Editor's Note: This post was originally published November 2015 and has recently been updated and revised for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
As defined by The National MS Society Multiple sclerosis (MS) involves an immune-mediated process in which an abnormal response of the body’s immune system is directed against the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. The exact antigen — or target that the immune cells are sensitized to attack — remains unknown, which is why MS is considered by many experts to be "immune-mediated" rather than "autoimmune."
Patches of the myelin sheath, a fatty substance essential to the functioning of the nervous system are destroyed by the immune system and as a result, mild to severe impairment of the limbs, weakness, visual and sensory losses as well as bladder and bowel malfunction can occur. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, after a decade with the disease more than half of all MS patients become severely disabled, becoming bed or wheelchair bound.
For many, symptoms can be abated and the disease progression significantly slowed by consuming the proper nutrition via food choices that have shown to help MS patients improve the quality of their life. Dr. John A. Mcdougal, renowned for his work on the effects of diet on disease prevention and reversal, as well as neurologist, Dr. Roy Swank, who did extensive research back in the late 1940 and 1950’s believed eating a low fat diet can help patients with MS and that animal products and tropical oils worsen MS symptoms. MS specialists today recommend a low fat, high fiber diet.
Top 10 Best Foods for MS
1. Foods Rich in Vitamin D
A higher incidence of MS is found in patients with patients low in Vitamin D. Vitamin D is obtained from getting adequate amounts of sunlight. Eat foods fortified with Vitamin D such as Orange Juice or take a vitamin D supplement to prevent and slow disease progression. You can read more about Vitamin D and Multiple Sclerosis and the dosaging requirements on the website for the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
2. Lean Meats
If you are going in include meat into your diet, select organic chicken, turkey or lean cuts of meats in moderation. Dr. Roy Swank as well as Dr. John Mcdougal recommend keeping fat levels to beneath 20 grams per day, so choose extremely low fat cuts of meat, chicken or turkey and eat animal fat sparingly as research by Dr. Swank indicates that an extremely low fat diet can stop the disease progression in some patients.
3. Whole Grains
Eating whole grains instead of refined flour or processed cakes will increase fiber, maintain stable blood sugars, promote healthy bowel habits, and help with the fatigue MS patient’s experience. Oats, brown rice, and quinoa are good examples of whole grains you can incorporate into your diet.
4. Fresh Fruit
Constipation is a constant battle with people who suffer from MS. Eat a variety of brightly colored fruits for increase in fiber to increase motility and prevent and ease constipation. Eating whole foods such as fruit instead of refined sugars will help stabilize blood sugar and battle fatigue.
Green Leafy veggies, spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, foods high in fiber will help with constipation and stabilize blood sugar. Filling up on veggies will help maintain a healthy weight and prevent onset of other chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. A low fat, high fiber diet is recommended by Dr. Roy Swank and filling up on vegetables is a good way to go and recommends a mostly vegetarian diet with very little animal fat.
6. Fatty Fish
Increase your intake of fish high in Omega-3’s, such as salmon, sardines, tuna, trout and mackerel. They have good fatty acids that prevent inflammation and are good for balancing out our diet which is usually higher in omega 6 fatty acids. The imbalance of too much omega 6 fatty acids to Omega 3 can cause your immune system to become overactive which is an issue in Multiple Sclerosis.
7. Plant Based Oils
Choose olive, hemp or flaxseed oil, instead of saturated fats like butter or shortening. These oils have healthy unsaturated fats that help lower cholesterol and reduce inflammation.
Multiple Sclerosis is a diseases which causes inflammation and scarring to the neural pathways. Eating foods that stop inflammation can help ease symptoms of MS and possibly prevent disease progression. Turmeric is a spice which has been proven to fight inflammation due to the ingredient curcumin it contains. According to researcher Dr. Chandramohan Natarajan of Vanderbilt University mice injected with turmeric showed little or no signs of disease of an MS like illness called EAE, experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis.
Avocados are another food that have strong anti-inflammatory properties. The phytosterols avocados contain suppress inflammation. They are also a great source of healthy unsaturated fat and helps reduce your risk of heart disease. There are so many ways to enjoy avocado; make guacamole, serve with fish or chicken or spread on toast.
According to a 2013 study in Food Chemistry ginger extract possesses strong anti-neuroinflammatory characteristics. Select a firm, smooth root, and add a slice or two to your favorite tea, or make it an ingredient in your favorite salads, dressing and marinades.
Top 10 Worst Foods for MS
1. Saturated Fats
Avoid foods high in saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats come mostly from animal based foods. As discussed earlier Dr. Roy Swank conducted research in the 1940’s and 50’s which strongly suggested a very low fat diet, mostly vegetarian, with little to no animal fats or tropical oils, such as coconut, palm kernel, or palm oil as they contain a great deal of saturated fatty acids.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. According to the National MS Society, some people with MS report a worsening of their neurologic symptoms, such as imbalance and lack of coordination, after just one drink. In addition, drinking alcohol may have an additive effect when combined with many of the medications prescribed for MS.
Avoid foods high in simple sugars, as they contribute to an imbalance in blood sugars, contributing to the fatigue experienced with MS. In addition the loss of mobility experienced by MS patients, can lead to weight gain, and watching sugar intake can prevent the onset of diabetes.
At the original date of this posting, Aspartame was thought to cause MS. While this has since has been disproved, studies on the health effects of aspartame continue and it has been linked to health issues.
5. Refined Grains
Avoid white rice, potatoes, white bread, and all refined grains. Refined grains contribute to unstable blood sugars and increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.
The food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) is one of the substances Dr. Russel L. Blaylock, Neurosurgeon calls an excitotoxin. It can inflict further damage to the myelin sheath and patients should read food labels and check when ordering food to avoid consuming any foods containing MSG.
7. Full Fat Dairy
Food high in animal and saturated fat are to be avoided. Choose low fat dairy products or limit dairy products to maintain a low fat diet.
According to the journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, high salt intake is linked to exacerbation of MS symptoms. Limit adding salt to season your foods by using alternative spices, such as black pepper. Buy fresh or frozen vegetables, and avoid all canned products which are extremely high in sodium. If you do have to resort to canned goods, wash the food thoroughly to get rid of excess sodium.
MS patients often exhibit urinary bladder issues. Avoiding caffeine can help manage some of the symptoms associated with bladder related issues found in MS patients and prevent irritation.
Wheat, rye, barley and any foods made with these grains, including white flour contain gluten. Some have also explored the link between Multiple Sclerosis and Celiac Disease—a condition in which eating foods containing gluten causes damage to your small intestine. MS patients should be tested for gluten intolerance and be placed on a gluten free diet if they are.
Read our post on Top 10 Superfoods for additional suggestions on which foods can be beneficial for those with MS.