Ingrid Adelsberger knows firsthand what multiple sclerosis (MS) looks like. Watching an immediate family member battle the condition as a child makes her no stranger to the autoimmune disease that affects 2.3 million people worldwide. MS starts in the central nervous system, where the body’s immune system is believed to damage or destroy myelin, a protective coating that insulates nerve fibers. Without myelin, nerve impulses traveling from the brain to the spinal cord are disrupted, resulting in symptoms such as extreme fatigue, numbness, tingling, tremors, slurred speech, loss of balance and muscle co-ordination, loss of vision, and even paralysis. What exactly causes MS is unknown, and while it’s not directly hereditary, having a parent or sibling with MS does increase your risk of developing the disease, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Still, Adelsberger never suspected she would share this genetic fate—that is, until she received the devastating diagnosis at age 30 in March 2011.
“The diagnosis felt totally out of the blue. I had tingling in my arms, but I thought it was carpal tunnel syndrome. When an MRI revealed that I had lesions on my spine, my doctor told me the bad news and I felt my world crumble,” says Adelsberger, now 35, who was born in Vienna, Austria, but has been living and working as an event planner in New York City for more than a decade. “It had never crossed my mind that I might have MS,” she says. “After getting over the initial shock, fear, and sadness the first few months, I had this feeling that this was not going to end badly for me. I was not going to watch myself deteriorate and end up in a wheelchair.”
“I Wanted to Secure a Normal Life”
Grappling with this difficult diagnosis, Adelsberger got to work studying the disease and lining up her best options for treatment. “When I looked into all the MS drugs, my understanding—and I’m not a doctor—is that it helps a third of people, a third stay the same, and a third experience worsened symptoms. I thought, ‘Why would I take something with a two-thirds chance that it won’t help me?’” she says. “At that point, it was clear to me that changing my diet was my best option at securing a pretty normal life.”
A summer of research led Adelsberger to an important paper published in The Lancet in 1990. The study followed 150 MS patients on a low saturated fat diet (less than 20 grams per day) for 34 years and found improvements in their health and lower death rates compared to MS patients who consumed more fat than the recommended amount. “Is it really possible that diet can make such a difference?” Adelsberger recalls wondering. This hopeful discovery inspired Adelsberger to take a holistic approach to her treatment. “I felt that I had to work with the disease from every angle—diet, fitness, and the mind. So I took a reiki class, got certified in energy kinesiology, and took a nutrition class to understand the science of fat better,” she says.
Eventually her insatiable hunger for knowledge led her to the Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis (OMS) program in October 2011 with Australia’s George Jelinek, who had written a few books on the topic, including Taking Control of Multiple Sclerosis and Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis. In 1999, Jelinek founded—and lives by—the Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis (OMS) program that promotes a rigorous diet and lifestyle plan to improve health and manage MS symptoms without any medication.
“It was so mind-blowing for me to find this program. I felt like this was the best option I had to stay healthy even with all the diet restrictions,” says Adelsberger, who admits being Austrian and culturally inclined to enjoy sweets, like cakes, pastries, and chocolate, made the transition extra hard. “When you start the OMS diet, you think it’s super restrictive, but it does allow you to have sugar, coffee, and alcohol in moderation. The longer I’m in it, the more mindful I’ve become.”
Not a Cure, But a Recovery Plan
There was good reason for Adelsberger to heed Jelinek’s advice. Having watched his mother suffer and pass away from the disease in 1981 and then confront his own diagnosis at age 45 in 1999, Jelinek has had a lifetime of experience with MS. His background as a former professor in emergency medicine and editor-in-chief of a major medical journal for 25 years, plus his current position as the head of the Neuroepidemiology Unit at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne in Australia, have all granted Jelinek access to the top medical papers on MS, which inspired him to write a few (about 150) of his own. With all this personal and professional knowledge at his fingertips, Jelinek was able to devise this strict plan, which has helped him live symptom-free for almost two decades.
