Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a common and chronic autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the central nervous system (CNS), and, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are four disease courses people can experience with MS. The disease courses vary from mild to moderate to severe, and, currently there is NO CURE for MS. However, once a person is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, everyone seems to agree, the sooner MS treatment begins, the better the outcome and results.
Although the medical model has a number of effective interventions, medications used to treat MS often cause adverse and even irreversible effects. One study showed that there are definite benefits of self-management programs in the rehabilitation process for MS, and, certain dietary therapies seem to improve outcomes for some MS sufferers, although there are no studies documenting these successes. If you decide you want to implement dietary changes, there are certain foods and supplements suggested: Some that should be avoided and some that should be consumed.
Foods and Supplements that May Benefit MS Sufferers
Overall the best way to keep the immune system strong is to eat a well-balanced diet. However, there are a number of foods and supplements that may benefit those who suffer from MS. Some of these may also strengthen the immune system, help bones, or aid the body in diverse ways that may reduce MS symptoms. Suggestions that may help are caffeine, calcium, cranberry juice, gingko (also spelled ginkgo)biloba, linoleic acids, reishi mushrooms, schisandra, vitamins B12 and D, and water.
Although it is not definitive, the breakdown of the blood brain barrier (BBB) seems likely to be a contributing factor to multiple sclerosis. A study conducted by researchers at the University of North Dakota found that caffeine protects the BBB, which also means caffeine may retard or prevent MS. All a person needs to drink in order to gain BBB benefits is 1 cup of coffee a day. If you want to learn more about caffeine and the BBB, read A Cup of Joe and Alzheimer’s Disease.
There are also things to consider when taking caffeine. MS sufferers are prone to osteoporosis and osteoporosis is aggravated by caffeine. In addition, caffeine is a diuretic and can worsen bladder symptoms associated with MS. On the other hand, caffeine is also a stimulate, and many MS sufferers find it improves their mental alertness and helps fight fatigue. So, depending on what you want to achieve, caffeine can be both good and bad.
According to Elson M. Haas, M.D., and author of Staying Healthy With Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet & Nutritional Medicine, one theory about MS is related to low calcium and vitamin D levels in puberty, and, because many MS sufferers have low bone density or develop osteoporosis, calcium supplements are probably a good idea. One calcium supplement or therapy that some people have promoted is calcium ethylamino-phosphate (calcium EAP). It’s been pushed as a cure for MS, as well as many other diseases. However, such claims are not based any controlled clinical trials, and, there actually seems to be serious risks associated with it, so I would probably avoid it. If you’re interested in taking a calcium supplement, the best absorbable forms are calcium citrate or calcium aspartate. Additionally, calcium seems to be more absorbable between meals because the stomach is more acidic. It may also more absorbable when taken with vitamin C or vitamin D. However, if you take it with vitamin C you want to make sure you don’t take it with red or processed meats as there may be an interaction with fat that produces more (not fewer) cancer cells. If you want to learn more about vitamin C, read Did You Know Vitamin C …
Many people know that cranberry juice is one of the best things for urinary tract infections (UTI). A study conducted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researchers discovered the juice changes the thermodynamic properties of the bacteria E. coli, which is the most common reason for UTIs. It creates an energy barrier and repels the bacteria from the epithelial cells to keep them apart, thereby preventing an infection. As MS sufferers can develop urinary tract infections easily, it may be just the thing they need, particularly if they have MS-related bladder control issues or limit the amount of liquids they consume.
Gingko biloba is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for constipation. However, it also seems to help a number of other problems, including concentration, anxiety, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. In relation to MS and gingko’s effects, a study done by Jody Corey-Bloom, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurosciences at the UC San Diego’s School of Medicine reported individuals who took gingko biloba with mild multiple sclerosis performed better on neuropsychological tests and felt less fatigued than participants who took a placebo. The effects were achieved with 240 mg of ginkgo extract per day. Although rare, there are some side effects from gingko, such as dermatitis, irritability, restlessness, diarrhea, and vomiting.
The National Insitute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends health care practitioners advise their multiple scelrosis patients that “linoleic acid 17-23g [daily] may reduce progression of [MS].” Linoleic acid, which is an unsaturated omega-6 fatty acid, also aids cardiovascular health, although some studies has shown it may increase the risk of prostate cancer and macular degeneration. It is often found in vegetable oils, and the best sources of linoleic acid are canola, flaxseed, safflower, soy, sunflower, and walnut oils.
