Multiple Sclerosis, the Microbiome and Meat Consumption: A Complex Interplay

We have a big dividing line – metaphorically – running through my kitchen:  on the one side is me with my beloved heaping salads; acorn squash stuffed with wild rice, cranberries and walnuts; mushroom risottos; cashew korma with basmati rice,  etc.  On the other, looking at me with horror-stricken expressions, are my sons, who walk around the house wearing t-shirts that read, “100% meatatarian” or simply, “meat.”  For us, it’s a matter of taste although, interestingly, if you consider the “eat right for your blood type” way of thinking, my A blood would predispose me to a plant based diet, while their O bloods would sway them toward more meat.  As you know from my previous posts on the subjects, that blood type/diet connection is not as yet fully substantiated though – but be that as it may, I still ponder it as, in case you hadn’t yet noticed, I am a brooder by nature!

With all the current research looking now at the connections dietary meat, the microbiome and heart disease, I was interested in learning more about this relationship that now has also been spotted in multiple sclerosis (MS), an overtly autoimmune disease.  An article came out last week in eBioMedicine, which is a part of The Lancet system, describing a 6 month long research study performed on 49 participants, 24 of whom had untreated relapsing-remitting MS; and 25 of whom were age matched, healthy controls.[i]  Their microbiomes were sequenced; their immune systems were analzyed in depth; and this was all then examined in light of food diaries, to see if correlations were to be found.

Indeed, there were rather extraordinary findings.  There was distinct differences in the gut microbiome of healthy controls versus those with MS, and the degree of difference correlated to the severity of the disease.  Immune markers also showed great differences, including fatty acid pathways, and many metabolites produced by gut bacteria were off.  Remarkably, the one factor that stood out in terms of a distinct alteration in the microbiome was the consumption of meat, which was highly associated with a decrease in the gut bacteria B. thetaiotaomicron – which, in turn was associated with a marked increase in inflammatory Th17 helper cells, as well as a greater abundance of meat-associated blood metabolites.  That is, the scientists found that meat eating is associated with “…increased meat-associated blood metabolite, decreased polysaccharides digesting bacteria, and increased circulating proinflammatory marker.”

The study was the joint effort of researchers at UConn Health School of Medicine and Washington University.  Says one of the researchers, “This is the first study using an integrated approach to analyze the interplay between diet, gut microbiome, the immune system and metabolism and their contribution to disease pathogenesis and progression in people with MS.  It opens a new modality to address future scientific questions by not looking at one individual factor but at their complex interplay.”[ii]  This is exactly what is needed, when you consider the overwhelming complexity of the human biome, let alone the immune system, their interactions, and how this all relates to the most important factor in health and disease – our diets.

I have recently been doing some serious thinking about diet.  I myself suffer from two autoimmune diseases, and have been flaring horribly since last summer.  A week ago, fed up with how I have been feeling, how medicines make me feel (and how they so don’t seem to help), I decided to give a fully vegan diet a shot, with the specter of The China Study (any of you remember that book from about 15 years ago?!) hanging over me.  For those unfamiliar, the book was one of the biggest best sellers on nutrition and health ever published in the USA, and it described research done in a collaborative effort between Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine.  It showed that there is pretty much nothing more anti-inflammatory than a vegan diet.  It made big headlines again when, a few years later, former President Bill Clinton – having suffered from massive heart disease – put himself onto the diet.

All this of course, to simply say:  we need exactly this kind of research, and we need it soon.  I have written many times on this blog about our need for personalized nutrition.  I will, of course, continue to monitor this space and bring you the latest.


[i] Richardson TG, Fang S, Mitchell RE, Holmes MV, Davey Smith G. Evaluating the effects of cardiometabolic exposures on circulating proteins which may contribute to severe SARS-CoV-2. EBioMedicine. 2021 Feb;64:103228. doi: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2021.103228. Epub 2021 Feb 3. PMID: 33548839; PMCID: PMC7857697.


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