Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a life-long disease that strikes the myelin (or protective fatty covering) surrounding nerve fibers in the spinal cord, optic nerves, and brain resulting in nerve damage and issues throughout the entire body— and effecting everything from muscle control to balance, and vision to poor bladder and bowel control. MS patients range from mild (requiring little or no treatment) to severe (unable to walk or move independently).
For many years, medical researchers speculated that MS may be caused by a variety of factors—including physical trauma, allergies, exposure to heavy metals, and even artificial sweeteners. While the exact cause of MS still remains a mystery, ongoing medical research has identified many factors that may contribute to the development of MS:
1. Viral risks
Ongoing research has identified viruses from the herpes family (i.e., shingles, roseola, and Epstein-Barr) that may virally trigger MS flare ups. While researchers don’t believe herpes is a direct cause of MS, a large majority of MS patients have these herpes virus proteins in their spinal fluid when diagnosed with MS.
2. Environmental factors
Scientists have also identified several environmental factors that may increase the risk of MS development:
- Smoking increases risk of developing MS and also disease progression
- Lack of vitamin D (or natural sunlight)
- Age (most patients are between 15- and 60-years old)
- Cold climates (i.e., northern European)
- Caucasians are at higher risk compared to other ethnicities
A growing body of research puts shows a potential hormonal link may trigger MS development.
In particular, abnormal levels of reproductive hormones (i.e., testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen) may contribute to MS-related inflammation in brain tissues. Indeed, researchers claim that MS affects three times more female vs. male patients.
We already know that MS is classified as an autoimmune condition, which means it triggers an immune system attack within the body, and in the case of MS attacks the nerve myelin, leading to nerve damage and miscommunication between the brain and body (or nerve response). However, scientists have found that patients who suffer from another autoimmune condition (i.e., ulcerative colitis, crohn’s disease) have an increased risk of developing MS.
5. Genetic links
Although MS is not inherited, meaning it’s not passed down from parents or siblings (particularly in twins), there are still genetic links to developing the disease. For instance, research from the National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation claims while the risk of developing MS is roughly 1 in 1000 for the average individual, if one identical twin has MS, the risk for MS in the other twin increases to 1 in 4. Overall, there’s no one gene that causes MS. Rather, scientists have pinpointed almost 200 genes that can contribute to MS development.