Oil Change: Can the Ketogenic Diet Treat Multiple Sclerosis?

Written by Jeri Burtchell | Published on March 12, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on March 12, 2014

Find out why fat might be your friend.

What Is the Ketogenic Diet?

Traced to as far back as 500 B.C., the ketogenic diet reemerged in the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy. It was popular for two decades before the development of antiepileptic drug therapies.

Consisting of high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carbohydrate intake, the diet induces a “ketotic state,” which tricks the body into starvation mode.

During the last 20 years, scientists have revisited the diet—and not just for treating epilepsy. Recent studies suggest following a ketogenic regimen could benefit many types of neurological disorders, including MS.

Burning Fat vs Burning Carbs

A ketogenic diet fools your body into “starvation mode,” causing it to burn off fat rather than carbohydrates. Glucose is the body’s preferred fuel, but when you restrict your intake of carbohydrates, a change in metabolism occurs. Your liver starts producing “ketones,” which appear to protect the cells of the nervous system—the site of damage in MS. 

Although scientists don’t know why it works, it’s possible the protection is due to increased energy in the cells. This added energy may strengthen the neurons against damage from oxidation or inflammation.

Benefits of Ketogenic Diet

There are many benefits to eating a diet high in fat and low in carbs, with protein in moderation. Besides weight loss, the changes that happen at the cellular level are especially desirable for people suffering from a neurological disorder like MS.

Benefits include the following:

  • The ketogenic diet has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities.
  • It protects against various forms of cell death.
  • Ketones act as an alternative energy source during metabolic stress.
  • Ketosis reduces the toxic effects of glutamate acid, a byproduct of brain injury.

Achieving Ketosis

It’s important to talk to your doctor before you start a new diet or exercise program. Depending on your medical history, you might be referred to a nutritionist to help monitor your progress.

A ketogenic diet typically consists of mostly proteins and healthy fats with minimal carbohydrates. The menu should be comprised of whole, unprocessed foods. Carbs should ideally come from vegetables, nuts, or dairy. The diet is very similar to the Atkins diet.

The Role Ketosis Might Play in MS

Researchers don’t fully understand the mechanism of action behind the diet’s neuroprotective qualities. But, they theorize that ketones produced by the liver provide more fuel to cells in the brain. These ketones are thought to give these cells the ability to resist damage from MS inflammation.

Finding the Good Fats

Eating a diet high in fat may sound counterintuitive to healthy living, but the key lies in the types of fat you include. Here are some tips for eating healthy fats:

  • Use olive, sesame, or canola oils for salad dressings and meal preparation.
  • Avocados, a versatile source of omega-3, are great in guacamole dip, salad dressing and smoothies.
  • Salmon and mackerel are both high in omega-3.
  • Walnuts, pecans, and pistachios are all good sources of monounsaturated fats.
  • Pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are great snacks containing polyunsaturated fats.

Foods to Avoid

To limit your intake of carbs and achieve ketosis, you have to learn where they’re hiding. There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

Simple carbs are found in:

  • all forms of sugar
  • candy
  • milk, which is full of lactose
  • corn
  • fruit and vegetable juices
  • fruits

Complex carbs are found in:

  • beans
  • bread and pasta
  • starchy vegetables like potatoes
  • cereal

You Are What You Eat

More research needs to be done before we know the benefits of a ketogenic diet for people with neurological disorders such as MS. Other diets, such as the Swank diet, the Wahls diet, and the Paleo diet, also may be of interest to people trying to control their MS. 

Regardless of the diet you prefer, new evidence points to the adage that if you want to be healthy, you must eat healthy. You really are what you eat!

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