Last updated by Dr Sarah Brewer on
New research confirms that dietary changes can significantly improve the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, which is the most common neurological disorder of young adults. The diagnosis often made between the ages of 20 and 40 years and is around a third more common in women than men (ratio of 3:2). It is also more common in temperate climates, which has raised the suggestion that lack of vitamin D may be involved. Every increase in latitude of one degree further from the equator increases the odds of having moderate or high disability from multiple sclerosis (MS) and of having more frequent relapses.
What foods can help MS?
MS is associated with deterioration of the protective, myelin sheath which surrounds nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord. Myelin insulates nerve fibres and when it is damaged, nerve messages are passed more slowly, get distorted or blocked altogether. A variety of nutritional approaches have been suggested, based on the idea that MS might be worsened by eating foods that contain proteins similar to those found in myelin – in other words, dairy products, gluten-containing grains (wheat, rye, barley) and pulses, including soybeans. Refined sugar is usually added to the ‘avoid’ lists too, as it is widely believed to have adverse effects on immunity.
Until recently, evidence to support any dietary approaches was largely anecdotal. Now, the results from the ongoing, international HOLISM study, involving almost 2,500 people with MS, shows that those with the healthiest lifestyle habits have a dramatically improved quality of life. Led by the not-for-profit organisation, Overcoming MS (OMS), the research team have concluded that a combination or diet, regular exercise and stress management can stabilise the condition and significantly reduce associated symptoms such as fatigue and depression.
The Multiple Sclerosis diet
The OMS Recovery Programme offers a practical self-management plan based on diet, exercise, stress management, sunlight and vitamin D to support conventional medical treatment. The programme revolves around a mainly plant-based diet, avoiding meat and dairy products, as several long-term studies have shown a close connection between saturated fats and the development and progression of MS. Avoiding these, but continuing to eat unsaturated fats (such as those from fish and flax) typically reduced the progression of MS when included within the full programme.
Fish is a good source of vitamin D, which is important not just because of the latitude link, but because people with MS tend to have lower vitamin D levels than those without, and deficiency is associated with an increased risk of relapses. The program therefore suggests obtaining 15-minutes exposure to sunlight, three-to-five times a week, as you can make vitamin D in your skin when the UV Index is greater than 3. Ultraviolet light also has additional effects on immune function, including interactions with regulatory cells and the signalling chemicals they release.
Apart from its role in calcium and phosphorus absorption from the gut, vitamin D acts as a hormone that dampens overactive immune responses and protects brain cells, which is especially helpful for people with MS. When UV levels are too low to synthesise vitamin D, supplements become important. Select those supplying pharmaceutical-grade vitamin D3 (which is more active than vitamin D2) and which are made to a standard known as GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice). In the UK these can be prescribed on the NHS when medically indicated.
The OMS Recovery Programme also encourages you to exercise five times a week, for 20 to 30 minutes, as this improves mood and general well-being, and to avoid stress. There is a clinically recognised link between stress and the rate of MS progression, both in terms of relapses and degeneration. They suggest using evidence-based approaches such as meditation and mindfulness which can improve depression, pain perception, compassion and happiness, and can ‘rewire’ the brain – the OMS Recovery Programme recommends 30 minutes of meditation daily.
OMS provides a range of resources to help people overcome MS, with retreats, three published books and a wealth of online information and educational tools and their website is well worth a visit.
Image credits: pilipphoto/bigstock, yastremska/bigstock