What does research say about the link between MS and the immune system?
Scientists have found that MS is an immune-mediated disorder, but they increasingly believe that it is not just autoimmunity, but also degeneration that plays a part in the disease process – particularly in its progressive phases.
There is evidence that nerve cell degeneration begins very early in MS and is not just a feature of the progressive phases.1,2 Researchers have pointed out that damage to the central nervous system is widespread in MS, is degenerative, and goes beyond demyelinating lesions.3,4 The accumulating loss of nervous tissue seems to be what makes the disease progressive.
Evidence suggests that the immune-mediated inflammation and neurodegeneration in MS are separate processes, right from the beginning of the disease. Many think that the distinction between immune and degenerative diseases of the nervous system is becoming blurred, and that both processes probably contribute to many neurological diseases, typified by MS. 5, 6
About the immune system
The immune system, a complex organization of cells and chemicals, is the basis of our defence against external invaders and toxins. The lymphocytes (white blood cells derived from bone marrow) are programmed either to:
Initiate an immune response to a threat (the Th1 response), usually through an inflammatory response, or
Dampen down that reaction (the Th2 response)
Th1 and Th2 responses are both necessary and must be kept in balance. MS is a Th1-predominant disease. Lifestyle factors that help magnify the Th1 response, thus making MS worse, include:
High saturated fat diets
Omega-6 fatty acids
Certain viral infections
Lack of sun exposure and lack of vitamin D
Omega-3 fatty acids deficiency
So to minimize Th1 responses, we look to Th2 magnifying factors, which include:
A plant-based diet
Omega-3 fatty acids
Sun exposure and vitamin D
Meditation and other stress-modifying techniques
Rebooting your immune system when you have MS
Stem Cell Therapy or AHSCT can reboot your immune system when you have MS. Stem cells are harvested from your blood and then your existing immune cells are destroyed using chemotherapy. Once this has happened your own stem cells are reintroduced into your body with the aim to repopulate all the immune cells (this time without the tendency to cause MS). During this time you are kept in isolation, to protect against infection until your immune system is built back up.
On average it takes 6-12 months to recover from a stem cell transplant, and at present it is not known which form of transplant, and which people with MS will benefit. It is an extremely aggressive treatment option, with around 1% risk of death.
At present it cannot be considered a cure for MS, and is best undertaken in the setting of a clinical trial, as there are many expensive, unproven and potentially unregulated treatments available.
You can give your immune system a boost by following the OMS Program, including:
MS and low white blood cell count
White cells (lymphocytes) are essential for protecting the body against infection. Some research has found that PwMS are at risk of low levels of white blood cells, known as lymphopenia. The study found that medical treatments designed for helping to treat relapsing MS also lower the person’s white blood cell count. The risk of a prolonged low white blood cell count is that the body is left unable to fight infection, which can have very severe consequences.
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- Filippi M, Rovaris M, Inglese M, et al. Interferon beta-1a for brain tissue loss in patients at presentation with syndromes suggestive of multiple sclerosis: a randomised, double-blind,
- placebo-controlled trial. Lancet 2004; 364:1489-1496
- Filippi M, Rocca MA. MRI evidence for multiple sclerosis as a diffuse disease of the central nervous system. J Neurol 2005; 252 Suppl 5:v16-v24
- Bruck W. The pathology of multiple sclerosis is the result of focal inflammatory demyelination with axonal damage. J Neurol 2005; 252 Suppl 5:v3-v9
- Bruck W. Inflammatory demyelination is not central to the pathogenesis of multiple sclerosis. J Neurol 2005; 252 Suppl 5:v10-v15
- Zipp F, Aktas O. The brain as a target of inflammation: common pathways link inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases. Trends Neurosci 2006