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 clinic, my primary focus is applying natural therapies to coronary heart disease to halt and reverse atherosclerosis. I primarily use plant based diets low or absent in added fats. The common thread is that the therapy for MS that has been studied with the greatest efficacy and duration is a predominantly plant based diet low in fat, the Swank Diet (http://www.swankmsdiet.org/the-diet/).
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 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12996138). 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 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1973220). 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 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12591551). He 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 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21827937). Whatever the exact mechanism, the Swank Diet has been hailed as the "most effective treatment of MS ever reported in the peer review literature (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22666902).
The only shortcoming of the work pioneered by Dr. Swank was the absence of MRI data on his patients as the technique was not available when his studies began. Recently Dr. John McDougall teamed up with the Department of Neurology of the same university Dr. Swank served at for years (https://www.drmcdougall.com/2014/07/31/results-of-the-diet-multiple-sclerosis-study/). Patients were either monitored on a diet that had 15% of calories from fat or 40% fat. Compliance was high and there was far more weight loss and decline in blood cholesterol measurements in the lower fat cohort. MRI results at the end of 1 year did not differ but the groups. However, MS severity at baseline in the group assigned to the low fat diet was higher making the evaluation too small to provide any imaging conclusions.
As World MS Day approaches, celebrating the work of Dr. Roy Swank and the remarkable results he achieved for his patients is timely. As May 25th rolls around, whether your know someone with MS or not, passing up the eggs, butter and meat for a day (or a lifetime) to stand in solidarity with the most remarkable therapy of MS ever described is my recommendation Your heart will thank you too.