After recovering from MS, Linda set up Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis to help others worldwide
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a diagnosis that everyone would like to avoid. Often striking in the prime of life, its long list of symptoms affecting multiple body systems, plus its fearsome reputation for being progressive, lifelong and incurable, has made MS one of our most feared medical conditions. As Linda Bloom will tell you, however, this is by no means the end of the story. After becoming severely ill with MS, she regained full health after discovering the work of Professor George Jelinek – and set up the charity Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis (OMS) to help people in the same situation using Prof Jelinek’s diet and lifestyle-based approach. We caught up with Linda to hear her story in this exclusive ANH-Intl interview.
ANH: Can you please tell us about your experiences with MS and how you came to discover Prof Jelinek’s work?
Linda: I was diagnosed with MS in 2002, when I was 28 years old. I was halfway through my psychology Masters course and working as a counsellor at a Melbourne university. The symptoms came on very suddenly: numbness and tingling throughout my body, dizziness, absolutely no energy, a clamping sensation around my chest and difficulty breathing...I couldn’t even pick up a pen to write. I couldn’t really do anything for myself, in fact, so I spent 2 months living on my sister’s couch. My sister is also a medical doctor and she and the rest of my family were wonderful – they provided so much support.
The doctor told me to go home and decide which of three drugs I wanted to take. But when I sat down and thought about it, something inside told me that I didn’t want to go down the drug treatment route. And not only that, but that I was going to be OK. This was a personal choice and not one that I recommend to others. My symptoms were so bad that when my sister discovered Taking Control of Multiple Sclerosis, she had to read it to me as I couldn’t hold the book myself. Because it made a lot of sense and was all evidence based, I started following the programme.
I changed my diet dramatically, started meditating every day, gradually added exercise into my daily routine, took vitamin D supplements and started managing my stress levels – and I began to feel better. As time went on, my symptoms continued to improve until they disappeared completely, although it took around 5 years to feel substantially better. I’ve now been relapse-free for 11 years.
In 2009, I had a terrible bout of flu and I thought I might be having another relapse, so I went for an MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] scan. All the MS lesions I’d had before had disappeared, which rather shocked the neurologist! After all, MS is supposed to be a lifelong, degenerative condition.
ANH: What was the single most important aspect that helped you to overcome MS?
Linda: In short, hope. In a system where there’s so much doom and gloom and negativity, to discover that there was something I could do, by myself, for myself, to feel empowered to help myself was totally life changing. OMS provided that realistic, evidence-based hope at a time when I was getting little hope from anywhere other than my family and friends.
ANH: How did Prof Jelinek come to develop the OMS programme?
Linda: Prof Jelinek was diagnosed with MS in 1999, and he also watched his mother suffer from the disease and eventually take her own life. He’s also a specialist in emergency medicine and the founding editor of the peer-reviewed journal Emergency Medicine Australasia. Given this, he was in an ideal position to scour the medical literature when he was diagnosed with MS. He found that there are a lot of things that MS patients can do to help themselves – things that have been extensively researched and yet overlooked by much of the medical profession. And just to be clear, Prof Jelinek has a bigger picture, ‘do whatever it takes’ approach that doesn’t necessarily exclude the use of medication, even though the main focus of the OMS programme is diet and lifestyle.
ANH: What are the main precepts of the OMS programme?
Linda: It’s a self-help programme providing tools to help people with MS take control of their own lives, to manage symptoms and empower themselves to heal. It’s based on the pioneering work of Prof Roy Swank, who started a very long-term research project in 1949, and so builds on over 40 years of research. It involves a plant-based, whole-food diet plus seafood, with very little saturated fat and supplemented by omega-3 oils, especially flaxseed oil – our results showed that flaxseed oil contributed to a 60% reduction in MS relapse rates. The programme further recommends vitamin D3 supplementation depending on the availability of sunlight, stress management, exercise and meditation as required. So really, it’s a mainstream, common-sense preventative medicine approach that anyone would highly benefit from, even those without MS.
