My Holistic Approach to Living with Multiple Sclerosis for 20 Years
It’s hard to believe twenty years have passed since I had my first MS (multiple sclerosis) flare-up in 1998 at the age of twenty-two. For over 20 years, I have kept my MS symptoms in remission without the need to take any disease-modifying medications. On my website and in my books I have shared a great deal about the holistic approach I have taken to manage my disease. However, over the years, I have focused my advice primarily on the role clean eating has played in healing my body. I am writing this blog post because the truth is my MS healing journey has really gone far beyond food.
Before diving too deep into my healing journey, I think it is important for anyone who has been given a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis to realize and BELIEVE that there is hope. There is no doubt a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis can be devastating and it is absolutely life changing on many levels. Nobody ever expects the rug to be pulled out from underneath them, and that’s exactly what an MS diagnosis feels like. But it doesn’t matter how many insurance policies you take out, as long as you are alive, there will always be challenges and with each life challenge you will face a choice on how to react and how to respond.
I will warn you in advance, this is a very long 5-part blog post series that is almost 40,000 words (practically a book!) It is a very personal post with far more background information than I have ever felt comfortable sharing publicly in the past, but I know in my heart that it is going to change the life of at least one person. It took me a lot of courage to write this but my greatest hope is that if you or a loved one has MS and are suffering that my story will give you hope.
Your Life is a Result of the Choices You Make
Every day you are faced with choices to make that will either improve your health or hurt your health. If you don’t have MS, you might not even think twice about eating ice cream, skipping the gym or staying up all night. But over time, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, your daily life choices start to add up.
This blog post is my personal journey on the choices I have made to manage my disease. There are many, many things you can do to slow the progression and even reverse the symptoms of MS. But whether you have MS or not, there are umpteen different things you can do to optimize your health, reduce stress, improve your fitness level, expand your mind, and spiritually evolve as a person. While not everything I have included in my holistic health journey has been specific to MS, it has all been a part of a major “self care” plan that I now see at 43-years old has made a significant difference in my overall health, including the way I am aging. And one thing I know for sure, its a whole lot easier to fight MS if you are as healthy as possible.
My MS journey started with trying to heal my body with food, supplements and exercise. I made tremendous headway with those three things at first but eventually it was not enough. As time marched on, I ultimately had to address my mind and soul. This blog post is the personal journey I took to heal my body, mind and soul.
I never want to give false hope to anyone, but as you will read below, I firmly believe that having hope is a key component of successfully managing any disease. If you don’t have hope that one day you will get better or that one day there will be a cure for your condition, I believe the mindset that goes hand in hand with hopelessness will impact your body in such a way that it negatively affects your immune system. In other words, lack of hope can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I firmly believe this. If you make it all the way to the 5th and final blog post in my MS story you will be able to clearly see that hope (and so much more than food alone!) played a key role in my recovery.
Damage to the Myelin Sheath Is Reversible
***NOTE: It is very important to point out that myelin repair has the best chance of success when inflammation is reduced as soon as possible and when the body is supported with the right mix of nutrients to make healthy myelin.***
Although I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the disease process of MS, I do think it is extremely important to explain from the beginning that damage to the myelin sheath has been proven to be reversible. Knowing just this one fact should give you a tremendous amount of hope if you have been diagnosed with MS.
There is always hope. Your body is constantly undergoing a process of rebuilding and your cells are always regenerating. The process may be happening painfully slowly, but it is happening and the foods you eat and the lifestyle you lead play a major factor in the quality of the cells that get rebuilt.
Whether you have MS or not, the myelin sheath degenerates in everyone with age. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that the myelin sheath cells are capable of rebuilding and regenerating if given the proper environment. In other words, it’s not just people with MS who need to worry about their myelin sheath. And it’s not just people with MS who need to worry about optimizing their health. Nobody is home free when it comes to neglecting their health.
Anti-Inflammatory, Antioxidant-Rich Diet Supports Healthy Myelin Production
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). In MS, the immune system attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body. Eventually, the disease can cause permanent damage or deterioration of the nerves.
If you have read any of my books, you know I heavily promote an anti-inflammatory diet as a way to slow the progression of MS. What a lot of people don’t understand is that the same anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle that reduces systemic (whole body) inflammation by making your body less likely to attack itself also promotes a natural healing process that can repair the myelin sheath.
By reducing whole body inflammation, you encourage cells in your body that are similar to stem cells to differentiate into oligodendrocyte cells that are then capable of repairing the myelin sheath. In fact, part of the reason myelin naturally decreases with age is partially because age limits the action of oligodendrocytes, the myelin-producing cells.
