Top Doctor who Beat his MS in Seven Simple Steps
Give up meat and dairy. Get more sun. Meditate . . . how George has kept his symptoms at bay for 10 years
- Scottish Daily Mail
GEORGE JELINEK will never forget the day he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. ‘It was Sunday, April 19, 1999, at about 4pm,’ he says. ‘In an instant I felt the bottom fall out of my world.’
He was 45, a father of three and a professor of emergency medicine at the peak of his career. ‘I knew exactly how bad MS could get and the news was utterly devastating.’
Eighteen years earlier, his wheelchairbound mother, Eva, worn down by a 16-year losing battle with the same disease, had taken her own life at the age of 58.
Professor Jelinek and his four siblings had only been able to look on helplessly as their mother, in constant pain, had become totally dependent upon others.
His own symptoms first occurred just six days before his diagnosis. He noticed ‘an unusual sensation in the big toe of my left foot’ while at work.
Over the next couple of days, he grew increasingly concerned as the strange numbness spread quickly to his foot and then up his leg.
Even though there was no pain, he assumed he had some kind of back injury, such as a slipped disc.
Looking back, he says: ‘My very first thought should have been “I’ve got MS”. It’s known to run in families, I was the right age and the symptoms were typical. But denial is a wonderful thing.’
By the Sunday, when he finally managed to see a neurologist, the numbness had spread to his waist and he was ‘in a bit of a panic’. But Professor Jelinek was still puzzled when the specialist started talking about MS and his mother.
‘I can recall very clearly the second the penny dropped because it was a massive penny that suddenly fell from the clouds and smashed on the table.’
No one knows what triggers MS, a condition in which the immune system attacks the cells that cover and protect the fibres of the nervous system.
This interferes with the messages between the brain and the rest of the body, causing a wide range of problems, from stiffness and spasms to a devastating loss of basic bodily functions.
There are two main types of MS, which affects three times as many women as men. ‘Relapsing-remitting’, in which new symptoms appear or old ones return for anything from a few hours to days, affects 85 per cent of patients.
With ‘progressive’ MS, symptoms steadily get worse. There is no cure, and while it does not kill, there are risks from complications, such as infections.
Eva Jelinek’s symptoms began soon after she was in a car crash on her way to work as a nurse at a psychiatric hospital.
THROWN through the windscreen, she sustained serious head injuries. By the time Professor Jelinek went to university, his mother was in a wheelchair ‘and it was becoming pretty clear how awful things were getting’, he recalls.
At the end, ‘she was lucid, intelligent and insightful, but physically unable to care for herself in any way’. However, she did manage to build up a secret stockpile of the barbiturates she was taking daily to help her sleep.
The young George was with his mother the night before she died ‘and I remember she was tearful when I said goodnight, but, of course, I had no idea of the significance’.
When he was told he, too, had the disease, he knew what was coming. ‘I’d lived this diagnosis with my mother. Now that diagnosis was mine and I knew exactly where it was going to take me.’
But that wasn’t where it would take Professor Jelinek.
Instead of waiting for the disease to overwhelm him, he embarked on a journey of discovery and research, tracking down and analysing hundreds of half-forgotten medical papers, some dating back to the Thirties, and collaborating with a community of MS sufferers he began to build around the world.
In the process, the Australian emergency specialist changed career in his late 50s, leaving St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne three years ago to set up a pioneering neurology research unit at the University of Melbourne.
What he has learnt, he believes, saved his life. Seventeen years on from his diagnosis and aged 62, the father of five says he has ‘no symptoms — I’m perfectly well’. In fact, swimming and running regularly, ‘I’m actually fitter and healthier than I have been at any time in my life’. His secret? As he reveals in his new book, Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis, it’s the result of a simple, evidence-based recovery programme that is centred on dietary and lifestyle changes.
Professor Jelinek’s formula, which is being hailed by experts as a lifechanging breakthrough, boils down to seven demanding steps based on ‘a rigorous analysis of the best available scientific evidence’.
EAT well. Give up meat, dairy and other foods high in saturated fats in favour of a plant-based wholefood diet with seafood, supplemented by 20-30 millilitres a day of omega-3 fatty acids, ideally from flaxseed oil.