ANH: Does the OMS protocol apply to all MS sufferers, including those with primary progressive MS as well as those with the more common, relapsing–remitting type?
Linda: I’m glad you asked! Research shows that, on average, people following the OMS programme for 5 years will improve their quality of life by approximately 20% – regardless of the type of MS they have. Last year, Professor Jelinek and Karen Law published a book called Recovering From Multiple Sclerosis: Real life stories of hope and inspiration, which tells the stories of 12 people – including myself – with all different types of MS and their recoveries.
Linda: In Australia and New Zealand, and based on website visits, book sales and attendance at OMS retreats, we estimate that around 10–20% of MS patients follow the OMS approach. The OMS charity is fairly new in the UK – we set it up in 2011 – and we’re in the process of setting up in the USA, but we’ve got a good relationship with the MS Society in the UK. We have a presence at their two-yearly event, MSLife, I was invited to be on the steering committee for the MS Society’s forthcoming appeal and we support their research when it’s aligned with our approach. As we build our presence in the UK and USA, we’re focusing on people with MS rather than on healthcare professionals, as that’s where we feel we can have the greatest impact.
ANH: Are there any outcome data for people who have used the OMS programme?
Linda: Yes. We’ve looked at people at the 1- and 5-year marks since they began following these principles at an OMS retreat. After 1 year, we saw a 12% improvement in mental health, a 19% improvement in physical health and an 11% improvement in overall quality of life. After 5 years, the benefits continued to grow: a 23% improvement in mental health, an 18% improvement in physical health and a 20% improvement in quality of life overall.
We’re also in the process of publishing data from our HOLISM study (Health Outcomes and Lifestyle Interventions in a Sample of people with MS), which looks at over 2,500 people with MS from 57 countries. So far, four papers out of a planned 12 have been published in peer-reviewed journals. One found that those who ate the most fish, and who took the most omega-3 supplements, had better results in all domains of disease activity, disability and quality of life. Another HOLISM paper found a significant association between smoking and poor health in MS patients: smokers were 90% more likely to need major mobility support, compared with never smokers. Interestingly, moderate alcohol consumption was associated with better quality of life and lower levels of disability. Finally – for now! – the most recent HOLISM paper showed that MS patients with the ‘healthiest’ fat and fruit/vegetable consumption had around one-third fewer relapses than those in the ‘unhealthiest’ corresponding groups. These findings strongly support Prof Swank’s work.
ANH: Mainstream medicine now appreciates that MS in an autoimmune condition. However, it appears to see it as both largely incurable and lacking effective treatments. How does this compare with your view?
Linda: You won’t be surprised to hear our view is very different! We don’t see that there’s any mystery: we view MS as being similar to other Western lifestyle diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Plenty of epidemiological evidence exists to support this view. If MS were widely regarded as being similar to CVD, we’d already have risk reduction programmes in place! Neurologists may be so used to dealing with what they view as incurable diseases that they automatically consider MS in the same way.
ANH: What are your future plans for OMS?
Linda: We’re starting to run 1-day workshops in the UK this year, run by an MS Specialist nurse and a mind/body practitioner, where like-minded people can connect and learn more about our approach. Our second UK retreat will go ahead in July, in Somerset, which sold out within a couple of hours of being announced. We’re also holding a 1-day event in Birmingham in July, tickets for which are already selling well. The remaining HOLISM papers will come out in 2014–15. And we’re delighted to be able to offer UK MS patients diagnosed in the last 6 months a free copy of Prof Jelinek’s book, Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis as well as Recovering from MS: Real life stories of hope and inspiration, if they contact us at [email protected]. But since MS is a global disease, we want OMS to be a truly global organisation, and our future efforts, with initiatives in the USA and elsewhere, will reflect that.
ANH: Please describe your perfect meal as a previous sufferer in full remission.
Linda: A delicious piece of fresh salmon, cooked to perfection, along with broccoli, beans and new potatoes. That’s it. I’m a woman of simple pleasures!