Multiple Sclerosis, commonly referred to simply as MS, is an inflammatory disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. It targets the myelin sheaths that surround the nerves and damages them, disrupting the nervous system and causing symptoms that range from fatigue and muscle weakness to brain fog, numbness, and difficulties walking or moving. MS affects approximately 400,000 people in the United States alone.
There is no known cure for MS, but there are ways to help slow its progression and lessen the frequency of flare-ups, which can make your life a rollercoaster. Knowledge of the disease is growing, and there are many medications to help in the battle against MS, but did you know that dietary changes can help, too?
Taking “Your Body is a Machine” to Heart
It’s true. Your body really is a machine, and some would argue that it’s even more of one when you’re dealing with diseases like MS. There are special dietary needs and restrictions when battling MS, and when these “rules” are followed, there’s a good chance you might see a reduction in the frequency, and maybe even the severity of your flare-ups.
MS can put you at a higher risk for certain health conditions, such as bone loss, bladder issues, and weight gain, which can further exacerbate your symptoms. A regular routine of healthy nutrition may minimize these issues and can work wonders for your mood and overall wellbeing.
Dr. Roy Swank’s Study: A Low-Fat Diet for MS Patients
In 1948, Dr. Roy Swank embarked on a study that would show the success of how dietary changes in the lives of patients with MS could affect the severity of their symptoms and the frequency of their flare-ups. Dr. Swank believed that high amounts of saturated fats could worsen symptoms of MS, so he started 150 MS patients on a diet very low in saturated fats.
Over the course of 34 years, he followed the fat consumption of these patients and re-examined them. According the results of Dr. Swank’s study:
- 70 of the 150 patients consumed an average of 17 grams of saturated fats every day; 21% of those died
- Of those eating 30 grams of saturated fats daily, 75% died
- Of those eating 42 grams of saturated fats daily, 81% died
Those patients who were considered to be “good dieters,” (meaning that they stuck to the low amounts of saturated fats) consumed, on average, about 16 grams of fats every day. The “bad dieters” consumed around 38 grams per day. Even though Dr. Swank found the reduction from 125 grams per day to 35 grams to be a significant drop for the bad dieters, the statistics above show that it wasn’t enough to slow their MS progression.
Those who stuck to the low-fat diet “were normal physically, mentally, neurologically, and very active and normal in appearance,” according to Dr. Swank’s conclusions. So, does a low-fat diet help slow the progression of MS, as well as frequency of flare-ups? It certainly seems like it.
The lesson to take away from Dr. Swank’s study? Saturated fats should be completely avoided whenever possible.
While there have been many people who have tried Dr. Swank’s diet and have found success, the study itself still remains controversial to a degree, due to the fact that it was conducted before the advent of MRI scans that could measure the MS progression of a patient, and because there was no set control group.
Is Dr. Swank’s study proof that there’s a link between fat consumption at the frequency and severity of MS flare-ups? Maybe and maybe not. It certainly seemed to benefit many of the MS patients who were participating. There are other testimonies, as well. Whether you take the study to heart or not is up to you, but it’s always good to keep in mind that reducing your intake of saturated fats is a step toward good health in general.
What About Other Dietary Changes?
Aspartame, Caffeine, and Alcohol
While many people seem to think that intake of aspartame may exacerbate MS flare-ups, there’s no clear link between the two. However, it’s always a good idea to stay away from aspartame, caffeine, and alcohol, as these things can have an effect on any bladder symptoms you may be experiencing in relation to MS. Try to nix them these three from your diet completely, if possible.
A gluten-free diet hasn’t been proven to be a necessity for people with MS, but some patients may have a higher incidence of gluten intolerance. For those patients, a gluten-free diet can be a good idea. However, this decision should always be made on a base-by-case basis. Going gluten-free is a big decision and an even larger undertaking.
There hasn’t been a clear connection between refined sugar intake and the frequency of MS flare-ups. A high sugar intake can cause weight gain, though, and that can increase MS-related fatigue. Instead of foods with refined sugars, why not opt for fruit instead? An added benefit of the fruit is that it may also help relieve constipation associated with MS.
For people with MS, it’s always a good idea to drink more water. It’s the easiest way to avoid constipation. A higher water intake can be an issue for patients who suffer from MS-related urge incontinence, though.
A diet that’s high in fiber is always a good idea, but for MS patients, it’s a must. Adding natural fiber from grains, fruits, and vegetables is also a great way to relieve MS-related constipation.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are normally found in oily fish (and available in fish oil supplements), are great for protection against inflammation and may help reduce the frequency and severity of MS flare-ups.
Have you made any dietary changes to help reduce your MS symptoms? What are your thoughts on Dr. Swank’s study? We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment below!