Although there’s no solid evidence to suggest that any one diet influences the risk or progression of multiple sclerosis (MS), healthy eating may help ease some symptoms of the disease. But what exactly does this mean for people with MS?
Healthy eating and MS
A healthy and balanced diet combined with daily exercise may help alleviate symptoms such as fatigue, and bowel and bladder issues. It can also improve the health of the skin, bones, teeth, and gums, as well as strengthen the heart and increase muscle strength and flexibility. A healthy diet can also help control weight gain and lower the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. Some studies have shown that certain foods may lower the risk of MS or slow the progression of disability, but researchers have not yet established a direct link between diet and MS.
Here is some general guidance on foods to eat and those to avoid as an MS patient. It’s important to consult your physicians before making any major dietary changes.
Fruits and vegetables
Several studies have shown that eating more fruits and vegetables may help reduce symptoms such as fatigue, pain, and depression.
Fruits and vegetables contain a wideand relatively high concentration of antioxidants. Antioxidants can help decrease the formation of molecules called free radicals that can cause damage to tissues in the body.
The National MS Societyconsuming five servings a day of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. Eating fruits and vegetables in as many different colors as possible, sometimes called “eating the rainbow,” can help increase the number of different antioxidants and other nutrients in your body.
Vitamin C and vitamin E are some of the more familiar types of antioxidants.
Plant foods rich in vitamin C include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, strawberries, leafy greens, citrus fruits like oranges, tomatoes, and bell peppers.
Vitamin E is present in leafy greens, peppers, avocados, and nuts and seeds such as almonds and sunflower seeds.
Fruits and vegetables may also be helpful for weight loss and control. Since they are high in nutrients and fiber, they can help with cravings and help you feel fuller for longer. At the same time, they are usually much lower in calories.
Whether or not you have MS, it is a good idea to avoid saturated fats as much as possible. Saturated fats have been linked to several health issues such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer.
Some studies have also suggested that saturated fat intake may be related to the risk of MS relapses and disease progression.
These fats are found primarily in animal-based foods such as meat, eggs, milk, chicken skin, and cheese. Some plant-based foods such as coconut oil, palm oils, and cocoa butter are also high in saturated fat.
In general, trans fats should also be avoided, as they have no known health benefits and can contribute to conditions such as heart disease. These fats are typically man-made and, like saturated fats, are solid at room temperature. Examples include margarine and shortening. They can also be found in fried foods, cookies, and other processed foods.
Unsaturated fats are commonly known as “good” fats. Contrary to saturated fats, they may lower blood cholesterol levels, thereby decreasing the risk of heart disease or diabetes. They could also help ease inflammation. There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Good sources of monounsaturated fats include olive and canola oil, avocados, and many types of nuts and seeds.
Polyunsaturated fats can be found in sunflower and corn oil, walnuts, flaxseed, and fish.
A type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in fish, has been studied in MS with mixed results. One study found that a fish-rich diet contributed to a lower risk of MS, while another found that taking daily omega-3 supplements had no effect on disease activity. These differences could be due to the source — food versus supplements — of omega-3, but more research is needed.
The National MS Society advises caution with omega-3 supplementation, as its interaction with certain medications has not been fully studied and may decrease their effectiveness. Consult your doctor before starting any supplements including omega-3.
In general, you should limit protein sources to those low in saturated fat, such as lean meats and fish.
Red meat, poultry, and processed meats such as deli meats, sausage, and bacon may lead to a higher risk of heart disease. Because MS patients may already be at risk of heart disease, you should limit your consumption of these meats.
You may want to consider plant-based protein sources, such as tofu and beans, as they do not contain saturated fats and are higher in fiber than meat, poultry, and fish.
Some evidence suggests that MS patients should avoid dairy products, particularly those from cow’s milk, as their consumption may increase disease activity.
Two ideas are proposed about how milk may contribute to the development of MS. One is that cow milk protein butyrophilin can cause the body to produce antibodies against it. These antibodies could also recognize a protein with a similar shape, called myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein, that is found on nerve cells, leading to their damage. Another theory is that the calcium in dairy may reduce the body’s production of the active form of vitamin D.
Full-fat dairy products are also often high in saturated fat, which should be avoided as part of a healthy diet.
Several alternatives to dairy products are available such as those made from soy, almond, oat, and hemp, among others.
For people who experience fatigue, it is often tempting to turn to sugar. However, while sugary foods may provide quick bursts of energy, they often lead to energy crashes and may ultimately increase fatigue.
Sugar also increases the number of calories you are consuming and can contribute to weight gain. The energy crashes may make you crave more sugary foods to help increase blood sugar levels again.
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame can irritate the bladder and cause problems, so you may want to avoid these as well.
People should generally reduce the amount of salt they consume as it can lead to health problems such as high blood pressure. You should try to limit your consumption of processed and prepackaged foods as these often have high salt content. Fast food and food from restaurants often contain a lot of salt as well.
Drinking enough water is important for MS patients as it is for the general population. Water is necessary for many essential functions in the body including digestion, brain function, regulation of body temperature, and the movement of blood and nutrients. MS patients may experience fatigue and trouble thinking clearly if they are not getting enough water. Water intake needs may vary from person to person.
For people with MS, alcohol can worsen balance and coordination issues. Drinking too much alcohol can also exacerbate symptoms of anxiety or depression, as well as have a negative effect on fatigue.
One study has also shown that alcohol use, abuse, and dependence may be significantly related to an increased risk of developing MS.
Vitamin D has long been a topic of interest among the MS community, with several studies suggesting that vitamin D may provide a protective effect against the risk of MS. However, a 2020 mouse study also found that vitamin D in high doses may actually contribute to disease progression.
Vitamin D can be found naturally in foods such as some fish, mushrooms, or fortified foods such as cow or soy milk, orange juice, oatmeal, and some cereals.
Research continues into the impact of vitamin D on MS. You should consult your doctor before starting any vitamin D supplementation to determine safe levels of intake.
Last updated by Patricia Silva, PhD, on Feb. 25, 2021
Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.