cognitive impairment. The researchers concluded that a healthy diet and lifestyle focusing on plant based foods was related to less burden of MS.

With over 1 million people suffering from MS and no specific therapy to reverse it, nutritional therapy should be a first line recommendation. From the work of Dr. Swank to the new report from Johns Hopkins University, a diet based in whole foods that are mainly or only plant based should be the routine recommendation of neurologist and other treaters involved with the care of MS patients.

In addition, new data on a plant based diet incorporating a fasting mimicking diet also gives hope that plants will be the seed for reversal of MS debilitation.