Choosing a healthy lifestyle may lead to fewer disabilities with multiple sclerosis (MS).
That’s the conclusion of a recently published study in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Almost 7,000 people living with MS participated in this study. It looked at the association between diet quality and intake of specific foods with regards to disability and symptom severity.
Specific diets — such as paleo, the Wahls protocol, weight loss plans, and other programs — were included, as well as activity levels and whether or not the participant smoked.
Researchers said people with the healthiest diet were 20 percent less likely to have severe disabilities compared to those with a less healthy diet.
Even after making adjustments to variables such as age and length of the disease, researchers found study participants to be more likely to have fewer disabilities.
The study also found that participants with an overall healthy lifestyle were nearly 50 percent less likely to have depression, 30 percent less likely to have severe fatigue, and more than 40 percent less likely to have pain.
“This is a very important study, providing evidence that one might be able to modify neurological status with appropriate diet and lifestyle,” Dr. Barbara Giesser, professor of clinical neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and clinical director of the UCLA MS program, told Healthline.
Determining the best foods
As a neurologist who specializes in taking care of people with MS, Giesser said the second most frequently asked question after diagnosis is, “What can I eat or not eat to help my MS?”
The study looked at consumption of fruits, whole foods, alcohol, diet, smoking, and weight.
Participants with the best diet ate an average of 1.7 servings of whole grains per day and 3.3 servings of fresh fruit, vegetables, and legumes.
That was about two times that of the least healthy participants.
Those who reported a healthier diet and healthier lifestyle had fewer disabilities than those who had reported less healthy diets and lifestyles.
There were two limitations to the study, according to study author Kathryn C. Fitzgerald, ScD, a post-doctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Maryland and a study author.
The study wasn’t able to say whether healthy diets predict changes to MS symptoms in the future.
In addition, the participants tended to be older and white with an average length of illness of 20 years, so the results may not apply to all people with MS.
Providing data to the community
Participants completed a dietary questionnaire as part of the 2015 North American Research Committee on MS (NARCOMS) registry.
NARCOMS is a global, volunteer effort to gain knowledge about MS.
NARCOMS creates and maintains a database of MS patients’ experience with their illness and makes this information available for others.
It’s designed to use the patient experience to improve clinical care and quality of life for people with MS. It’s currently recruiting data from those wanting to participate.
The study was supported by the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers (CMSC) and the Foundation of the CMSC.
The emphasis of the study was on the association between a healthy lifestyle and a person’s MS experience.
It’s important to understand that this study didn’t look at a causal relationship between the two, explained Giesser.
Taking control of MS management
Lifestyle and diet are things that people with MS have control over for the most part.
Earlier this year a systematic review published in Advances in Nutrition looked at the influence of diet with MS and found strong evidence that diet may be considered as a “complementary treatment to control the progression of the disease.”
This review included 47 articles and found support for vitamin D and vitamin B-12, stating that more research is necessary to determine if supplements may delay MS progression.
While diet is showing a connection with better living for people with MS, not everyone has access to healthier food.
Lower income families may not have the resources for a healthy diet.
One recent study looked at male veterans with MS. This subgroup has previously been shown to be of a lower socioeconomic status than the broader MS population.
The significant financial costs of healthcare and medications, combined with lower income, may affect access to healthy eating.
The results suggest that cost of food may be a barrier to healthier eating. Food choices are important to health and wanting to maintain a healthy diet.
The study also found that food-labeling terminology may be a limiting factor in the selection of foods that could be more beneficial, especially with regards to MS.
More than 40 percent of those studied purchased grass-fed meats that can provide significantly greater levels of anti-inflammatory fatty-acid N-3s and lower levels of pro-inflammatory fatty-acid, N-6s.
Giesser mentioned that diet and lifestyle weren’t appreciated 15 years ago as a supplemental treatment.
This change is most likely a reflection of successful studies, people taking control over their health, and the growth in popularity of a more holistic approach to living.
While there’s no cure for MS, it is treatable.
Some advice Giesser gives her patients is that for the majority of people, “Medication is necessary but not sufficient. Diet, lifestyle, and exercise are necessary but not sufficient. It is best to put them together.”