Many foods have been touted as helpful for people with multiple sclerosis (MS). Do they work?
"There are strong reasons to think that diet could affect MS symptoms and even help treat it," says neurologist Ellen Mowry, MD, of Johns Hopkins University.
But although a healthy diet is always a good idea, there is no proof that any diet or food, on its own, treats MS.
If you want to try changing your diet to see if it helps your MS, do your homework. Make sure you've got good information from a reliable source, that you'll get all the nutrients you need, and talk with your doctor before making major changes.
You may have heard about certain nutrients or diets for MS. One thing to keep in mind is that there hasn't been a lot of research done in this area, and there aren't solid results showing benefits.
Oil change. Some early studies showed promise in a diet low in saturated fat and supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. But 2012 review of research did not find any benefit for omega-3s and omega-6s. So for now, the findings are mixed.
Vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D are linked with more severe MS symptoms. The body makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, and MS is more common in parts of the world that get less direct sun.
Does that mean that taking vitamin D supplements will help? That's not certain. "I think the evidence that vitamin D supplements could help is pretty strong, but we don't know for sure," says Mowry, who is leading two studies of vitamin D and MS. Before trying vitamin D supplements, ask your doctor to test your vitamin D blood level and ask their advice on how much you should take.
Diets that people have promoted for MS include:
Gluten-free diet. Cutting out gluten is popular. But there's no evidence it helps people with MS, says Allen C. Bowling, MD, PhD, medical director of the Multiple Sclerosis Service at the Colorado Neurological Institute and author of Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis.
Swank diet. This diet, developed over 60 years ago, has very low levels of saturated fats. Though some studies have shown promise, none has shown a convincing benefit, Bowling says. "I don’t think the Swank diet is harmful, but it’s hard to stick to," he says.
Wahls diet. This diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables -- 9 cups a day - but no studies have shown a clear result. Bowling believes its emphasis on certain nutrients leads some followers to “use high doses of many supplements.” He cautions that the safety of such high doses has not been proven. Discuss any supplements you're taking with your doctor, even if the products are natural.
MS and Diet: What Should You Do?
Though there is no magic MS diet, some dietary changes may be good for your overall health:
Cut fat and boost fiber. Just like people without MS, your diet may have too much saturated fat and too little fiber. Changing that may help you avoid heart disease and other conditions.
Avoid extreme, untested diets. Diets that radically change how you eat could be harmful. "If you’re using a diet to treat your MS, it's really like using a medication," Mowry says. You wouldn’t take an untested drug, so be wary of an untested diet. When in doubt, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.
Ellen Mowry, MD, assistant professor, department of neurology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.
National MS Society: "Nutrition and Diet."
Allen C. Bowling, MD, PhD, medical director, Multiple Sclerosis Service, Colorado Neurological Institute; clinical associate professor of neurology, University of Colorado-Denver and Health Sciences Center; author, Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis; co-author, The Everything Health Guide to Multiple Sclerosis.
Yale News: "Yale Researchers Identify Salt as a Trigger of Autoimmune Diseases."
Jagannath, V. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2010.
Terry Wahls, MD: "Eating the Wahls Way."
National Multiple Sclerosis Society: "Vitamins, Minerals, & Herbs in MS: An Introduction."