MS and Diet: How Does Food Affect You?

Written by Christine Case-Lo | Published on July 16, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on July 16, 2013

Beware and Take Care

If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you’ve probably heard conflicting claims about a new diet or supplement that could help your symptoms. More studies are now being done to examine how nutrition can impact MS patients. However, many results have been conflicting or inconclusive.

Some diet plans can be dangerous, omitting nutrients that can jeopardize your health. Eating a well-balanced, low-fat diet full of fiber and colorful fruits and vegetables is likely the best place to start. Talk with your doctor to find out the facts before starting any diet plan. Click through the slideshow to find out about emerging research regarding MS and diet.

Low Fat for Good Health

woman eating low fat cereal

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, many neurologists recommend a low-fat, high-fiber diet to maintain optimal health. This includes avoiding saturated fats and trans fats, and eating healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats such as those found in olive oil, nuts, and avocadoes. Unsaturated fats are important building blocks of myelin and nervous system tissue.

Keep in mind that moderation is the key. Less than 30 percent of daily calories should come from any kind of fat.

Swank Diet – Mixed Results

broccoli and salmon

In the 1980s, Dr. Roy Swank developed a very strict, low-fat diet for MS patients. In the Swank diet, fats are very restricted. All gluten, dairy, and beans, and animal fats are banned. Fish oils are allowed. However, overall calories from fat should be less than 10 percent of daily intake.

In a 1990 article in Lancet, Swank’s research group reported that MS patients who followed his diet saw less deterioration and lower death rates than other patients. However, some researchers aren’t convinced there’s enough data to back up his claims. Studies are ongoing to determine if the Swank diet or other extremely low-fat diets have significant benefits for people with MS.

PUFA Promise

polyunsaturated fatty acids PUFAs

Several studies have shown that increasing your intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) may help patients with MS. These unsaturated fats have anti-inflammatory effects in animal studies.

Linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, has shown a decrease in relapse rates in some clinical trials. However, other studies show no effect. Omega-3 fatty acids have also shown a lower risk of progression in some studies.

Overall, researchers are not yet sure if it’s worthwhile to add supplementation with PUFAs to an MS treatment regimen. Studies are inconclusive, and research is ongoing.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D milk

Research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics indicates that sufficient vitamin D levels may prevent developing autoimmune diseases like MS. Research published in the Journal of Therapeutic Advances in Neurological Disorders suggests vitamin D can also influence relapse rate and the number of lesions seen on MRIs. However, there still needs to be more studies for conclusive evidence.

Many neurologists recommend supplementation if blood levels are low. Recommended daily intake is 600 IU. However, patients with low vitamin D take as much as 50,000 IU for a few months. Too much vitamin D can be toxic, so speak with your doctor before taking any supplements.

The Evils of Gluten

potatoes gluten free option

The effects of a gluten-free diet on MS are conflicting. Research from Israel suggests that some MS patients also have antibodies normally associated with celiac disease, an allergy to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some other grains. The presence of these antibodies suggests a link between immune intolerance to gluten and autoimmune diseases like MS.

However, other research findings and most neurologists suggest there is no link between gluten antibodies and MS. Gluten-free diets haven’t shown any effect on MS symptoms. More studies need to be done to draw any solid conclusions.


Antioxidants in blueberries

Free radicals do some of the damage that occurs during the formation of lesions. Free radicals cause oxidative stress, and can be neutralized by antioxidants like vitamins A, C, E and selenium. Studies are being performed to determine if high doses of antioxidants can slow the progression of MS symptoms.

Chronic inflammation during an attack can cause deficiencies in antioxidant levels in the body. Supplementation may restore levels of these key nutrients. However, high doses may have other effects on MS patients that have not been studied.

Diet, the Unexplored Frontier

Researchers are looking into the role that nutrition can play in treating MS, but many questions remain. Vitamin D shows promise in slowing the progression of MS. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may be valuable in protecting nerve health. Antioxidants and other nutrients like probiotics may play valuable roles in a treatment regimen.

For now, a diet low in fat and high in plant foods—fruits, vegetables, and grains—seems to be the most evidence-based diet for the best long-term health of an MS patient. However, currently there’s not enough evidence to show clear benefits of their use.

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