Women with multiple sclerosis (MS) often report feeling free of symptoms when they’re pregnant. In 2014, NPR reported on a woman who realized in the throes of morning sickness that she didn’t have any MS symptoms; her story led to the discovery of a link between the pregnancy hormone, estriol, and MS.
The effects of breastfeeding remain a bit of a mystery, however, but a new study found exclusive breastfeeding for as little as two months reduced the rate of relapse in new moms with MS. Again, pregnancy-related hormones are thought to play a role.
The Estriol Effect
Melissa Sherak Glasser was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 15 but she didn’t let it slow her down much. Ten years later, she was married, pregnant, and experiencing morning sickness when it suddenly dawned on her: she felt no MS symptoms. “I felt so horrible with all the pregnancy hormones and I had to laugh,” the California mother told NPR.
She mentioned her experience to her University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) neurologists who told her other women reported the same thing and a study was under way to find out what causes easing of MS symptoms during pregnancy. Dr. Rhonda Voskuhl, one of the UCLA neurologists involved with the study, discovered estriol changes a woman’s immune system. "Pregnancy involves a fetus, which has half of the father's proteins on it so it's half foreign. In order to not reject that half-foreign fetus, the mother's immune system shifts."
The research unveiled a reduction of 47% in relapse rate for non-pregnant female MS patients who were supplementing traditional MS drug therapies with estriol. It also led to the development of an experimental drug based on estriol that may someday prove effective for male MS patients, too.
Glasser, now 41 and mother of four, helped. The MS Hope Foundation, established by her family on her behalf helped fund the study.
MS Benefits of Exclusive Breastfeeding
Dr. Kerstin Hellwig led the recent study of breastfeeding and MS from the Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany. She and her research team monitored MS symptoms in 201 pregnant women for a year after giving birth. The mothers reported one of three breastfeeding styles:
- Exclusive breastfeeding for two months or longer / 120 women (60%).
- Breastfeeding with supplemental food for two months or longer / 42 women (21%).
- Nonexclusive breastfeeding (partial or no breastfeeding) for two or more months / 39 women (19%).
Eighty-nine percent (178) of the women had been taking disease-modifying drugs before pregnancy.
During the first year after delivery:
- 29 women (24%) in the exclusive-breastfeeding group experienced a relapse within the first six months.
- 31 women (38%) in the nonexclusive-breastfeeding group experienced a relapse in six months.
In all three groups, weaning the child from breast milk to supplemental or solid food triggered the return of ovulation and menstruation, as expected. It is believed the hormonal shift that occurred when breastfeeding stopped also eliminated protection from MS symptoms and increased the likelihood of relapse.
- "Pregnancy Hormone May Reduce Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms." Correspondent. Jon Hamilton. Morning Edition. NPR. 2 June 2014. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.
- Hellwig, Kerstin, et al. "Exclusive Breastfeeding and the Effect on Postpartum Multiple Sclerosis Relapses." JAMA Neurology (2015). The JAMA Network. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.