What Causes MS? 4 Risk Factors to Know

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The China Study" by Colin Campbell. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What causes multiple sclerosis? What are the MS risk factors? Are there effective strategies for multiple sclerosis prevention?

The causes of multiple sclerosis are unknown, but some researchers have identified four MS risk factors, and some believe we’re getting close to identifying the source of the disease.

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

About 400,000 Americans have MS, a disease of the nervous system that’s usually diagnosed between the ages of twenty and forty.

In people with MS, the immune system attacks myelin, which insulates nerve fibers. With this insulation damaged or stripped away, electrical signals go awry. These errant electrical signals can damage surrounding tissues, causing further damage.

People with MS gradually lose the ability to see or walk, and the disease comes with numerous unpredictable symptoms. Do we know what causes MS? No. But researchers are aware of four MS risk factors.

MS Risk Factors

MS Risk Factor #1: Living North of the Equator

MS is 100 times more common in the far north than near the equator. Living in the far north is also a risk factor for Type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Some researchers think this statistic has something to do with differences in the magnetic field, but other researchers have connected this finding to diet. People in the far north generally eat more dairy than people living at the equator. So, is the real risk factor living in the north or eating dairy? The answer to what causes MS is still unclear.

MS Risk Factor #2: Eating a Diet High in Saturated Fat

One researcher divided early-stage MS patients into two groups. Group A ate a typical diet while Group B ate a diet low in saturated fat.

80% of the patients in Group A died of MS within 34 years. Only 5% of the patients in Group B died of MS within 34 years; the remaining 95% were only mildly disabled.

Could saturated fat be what causes multiple sclerosis?

MS Risk Factor #3: Consuming Cow’s Milk

Multiple studies show a correlation between the amount of cow’s milk consumed and risk for MS. This may be due to a virus in cow’s milk, although this is only speculation at this point.

MS Risk Factor #4: Genetic Predisposition

Genes account for 25% of your total MS risk. That means 75% of your disease risk is environmental and largely under your control.

Studies show that migrants adopt the MS risk of their new home country, showing that your genes aren’t the most important factor in the disease’s development.


Despite numerous studies linking cow’s milk and autoimmune diseases, in 2003, the website of the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation stated that there was no “credible evidence” that diet impacts the initiation or development of MS. They also noted that dietary changes are expensive, although it would seem that being unable to see and bedridden for the last years of your life would also be expensive, at best.

The current website has removed the statement about a lack of credible evidence. Instead, they refrain from addressing diet at all. Still, you should be aware of these possible causes of MS.

Multiple Sclerosis Prevention: Recommendations

  • Eliminate saturated fat from your diet. Saturated fats are generally found in animal products. Foods with especially high amounts include beef, pork, poultry skins, hot dogs, bacon, lunch meats, butter, lard, high-fat dairy, and fried foods.
  • Get vitamin D from sunlight by spending time outside 2-3 times per week. You may know how much time in the sun causes your skin to get red. Plan each session in the sun to be ¼ of this length of time. For example, if 30-40 minutes in the sun makes your skin red, spend 10 minutes in the sun, three times a week, to get the vitamin D you need.

If you’re aware of what causes MS, you can be more active in this autoimmune disease’s prevention.

What Causes MS? 4 Risk Factors to Know

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of "The China Study" at Shortform . Learn the book's critical concepts in 20 minutes or less .

Here's what you'll find in our full The China Study summary :

  • Why animal proteins (meat, milk) might cause cancer, diabetes, and other diseases
  • Why the medical institution is structured to hide the truth about disease and food
  • The precise diet you'll need to eat to live longer and feel happier

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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