Eating healthy, nutritious food is an important part of feeling well and managing symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS). In MS, the immune system attacks the central nervous system, blocking or interrupting nerve signals and causing symptoms such as:
- movement problems
- bladder and bowel dysfunction
- vision problems
Your diet is an important tool when it comes to living well with these symptoms. Read on to learn which foods may help or harm your condition.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), no single diet can treat or cure MS. Because MS symptoms typically come and go, measuring the effectiveness of a diet is difficult. However, MS specialists suggest that a low-fat, high-fiber diet similar to the one recommended by the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association can benefit people with MS.
Physician Roy Swank introduced his low-fat diet for MS in 1948. He claimed that saturated fats in animal products and tropical oils worsen MS symptoms. Swank’s research is controversial. It was conducted before MRIs could measure the progression of MS and his studies lacked a control group. However, reducing your saturated fat intake to less than 15 grams a day makes sense for your overall health. It’s a positive, healthy step toward good health. However, don’t eliminate all fats, as maintaining adequate levels of vitamin D may have a protective effect on MS. Foods that have vitamin D include fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel) as well as beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks.
An analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study (I and II) failed to show a link between fat consumption and development of MS. A theoretical connection between dairy sensitivity and the number and severity of MS flare-ups also hasn’t been proven by research. But opting for low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products is another protective strategy that may improve your overall health.
Drinks with aspartame, caffeine, and alcohol can irritate the bladder. According to nutritional guidelines from NMSS, it’s best to stay away from these drinks if you have bladder-related MS symptoms. But you don’t have to worry about aspartame causing MS; that’s a myth.
A study published in BMC Neurology reported that selected MS patients and their immediate family members had a higher incidence of gluten intolerance than the general population. But that doesn’t mean all MS patients should go gluten-free. The decision to shift to a gluten-free diet, which eliminates all wheat, rye, barley, and triticale foods, should be made on a case-by-case basis. The researchers also recommended early detection and treatment of gluten intolerance for MS patients.
No scientific evidence shows that refined sugars are linked to MS flare-ups. However, going easy on sweet foods helps you manage your weight, which is very important for people with MS. Sugar- and calorie-laden foods can pack on pounds, and extra weight can increase MS-related fatigue. Being overweight also may contribute to mobility problems and raise cardiovascular disease risk. The occasional slice of birthday cake is fine, but generally choose fruit as your snack and dessert option. High-fiber fruit also helps ease constipation, another MS symptom.
MS is a lifelong disease posing unique challenges that may change over time, but most people with MS find ways to manage their symptoms and lead rich, fulfilling lives. Heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in people with MS—the same as in the general population. There’s no need to adopt a rigid or severely restrictive diet if you have MS. Filling your plate with delicious and low-fat, high-fiber foods provides the energy you need and offers protection against additional health problems.