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The Science Behind Overcoming MS

Learn more about the evidence and research behind the Overcoming MS Program.

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The evidence behind the Overcoming MS Program is broad-based, drawn from multiple different study methodologies and research groups, and incorporating over 1,000 pieces of research from the world’s top medical journals.

Built on work conducted by pioneers such as Prof. Roy Swank, an eminent neurologist from the University of Oregon, as well as research conducted by the Neuroepidemiology Unit (NEU) of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, the best currently available evidence offers a congruent and persuasive argument as to the efficacy of the Overcoming MS Program’s core principles. Skip to read the research papers that validate the principle tenets of the Overcoming MS Program.

The Basis of MS

The preponderance of evidence to date, published in journals as varied as Lancet, Nature, and JAMA Neurology, points to MS being a disease that has a strong genetic basis for susceptibility, which comprises 25% of the risk for getting it. Its progression, however, is largely determined by environmental factors, most of which are modifiable based on changes in lifestyle. This evidence stems from a range of genetic studies (1), including genome-wide association studies (2) and epidemiological studies, particularly around the contribution of latitude (3), vitamin D (4) and sun exposure (5), diet (6), smoking (7), exercise (8), and stress (8).

Early MS Research

The earliest research informing the risk factors associated with MS were major epidemiological studies undertaken in the middle of the 20th century, around the latitude gradient (9) and regional differences in diet (10).

One of the pioneers of this early research was Prof. Roy Swank, an esteemed academic neurologist at the University of Oregon, who while looking at inland and coastal populations in Norway, observed that the incidence of MS was 6 times higher in the former, where the diet was primarily meat-based and therefore high in saturated fat, versus a low saturated fat diet in the coastal areas, where the diet was primarily seafood-based.

Prof. Swank’s initial epidemiological data from Norway prompted him to undertake the extraordinary Swank Study of 150 people with MS who were prescribed a low saturated fat diet. Over 34 years (6), this intervention study showed that those adhering to the diet remained largely fit and ambulant.

MS Research Today

Building on Prof. Swank’s work, researchers around the world showed that even within countries, there was a striking difference in MS incidence depending on latitude (6), and proceeded to correlate this closely with ambient exposure to the UVB in sunlight (11), leading to the conclusion that sun exposure and vitamin D supplementation were important tools in managing MS.

The influence of exercise, smoking, stress, poor blood fat profile, and the presence of other illnesses has been studied in recent years, with supportive evidence of a role for each contributed by many different research groups. There are now acknowledged benefits for exercise (12), smoking cessation (7), stress reduction and meditation (13), improved lipid profile in blood and healthy body weight (14), and having fewer other chronic conditions (15). Adding to the current body of key MS research are two important studies conducted by Prof. Jelinek and his research team: STOP MS and HOLISM.

Research Study: STOP MS

STOP MS is a study of over 400 people with MS who attended a 5-day Overcoming MS Program retreat to learn about lifestyle risk modification advocated by the 7-Step Overcoming MS Program. STOP MS will follow up with participants at the 1-, 3-, 5-, and 10-year marks.

The research papers published from the study’s findings at the 1- and 5-year follow-ups of STOP MS participants have shown that people who attended improved their lifestyle habits, maintained their use of disease-modifying medications, and achieved improvements in health-related quality of life that average around 12% at 1-year (16) and 20% at 5 years (17).

Research Study: HOLISM

The Health Outcomes and Lifestyle In a Sample of people with Multiple Sclerosis (HOLISM) study surveyed over 2,500 people from 57 countries, comprising a mix of people with MS living healthy lifestyles, and a large proportion who were not.

Strong associations were established between a range of lifestyle risk factors and quality of life (18), relapse rate and disability (19), fatigue (20), depression (21), sexual function (22), and pain (23). The risk factors studied were diet (24), body mass index (25), omega 3 fatty acid intake (26), smoking and alcohol consumption (27), exercise (28), latitude and vitamin D intake (29), meditation frequency (30), and number of other illnesses (25).

