October 02, 2018
When Sarah was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis (MS) at 31 years old she wasn’t thinking about diet. She was thinking about doing everything her doctors said to delay the onset of more debilitating symptoms, and ultimately, disability.
MS is an inflammatory disease of the nervous system that can cause chronic issues, like pain, fatigue, speech disorders, difficulty walking, depression, vertigo, weakness. It is often progressive, can lead to disability, and is life-shortening.
Sarah was diagnosed with MS by the National Institute of Health and immediately underwent a study with them for the first year of her diagnosis. Moving on from there to a neurologist, followed by 9 years of injectable medicines (and subsequent side effects), as well as annual MRIs to track the progression of her MS.
Despite doing everything she was told to do by her neurologist, each MRI showed new brain and spinal lesions.
“I was taking the medicine, doing everything I could. I didn’t ask for anything else but I didn’t know of anything else. I took my meds as prescribed and doctors didn’t recommend anything else so I didn’t ask any questions. That’s just the way it was,” says Sarah.
Eventually, her symptoms worsened — vertigo, difficulty walking, eczema all over her face. The vertigo in particular was rough. Sarah describes it as “having your eyeballs feel like they’re spinning, for days at a time.”
Her husband suggested she go to physical therapy and reluctantly she went.
Though her physical therapist didn’t have any MS-specific ideas for her, PT did improve her balance. This got Sarah wondering if maybe she had some control over her health after all.
And so began a desperate search on the internet. Eventually, she came across Overcoming MS, a non-profit started by Professor George Jelinek in Australia. Jelinek has MS and watched his mother die from the same disease. He takes an evidence-based approach and promotes lifestyle changes — particularly diet, stress reduction, and exercise — as a way to treat MS.
Suddenly, Sarah had hope.
She continued researching and found one of the most comprehensive nutrition studies out there, T Colin Campbell’s China Study.
The China Study shows a link between consumption of animal products and increased changes of diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and more. Based on decades of research, Campbell concludes that those eating a whole food plant-based diet, one devoid of animal products and processed foods, could prevent, reduce, or even reverse the development of these diseases.
“It blew my mind!” Sarah says. And spurred her to try a whole food plant-based diet on Thanksgiving of 2011.
Not completely sure how to do it but convinced a whole food plant-based diet would help her, she remembers being somewhat clueless at the time. “Is cheese dairy? I was raised drinking milk and yet I didn’t know. I was nervous and overwhelmed but at the same time, so hopeful about this approach.”
And she wasn’t in it alone. Her father and his wife hosted Thanksgiving that year and moved by Sarah’s nutrition research, made a whole food plant-based holiday feast just for her.
Sarah was inspired: "Before that dinner, I had seriously considered giving up because I was truly clueless on how to cook this way. But [Thanksgiving] was the first time I realized 'This is great food! Maybe I can make this life change.'"
After Thanksgiving, she continued eating plant-based and within just a few days began to feel better.
Her vertigo went away, her eczema went away. Sarah remembers: “Friends kept telling me ‘you look great!’ My skin looked better and it was so great not to have to go to the doctors all the time.”
She felt so good, Sarah held off on getting any more MRIs until 2015. That scan showed brain lesions had stopped enhancing. No new ones and some had even disappeared.
Despite these positive results, her neurologist was less optimistic than Sarah. “He was like ‘Ok, let’s not get too excited. We don’t know what caused this,” says Sarah.
Two more MRIs, in 2016 and 2018, showed the same results. Her neurologist told her to keep doing what she was doing, though he didn’t really ask any questions to learn HOW she was helping her body heal.
Today, 15 years after her diagnosis, Sarah is clear that her MS is not gone. Though it has slowed and improved, thanks to lifestyle changes like her SOS-free whole food plant-based diet.
“I am not cured of MS. But I feel blessed because if I had cancer, I know I would’ve been obsessed with having a tumor removed to get rid of it and I may not have changed or understood I had some power of my health.”
T Colin. Campbell explains "Genetic predisposition may make a difference as to who gets MS, but even at best, genes can only account for about one-fourth of the total disease risk." When Sarah read that, she was empowered.
Her goal? To share her story and help empower others living with MS and other chronic conditions. She's doing just that with her blog, BlessedWithMS.
133 million people live with chronic disease in America. If Sarah could help just a fraction of those people gain control over their illness through lifestyle changes, she’s happy.
Aside from just getting the message out, Sarah’s biggest challenge was not the transition to a whole food plant-based diet. She went cold turkey, so motivated to get better that it wasn’t difficult for her to make the switch.
“But when I started to feel better, that’s when the challenge hit,” Sarah recalls. Traveling through airports with no healthy food options, attending office parties, bucking social norms and food traditions, fear of being labeled as a “health nut” — Sarah discovered these were the hurdles she came up against on a daily basis.
That said, continually choosing to make the healthy choice, even when she’s feeling healthy, is something she takes very seriously. “I’m not cured. I need to take this seriously. I know plenty of people in their 30s and 40s with MS who are the equivalent of old folks homes.”
And as a self-proclaimed “recovering fast food junkie,” there is definitely temptation. Sarah describes driving by these fast food restaurants as like “an alcoholic driving by a bar.” But she doesn’t give in. “I know the science and the impact its had on me.”
Today, Sarah’s not worried about being “impeccable.” It used to stress her out, but not anymore. Now that she’s educated herself on the science of an anti-inflammatory plant-based diet, she feels grateful for the information.
“It’s not about blaming the victim. I acknowledge there are different types and strengths of MS out there. But I wish that when someone is diagnosed with MS they’re given knowledge — to empower them to take control of what they can.”
Read more about Sarah’s story and life with MS on her blog, BlessedWithMS.
Read more about how an anti-inflammatory diet can help heal MS symptoms here.
By Ali Brown
Ali is a nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.
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