By Sari Huhtala
Sporting an ear-to-ear smile on her face, Chantale Michaud giggles and rolls her eyes as she describes her go-to breakfast for 20 years – a slice of processed cheese sandwiched between two pieces of toasted white bread. Couple that with her daily Lipton ® cup-of-soup for lunch, and she has pretty much created a meal plan that would make any holistic nutritionist cringe. But the thing is, without any glaring health symptoms, beyond bouts of a throat infection, Michaud would never have guessed, back in 2001 at the age of 26, multiple sclerosis was about to rear its ugly head, and that nutrition had everything to do with it.
Even more so, Michaud could not have imagined that the simplest change – stepping up the nutritional quality of her breakfast from a cheese sandwich to instant oatmeal in a pack – would be the baby steps necessary to begin healing from MS. Nor could she have imagined that 17 years later she would be symptom free, she says.
It is small wonder Michaud tolerated debilitating flare ups, without making any lifestyle changes, for the first six years following her diagnoses of MS. Her neurologist had pointed out, in 2001, the severity of the lesions on her brain and spinal cord indicated an aggressive form of MS that, he said, would only lead to a downward spiral in her health, and ultimately land her in a wheelchair within 15 years.
Curious about any proactive measures she could be taking, she had asked her doctor for advice about dietary suggestions.
“He said ‘No sorry, there’s nothing you can do. Just keep eating your normal diet.’ My normal diet was a terrible diet and I was stressed out, but he didn’t even ask about my daily habits,” Michaud, from Waterloo, ON recalls. “He said nutrition had nothing to do with this disease, so I believed him.”
That is, for the first six years.
“Within six months of being diagnosed I was having so many relapses I decided to go on the medication, which I was told would slow the progression of the disease.”
A year after being on the medication she could no longer tolerate the side effects, one of which was suicidal tendencies.
Rather than flip the ‘open’ sign in morning at her then Windsor-based clothing design studio, Michaud would trudge into the studio washroom and sit on the floor sobbing in the dark for hours.
“Within three days of stopping the medication it was like a cloud had drifted away and about 90 per cent of the depression was alleviated, so that was the reason why I didn’t want to continue the medication.”
For the years to follow she would have relapses a couple of times a year. The numbness, tingling and pain progressed to her hands and arms, making it challenging to continue crafting designer clothing by hand, she recalls.
In 2007, after a “major relapse” left her in “excruciating pain,” her sister had stopped by for a surprise visit, toting bags of homemade, healthy meals, and suggested perhaps it was time to consider revamping her eating habits. And that was the turning point in her life.
“I didn’t really know anything about health and nutrition; I just started eating healthier.
“It was eye opening when I started to look back at my life. There were connections I was able to make. I was so stressed. I was eating all processed foods. I was tired all the time, with debilitating fatigue, and so I tried to compensate by having caffeine and eating a lot of sugar, which was probably stressing my body out even more.”
Although she had no symptoms prior to being diagnosed, she did have mono at the age of 16 (Epstein-Barr virus) and chronic throat infections throughout her life.
“I was always on antibiotics, which is why I became fascinated with the link between unhealthy gut bacteria and MS symptoms.”
Correcting digestive health is paramount to healing, she says. There are a number of studies that show poor digestive health contributes to autoimmune conditions, and those with progressive MS have less diverse bacteria in their gut, she adds.
Changing the landscape of the gut begins by changing the diet and focusing on whole foods, she says.
“The diet needs to be anti-inflammatory. MS is an inflammatory condition, so if there’s a lot of sugar or other inflammatory foods in your diet, it’s going to cause inflammation. Any time the digestive system is irritated it can cause inflammation.”
Balance gut bacteria by improving digestion. Avoid eating too fast. Avoid drinking too much liquid with a meal. Probiotics are important, but follow a digestion protocol before probiotics, as probiotics could result in candida overgrowth, she says.
Keep a food symptom diary to notice how you feel after meals.
As she initiated slight changes to her diet, like swapping out the cup of soup for a salad at noon, her energy levels elevated and flare-ups quickly became a thing of the past.
“The results I got from changing my diet were just incredible,” Michaud says. “I immediately started feeling better by making simple changes. After switching my lunch, all of a sudden I wasn’t tired in the afternoon. I had no more flare-ups. That was all the proof I needed to know I was on the right path.”
The key – eat real food. Eat whole food. Most people complicate the idea of healthy eating way more than necessary, she says.
“I wasn’t one of those health freak people,” Michaud says. “I think of all of these yoga girls who are fit and healthy and that wasn’t me. I was able to turn my health around just by making small changes.
I feel better now at 44 than I did at 22.”
Far from exciting food fare, her meals are typically “boring, but healthy,” Michaud says, like baked salmon with real butter, with a side of steamed broccoli and avocado with a hint of lemon juice. Twice a week she will whip up a salad.
“I’ve managed my condition so well just by eating an anti-inflammatory diet that my most recent MRI didn’t show any inflamed lesions. I can be forming new lesions, but unless there’s inflammation I’m not going to be experiencing symptoms.”
Check for food intolerances when experiencing health symptoms, as well, she stresses.
“We can have a sensitivity to a food considered healthy and it will contribute to ongoing inflammation in our body and that makes healing very difficult.”
Michaud began studying holistic nutrition in 2009 after her father was diagnosed with cancer and now runs her own business – Eat Heal Love – as a registered holistic nutritionist.
“I often think what if I would not have made those changes? I’m choosing to believe we do have a lot of control over our actions and reactions.
“For the first six years I didn’t believe nutrition would have an impact on my health. I believed there was no way I can impact the MS through diet.
“I am symptom free as long as I behave. If I don’t sleep well, if I push myself too hard, if I don’t eat healthy I will pay for it.
“Just because you’ve been diagnosed with a condition, don’t let that diagnosis keep you from pursuing the best health possible. The medical system will tell you there is no cure, but it doesn’t mean you can’t minimize the symptoms.”