Diet and multiple sclerosis

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Swank Diet

On this low-fat diet, you’ll eat fewer than 15 grams of saturated fat and 20-50 grams of unsaturated fat each day. It’s not a new approach. Roy Swank, MD, PhD, published a study on it in 1970. He reported success, but since the study did not include a comparison group of people with MS who didn’t go on the plan, it’s hard to know how well it truly works.

Are There Nutrients That Help?

No vitamin or mineral can curb MS. Scientists have studied a few, though.

Fish Oil

The research is mixed on whether this helps.

In one small study, a group of people with MS took a teaspoon of fish oil each day with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A, D and E. They were also advised to avoid saturated fat and eat a lot of fish and vegetables. After two years, these people were less likely to report new or worsening symptoms, and only 12% of them had relapses.

But in another study, there wasn’t a clear benefit in taking fish oil supplements.

Omega-3s lower inflammation, and they appear to be safe for people with MS. They’re in fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, and tuna. If you take supplements, let your doctor know.

Vitamin D

Studies show that people with MS who have higher vitamin D levels are less likely to relapse. But there’s no proof that taking vitamin D prevents MS or curbs MS symptoms in people who already have the condition.

Only a few foods have vitamin D, such as fish and fortified foods such as orange juice, milk, and some alternative milk products (such as soy milk and almond milk). Your body can make vitamin D when you’re in the sunlight. Or you take a supplement.

Vitamin A

One study showed some limited promise, but you would want more research to check those findings before you took it to heart.

That study included about 100 people with MS. Some took high doses of vitamin A for a year. They were able to walk more easily and were better able to use their arms compared to the others. But there was no advantage in terms of relapse and disability.

If you take any supplement, tell your doctor. It’s possible to get too much of some vitamins, including A and D. Those overdoses can cause health problems.

Diet & Nutrition

We are often asked about the role of diet and how it can assist managing day-to-day life with MS.

MS is a complex disorder that affects everyone differently and with many different responses to treatments and interventions.

While there is currently little evidence from clinical studies that confirms particular foods or dietary changes can help reduce MS symptoms, there have been a number of studies indicating associations between certain dietary components and MS. There are also many examples of people who are living well with MS through a combination of the right treatment and some simple diet and lifestyle changes.

Many people in the MS community will be aware of the widely publicised lifestyle changes designed by high profile people living with MS such as Matt Embry, Terry Wahls, and George Jelinik which we are told have been of benefit to some people living with MS. Work is still progressing on how each of these changes impact on individuals living with MS, but we do understand they are of interest to the broader MS community and may help some people to live better.

Research into Diet, Nutrition and MS

Our colleagues at MS Research Australia regularly keep abreast of international research regarding diet, nutrition and MS.

There have been a handful of clinical trials into particular diets and dietary supplements. There have also been a number of observational studies conducted looking at particular diets and their impact on wellbeing.

Overall results are varied and it is often difficult to control for the multiple components and variables in dietary studies. It is therefore important if you are considering dietary changes that you consult your doctor or health professional in the first instance.

Here are some useful links to research into diet, nutrition and MS:

Furthermore our international colleagues have provided this information we recommend as a useful resource:

  • National Multiple Sclerosis Society (USA)
  • MSIF day to day living with MS
  • MS Society UK Diet
  • MS Society UK Special Diets and MS
  • MS Society of Canada https://mssociety.ca/hot-topics/diet

Get advice from your health professional in your local area.

Introducing Dr Joanna McMillan…

To help us understand a little more about diet, nutrition and MS, we would like to introduce Dr Joanna McMillan. Dr Joanna is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with a PhD in Nutritional Science. Dr Joanna also has a personal interest in MS and has offered to share her knowledge via a series of articles available here.

Does the Wahls Protocol Work for MS?

Wahls says her diet helped her go from using a wheelchair to biking miles at a time. While her personal experience may sound promising, there isn’t a lot of research that shows it works for other people who have MS.

One small study found that people with MS who switched to a Paleo/Wahls-style diet for a year were much less tired. But those people also exercised and did stretches, meditated, and got massage therapy and electrical stimulation therapy. So it’s hard to say for sure that the diet helped their symptoms.

With help from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Wahls and a team at the University of Iowa are doing a larger study that compares the Wahls diet to another plan, the Swank diet, which some experts also recommend for people who have MS.

Talk to your doctor before starting the Wahls diet. It includes many vitamin- and nutrient-rich foods, but you may have trouble getting enough of certain nutrients or enough calories. Your doctor may recommend that you work with a registered dietitian who has experience with MS to come up with a plan that’s right for you.

Tackling MS With a Plant-Based Diet: Saray Stancic, MD

As a third-year medical resident, Saray Stancic, MD, went from doctor to patient. After a brief nap during an overnight shift at the hospital, she woke up to find both her legs numb and heavy. An emergency MRI confirmed a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system that’s often considered incurable. But recent studies show that following a diet low in saturated fat may play a key role in managing the disease.

In a new interview, I talk with Dr. Stancic about her personal experience tackling MS with a plant-based diet. Dr. Stancic is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician and the founder and owner of Stancic Health and Wellness, where she treats patients using lifestyle modification, including a plant-based diet.

Dr. Stancic will present “Code Blue: Foods, Inflammation, and Multiple Sclerosis” at the Physicians Committee’s sixth annual International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine on Aug. 10-11, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Learn more about ICNM and register at PCRM.org/ICNM.

How did multiple sclerosis start for you, and how have things gone?
I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during an overnight shift at the hospital. After a break for a nap, I woke up I could not feel my legs. I was brought to the ER, and an MRI of my brain and spinal cord confirmed the diagnosis of MS.

Today, nearly 23 years since the diagnosis, I am doing remarkably well, but this was not always the case. In 1995, I started a medicine to slow the progression of the disease that had several difficult side effects. By 2003, I was dependent on a cane and nearly 12 medicines.

It was around this time that I learned of the importance of a plant-based diet. In 2003, I made the unconventional decision to taper off the medicines and instead optimize my diet and lifestyle. This one decision changed the course of my life.

Has the experience affected the advice you give to patients?
This experience changed my perspective so much so that I left my infectious disease practice to focus solely on lifestyle medicine.

What inspired Code Blue, your forthcoming documentary?
Code Blue is a feature-length documentary that sheds light on lapses in our current health care system, which regrettably fails to promote plant-based nutrition and optimal lifestyle in preventing, reversing, and managing disease states. We hope to catalyze change in how we train physicians, who currently receive little to no nutrition education. The most important aspect of health maintenance undeniably lies in the foods we put on our plates.

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