Diet can't cure multiple sclerosis, but may help alleviate aymptoms

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Section: Ask EN
Q. I've been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Are any diets helpful?

A. While no specific diet has proved capable of altering the course of the disease, some experts believe following certain dietary guidelines might help reduce the severity of symptoms.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive disease in which the immune system is thought to attack the myelin sheaths surrounding nerve cells, causing flare-ups of weakness, fatigue, loss of balance, blurred vision and other neurological problems. What triggers the autoimmune activity is unknown.

Many diets have been proposed to combat MS, including the Swank Diet and various allergen-free, gluten-free, raw foods and natural foods diets. But because MS symptoms tend to wax and wane for no apparent reason, it's hard to gauge effectiveness. Still, there is anecdotal evidence that some people feel better after making dietary changes.

Possible Nutrition Links. Although far from proven, low levels of essential fatty acids, vitamin D and B 12 have been proposed as triggers for MS. A recent study suggests a link between MS and animal fats and sweets, as well as a protective effect of vegetable protein, fiber, vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium and potassium.

What Might Help. The International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies says polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fats, are possibly beneficial because they are anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) may help for the same reason. On the other hand, limiting fat, especially saturated fat, may be important as well.

Roy L. Swank, Ph.D., the pioneer of the diet that bears his name, has been promoting a strict very-low-fat eating plan (no more than 20 grams a day) for several decades.

One study of 150 people with MS has found that those who followed Swank's diet had little deterioration attributable to the disease and much lower death rates than those who ate more fat. But that's the extent of scientific support for the diet. Other dietary changes also lack significant research support.

MS DIET ADVICE WORTH TRYING
MS is a complex disorder requiring proper medical care. EN recommends that those with MS collaborate with a doctor and a registered dietitian to develop individualized treatment. The following recommendations, though not proven to ease MS symptoms, may be of some benefit, especially early in the disease.

Eat unprocessed fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid excessive refined and sugary foods.
Take a multivitamin. A B-complex supplement may also be warranted.
Keep total fat low. Replace saturated fats (in animal foods) with polyunsaturated fats (in legumes, nuts, seeds).
Eat fish or ground flaxseed for omega-3 fats. Try fish oil supplements.
Try black currant oil or evening primrose oil for gamma-linolenic acid.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking, which all affect the nervous system.

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