Imagine a nightmare scenario where the human body wrongly detects imaginary threats and in the process of defending itself gradually destroys its own tissues. While this might sound like a fanciful variation of the Cold War paranoia of the 1950s, it is what actually occurs when one becomes affected by an autoimmune disease.
There are many different types of autoimmune diseases. This strange dysfunction can cause severe joint pain and discomfort to those who are afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis, but when in the case of multiple sclerosis (MS) the nervous system is under attack, the stakes are obviously a lot higher.
Our nervous system has often been compared to a very busy telephone exchange where thousands of messages are constantly being sent from the company headquarters to the different branches when action is needed. Instead of telephone wires, the brain communicates by sending electrical impulses through the nerve cells to the rest of the body. As an example, when I am typing this article, my thoughts are interpreted in the cerebral cortex of my brain and instantly transmitted through my spinal cord to my fingers to activate the keys appropriately. It is an extremely efficient way of communicating when it is working properly. Unfortunately, when these conducting nerves become damaged, the messages don't get through.
The body of someone who is affected by multiple sclerosis is, for some unknown reason, gradually destroying the myelin sheath, or outer layer, of these neurons. So, like someone living with a permanently defective telephone line, the messages that are being sent from the brain are either not received by the rest of the body, or received at a much slower speed than normal.
In the early stages of the disease, the sufferer begins to experience visual disturbances and difficulties walking and moving his or her limbs. As the condition worsens, the function of the organs becomes progressively affected, resulting in intestinal and bladder incontinence and sexual dysfunction, as well as memory and concentration impairment. The disease can ultimately progress to the point of immobilisation and confinement.
For some as yet unexplained reason, multiple sclerosis sufferers tend to originate from the colder parts of the globe - for example, regions like Scotland and northern England figure predominantly in the records. In fact, as we reach countries closer to the Equator, the incidence of this neurological totally disappears. Strangely at times, patients may experience momentary unexplained remission and false hope that their condition is gradually improving, before the symptoms soon return with increased ferocity.
Intensive medical research is currently being conducted in many countries to stop the immune system of MS sufferers from damaging itself. One current Western medical approach being pursued is the search for a protein that will block the autoimmune attack, thereby stopping any further demyelination, and thus preventing further development of the disease. Another is to apply a small protein peptide such as interferon that regulates immune responses and controls initiating viruses, thus reducing the number of MS attacks. There is also experimentation with various diets, largely those that eliminate sugar and food allergens. Reducing meat intake and carbohydrates can produce temporary improvements, and a regular exercise program has been shown to be very beneficial.
While the current Western medical approach is to prescribe medication to alleviate the symptoms, each form of alternative medicine looks at the disease from a different angle. Chiropractors advocate spinal manipulation to facilitate nerve transmission through the spinal cord. Like many therapies, chiropractic manipulation can produce very good results in some cases, and negligible benefits in some others.
Looking further to the east, in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, the human body is under the influence of three complementary forces called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Muscular sclerosis is associated with an imbalance in Vata energy which controls the nervous system. In Ayurveda, the build up of plaque around neurons causing MS is regarded as being the result of impurities that have accumulated in the delicate tissue and are disrupting its biochemistry. Ayurvedic treatments are aimed at clearing these impurities through specific diet, as well as restoring the body's ability to heal itself. Meditation exercises are integrated in the treatments to help control the pain and alleviate the physical and mental stress.
Chinese Herbal Medicine is aimed at replenishing the body essence and strengthening the defective internal organ functions through diet and herbs rather than modern medications. Acupuncture is applied to rectify the circulatory disturbances that arise from the disharmony of the organ functions, with the view that an increase in the Qi energy circulation will help the organs and tissues return to a healthy condition.
But how much can really be achieved with these traditional methods? This question and many others will be answered in the next issue of NOVA Magazine when we take a closer look at the Oriental medical approach to this neurological disease.
Olivier Lejus MHSc.(TCM), BHSc.(Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com