The researchers at the NEU showed people living lifestyles in keeping with the 7-Step Overcoming MS Program had better health outcomes, including less disability, fewer relapses, better quality of life, and less incidence of depression and fatigue. Additionally, they confirmed the results seen in clinical trials that disability and relapse rates for people with MS are lower for those taking disease-modifying medications (31).

HOLISM has generated over 15 research papers published in top peer-reviewed medical journals, such as PLOS ONE, Frontiers in Neurology, BMC Neurology, and BMC Psychiatry.


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  2. Sawcer S, Hellenthal G, Pirinen M, Spencer CC, Patsopoulos NA, Moutsianas L, et al. Genetic risk and a primary role for cell-mediated immune mechanisms in multiple sclerosis. Nature. 2011;476(7359):214-9.

  3. Esparza ML, Sasaki S, Kesteloot H. Nutrition, latitude, and multiple sclerosis mortality: an ecologic study. Am J Epidemiol. 1995;142(7):733-7.

  4. Lucas RM, Byrne SN, Correale J, Ilschner S, Hart PH. Ultraviolet radiation, vitamin D and multiple sclerosis. Neurodegener Dis Manag. 2015;5(5):413-24.

  5. van der Mei IA, Ponsonby AL, Blizzard L, Dwyer T. Regional variation in multiple sclerosis prevalence in Australia and its association with ambient ultraviolet radiation. Neuroepidemiology. 2001;20(3):168-74.

  6. Swank RL, Dugan BB. Effect of low saturated fat diet in early and late cases of multiple sclerosis. Lancet. 1990;336(8706):37-9.

  7. Ramanujam R, Hedstrom AK, Manouchehrinia A, Alfredsson L, Olsson T, Bottai M, et al. Effect of Smoking Cessation on Multiple Sclerosis Prognosis. JAMA Neurol. 2015;72(10):1117-23.

  8. Motl RW, McAuley E. Association between change in physical activity and short-term disability progression in multiple sclerosis. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine. 2011;43(4):305-10.

  9. Goldberg P. Multiple sclerosis: vitamin D and calcium as environmental determinants of prevalence (a viewpoint).  Part 1: sunlight, dietary factors and epidemiology. Int J Environ Studies. 1974;6:19-27.

  10. Swank RL. Multiple sclerosis: a correlation of its incidence with dietary fat. Am J Med Sci. 1950;220:421-30.

  11. van der Mei IA, Ponsonby AL, Dwyer T, Blizzard L, Simmons R, Taylor BV, et al. Past exposure to sun, skin phenotype, and risk of multiple sclerosis: case-control study. BMJ. 2003;327(7410):316.

  12. Motl RW, Pilutti LA. The benefits of exercise training in multiple sclerosis. Nat Rev Neurol. 2012;8(9):487-97.

  13. Grossman P, Kappos L, Gensicke H, D’Souza M, Mohr DC, Penner IK, et al. MS quality of life, depression, and fatigue improve after mindfulness training: a randomized trial. Neurology. 2010;75(13):1141-9.

  14. Tettey P, Simpson S, Taylor B, Ponsonby AL, Lucas RM, Dwyer T, et al. An adverse lipid profile and increased levels of adiposity significantly predict clinical course after a first demyelinating event. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2017.

  15. Tettey P, Siejka D, Simpson S, Jr., Taylor B, Blizzard L, Ponsonby AL, et al. Frequency of Comorbidities and Their Association with Clinical Disability and Relapse in Multiple Sclerosis. Neuroepidemiology. 2016;46(2):106-13.

  16. Li MP, Jelinek GA, Weiland TJ, Mackinlay CA, Dye S, Gawler I. Effect of a residential retreat promoting lifestyle modifications on health-related quality of life in people with multiple sclerosis. Quality in primary care. 2010;18(6):379-89.

  17. Hadgkiss EJ, Jelinek GA, Weiland TJ, Rumbold G, Mackinlay CA, Gutbrod S, et al. Health-related quality of life outcomes at 1 and 5 years after a residential retreat promoting lifestyle modification for people with multiple sclerosis. Neurol Sci. 2013;34(2):187-95.

