Can diet help people with multiple sclerosis (MS) manage their disease and their symptoms?
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society thinks so.
In fact, it is funding two new studies that look at the effects of diet on MS.
One study, out of the University of Iowa, looks specifically at the effects of diet on MS-related fatigue.
A second, out of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, is a pilot study looking at the feasibility of studying the effects of diet on people with MS.
Both studies are a result of a wellness task force put together in 2014 by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Bruce Bebo, executive vice president of research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, told Healthline that the task force was a result of both patient and donor requests for research on more than just pharmaceuticals and mice.
The task force brought together experts to chart out a course to follow in lifestyle and wellness.
“We began to better understand where the knowledge is, and where gaps are, and how we can make the best investments for the patients and the society,” he said.
Bebo explained how studies on diet are not easy. It is difficult to “blind” the participants to the treatments when they are planning and preparing the food.
Considered a modifiable risk factor, diet for the most part can be controlled by people with MS or their caregivers.
How diet can help
An increasing number of studies are looking at diet and MS.
A study published in Neurology found that in addition to weight control, people with MS may find both neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory benefits from certain calorie-controlled diets.
Another report looked at 175,000 women and found that ingesting polyunsaturated fats may modify risk factors for MS.
Diet also has the potential to improve cognitive function in people with MS. A paleo diet was recently found to help with mood, depression, anxiety, and cognitive function, more than exercise and stress management.
But can diet help fatigue?
To date there are no FDA approved drugs for fatigue, which is currently one of the top five causes of MS disability, and a factor in reducing quality of life.
Wahls, who has MS, found a way to help people with the condition manage their symptoms and disease by using a modified paleo diet called the Wahls’ Protocol.
After years of research she learned of the task force and submitted a proposal to test her theories.
Her study looks at diet and MS-related fatigue, specifically while following either a modified Swank Diet or modified Wahls’ Protocol diet. The Swank diet is named after Dr. Roy Swank, who has treated many MS patients. Through these experiences, he determined a diet to help manage the disease.
Wahls emphasized the importance of the study to Healthline.
“Do either of these diets reduce fatigue and improve quality of life? This is the main question,” she said.
Wahls added that while it will be interesting to see how the diets compare, what matters most is how effective these diets are when compared with the baseline.
This study is currently recruiting participants. To apply, you can go to the REDCap website and use the code JMJPYEJHP.
For questions, you can email MSDietStudy@healthcare.uiowa.edu or call 319-384-5053.
As part of their response to the task force, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society is also funding a study out of New York.
The goal of this research is to establish the feasibility of dietary research in people with MS, as well as to provide preliminary data to support future clinical trials of diet.
Lead investigator, Dr. Ilana Katz Sand, lead study investigator, and associate medical director of The Corinne Goldsmith Dickinson Center for MS, said this trial does not use a specific diet but a modified version of the Mediterranean diet, adjusted to match the study’s protocol.
And that while this study will look at the effects of diet on MS-related fatigue, it is designed to look at the role diet has in managing symptoms of the disease and building baselines for future studies.
This trial is also currently accepting applicants.
Katz Sand told Healthline that at first researchers were concerned about finding enough participants to fill the 30 slots in the pilot study, but now “we are preparing a waiting list and already working on our next, larger study.”
“It wasn’t always like this,” Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, vice president of healthcare delivery and policy research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, told Healthline. The medical industry has changed.
As the program officer overseeing the progression of the Wahls study, LaRocca emphasized that people do not need to wait for the findings of these trials.
A healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce other health issues and should have benefits for people with MS.
“Eating a healthy diet is good for all patients,” added Bebo.
“I feel incredibly optimistic,” Wahls said. “Because of social media, it’s easier to keep the interests growing. It’s easier to advocate.”
And the National Multiple Sclerosis Society is listening.
“We are poised to make additional investments in diet research,” Bebo said.
Editor’s Note: Caroline Craven is a patient expert living with MS. Her award winning blog is GirlwithMS.com, and she can be found @thegirlwithms.