MS and Salt: Shake It Up!
By Laura Kolaczkowski—March 23, 2013

It caught me by surprise when I read the NMSS headline: “National MS Society-Supported Studies Point to Possibility that Dietary Salt May Stimulate Activity of Key Immune Cells Involved in MS Attacks.”  This headline is making the rounds of the key MS news sources and is generating plenty of conversations and warnings on social media.

Yes, we are talking about plain old salt, the stuff that sits innocuously on every dinner table or at least on every restaurant table in America. We have already been told to lay off the salt because of its effect on blood pressure – salt can cause an increase in blood pressure and lead to hypertension. There is enough naturally occurring salt in our table food that it would be difficult to avoid it entirely.

I stopped using added salt from a shaker over a decade ago when my husband had open heart surgery. We read labels and aim for low sodium items.  A heart healthy diet doesn’t include the white crystals – whether it is gourmet dead sea salt from the Himalayas or from Morton’s ‘when it rains, it pours’ blue carton with the charming girl with the umbrella.

I have my own heart issues and my problems are the opposite  – about a year ago at a routine cardiology appointment my blood pressure was 84/52, low enough that the nurse was concerned as to whether I should even drive myself back to work; that might explain why I was feeling particularly tired around that time. My cardiologist immediately gave me two options – the first would be to add another prescription drug to my daily regimen, which is something none of us wants to do when we already swallow a handful of pills a couple times a day. The second option was to pick up the salt shaker and use it, generously.

Adding salt to my diet is still a hard thing to do and at times I feel like I am a cow out in a field enjoying a salt lick –  the salt taste lingers much too long. After so many years of not using salt, adding it back into my diet does not come easily and it is not all that tasty. The saltiness lingers on my taste buds. Hours later I am still tasting salt and drinking large glasses of water looking for relief, but it does help my blood pressure and I am now in a tolerable range, or at least it’s high enough that I don’t have to fear nodding off at my desk or behind the wheel of my car.

All of this brings me back to the latest news on salt and Multiple Sclerosis.  A combined research team from MIT, Harvard, and Yale, found a possible link – that MS lesion activity might be triggered when excessive salt is in our diet. They found this in tests with mice and it has to do with activating some pesky T-helper cells, which in turn increases the immune attack on the central nervous system. The thought is by decreasing our salt intake we may improve the odds of slowing MS attacks.  Now I find myself pondering the choices – too low blood pressure or increased possibility of another MS exacerbation?  Neither one is really a good choice in my way of thinking. I’m also wondering did they get the mice to pick up the shaker and sprinkle it on their food or just give them a sugar cube sized salt lick of their own?

Something is causing a rapid increase in the rate of new cases of MS, and the suspicion is it might be connected with something dietary or environmental.  But salt?  It has been used for food preservation since at least a couple millennia B.C. and found back to the Neolithic era. The Egyptians were trading salted fish around 2000B.C. but the first identified cases of MS weren’t noted until the mid-1800’s.  Perhaps it is just the case that in our modern diet we are eating a lot more of it?

I look forward to hearing if further studies will hold up – until then I will take these reports with a grain of salt.  During my low-salt decade, I had my worst relapse yet, which doesn’t quite match what the research suggests.  But then again, not much about my MS fits any predictable pattern. Does yours?

Wishing you well,

Laura

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About Laura Kolaczkowski

Laura is active in the national and local MS community, facilitating patient programs including MS research and an MS Aquatics program. She is also a presence on the internet at MS patient sites and maintains her blog at InsideMyStory.com. Laura has a particular research interest in the use of internet information by people with MS and how that knowledge is shared in the patient-doctor relationship.

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