Researchers don’t yet fully understand what causes multiple sclerosis (MS) but believe it may develop from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Identifying these factors can help open the door to treatment and prevention options.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system. More than 2.8 million people worldwide live with MS, according to the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation.

Read on to learn about the ongoing research on MS prevention

MS is an immune-mediated disease in which the body’s immune system attacks myelin. This fatty substance insulates and protects the nerve fibers of the central nervous system. When myelin is damaged, it’s difficult for the brain to send signals to the rest of the body and within the brain itself.

The symptoms of MS vary from person to person. Common symptoms may include:

Scientists, researchers, and doctors haven’t yet developed a method of curing or preventing MS. But understanding the factors contributing to MS development and progression can open the door to developing treatments and prevention options.

Though there are no definitive conclusions, there are studies that explore various possibilities for MS prevention. These include the following:

  • Maintaining adequate vitamin D levels: Several studies have focused on whether vitamin D levels influence MS activity, with some research showing that higher levels of vitamin D may prevent MS. Vitamin D can be obtained through sun exposure, fortified foods, and supplements.
  • Fasting: A 2016 study on mice suggested that fasting could provide beneficial effects for relapsing-remitting MS. Though more research in humans is needed, certain variations of fasting — such as intermittent fasting — may be especially beneficial.
  • Drinking coffee: A 2016 report found that the risk of developing MS was substantially lower in people who drank a high amount of coffee (more than 30 ounces, or around 4 cups, per day).
  • Consuming resveratrol: A 2017 study on mice found that resveratrol — a compound found in red wine — showed anti-inflammatory effects in the brain, which may restore the myelin coating on nerve fibers. In addition to red wine, resveratrol is also found in grapes, apples, blueberries, and plums and is available as a supplement.
  • Minimizing stress levels: Research indicates that stress may be involved in the development of MS. According to one 2020 study, stressful major life events could be linked to a 17–30% increase in the risk of MS.
  • Quitting smoking: Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke can increase the risk of developing MS and MS progression. Furthermore, for people with MS, smoking is associated with increased disease activity and disability.
  • Following a balanced diet: Studies show that obesity may be associated with a higher risk of MS, especially during adolescence. While there’s no specific diet for MS, a well-rounded diet can help you reach or maintain a moderate weight and provide nutrients that are important for immune function and overall health.
  • Staying active: Some studies have found that vigorous physical activity could be linked to a decreased risk of MS, even after adjusting for other variables like age, sex, and smoking.
  • Supplement with flaxseed oil: Flaxseed oil is rich in alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fatty acid that may be tied to a reduced risk of MS, according to one 2018 study.

MS isn’t directly inherited or contagious, but some things may increase your risk. They include:

  • Sex: Hormones are thought to play a role in the development of MS. In fact, females are approximately three times as likely to develop MS as males.
  • Age: Although people of any age can develop MS, most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20–50.
  • Family history: There’s a higher risk of MS if a parent or sibling has MS.
  • Race: People of African, Asian, or Native American descent have the lowest risk for developing MS. White people — especially those of Northern European descent — have the highest.
  • Geography and sun: The likelihood of developing MS is higher in areas farthest from the equator. Because of this, it’s speculated that exposure to the sun or higher vitamin D levels in the body might help prevent MS.
  • Past infections: Some viruses, such as Epstein-Barr, have been linked to MS.
  • Certain autoimmune diseases: Having type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease, or inflammatory bowel disease may increase the risk of developing MS.

Understanding these risk factors can help researchers find potential cures and prevention opportunities.

Are sex and gender the same thing?

People often use the terms sex and gender interchangeably, but they have different meanings:

  • “Sex” refers to the physical characteristics that differentiate male, female, and intersex bodies.
  • “Gender” refers to a person’s identity and how they feel inside. Examples include man, woman, nonbinary, agender, bigender, genderfluid, pangender, and trans. A person’s gender identity may be different from the sex they were assigned at birth.
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Below are some frequently asked questions about MS.

Can multiple sclerosis be prevented?

Multiple sclerosis cannot be completely prevented, and certain risk factors — such as age, sex, and family history — cannot be modified. However, changing your diet and lifestyle may help reduce the risk of developing MS.

How can you prevent multiple sclerosis?

Though MS cannot be totally prevented, quitting smoking (if applicable), maintaining moderate body weight, and getting enough vitamin D through diet or sun exposure could help reduce your risk.

Staying active, minimizing stress levels, and following a healthy, well-rounded diet may also be beneficial.

Who is most likely to get multiple sclerosis?

While anyone can develop MS, it’s more common in females, those with a family history of MS, and people between the ages of 20 and 50. White people of Northern European descent are also at a higher risk, along with those with a history of certain autoimmune conditions or viral infections, such as Epstein-Barr.

At this point in time, there are no cures for MS. There are also no proven ways to prevent getting the disease. There is, however, ongoing MS research on MS and how to prevent it.