MS and Diet: What You Should Know
Dec 04, 2019 Cedars-Sinai Staff
When you have a chronic, debilitating condition such as multiple sclerosis (MS), it's natural to do everything you can to stall the disease progression.
With MS, the immune system attacks the nervous system, leading to faulty communication between nerve cells. The fallout can range from blurry vision to trouble with speech and balance.
"It's important for people who have MS to separate the science from potentially harmful marketing claims."
While medication is the best line of defense against MS progression, patients frequently ask about the role of diet.
"One of the most common questions I get is: 'Should I be eating or avoiding certain foods for my MS?'" says Dr. Marwa Kaisey, a neurologist and MS specialist.
"Some even ask if following a specific diet can reduce disease activity."
Countless studies show a link between food and overall wellbeing. But there's no evidence to suggest that following a certain diet can prevent, treat, or cure MS.
Dietary strategies for people with MS
If you have MS, remember that what's good for the heart is good for the brain. These 5 strategies will not only help protect both body and mind, they may also enhance your quality of life.
- Talk to your doctor. Before you jump on any diet trend, consult your doctor or request a referral to a nutritionist or registered dietitian. A professional can help assess your nutritional status and come up with an evidence-based dietary regimen that makes sense for your condition.
- Focus on heart-healthy foods. MS increases your risk of developing heart disease, which can make MS worse. Eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, heart-healthy fats, and lean protein can help. Choose whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible.
- Be wary of supplements. Most supplements are understudied and could even pose a threat to people with MS. "MS is an imbalance in the immune system. If a supplement claims to boost or activate the immune system, that raises red flags because we don't know how it will impact MS," Dr. Kaisey says. The only supplement doctors recommend for people with MS is vitamin D. Preliminary studies suggest it may play a role in reducing disease activity.
- Go easy on salt. While scientists don't know much about how specific foods impact the onset and progression of MS, they do know that excess salt may make matters worse.
- Get moving. Exercise is the single best non-pharmacological treatment for MS. Studies show that regular physical activity is good for body, mind, and mood—and it may reduce fatigue, too. "We know that exercising the body helps keep the brain healthy and that can help with MS," says Dr. Kaisey.
Special diets and MS
Almost every day a new diet makes headlines promising to cure disease and restore vitality.
"None of these approaches have definitively proven effective for people with MS. Some may even be harmful because they eliminate entire food groups and could exclude important nutrients," says Dr. Kaisey.
"Others, such as the ketogenic diet, can increase cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease."
Research is underway to determine if specific foods and nutrients can help stall MS progression.
In the meantime, doctors encourage people with MS to follow the same dietary guidelines that leading health authorities recommend for the general population: Eat a balanced diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, while limiting processed foods, salt, and saturated fat.
"It's important for people who have MS to separate the science from potentially harmful marketing claims," Dr. Kaisey says.
"I have patients come in my office and cry out of relief when I tell them they don't have to stick to a restrictive diet that someone told them will cure their disease."