Written by: Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA, Anna Simon, Ellen M. Martin
As our knowledge of nutrition and food as medicine expands, using foods as health enhancers and therapy agents has become increasingly popular. Many patients are following dietary guidelines to help mitigate symptoms, based on a growing understanding that diet and nutrition can either exacerbate or reduce symptom severity.
What is MS?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (CNS). The immune system of people with MS attacks the CNS, damaging the protective myelin sheaths that surround nerve fibers. This damage alters, slows, or stops nerve impulse transmission. Essentially, communications between the brain, spinal cord, and body are disrupted.
Common symptoms include walking difficulties, numbness or weakness, spasticity, dizziness, vision problems, fatigue, and even paralysis. There is no known cause of MS, although genetics, environmental factors, and certain infections all seem to be linked to the disease. Females are twice as likely to develop MS than males, and white people of Northern European descent are at a higher risk of developing the disease.
Are There Best Foods For MS?
Certain foods and food components may help manage MS symptoms. The Internet offers an overwhelming amount of diet recommendations, including the Wahls Protocol, Paleolithic diet, and Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) and Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diets for inflammatory diseases. Check out our post on autoimmune diet comparisons to learn more about these different diets. While we do believe that following a diet that emphasizes anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods should help people with MS, we don’t believe in a one-diet-for-all approach, because MS affects people differently and symptoms vary among patients.
Much of the research on MS and food comes from Dr. Terry Wahls, who used a modified Paleo diet to treat her own MS symptoms. The Wahls Protocol focuses on leafy greens, fruits, meat, seafood, and certain starches. We will focus on this diet, although keep in mind that it might not work for every MS patient. We recommend starting with the Wahls Protocol, then personalizing it based on how your body feels when you eat certain foods. Check out our article on immune boosting foods to learn more.
The table below offers a great starting point for any MS patient. We have constructed this table to highlight the abundant information about the relationship between food and MS. Drawing from Dr. Terry Wahls’ research (1), various scientific publications, and our own knowledge on anti-inflammatory foods, we’ve crafted our best food recommendations for MS patients.
The Wahls Protocol recommends “9 cups of vegetables a day (yep!), including 3 cups of greens and leafy greens of any type, 3 cups of deeply colored fruits and vegetables (can include berries here too) and 3 cups of sulfur-rich veggies. This volume is needed to actually get the amount of nutrients our bodies really need to function on a daily basis.” (2) It also emphasizes quality ingredients, focusing on organic, grass-fed, and wild-caught ingredients. Additionally, organ meats (liver, tongue, kidney, etc.), seafood, seaweed, and good fats (such as olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, and avocado oil) are recommended.
In general, following a generic autoimmune diet which broadly focuses on eliminating processed foods, dairy, and added sugar, while increasing consumption of vegetables, fruits, fish and other whole foods may help MS patients. In addition to the Wahls Protocol guidelines, research (3) suggests that higher vitamin D levels are associated with decreased risk of developing MS, as well as beneficial effects on the course of the disease, so eating foods rich in Vitamin D, like fatty fish and fortified foods, or taking supplements if needed, is recommended for MS patients. Drinking plenty of fluids is always important in keeping your body functioning as best as it can. If you experience gastrointestinal issues, we suggest eating smaller meals and only when you’re hungry to minimize stomach pain. We recommend keeping a food diary to track foods that trigger your symptoms, as well as foods your body responds well to.
The Worst Foods for MS
In contrast to anti-inflammatory foods, there are also proinflammatory foods that should be avoided. These include processed meats, sodas and sugary beverages, salty snacks, packaged sweets, and refined carbohydrates. Unfortunately, these foods are also easy to reach for when stress eating or snacking. If you suffer from MS, these types of food are likely to intensify any symptoms you’re already experiencing.
In addition to the generic proinflammatory foods listed in the table below, there are some more specific foods that might be harmful to MS patients. The Wahls Protocol recommends avoiding gluten, dairy, sugar, and refined grains. Start by eliminating them, then test your personal response by introducing one food in each category at a time.
