When Henry Jackson was brought by his mother and father to see me, he was only 14 years old and in a wheelchair. He could walk, but only just. His parents had tried many approaches to help their son-a top neurologist and three others in different parts of the country-but they all had the same diagnosis: Henry was one of the youngest cases of multiple sclerosis (MS) they'd ever seen, and nothing they suggested made the slightest bit of difference to his condition.
Although the Jacksons had been told that he may have got the disease because of a genetic influence, as two older family members also suffered from the disease, I explained that a genetic influence only made it more likely that he would develop the condition. The more important consideration was what had caused it to arise in the first place.
A man could have a family history of migraines, for example, with his mother, an uncle and a brother all suffering from the condition, and so clearly have a genetic propensity for getting such headaches. But after careful observation, he discovers that eating cheese and chocolate and drinking red wine were the triggers that would bring on a migraine. Any time he wanted to demonstrate that he still had the genetic influence, all he had to do was to eat some cheese or chocolate or drink some red wine.
Once he stopped consuming his triggers, the genetic influence would be switched off and he would be free of migraines. We needed to find Henry's equivalent of our hypothetical man's red wine, chocolate and cheese.
As always, I took a careful medical history. Because of a family history of milk intolerance, Henry did not consume any animal milks or products, he'd never taken an antibiotic and he'd never needed any dental fillings. His history was devoid of any of the usual lifestyle triggers I usually find and the whole family seemed to live very healthy lives.
I asked questions about whether he was exposed to any environmental chemicals in the house or had any unusual hobbies requiring the use of special chemicals, but nothing could explain why he had developed MS. He'd not had any infections they could remember and he'd only had the odd vaccination. Henry said he didn't take drugs or smoke.
I became rather frustrated. I was getting the feeling that I hadn't yet asked the appropriate question and that they hadn't yet told me anything important. There had to be an explanation, but it was eluding us.
I suggested we give him an intravenous infusion of nutrients while I got on with seeing another patient. As Henry was about to swing his wheelchair round to move into the next room where I carried out the infusions, he asked his mother for a drink. His mother drew out a large bottle of a dark-looking fluid from the bag by her side.
"What's that?" I asked, taking hold of the bottle.
"It's Diet Coke. He drinks at least two bottles of the stuff every day. He loves it. He doesn't want to get fat, so he has the diet variety."
"How long has he been drinking Diet Coke?" I asked.
He'd started drinking it about two or three years ago, his mother said, at around the time a vending machine was installed at his school.
"It's funny," said his mother, "at least two other boys at the school have developed MS. No one knows why."
"I do," I said. She'd finally provided me with the right clue.
I told her that the aspartame in diet colas and sodas had caused a number of American children who drink a lot of the stuff to develop MS-like symptoms. It's also known to be highly addictive and can cause many other medical problems. Some studies conclude that it's far worse for diabetics than sugar. It's even been associated with cancer.
On my suggestion, Henry agreed to stop drinking it and to drink water instead, and to avoid tea and coffee for the moment too.
I told him that he might suffer withdrawal symptoms-most likely headaches and lower back ache-from the diet soda for the first few days after stopping, but that he'd soon get over them.
If he did get any of those symptoms at any time, all he needed to do was take a half-teaspoonful of sodium bicarbonate, I told him.
"Actually I do have the odd headache every so often, but I find a swig of Coke can clear it."
Henry's headaches occurred first thing in the morning and that made another thing clear to me. "The headache is caused by withdrawal for not having a dose of your fix overnight," I said. "I'm afraid you have become addicted to Diet Coke."
Henry did as I suggested. It took a full six months, but he completely recovered in the end. There is always an explanation for illness. All you have to do is keep looking.
Dr Kingsley has written 28 books on cancer plus six other books, now available on Amazon Kindle or at www.thenewmedicine.info