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.

Read Video Transcript »

Doctor’s Whiteboard: Don’t Let MS Slow You Down (Video Transcript)

Multiple Sclerosis is a complicated and often misunderstood condition, and if you or a loved one is dealing MS, then you probably have a lot of unanswered questions about how this disease may impact your life.

MS affects the central nervous system, making it sometimes difficult for the brain to send and receive messages from the body. Some people may experience fatigue or dizziness while others may experience issues with eyesight or sensitivity. There are actually a vast number of symptoms associated with MS, and everyone’s experience is unique.

The most common form of MS is called “relapsing-remitting,” where the symptoms periodically come and go. But MS is a progressive disease, and the severity of symptoms often increase over time and can eventually affect a person’s ability to work, study, or be as active as they would like.

The good news is that doctors have more tools than ever to help treat MS. And along with treatment, changing your exercise habits and diet can help keep symptoms under control.

When MS flairs up, your doctor may prescribe medications to treat specific symptoms, such as pain or weakness. Your treatment may also include medications that target the underlying causes of MS. These treatments help prevent the disease from damaging nerves and can help many patients remain symptom-free for extended periods of time.

Regular exercise, such as indoor or outdoor cycling, yoga, and strength training, has been shown to help ease MS symptoms as well as combat fatigue and depression. Watching your diet and maintaining an optimal body weight are also important in promoting mobility and easing strain on muscles and joints.

The most important things you can do to take control of your MS are, first, sticking with your treatment plan and, second, not letting MS define you or get you down. Treating MS early, working with your doctor, and staying active are key to maintaining the best quality of life.

If you’re interested in knowing more about treating Multiple Sclerosis, take a look at the information we have here at Healthline or make an appointment with your doctor.

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

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

broccoli and salmon

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

polyunsaturated fatty acids PUFAs

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

Vitamin D milk

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.


potatoes gluten free option

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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