These common conventional products have more synthetic chemicals (4), which may have greater effects on those with autoimmune diseases or related conditions.
Other Tools for Managing MS
Engage in Mindful Eating
Other aspects of eating are important besides the best and worst foods for your body. Eating smaller, nutritionally-balanced meals could help ease digestion and help fight flare-ups. Chewing your food slowly and engaging your jaw can help activate your oral microbiome and promote better oral health. A key aspect of mindfulness is paying attention to your body’s short and long-term response to a food – if it stings or produces cramping, or diarrhea the next day, consider it a likely bad actor in your diet.
What you drink matters too! Water normalizes the pH of your mouth – healthy human saliva has a pH of 7.4. When we consume acidic foods and beverages, such as fruit juice and soda, oral pH is thrown out of balance (not to mention the additional sugar and calorie intake). When the pH within our mouths falls below 5.5, demineralization occurs, making us more susceptible to oral diseases, such as dental caries and periodontal disease. Drinking plenty of water daily can help maintain a healthy mouth pH, in addition to keeping you hydrated. When drinking tea, coffee, juice, or alcohol, we recommend drinking water as well for optimal oral health.
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
Staying active is incredibly important to maintaining healthy living. It is even more important for those who suffer from MS and other autoimmune diseases because exercise can help reduce inflammation and alleviate symptoms. Exercise can take on many forms, from higher-intensity training like running or playing sports to lower-intensity exercises like walking, yoga, Pilates or other movement therapies. Get our free ebook on movement therapy to explore more options!
Relax and Reduce Your Stress
Constant stress is one of the negative by-products of modern life. While our stress responses were beneficial in helping our ancestors avoid predation and other life-threatening situations, constant but not life-and-death stressors brought about by modern society can be extremely harmful to our bodies. While helpful in short bursts, our flight-or-fight responses – part of our sympathetic nervous system – can have harmful consequences when constantly activated by non-life-threatening stress. These consequences include triggering or exacerbating flare-ups. It is therefore important for those with MS to reduce overall stress.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to make sure you are getting enough sleep. Most people do not get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep daily. Whether taking an afternoon nap, going to bed earlier, or (if scheduling permits) sleeping later, emphasis should be on consistent restful sleep. Regular sleep habits are helpful in reducing insomnia and encouraging deep, restful sleep. Relaxation throughout the day is also important. This could mean an early morning workout, an afternoon yoga class, or even taking 15 minutes in the middle of the day just to focus on your breathing. Figure out what works best for you and do it. Take the time to be the best version of yourself: your stress will go down, your body will feel better, and your productivity may even increase!
Multiple Sclerosis is a condition that can affect each patient differently. Following some sort of anti-inflammatory diet may help mitigate your symptoms. What worked for your friends, family, or spouse might not work for you. Everyone is unique and experimenting with food therapy for MS may not be an easy fix. Try not to be overwhelmed by all of the recommendations and information out there, go slowly and trust yourself. At the end of the day, you are your greatest advocate and you know your body best. Fearlessly experiment with your dietary options and be mindful of your reactions. Stay tuned for our new ebook on food therapy to learn more about what makes you unique and how to kick-start your journey to finding your optimal diet.
Have you tried any autoimmune diets? What foods work/don’t work for your body? Let us know in the comments.
Check out our other spotlights here
- Wahls, T et al. “Dietary approaches to treat MS-related fatigue: comparing the modified Paleolithic (Wahls Elimination) and low saturated fat (Swank) diets on perceived fatigue in persons with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial” Trials. Vol 19(309). 2018.
- Walker, A. (2018). More about Dr. Wahls and a Wahls Protocol Breakfast. [online] Nourish Strength.
- Bowling, A. “Vitamins, Minerals & Herbs in MS” National Multiple Sclerosis Society. 2018.
- Smith-Spangler, C et al. “Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review” Annals of Internal Medicine. Vol 157(5). 2012. 348-366. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22944875