The current FDA approved treatments for MS include injectable, disease-modifying drugs (interferon-B and glatiramer acetate), oral drugs (fingolimod) and monoclonal antibodies (natalizumab). These medications are mostly focused on the inhibition of inflammation, but most neurologists do not emphasize to their patients that you can also reduce inflammation significantly with diet.
Please know, I am not a doctor, but my husband is. If my husband did not have the medical credentials he has and if he were not overseeing my work here on Clean Cuisine, I would have never had the confidence to share my holistic journey with the world. But I know the sad truth is that the vast majority of MS patients are not going to be told by their neurologists that there is far more they can do to take control of their health beyond the medications. I am not saying not to take the medication, but I am saying that you can certainly do both medication and an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. And of course there are no negatives associated with following the diet, only “side benefits”.
In addition to the importance of decreasing inflammation, if you have MS you should also know that certain nutrients are essential for building myelin. Your body uses key nutrients including vitamin B1, folate, vitamin B12, the antioxidant vitamin C, omega-3 fats (especially the long chain omega-3, DHA) and iodine as building blocks for the myelin sheath.
Reducing oxidative stress by consuming antioxidant-rich foods and avoiding refined oils and carbohydrates also indirectly encourages the production of the myelin sheath. I will talk a lot more about the specifics of the nutrient-dense anti-inflammatory diet I follow in part 4 of my MS story. But the point is, every MS patient should be told from the day of their diagnosis that an anti-inflammatory nutrient-dense diet is an important factor in successfully managing their disease. As I will share in this blog post, there is A LOT more you can do beyond taking medications if you have MS. I hope that knowing that fact alone helps empower you.
Every Life Challenge Offers a Gift
Not a single day has gone by since my diagnosis with MS two decades ago that I have not thought about what I could do to improve my health. I now realize as I creep into middle age that this what-can-I-do-to-be-healthy mindset has been a true blessing. I can say with almost certainty that had it not been for my diagnosis of MS I would not be nearly as healthy or fit as I am today at 43.
I now look at my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis as one of the greatest gifts God gave me. I say that because my diagnosis absolutely changed the trajectory of my life. The disease felt nothing whatsoever like a blessing when I was in my early twenties, but like so many others who receive a life changing diagnosis, it forced me to see things differently. But it also radically shifted my priorities. And the shift I made at the start of adulthood really did change my life…all for the better, I might add.
I have come to realize, and appreciate, that life is most definitely a journey. If we take the time to really analyze our life challenges, we will see there is a lesson and a gift in them all. As you will read below, part of my healing journey has involved some serious reflections and self analysis. I have learned and discovered so much about myself, including why I believe my body betrayed me in the first place. I am weaving my personal story into this blog post because I feel it has a great deal of relevance to anyone suffering with any autoimmune disease. As you will read, it is my belief that there is an emotional wound component to the development of all autoimmune diseases. I’m not saying that emotional wounds are the direct cause of MS or any other autoimmune disease, but I believe unresolved internal emotional conflict is a definite environmental “trigger.”
It is also my belief that to really heal from any autoimmune disease, you need to heal emotional wounds as well. I didn’t start my MS journey believing that, but after 20 years of battling this disease I have changed my mind. So, some of what I share in this blog post are things I have done from day one, but others are things I added along the way…
Before My 20 Year Multiple Sclerosis Journey Began
I have been living with MS now for just over 20 years and I believe it is because of the holistic lifestyle I follow that I have never needed to take any of the disease-modifying MS medications. Along with my incredibly supportive husband, Andy Larson, M.D., I have written five books on the subject of nutrition (including a sprinkling of fitness and nutrition supplement advice), but my MS healing journey really goes far beyond food, fitness and supplements.
Beyond what I have done to take care of my body, I also want to touch on the soul healing journey I have been on in this blog post. I didn’t have the confidence to admit this before, but the truth is I was not emotionally well at the time I was diagnosed with MS. I didn’t mention my problems in the past because I didn’t believe there was a connection between my emotional state and my body attacking itself (which is what happens with all autoimmune diseases, by the way.) In other words, I didn’t see there was a purpose to sharing my personal struggles. However, I now realize there is a definite and direct correlation between your emotional state and your immune system. Neuroimmunology is the study of cross-talk between the central nervous system and immune system of the body. The connections are real. Your emotional state really does affect your immune system, for better or worse.
