Multiple Sclerosis and Fatty Acids


Multiple Sclerosis and Fatty Acids

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease which attacks the brain and the spinal cord, known together as the central nervous system(CNS). Damage can occur in many areas of this system. That's why it's called multiple sclerosis. There can be many patches of damage and sclerosis or scars.

Hard material of the central nervous system is made of two main types of tissue: grey and white matter. The grey matter looks grey to the naked eye. This is the part of the brain where computing, thinking, organizing and memory take place. MS has little or no effect on the grey matter, although it does interfere with communication between different parts of it. Intellectual deterioration occurs at later stages of the disease.

The white matter looks white to the naked eye. It consists of fibres which carry messages from the sense organs -- like the skin, eyes and ears -- up to the higher parts of the brain. The white matter also transmits messages from the brain down to the muscles and links up various parts the brain. It is the "wiring" of the brain and it is this part that is affected by the patches of scarring -- or "multiple sclerosis." This is why the ability to feel, move and coordinate is affected. If you suffer from MS and you feel pins and needles in your hands, or you are dragging your left foot, the trouble is not in your hand or foot but in the central nervous system.

The white areas of the CNS are very similar to an electrical cable containing many wires. Each wire consists of a central core (nerve fibre) which carries electrical impulses. In the white matter, each nerve fibre is surrounded by a layer of insulation made mainly of a fatty material known as "myelin." Without the myelin, nerve signals can't travel normally and there may be a faulty connection between adjacent nerve fibres.

In MS the first process seems to be the destruction of this myelin coating around the nerve fibres, which interferes with the way the fibres work. The body makes it worse by attempting to repair the damage, and the damaged area is filled with scars or scleroses, which can't conduct nerve impulses. The disease then consists of a series of attacks and periods of remission. Each attack usually leaves the MS patient a little worse than before. During a remission, something switches off the disease process.

When an exacerbation occurs, there are patches of inflammation which may result in the destruction of the myelin. Nearby areas, although not damaged, are affected. For a temporary period, they may fail to function while the body's repair process is going on. So, at the height of a relapse, three types of damage to the working of the CNS are happening:

Total destruction of the myelin in some fibres which will never recover.
Partial destruction of the myelin in some fibres which may be capable of successful repair.
Temporary loss of function in nearby fibres whose myelin is basically intact.
Once the attack is over, only the first damage is left. This may be very small.

Essential Fatty Acids

Many different sorts of fat are needed by the body. The body can make most of these fats itself, except for one small group known as the essential fatty acids, (EFA's) They must be taken in the food you eat.

EFAs are fundamental for people with MS. They are needed for the growth and repair of the nerve tissue and for the maintenance of its structure. This is particularly important when the central nervous system is under attack. If the body lacks these nutrients, any repair of damaged tissue becomes difficult.

In a way, "fat" is a misleading term for this nutrient. Essential fatty acids are more like proteins, or vitamins, because it is vital you eat them in your food to remain healthy. They are present in every cell of your body. Roughly 60 per cent of the brain is structural lipids of which an important component is EFAs. So they are vital for the proper growth and development of the brain and the central nervous system.

For everyone, fats are an essential part of nutrition. They give energy; help to maintain body temperature; insulate the nerves; cushion and protect the tissues; are part of the cell structure of every cell in your body; and are vital for metabolism.

Research has shown that the white matter in the brains of people with MS is low in essential fatty acids. There is also a suggestion that people with MS have an inability to handle EFAs correctly. Other studies have shown that the myelin sheath, the red and white blood cells, the platelets and the blood plasma are also deficient in essential fatty acids, particularly linoleic acid.

EFAs play a fundamental role in all cell membranes of the body. The fluidity and flexibility of the cell membranes depend on how many EFAs the cells have. The activity of lymphocytes (white blood cells) may be dependent on the state of the cell membrane and will behave differently according to whether a cell membrane is fluid (plenty of EFAs) or rigid (not enough EFAs). This influences the ability of certain lymphocytes to react immunologically.

There are two families of essential fatty acids. Both families are very important to the dietary management of MS. The first family is linoleic acid and its derivatives. Strictly speaking, biochemists call this the omega-6 family, and linoleic acid is the head of it. The second family is alpha-linoleic acid and its derivatives. Biochemists call this the omega-3 family, and alpha-linoleic acid is the parent. When food containing these fatty acids is eaten, the body makes longer-chain fatty acids with more double bonds. These longer-chain, more unsaturated fatty acids are more biologically active than the original linoleic acid, and alph-linoleic acid. It is only these longer-chain fatty acids which are used by the brain.

Prostaglandin Power

The essential fatty acids have two quite distinct roles in the body. They form part of the structure, the building blocks from which cells are made, but they also give rise to short-lived substances called prostaglandins which help to control the way in which the structures work.

Prostaglandins may hold a vital key in the MS mystery. Like hormones they act as regulatory substances and messengers. They are produced and metabolized quickly.

Prostaglandins have two important functions in regards to MS: plant aggregation and regulation of the immune system. The platelets are very small particles in the blood and play a role in blood clotting. In MS there is evidence to show that there is an abnormal clumping of platelets. Prostaglandins are thought to regulate the platelet function in the blood.

It has been suggested that after several months' treating people with essential fatty acids (taken as evening primrose oil capsules), the platelets in the blood returned to normal. Prostaglandins, which are metabolized from the EFAs in the capsules, play a vital role in this.

There is almost certainly something wrong with the immune system of a person with MS. The main function of the immune system is to get rid of invading bodies, such as bacteria and viruses from the body. When the immune system goes wrong for some reason the body cannot tell the difference between itself and alien things. In the confusion, the body attacks its own substances.

One line of research at present is based on the hypothesis that the prostaglandins which regulate the immune system may be in short supply in people with MS. A shortage of prostaglandins may possibly lead to defective lymphocytes and increase the body's susceptibility to autoimmune damage.

Prostaglandins may be of critical importance in regulating the function of something called "T" lympocytes (white blood cells) and "T" suppressor cells which are very low in MS patients during a relapse.

It is known that prostaglandins have the effect of dampening down lymphocytes which are capable of attacking the central nervous system.

Recommended Reading:

Multiple Sclerosis


by J Graham 248 pp (sc)$19.50

Fats that Heal Fats that Kill


by U Erasmus 480 pp (sc) $27.95

The Facts About Fats

J Finnegan 141 pp (sc) $13.50

Canadian Health Reform Products Ltd.


By Judy Graham

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