EXERCISE regularly. Aim for 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
GET enough sun and vitamin D. Top up with vitamin D supplements and, if possible, up to 15 minutes of sunlight five times a week.
MEDITATE. Helps to control stress, a trigger for MS relapses.
PROTECT your family. Relatives are at high risk of contracting MS and following the programme can prevent that.
MEDICATION. Continue taking drugs prescribed by your doctor.
CHANGE your life. Make looking after yourself a priority and embrace the programme as ‘a great, new way to live well’.
Each step has been tried and tested by the thousands of MS patients worldwide who have joined Professor Jelinek’s online community. The programme has been shown to be effective in more than a dozen published papers based on their experiences.
One study of almost 2,500 patients, published in the International Journal of Neuroscience in 2013, demonstrated that ‘frequent consumption of fish and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation are strongly associated with improved quality of life, reduced disease activity and disability’.
Another study, in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience, with over 2,000 patients found ‘significant associations’ between healthy eating and ‘better physical and mental health-related quality of life and a lower level of disability’.
Professor Jelinek’s search for answers began almost as soon as he left his neurologist’s office that bleak day in 1999. ‘I had no idea there was anything you could do about MS and that was certainly clear from the way the neurologist delivered the news,’ he says.
‘It was, ‘“Look, buddy, I’ve got terrible news. You’ve got this incurable progressive neurological disease and there’s nothing you can do about it”. ’
But a few days later he stumbled on a paper published in The Lancet in July 1990 and ‘when I read it I almost wept — why hadn’t somebody said anything about this?’
The paper, Effect Of Low Saturated Fat Diet In Early And Late Cases Of Multiple Sclerosis, was by Roy Swank, a U.S. neurologist who spent his career studying the link with nutrition.
He found variations in the occurrence of MS in Switzerland, with higher rates in the north — dominated by German culture and high-fat cuisine — compared with the south, where people ate Mediterranean food. Swank wondered if diet might be the key.
He tested the theory in Norway and found the incidence of MS was four times higher inland, where people were dependent on meat, than in coastal areas, where fish formed the bulk of the diet. Swank followed 144 people with MS over 34 years and concluded in his Lancet paper that those who stuck to less than 20g of fat a day ‘showed significantly less deterioration and much lower death rates’.
‘As soon as I read Swank’s paper, I found hope,’ says Professor Jelinek. ‘My energy and passion came back. I started to follow up all these clues in the literature and one thing just led to another.’
With research straddling a number of disciplines, he began to make connections others had missed. Within a few months he’d identified lifestyle and dietary changes and became his own guinea pig.
‘It took years for the symptoms to disappear,’ he says. ‘It was gradual, but seven years after diagnosis I realised I no longer had them.’
In 2002, Professor Jelinek began holding week-long residential workshops to spread the word among MS patients and has built a community of 16,000 on Facebook, Twitter and a chat forum.
Three years ago, he decided: ‘I wasn’t really going to change anything much if I didn’t contribute to the research in this area.’
SO, WITH funding from the MS community, he founded the Neuroepidemiology Unit at the University of Melbourne, which in the past year has published a dozen papers.
‘It’s important for people with MS to know it need not be a relentless, progressive deterioration,’ he says.
‘And we have found age doesn’t matter, nor does it matter how disabled you are — it’s possible to stabilise the illness at any stage.’
Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis is dedicated to his mother.
‘That’s where my motivation came from,’ he says. ‘Not only from seeing Mum’s suffering and the way she was forced to end her life, and the realisation I would be in that position, but also thinking about the tens of thousands of people in the same situation. It just doesn’t have to be that way.’
‘Your future is actually much more in your hands than it is in your doctor’s.’
OVERCOMING Multiple Sclerosis (Allen & Unwin, £16.99) by Professor George Jelinek is published this week. To order a copy at the special price of £13.59 (valid until July 12), call 0844 571 0640 or visit mailbookshop.co.uk. (P&P free on orders over £15). For further information on Professor Jelinek’s approach go to: overcomingms.org