Now that I have a better understanding of the science connecting our thoughts, emotions and immune system, I believe there is relevance to sharing the personal side of my MS healing journey. And the full story is that my emotional well-being began to decline years before I was officially diagnosed with MS….
I had a very serious depression episode when I entered my 10th grade year of high school. And yes, I believe my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis seven years later was on some level connected to the problems I had in high school. I know now the mind, body and soul cannot be separated and very rarely does someone develop MS (or any autoimmune disease for that matter) who has not faced a major physical or emotional life stressor. Think of it like this, stress of any kind is one of the triggers that can switch the MS gene “on.” Stress might not directly cause MS, but I believe it is absolutely a factor contributing to the development of the disease.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I believe my MS journey “unofficially” began the summer between my 9th and 10th grade year of high school. That was the year when I suddenly felt completely lost and disconnected from the world around me. I felt like a fish out of water that summer. It was the first year when I started to view the world from a new perspective. The world felt overwhelming and intimidating to me and to be honest, I didn’t think I had what it took to “succeed” by what society defined as success. My coping mechanism was to shut down. I lost interest in just about everything I had once loved, including friends, cheerleading, gymnastics, boys and yes, even food.
Anyone who attended the Benjamin School in North Palm Beach in 1992 may remember I entered my sophomore year of high school looking radically different than before summer break. I not only grew a full inch over the summer, but I also lost 20 pounds that I didn’t need to lose. I started 10th grade weighing not much over 90 pounds after having reached my final height of 5 “7”. Although I didn’t understand at the time what was wrong with me, I always knew it was not classic anorexia because I knew the weight loss was not intentional and I most definitely did not see myself as overweight. I knew I was painfully thin. The weight loss was simply a side effect of the real problem; I was very lost and unhappy and I simply didn’t have the tools to cope. Although it wasn’t talked about as openly in 1992 as it is today, I still knew depression existed but because I wasn’t sitting on the couch crying I didn’t feel that was my problem either. The fact that I couldn’t label my issue confused me tremendously. It actually made me feel more isolated, alone and separate not being able to put a label on the problem.
The Truth is Not Always Kind
My sophomore year experience was a reality check that people really do in fact treat you different based on your appearance. I will never forget the lessons I learned about people that year and I will never forget the few people who really reached out to help me, especially the one person who is highly relevant to this blog post, who later also developed MS, my friend AJ Cotsalas (Note: this blog post is in memory of AJ, his photo is at the very bottom.)
No doubt my sophomore year was a challenge, but I don’t regret the struggles I had that year because just like I now look back on my MS diagnosis as a blessing, I view my high school problems in the same manner. If you know me on a personal level you know I am very empathetic and very easily able to connect with someone who feels sad, alone and confused. I learned those skills as a result of dealing with my own issues my sophomore year of high school. I wouldn’t be the same person today had I not had the struggles I had. So yes, I am grateful for the struggle.
By the time I was diagnosed with MS at twenty-two years old my spirits had lifted and I was back to looking fit and healthy, but I was still anything but a completely happy camper. Just like in high school, in my early twenties I was once again starting to feel very lost, disconnected and overwhelmed with the world. I was experiencing extreme anxiety and frequent panic attacks in the months leading up to my MS diagnosis. Of course I never went to therapy and never sought professional help for my high school problems, so those wounds were certainly not healed by the time I was twenty two. Just like an addict who simply stops using, I still had an underlying problem, I just wasn’t directly addressing it. My way of coping with the problem was to just ignore it and stay busy, busy, busy. The busier the better. As long as I looked healthy and as long as everyone else thought so too that was all that really mattered to me at the time. Of course my body knew better though. Eventually, one way or the other, your body catches up to the mind.
The Mind Body Connection is Real
I know I am not the only one who has made the connection between my MS diagnosis and hidden/ suppressed stress. In fact, bestselling author and physician Gabor Mate talks extensively on the connection between hidden stress and disease in his brilliant book, “When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.” And thanks to this blog and the books I have written, over the years I have communicated with hundreds of MS patients and over and over I hear stories of how their MS developed following a single traumatic life event or after years and years of feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Rarely do you hear of anyone who is diagnosed with MS (or any other autoimmune disease for that matter) who tells you their life was hunky dory at the time of their diagnosis. Even neurologists and mainstream medical doctors will tell you that there is a direct correlation between stress and an MS exacerbation. Again, you can’t separate the mind from the body.
