The most mysterious celebrities are always the ones who attract the most fantastic myths. Take Marilyn Monroe for example, or Michael Jackson; both are still sources of countless legends despite their untimely deaths. Well, multiple sclerosis is definitely a mysterious disease and there are definitely countless interesting myths surrounding it.
We know that multiple sclerosis is caused by the immune system attacking a key part of the central nervous system (the myelin sheath around the nerves), but we don’t know exactly what triggers it. Scientists have shown that variations in certain genes might play a role, but the potential environmental triggers are still unclear. This leaves plenty of room for new theories to appear all the time, some of them plausible – for example, the association between vitamin D deficiency and MS – but many of them unproven.
Myth #1: Can Cow’s Milk Cause MS?
The suggestion that cow’s milk can cause multiple sclerosis has been around for some time. It was shown that in some people living with MS, there is an immunological cross-reaction between one of the proteins in milk and another protein which is part of the myelin sheath. As a result, it has been suggested, but never proven, that these milk proteins trigger immune cells to attack myelin. However, very little has been studied in this area and with the lack of any real evidence, there is no reason to go milk-free, so don’t move over to dry cornflakes just yet!
Myth #2: Can Dental Fillings Trigger MS?
Another theory is that dental fillings can trigger MS. This is likely to stem from the observation that the symptoms of mercury poisoning are similar to those of MS. And dental amalgam contains mercury. If it was as simple as fillings causing MS, many more people would have it. There’s also the fact that the incidence of MS appears to be increasing, while in most countries dental hygiene is improving and alternative materials are increasingly used for fillings when they are needed. It’s also worth noting that the minuscule amount of mercury the body absorbs from fillings is far below the level that can affect health. Back in 2004 a review of all the data that year concluded that there simply isn’t enough evidence to support an association between fillings and health conditions like MS. But don’t let that stop you brushing your teeth!
Myth #3: Can Fake Sugar Cause MS?
Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, is another mythical MS trigger doing the rounds. However, no causal association has been found with several suspected health risks, such as cancer or neurotoxicity from reviews of the scientific literature. Although there’s no scientific evidence that this additive causes MS, this is an easy one to remove from your diet if you are still concerned, simply by checking the labels of any food and drinks.
Myth #4: Can Physical Injuries Result in MS?
Physical trauma has also been cited by some as a possible cause of MS. One study found that certain neck injuries can cause changes within the brain that may cause or aggravate MS in certain individuals, but conceded it’s more likely that a neck injury simply ‘unmasks’ a form of the disease that’s already there. Most of the evidence points to no association between physical trauma and disease onset or progression in MS.
Myth #5: Is MS Even An Autoimmune Disease?
Other theories that have arisen concern the nature of the disease itself. For example, it has been suggested that multiple sclerosis isn’t an autoimmune disease, but caused by abnormalities (including narrowing) of the veins draining blood from the brain and spinal cord. The chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI) theory is definitely an interesting one. A study published in 2009 found that CCSVI was present in 90 percent of people with MS. Since then, there has been great interest in the potential link between CCSVI and MS and numerous studies have been conducted – however the lack of concrete results from these studies means that today this theory is widely discredited.
Some theories can be more damaging than others – especially when they affect the lifestyle decisions of people living with MS. Like the idea that people living with MS shouldn’t exercise. This thinking may have arisen from the fact that overheating can cause flare-ups in people with relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis. We now know, however, that remaining as active as possible through regular exercise is an important way of maintaining mobility. In fact, research has since shown that aerobic exercise can improve many of the symptoms of MS including bladder and bowel function, fatigue, and depression. That doesn’t mean to say you should go crazy at the gym, though. The key is to exercise at a comfortable level, take regular breaks and drink plenty to help you stay cool. If you’re not sure, speak to your doctor or physiotherapist who will be able to help devise an exercise programme tailored to you.
Whatever theories you read about MS, it’s important to remember that this is a highly complex disease. No one single gene variation is responsible for its development and similarly there’s no one single environmental trigger. If it was that simple, scientists would have found a cure years ago. However, while there’s still plenty we don’t know about MS, scientists are making great strides in understanding the nature of the disease, possible triggers and the most effective ways to treat it. In the meantime, theories are only as strong as the evidence that supports them. And as Marilyn and Michael would no doubt tell you – you can’t believe everything you read!