Can what we eat affect the course of MS? Researchers explore an area where advancements might change the daily lives of people with MS.
Diet and MS – the big picture
Maintenance of general good health is important for people with MS or any chronic disorder. A well-balanced and carefully planned diet will help to achieve this goal. While many different diets have been proposed as a treatment, or even a cure, for the signs and symptoms of MS, evidence of effectiveness is very limited. Most of these proposed diets have not been subjected to rigorous, controlled studies, and the few that have been evaluated have produced mixed results.
Researchers are making significant connections, however, in the story of diet and MS that may eventually impact the lives of people living with MS. Here are some key findings and some areas where the results are mixed.
Vitamin D - Research is increasingly pointing to a reduced level of vitamin D in the blood as a risk factor for developing MS, and studies are underway to determine if vitamin D levels influence MS disease activity. The National MS Society has led the way in this research, funding early preclinical studies, convening a summit on this topic, and now funding a clinical trial of vitamin D supplementation. Read more here.
Salt – Several reports suggest that dietary salt can speed the development of an MS-like disease in mice, and provide new insights on immune system activity involved in MS. Read more about these reports here. While more research needs to be done to confirm a role for salt in triggering MS, or to determine whether reducing salt can inhibit MS immune attacks, these studies pinpoint new avenues for strategies that can decrease MS attacks. These studies were funded in part by the National MS Society, and the Society is now funding further research that explores how salt affects the immune system in humans.
Antioxidants – these natural or manmade substances are found in many foods. In MS, the immune system damages and destroys myelin, the material that surrounds and protects nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Nerve fibers themselves are damaged as well, which appears to drive long-term disability. “Free radicals” are normal by-products of bodily processes, and may cause tissue injury and turn on immune attacks in MS. Antioxidants block the action of free radicals. Controlled trials are underway to test the potential of several antioxidants for treating MS:
Scientists at Oregon Health Science University are testing whether oral lipoic acid can reduce optic nerve damage (often the first symptom indicating MS) in people at high risk for MS.
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health are testing whether idebenone (a man-made drug that is similar to coenzyme Q10, a common dietary supplement) can decrease loss of brain tissue volume in people with primary progressive MS.
Several groups are investigating antioxidants isolated from green tea in people with MS, based on studies in MS-like disease which showed that these substances can reduce the effects of the immune attack.