Multiple sclerosis, MS, is a neurodegenerative disease that affects more than 400,000 people in the US. About 200 people are diagnosed each week. Worldwide, the number jumps to 2.5 million MS patients.
The cause of MS isn't definitively known yet, but most experts believe it's a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There is no cure. While maintaining a healthy diet that is rich is in fruits, veggies and whole grains is a good idea for anyone, new research suggests that diet could play a significant role in the severity of MS symptoms. A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine looked at dietary intake among MS patients and came up with some surprising results.
Study author Kathryn C. Fitzgerald explained, "People with MS often ask if there is anything they can do to delay or avoid disability, and many people want to know if their diet can play a role, but there have been few studies investigating this. While this study does not determine whether a healthy lifestyle reduces MS symptoms or whether having severe symptoms makes it harder for people to engage in a healthy lifestyle, it provides evidence for the link between the two."
6,989 people with all types of MS participated in the study, via the North American Research Committee (NARCOMS) database. A healthy diet was defined as one that included fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains and was limited in how much sugar, red meat, and processed foods were consumed. The study volunteers were placed into five groups based on how healthy their diet was. Lifestyle factors were considered as well, including weight, BMI, physical exercise, and smoking. Data was also collected on MS symptoms, relapses, and the severity of MS issues such as numbness, paralysis, pain, and fatigue.
When the diet factors were tallied up along with the incidence of disabling symptoms it was found that those who were in the top group in terms of a healthy diet, were 20% less likely to have a significant disability as a result of MS symptoms when compared to the group with the least healthy diet. Even when researchers adjusted the numbers to control for confounding factors like age and duration of disease, the healthy eaters still came out on top. A lower risk of severe depression was also found in the patients who had the best dietary habits.
The diets were rated based on the numbers of servings per day of whole grains and fruits, vegetables and legumes. The top diet group had an average of 1.7 servings of whole grains and .3.3 servings of fruits, veggies, and legumes. The lower end of the diet ratings were those patients who only consumed 0.3 servings of whole grains and 1.7 servings of other healthy foods.
Lifestyle mattered as well with those patients who exercised, didn't smoke and stayed at a healthy weight being almost 50% less likely to develop depression. They were also 40% less likely to have significant pain and 30% less likely to experience debilitating fatigue. While the research is valuable because it connects diet and lifestyle to managing a chronic and often disabling disease, there were some limits to the work. The subjects were almost all white and had been living with MS for an average of 20 years or more. Newly diagnosed patients who are younger or of a different ethnic background, might not find that diet impacts their disease in the same way. The design of the study did not allow for the researchers to predict whether or not a healthy diet could change the course of MS, overall, however, it was a good start in looking at factors that can be controlled. The video below talks about diet and the microbiome and how that could impact MS patients, have a look.