“I’ve been following this plan for 17 years and not only am I perfectly well, but in fact, I’m healthier now [at age 62 than when I was first diagnosed]. I have no symptoms. No doctor is able to find any evidence that I had MS. I don’t use the word ‘cure,’ but rather ‘recovery.’ This is a program that I have to work at for the rest of my life to improve my health and stay well,” says Jelinek, who has led retreats around the world to spread the word about this alternative treatment to MS. “What drives me to keep going has come from living a life with my mother and watching her deterioration. I’m really motivated to ensure as few people as possible have to live how she did at the end of her life,” he says.
What Is the OMS plan? The backbone of the program—diet, exercise, stress management, sunlight, vitamin D and omega-3 supplementation, and, when needed, medication—is completely spelled out in both Jelinek’s books and his free website, OvercomingMS.org, which receives 100,000 visits per month. Below Jelinek shares a quick overview of the natural remedies for MS that are the most important pillars of this plan.
1. Diet and supplements
The plant-based whole-food diet, which includes seafood and omega-3 fatty acid supplements (20 to 40 mls of flaxseed oil daily) and no saturated fat (nod to that The Lancet article), is designed to be anti-inflammatory and anti-degenerative. “MS is an immune-based disease that causes an inflammatory response. MS also causes degeneration. This diet combats both,” Jelinek explains.
2. Vitamin D
“MS is more common and active the further you are from the equator. So the less sun you get, the greater the risk,” says Jelinek, who recommends 15 minutes of sunlight daily, plus a vitamin D3 supplement of at least 5,000 IU and up to 10,000 IU daily. “Vitamin D has a dramatic effect on the immune system. Like the diet, it’s very anti-inflammatory and helps protect the central nervous system.”
“When you look at the medical literature, there’s a lot on the effects of stress on MS. Not only does it have a role in triggering stress in susceptible people, but there’s an obvious role in precipitating relapses once you have it,” Jelinek says. “Meditation changes how your mind and body respond to stress. So people who regularly meditate—and I’ve been meditating for more than 40 years—respond differently to stress than the average person. Meditation has also shown scientifically to have anti-inflammatory effects, pushing the immune system away from inflammation.” The OMS plan recommends 30 minutes daily.
Related: Deepak Chopra’s Advice for Getting Started with Meditation
“I recommend regular vigorous exercise—at least 30 minutes about five times a week and preferably outside,” says Jelinek, who swims 1500-meters a day and runs at least once a week. Similar to the diet and supplements, exercise also has an anti-inflammatory and anti-degenerative effect. Plus, it lifts your spirits. “Exercise makes you feel a lot better, whether you’re getting better or worse. If you’ve got a disability, it’s important to get a specialist, like a trainer, to help you build up your fitness, starting with a progressive resistance training, adding heavier weights over time.”
“It’s certainly necessary for a lot of people with MS, especially in the beginning, if they are having trouble gaining control over the illness. It takes a while before the body starts to really change and, in the meantime, you may need help to get some stability with the illness before you can continue on your own,” he notes. Consult your doctor to decide what’s the best approach for you.
Feeling Healthier Than Ever
Since adapting the OMS lifestyle, Adelsberger (pictured above meditating) has had only one big relapse of symptoms in 2012. For about 10 days, her right leg and arm stopped working for 20 seconds a few times a day, which caused her to occasionally walk “like a robot,” as she describes. These momentary symptoms would most often occur whenever she’d sit or stand. “They say relapse happens when you have a significant amount of stress in your life and you’re low in vitamin D,” says Adelsberger, who doesn’t recall feeling extra stress at the time, but did up her daily dosage of 10,000 IU of vitamin D.
While her right side remains slightly weaker than her left today, she feels herself becoming stronger through yoga, which she practices twice or more a week, as well as dance and running. Similar to Jelinek, Adelsberger feels she is in a better place than before her diagnosis.
“I’m definitely healthier today. I drink a lot less alcohol, I’m very aware of what I eat, and I try to exercise more—and for different reasons than when I was in my 20’s. Now I use fitness to stay out of the wheelchair,” she says. This new perspective has influenced her body image, too. “I like my body a lot more now. I’m much more mindful and appreciative. I do believe the body can heal itself. If you give your body the right fuel, it is willing to cooperate.”