I now know enough about MS to know that simply following the “perfect diet” is probably not going to cut it when it comes to slowing the progression of the disease or reversing symptoms. Based on my own experience, I believe very strongly that Gabor Mate is right and that hidden emotional stress is a definite contributing factor to the development of multiple sclerosis. I believe if you really want to heal from multiple sclerosis on a deep level, you need to address the body, mind and soul all together. I did not believe this when I was first diagnosed, but after twenty years I believe it whole heartedly.
Multiple Sclerosis Has Been One of My Greatest Teachers
I met my husband, Andy, a surgeon, at The Benjamin School in 1989. Andy was assigned to be my math tutor when I was in 8th grade and he was a junior—we had an almost immediate connection that still burns strong today. He is and always has been my solid rock to lean on. Andy had already graduated and was in his first year of college by the time I entered 10th grade, so he had no idea I was struggling so much that year. But my personal struggles aside, Andy knew me very well and he would be the first to tell you that if there were a superlative in high school for “Least Likely to Write 5 Books”, I surely would have won the award 😉 I say that as a joke now, but if you read on you’ll understand the relevance of why I even mentioned it in the first place. I know life changes us all, but in so many ways, I truly am a different person today because of my MS.
Multiple sclerosis has been one of my greatest teachers as it has forced me to take care of my body, mind and soul. Just like Gabor Mate, explains so logically in his book, “When the Body Says No”, if I don’t take care of myself, my body simply turns on me. It’s just the way it is. Eventually, everyone will learn this lesson if they live long enough, I just had the unusual life circumstance to learn it earlier than most people.
We live in a society that prioritizes material things over health, but having a chronic disease forces you to take care of yourself and your body or pay the consequences. When I was in my early twenties I very much resented this fact because I felt it was unfair that all of my friends could stay out till 2 or 3 am and I would have to be at home in bed by 11 or not able to function the following day. But now that I am in my mid-forties I realize everyone is in the same boat. While person “A” might not have the genetic makeup for developing MS, if they don’t take care of their body, mind and soul, the environment will eventually “pull the trigger” and whatever genetic weakness they have will be expressed. It’s just the way it is.
Half of All Americans Have a Chronic Disease
The most common disabling disease among young adults, multiple sclerosis has been making headlines in the news more in the last few months than in the past 2 decades that I have been living with it. A new landmark study shows a steady rise of MS prevalence in the US. Nearly 1 million people in the country now have the disease, nearly double that from prior studies. Actress Selma Blair powerfully put a face on MS when revealing she had the disease during this year’s Academy Awards. And additional new research indicates the rise in MS (and other autoimmune diseases) may be related to the increase in pro-inflammatory processed food.
Multiple sclerosis certainly isn’t the only degenerative disease impacting young adults. In fact, a startling but true statistic: half of all Americans have a chronic disease. That means 50% of the adults in the United States have at least one chronic condition, such as diabetes, heart disease or obesity, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in The Lancet. Sadly, the age of diagnosis is getting younger and younger. And while the holistic approach I have taken to manage the symptoms of my MS for the past twenty years will not “cure” any chronic disease, I believe they can help slow the progression of many chronic diseases (including other autoimmune diseases) and enable you to enjoy life better. In other words, you do not have to have an MS diagnosis to benefit from the content in this blog post.
Mainstream Medicine Does Not Promote Mind, Body and Soul Wellness
Because I am married to a surgeon, I am all too familiar with the medical community’s skepticism and dismissal of natural healing stories. I am also all too familiar with how mainstream medicine is failing both the patient and the physician on so many levels. Modern medicine is truly phenomenal for things like trauma, infection, orthopedics and general surgery, but when it comes to managing chronic illness, including autoimmune diseases such as MS, mainstream medicine has a very long way to go.
And truth be told, I personally worry the cure for autoimmune diseases such as MS or degenerative diseases such as cancer and type 2 diabetes are still a long, long way away. I say that because the body, mind and soul are all connected on such a deep level and I know now that internal chaos within the body, mind and soul most definitely plays a role in many autoimmune and degenerative diseases. Maybe I am not qualified to say this, but I don’t see how any pill or medication will ever be able to heal the body, mind and soul (at least not without some SERIOUS side effects, anyway.) The good news is, people can and DO heal. This is a blog post that is intended to empower you to take back your own health and find the power within to begin to heal your body, mind and soul. Please know, if you are currently taking prescription medications that nothing I am sharing about the path I took is contraindicated with your medication. I am simply sharing things that you can do above and beyond medication.
In Loving Memory of AJ Cotsalas