Big News

I just got a call from Dr. A, the neurologist who follows me when I participate in clinical trials at the NIH. She is always a delightful conversationalist. This time, topics ranged from the music of poet Joy Harjo to the mindfulness meditation of Dan Harris to the benefits of exercise. She asked about my Covid-19 quarantine routine, which includes yoga, pilates, qigong, breath work, short walks—and cold showers. Dr. A is one of the toughest ladies I know. But even she didn’t warm to the notion of a cold shower. Instead, she deftly switched topics to the motive for her call — would I be interested in participating in a new NIH study on the effects of diet on MS?

Would I? Of course I would.

As long term readers of this blog already know, this diet study would not be my first rodeo. I had participated in a trial conducted by Dr. Wahls which compares the efficacy of her eponymous diet to that of The Swank Diet. If you have a grain of common sense, you will not be shocked to learn that I found her study to be biased. I joined it in good faith, expressed a willingness to be assigned to either diet, and pressed on when I was assigned the less desirable Swank Diet. I kept scrupulous record of every food I ate, down to the last teaspoon. The low fat Swank Diet may have helped many people with MS, but it didn’t help me. On the last day of the study, I broke my fast with an avocado. Yum! Fat! I’ve been back to eating fats—healthy fats—ever since.

As soon I had control of my own diet back, I switched to the Wahls Diet I’d been waiting for—and I found the recipes lacking. This was a few years ago; I know Dr. Wahls has been tinkering with her diet every day since then. At the time I felt like her focus was entirely on feeding the brain, and not on delighting the palate. I despaired of convincing my family to adopt the diet along with me. While gripped with anxiety about facing a lifetime of stoic meals, I stumbled on this happy website, which is run by two unpretentious women with five autoimmune diseases between them. They call their diet the AutoImmune Protocol (AIP), and that’s the diet my husband and I have merrily adopted. I asked Dr. A if I could remain on AIP throughout the study. She asked a few questions about it to determine if it could fit within the framework of the diet the NIH would want me to adopt. At this point, she thinks it could work. I’m certainly not willing to go back to a SAD Diet (Standard American Diet) to provide a before and after. I have learned my lesson and will never again martyr my diet for science. I will, however, happily chart my progress teaspoon by the teaspoon, if it will help others make well informed decisions about changes they can implement to optimize their immune system.

Diet should never be about cults of personality. An impartial government study of diet and immunity will be beneficial to all of us with multiple sclerosis, whether our current diet is Swank, Wahls, or the sweet, generic-brand AIP. A diet study came out earlier this month which shows AIP can change gene expression. That’s big news—proof that diagnosis isn’t destiny.

This new NIH diet study is not yet official; it is still just a twinkle in a researcher’s eye. It won’t happen if our researchers can’t find NIH study participants willing to document our food intake (tedious) and swab at least one poop sample (odious). But if I know my NIH researchers, and my fellow lab rats, we will be up for the challenge.

In my experience so far, diet adjustments can be arduous and imprecise and emotional and sadly not entirely curative. I see them as necessary, but not sufficient. A new diet study, if done well, can help all of us struggling through autoimmune disease to direct our efforts toward our best possible outcome, whatever that might be.

Gentle Reader, may you be happy. Stay well!

