Multiple sclerosis is a lifelong disease that patients have to learn to manage, as there is no cure. In many cases, in fact, it becomes progressive, with greater neurodegeneration and growing disabilities that make living independently impossible after some time. Disease modifying therapies (DMTs) can help slow the advancement of the disease, and there are therapeutic methods to manage symptoms.
But the search for a way to further reduce the effects of multiple sclerosis never ends. Recent studies have uncovered links between many aspects of diets and the instance of multiple sclerosis, as well as certain traits of a diet that can lead to worsening symptoms. While research into whether dietary therapies help treat multiple sclerosis symptoms is still considered inconclusive, there is some evidence to support some particular practices in a patient’s dietary habits can help manage the disease.
Why is research inconclusive?
Part of the problem with finding ways to treat MS, as well as finding a cure, revolves around the individuality of the disease. With each patient, the symptoms and progression pattern are unique, making it difficult to find a “one method to treat all” solution. On top of that, consider other limitations of some people’s diets. With food allergies, severe intolerance conditions to some substances, and even religious and spiritual beliefs about foods, it’s difficult to enforce a particular diet across a large, diverse population to make a real determination.
In addition, the studies performed have been small enough that they show conflicting evidence between them in some cases. Without a large number of participants studied over an extended period of time (preferably years), it’s nearly impossible to truly gauge long term effects of dietary changes on a progressive illness like multiple sclerosis.
Nutrition in multiple sclerosis has promising ideas
Despite the inconclusive evidence, there are several dietary tests that have shown consistent results for MS patients.
- Vitamin D – Several studies have confirmed that risk for developing MS increases further from the equator. In addition, babies born to women with a Vitamin D deficiency (and especially those born in April and May after a winter in the womb, when pregnant mothers get little sunlight) are at greater risk. Vitamin D is essential to the function of cytokines, the chemical messengers that control the immune system and inflammation. More sunlight, supplements, and foods containing vitamin D reduce the risk of development and have actually reduced symptoms and relapses in MS.
- The Paleo Diet – While this is not a universally accepted method of controlling one’s diet, some suggest the properties of the diet provide a perfect solution for MS patients. Paleo involves ingesting large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and iodine. These substances are excellent in promoting proper mitochondrial function, as well as repair and grown of the myelin (protective coating on the nerves) that is damaged by MS.
- Remove aspartame – When it’s broken down in the body, aspartame can create formaldehyde, which can pass through the blood-brain barrier. In every animal, save for humans, this isn’t a problem, since animals naturally manufacture a chemical to remove it from the system. Humans don’t, and therefore, it can enter the brain and other cells, causing destruction of the brain and nervous system that could worsen MS and its symptoms.
- Avoid saturated and trans fats – In order to avoid exacerbating symptoms such as difficult mobility, weakness, and fatigue (as well as pain and other problems), it’s essential to maintain a healthy weight, as well as good cholesterol levels. The best way to stay fit and healthy is to avoid these “bad” fats, which the body clings to rather than processing. They pack on weight and can clog arteries, all of which can be extremely detrimental to patients with multiple sclerosis.
- Cut back on sugar – Sugar, especially in the form of sweets (which often include “bad” fats as well), can also lead to excess weight gain, especially for those who already have lower levels of mobility. In addition, sugar is a known inflammatory food, which means it could lead bring on a relapse more quickly. Avoiding sugar when possible is essential to quality of life for MS patients and one of the easiest ways to avoid unnecessary symptoms.
- Less salt – Staying within the recommended daily value of salt (about 2,300mg for the average individual and 1,500mg for those with heart health issues) can make a world of difference for MS patients. Removing salt can help reduce water retention, which impacts mobility and other inflammation-related symptoms. Also, excess sodium can cause high blood pressure, which has been linked to reduced lifespan in patients with multiple sclerosis.
- Switch to unrefined carbs – Refined carbs often lead to weight gain, poor heart health, and even celiac disease (gluten intolerance) and exacerbation of other intolerances. These health issues complicate MS, leading to more frequent relapses and more severe symptoms. By contrast, high fiber carbs that have not been refined – like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and barley – are known for their effect of relieving constipation, which is often a painful symptom of MS.
- Antioxidants – Because MS patients (and others with autoimmune diseases) have higher numbers of free radicals and lower antioxidant levels, it’s essential to reverse this with consumption of antioxidants. Finding foods high in these helpful substances, such as certain vegetables and green tea – can have a huge impact on the reduction of symptoms and the relieved severity of them when they occur.
On rare occasions, individuals have reported what seems to be complete relief from multiple sclerosis with extensive diet changes for the better, with no further relapses. While this is not the expectation, since diet isn’t likely to become the ultimate cure for the disease, changes that don’t have negative side effects could be positive for the way a patient feels on a daily basis. It’s always important to talk to a physician first, in case the patient has special circumstances that won’t allow them to eat or drink certain things. However, with low risk of problems and potential for relief, making small changes to the diet can only offer greater hope of a better, fuller life for patients with multiple sclerosis.