- Researchers say a Mediterranean diet can help people with multiple sclerosis to better retain their memory and cognitive skills.
- One of the reasons, they say, is the plant-based diet can help reduce inflammation that causes brain health issues.
- Experts note that people with multiple sclerosis can also benefit by adopting other healthy lifestyle habits such as regular exercise and adequate sleep.
That’s according to a preliminary study being presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 75th Annual Meeting in Boston.
The study, which hasn’t been published yet by a peer-reviewed journal, included 563 people with MS who were instructed to self-report how closely they followed the Mediterranean diet.
Study participants were then divided into four groups based on how closely they were following the diet on a scale ranging from 0 to 14.
Each participant then completed three different thinking and memory skill assessment tests.
Cognitive impairment in the study was defined as scoring in less than the fifth percentile on 2 or 3 of the assessment tests.
The researchers reported the following study results:
- 19% of participants showed signs of cognitive impairment.
- 20% lower risk for cognitive impairment in people who followed the Mediterranean diet compared to others.
- 34% of study participants who reported lower adherence to the Mediterranean diet had cognitive impairment compared to 13% of people in the group with the highest adherence to the Mediterranean diet.
Researchers said the results were more notable or stronger in people with progressive MS than among those with relapsing-remitting MS, where the disease flares up and then goes into periods of remission.
Other lifestyle factors that may affect the risk of cognitive impairment, such as socioeconomic status, smoking, body mass index, high blood pressure, and physical activity level were taken into consideration.
“Among health-related factors, the level of dietary alignment with the Mediterranean pattern was by far the strongest predictor of people’s cognitive scores and whether they met the study criteria for cognitive impairment,” Dr. Ilana Katz Sand, a study author and a neurologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said in a press release.
She added that longer and repeated studies that follow people over time and well-designed interventional clinical trials are needed to confirm the results.
The foods we eat (and don’t eat) play a role in inflammation in the body.
Chronic inflammation can worsen symptoms of medical conditions and cause damage to the brain, heart, and other organs, according to Cleveland Clinic.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a nutritionist and the author of “Skinny Liver” as well as manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, told Healthline the benefits of the Mediterranean diet most likely come from its inclusion of multiple plant-based foods.
“Individual foods within the diet, such as extra virgin olive oil and nuts, also show potent anti-inflammatory impacts,” she said.
The Mediterranean diet includes anti-inflammatory foods such as:
- Legumes or beans
- Healthy fats such as olive oil
Kirkpatrick added that the health benefits to memory and cognitive functioning are coming from what you’re not eating when following a Mediterranean diet. Those include inflammatory-promoting processed and ultra-processed food products.
Dairy products, red and processed meats, and saturated fatty acids are all food items to be consumed in moderation or avoided for people following a Mediterranean diet.
“It’s important for people with MS to know that diet is an important part of wellness and can work hand-in-hand with disease-modifying therapies to manage symptoms and quell disease activity,” says Kathy Zackowski, PhD, the associate vice president of research for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“This study suggests that the Mediterranean diet has the potential to positively impact cognitive disability in MS and more specifically in progressive MS,” she told Healthline.
She said the findings add to the evidence of the importance and relevance of research studying diet in people with MS.
You can also manage your symptoms of MS with non-dietary lifestyle-based approaches, adds Kirkpatrick.
“Important to note that stress management, regular physical activity, and adequate sleep have been instrumental in my patient population with MS in addition to dietary protocols,” she said.