Type A

Today a specialist asked me if I had a certain personality.
I may have responded with an arch look.
He rephrased the question. “How would you describe yourself? Your personality? ”
I knew where he was going with that line of questioning. He wanted me to confirm his at-a-glance hypothesis that I am a Type A personality. Apparently The Specialist subscribes to the popular theory that Type A personalities are more prone to autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS.)
“Has anyone ever told you that you are a control freak?”
He has nothing to gain from this line of reasoning. Think about it. Of the two of us, who is more likely to have a Type A personality: the guy with the medical degree, or the gal with the MFA?
I countered, “I think that’s just blaming the victim.”
I don’t (necessarily) have a bad personality. I just have a bad disease.
The Specialist kept describing the Type A personality. “Do you set goals for yourself?”
“Sure I do. And maybe I’ll accomplish all of those goals in a day, and maybe I’ll only accomplish only one. Or none at all. My body has the final say.”
“So you’ve reached Acceptance.”
Acceptance. I didn’t know what The Specialist would think about that. Acceptance doesn’t carry much of a cachet among Type A personalities.
I ventured, “I don’t know if that’s good.”
Though of course, I do know that it’s good. In my case, Acceptance is reasonable. All my MRI’s in the past four years have come back showing no new lesions. It’s appropriate to reach Acceptance when you’re on a drug that actually works.
The Specialist was happy to hear about the efficacy of the drug, even though he couldn’t find “daclizumab” or “DAC HYP” on his portable information device. (I probably spelled it all wrong.) He seemed more frustrated that he couldn’t shoehorn my personality into his Type A hypothesis. He kept trying. He listed high achievers who had autoimmune diseases. Montel Williams’ MS. Michael J. Fox’s Parkinsons.
I could think of one other thing these guys had in common, besides autoimmune diseases. “These guys are both celebrities. You kind of have to be a high achiever to become a celebrity.”
Whereas, you absolutely don’t have to be a high achiever to become a patient with MS. It’s just not that simple. I know plenty of high achievers. And most of them are not celebrities. Most of them don’t have an autoimmune disease, either. Nor do they deserve one.
I don’t deserve one, either.
“Do you think you used to have a Type A personality, back before your diagnosis?”
Back before my diagnosis, I’d majored in philosophy. What kind of Type A personality would be stupid enough to major in a thing like that?
The kind of Type A personality who thought English majors weren’t thinking hard enough.
Have it your way, Specialist.
He proposed, “Some people think meditation could be helpful for people with multiple sclerosis.”
So now he’s “some people.”
“Meditation could be helpful for anyone.”
I’m not making a very good case for my being a Type other than A.
The Specialist is an Ear, Nose, Throat guy.
He finally got around to asking me to stick out my tongue.
“You know, thousands of years of Chinese medicine has taught them to diagnose an entire person with one glimpse of the tongue.”
Or simplify?
I had my tongue sticking out, so I couldn’t reply. And anyway, I didn’t think of a good comeback until after I left the examining room. Here it is: “For hundreds of years, Gypsies have said they can see a person’s fate with one glimpse of the palm.” You don’t see me rushing out to consult any gypsy. I consulted my half-Chinese husband instead. My half-Chinese husband said my sharp tongue was one of the first qualities he loved about me.
So maybe there is a perk to being Type A, after all.
The Specialist had said, “Things happen for a reason.”
I agree with half of that statement. Things happen. But If you’re going to look for a reason, don’t stick your tongue out at a Chinese guy, and thrust your palm onto a gypsy’s lap. That’s just silly. None of us are so special we should waste our breath whining, “why me?”
I may have a strong personality, but I don’t think it’s so strong it could cause a disease.
While I was waiting for The Specialist, I was reading Population 485, a delightful book by a Michael Perry, a volunteer fireman. He writes, “We are creatures of myth, hungry for metaphor and allegory, but most of all, hungry for sense.”
Sometimes our hunger for sense has us gobbling up nonsense.
Perry writes, “Surely, we tell ourselves, we can’t die just because we hit a patch of pebbles on a curve.”
But as Perry clearly illustrates, we can and we do.
We identify with our problems, with our illness, with our fate, instead of detaching, and researching cause and effect.
I think I’ve figured out why I contracted MS. It had nothing to do with my personality, and everything to do with my intestinal parasites.
Surprised? So was I.
It’s a wild, random world. (Is this the observation of a Type A control freak?)

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My Gut Feeling About MS

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature,
nor do the children of men
as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer
in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
–Helen Keller