  18. Jelinek GA, De Livera AM, Marck CH, Brown CR, Neate SL, Taylor KL, et al. Lifestyle, medication and socio-demographic determinants of mental and physical health-related quality of life in people with multiple sclerosis. BMC Neurol. 2016;16(1):235.

  19. Jelinek GA, De Livera AM, Marck CH, Brown CR, Neate SL, Taylor KL, et al. Associations of Lifestyle, Medication, and Socio-Demographic Factors with Disability in People with Multiple Sclerosis: An International Cross-Sectional Study. PLoS One. 2016;11(8):e0161701.

  20. Weiland TJ, Jelinek GA, Marck CH, Hadgkiss EJ, van der Meer DM, Pereira NG, et al. Clinically significant fatigue: prevalence and associated factors in an international sample of adults with multiple sclerosis recruited via the internet. PLoS One. 2015;10(2):e0115541.

  21. Taylor KL, Hadgkiss EJ, Jelinek GA, Weiland TJ, Pereira NG, Marck CH, et al. Lifestyle factors, demographics and medications associated with depression risk in an international sample of people with multiple sclerosis. BMC Psychiatry. 2014;14:327.

  22. Marck CH, Jelinek PL, Weiland TJ, Hocking JS, De Livera AM, Taylor KL, et al. Sexual function in multiple sclerosis and associations with demographic, disease and lifestyle characteristics: an international cross-sectional study. BMC Neurol. 2016;16(1):210.

  23. Marck CH, De Livera AM, Weiland TJ, Jelinek PL, Neate SL, Brown CR, Taylor KL, Khan F, Jelinek GA. Pain in people with multiple sclerosis: associations with modifiable lifestyle factors, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and mental health quality of life. Front Neurol. 2017;8:461:

  24. Hadgkiss EJ, Jelinek GA, Weiland TJ, Pereira NG, Marck CH, van der Meer DM. The association of diet with quality of life, disability, and relapse rate in an international sample of people with multiple sclerosis. Nutr Neurosci. 2015;18(3):125-36.

  25. Marck CH, Neate SL, Taylor KL, Weiland TJ, Jelinek GA. Prevalence of Comorbidities, Overweight and Obesity in an International Sample of People with Multiple Sclerosis and Associations with Modifiable Lifestyle Factors. PLoS One. 2016;11(2):e0148573.

  26. Jelinek GA, Hadgkiss EJ, Weiland TJ, Pereira NG, Marck CH, van der Meer DM. Association of fish consumption and Omega 3 supplementation with quality of life, disability and disease activity in an international cohort of people with multiple sclerosis. International Journal of Neuroscience. 2013;123(11):792-800.

  27. Weiland TJ, Hadgkiss EJ, Jelinek GA, Pereira NG, Marck CH, van der Meer DM. The association of alcohol consumption and smoking with quality of life, disability and disease activity in an international sample of people with multiple sclerosis. J Neurol Sci. 2014;336(1-2):211-9.

  28. Marck CH, Hadgkiss EJ, Weiland TJ, van der Meer DM, Pereira NG, Jelinek GA. Physical activity and associated levels of disability and quality of life in people with multiple sclerosis: a large international survey. BMC Neurol. 2014;14:143.

  29. Jelinek GA, Marck CH, Weiland TJ, Pereira N, van der Meer DM, Hadgkiss EJ. Latitude, sun exposure and vitamin D supplementation: associations with quality of life and disease outcomes in a large international cohort of people with multiple sclerosis. BMC Neurol. 2015;15:132.

  30. Levin AB, Hadgkiss EJ, Weiland TJ, Marck CH, van der Meer DM, Pereira NG, et al. Can meditation influence quality of life, depression, and disease outcome in multiple sclerosis? Findings from a large international web-based study. Behav Neurol. 2014;2014:916519.

  31. Jelinek GA, Weiland TJ, Hadgkiss EJ, Marck CH, Pereira N, van der Meer DM. Medication use in a large international sample of people with multiple sclerosis: associations with quality of life, relapse rate and disability. Neurol Res. 2015;37(8):662-73.

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  33. Jelinek GA. Determining causation from observational studies: a challenge for modern neuroepidemiology. Front Neurol 2017: https://doiorg/103389/fneur201700265.