Once upon a time, I was a wholesome, healthy, teenage girl. There was nothing I would rather do than backpack with my family in the forest, and nothing I would rather drink than pure, rushing river water.
Little did I know that nothing in nature is pure.
I discovered early on in our family’s backpacking adventures that the appearance of water is deceptive. I had only to fill my canteen to learn that water, while as clear as air, is nowhere near as light as air.
I should have figured right then that there is more to water than meets the eye. But I didn’t. I didn’t understand that water, essential water, delicious water, could kill me. The water from the streams tasted so much better than the water from the tap. How could it not be better? Purer? Safer?
Instead of following that old backpacking mantra, Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, I took home a bellyful of worms I’d sucked down with that pure, rushing river water I’d found so delicious. Once those worms found their way into my digestive track, they began to wreck havoc.
Those little squatters would devour over three month’s worth of progressively blander breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Every one of “my” meals would be followed by violent, punishing diarrhea.
Life with these new parasites was ugly. Really ugly. In the course of three months, I was reduced to a (barely) living skeleton. I had to drop out of school, and rely on visiting tutors. As I became progressively weaker, I would have to send my tutors home early; sitting up for more than fifteen minutes at a time became too strenuous a challenge.
At one point during the parasitic occupation, I had a nasty reaction to an antibiotic. My esophagus contracted. I did not like that sensation. I thought I was having a heart attack. I remember my dad driving me to the hospital, reaching 50 miles an hour in a 35 mph zone. I was touched by his efforts, but I found them unnecessary. I’d had a nice life, if a short one; a loving family, gorgeous scenery, delicious water. I was ready to die.
In a less developed part of the world, I probably would have died, if not that day, then soon after. I certainly would not have reached adulthood. But as it happened, my dad was speeding me toward the teaching hospital at Yale University. The hospital would eventually connect me to an IV to boost my nutrition. They would treat me with an all-purpose parasite-killer. I would survive. The worms would die.
It was a real Ivy-league outcome. A victory.
The odd thing was, even after the parasites were killed, I never felt fully recovered.
I would live to adulthood, but it would be an adulthood with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative, debilitating autoimmune disease. Was that better than the alternative?
You bet.
Back when I was ready to die, I’d had no idea of all I would have missed. Instead of feeling serene, I would have felt really sorry for myself. Life is good. Even life with MS.
If you’ve been paying attention, by now you’ve probably reached the following conclusion: worms are bad. That was my assumption, too.
Imagine my surprise, then, when my friend Martin, a neuroscientist, sent me an article from The Annuals of Neurology, Association Between Parasite Infection and Immune Responses in Multiple Sclerosis (1), which observes that in the battle against multiple sclerosis, worms are…good.
The study compared multiple sclerosis patients who had naturally occurring parasitic infections to multiple sclerosis patients without parasites. The patients with parasites showed significantly less neurological damage over the course of four and a half years than the patients without parasites. Apparently worms are good for something. They keep autoimmune malfunctions in check.
At first, I resisted this data. I’d hosted more than my fair share of parasites. Those nasty little worms hadn’t kept me from contracting multiple sclerosis. But on second thought, I realized I hadn’t been a very nice hostess; I’d served up some heavy-duty all-purpose parasite killer. All the creatures living in my gut, good worms or bad worms, had been effectively wiped out.
Until I read the article, I never thought that was a problem. But now I do. This is why. Human beings have been co-evolving with parasites for millennia. It’s only recently that we’ve acquired the ability to produce heavy-duty all-purpose parasite killers like the one that saved my life. And it’s only very recently that we are beginning to realize there could be a trade-off. Tiny studies of disparate autoimmune diseases are all reaching the same conclusion; the immune system is regulated by the worms in our gut. (2)
Epidemiological data supports these findings. There is almost no incidence of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis in the developing world, where modern standards of hygiene have not yet impeded on the dark, fragile ecosystem we prefer not to discuss in polite company. (3)
Biodiversity may be endangered in an ecosystem we rarely stop to think about. (4) This may have far reaching consequences for our health.
As I learn more about the immune protective function of microscopic intestinal life forms, I have come to regard that heavy-duty all-purpose parasite killer I took so many years ago as a blunt weapon; a weapon of mass destruction. It may have spared my life, but by wiping out the diverse life forms in my gut, it may also have incidentally left me vulnerable to developing multiple sclerosis.
I am grateful that I didn’t die that long ago day when my father rushed me to the hospital. Dying very young and very thin is still the only option for far too many children in undeveloped nations. This remains unacceptable. But can we offer a better alternative than a longer lifetime with a debilitating disease?
I think those of us in developed nations should pause to investigate whether we have been trading one set of diseases for another. I expect we can find a third way; a way to preserve and/or reintroduce those worms that have co-evolved to boost our immunity.
A few bold researchers are investigating this option. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is funding a study in Wisconsin to measure the safety and effectiveness of helminth (worm) therapy.

This research gives me a lot of hope. We still know so little about Multiple Sclerosis; it’s encouraging to see work being done that has potential to address a cause. I have a gut feeling that they are on the right track.


Further reading:
Do worms protect us against autoimmune diseases? The epidemiological evidence is strongly suggestive.
Helminthic therapy, a type of immunotherapy, is the treatment of autoimmune diseases and immune disorders by means of deliberate infestation with a helminth or with the ova of a helminth. Helminths are parasitic worms such as hookworms and whipworms.

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