The Chinese often call this mushroom, the “mushroom of immortality.” Of all plants, the reishi mushroom reportedly contains the most active polysaccharides, and polysaccharides reputedly have immunomodulating activity, which basically means it alters immune activity, and, may therefore, be beneficial in treating MS. Although there is no science evidence, reishi mushrooms also purportedly reduce inflammation, strengthen the immune system, and treat fatigue. Keep in mind, however, reishi mushrooms may affect anticoagulant, antiplatelet, and antihypertensive medications.
Schisandra is a herb native to eastern Asia. It grows as a woody vine and after its berries are harvested, they are ground into a medicinal powder. It is a traditional herb used throughout Asia and Russia and is believed to enhance endurance, aid against fatigue, and improve mental function based on animal studies. It seems to be fairly non-toxic, however, people have reported allergic reactions and nausea. It also has reactions with drugs, such as corticosteroids.
It can be difficult to tell whether a person is actually deficient in vitamin B12 or has multiple sclerosis because the symptoms are often similar. Some studies have shown MS’s association with vitam B12 deficiency is more than coincidental, and it has been suggested that a vitamin B12 deficiency may make people more susceptible to MS. Moreover, MS sufferers (as well as vegans and vegetarians) can have low levels of vitamin B12, which can cause fatigue. If these deficiencies are not corrected, it often results in nerve degeneration and irreversible damage. Doctors can easily conduct tests to determine if there is a deficiency, and, fortunately, B12 is not considered toxic, so it can easily be obtained from tablets. The usual dose for MS sufferers deficient in B12 is between 250 to 1,000 micrograms per week. If you want to learn more about vitamin B12, read Vitamin B12 Deficiencies.
According to Science, studies have shown that people with MS often have reduced bone mass and high fracture rates, and they usually have lower levels of vitamin D than people without MS. These lower levels of vitamin D connect to latitude (and possibly ethnicity or race), because, in general, scientific evidence indicates the farther you are from the equator the more likely you are to develop MS. One study showed that living in the northern latitudes makes you at risk for vitamin D deficiency. Additionally, people in northern Europe and Scandinavia develop MS at much higher rates than people in Africa or Japan, although Scotland has the highest rates in the world. An Australian study, based on children six to fifteen years old, also found that adequate sun exposure during the winter rather than during the summer months reduced the chances (by two-thirds) of the child getting MS later in life.
As early as 1974, researcher P. Goldberg felt that insufficient amounts of vitamin D in the body could trigger MS in individuals predisposed to it. Studies since that time have reinforced and supported Goldberg’s theory. For instance, according to Professor Colleen E. Hayes, in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, people who consume alot of fish, no matter where they live in relation to the equator, show lower levels of MS. It is because fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are a prime source of the natural vitamin D3 made by the body and known as cholecalciferol. Omega-3 fatty acids seem to be important to nerve function and overall health and may suppress inflammation. So, it is suggested MS sufferers not only consume vitamin D but also omega-3 fatty acids.
One thing to keep in mind if you decide to take vitamin D supplements is that in excessive amounts (20,000 IU daily) supplements can be potentially toxic, whereas the sun’s rays cannot. However, there’s the other problem with the sun’s rays and melanoma. The suggestion is to get no more than fifteen to twenty minutes a day in the sun without a sunscreen or sunblock. (If you want to learn more about the differences between these two, read Sunblock Versus Sunscreen.) However, during the winter because it can be much more difficult to get sunlight, many MS experts agree supplements should be considered. There is also the belief that the daily recommendations (200 IU) are too low for MS sufferers and that they actually need somewhere in the range of 4,000 to 10,000 IU daily.
Lactic acid can build up in muscles and cause pain for MS sufferers. Drinking water is important to help decrease toxic lactic acid buildup. Additionally, people with MS are prone to urinary tract infections and constipation, and water seems to improve both problems. I would suggest drinking high quality water, since it’s a life force and since we are at least 60 percent water. If you’re interested in learning more about tap water versus bottled water, read Pros and Cons: Tap Water Versus Bottled Water.
Foods and Supplements To Limit or Avoid
When it comes to MS, there are a number of suggestions for sufferers to avoid because certain foods seem to increase inflammation or stimulate the immune system to attack the nerves. These include chlorophyll, gluten grains, certain herbs, iron supplements, legumes, maitake and shiitake mushrooms, and saturated and trans fats.
There are sites that market chlorophyll as beneficial to MS. Although chlorophyll can’t hurt you, there seem to be no studies suggesting that it helps MS symptoms or that it strengthens the immune system. Therefore, unless you find research suggesting it is beneficial, you are probably wasting your money.
Some people have found there is a link between gluten intolerance and a greater likelihood of multiple sclerosis, but there is also this study that shows no conclusive evidence that gluten-free diets benefit MS sufferers. However, one leading allergist, James Braly, M.D, claims gluten does play a role, and he exposes the MS health risks associated with gluten grains (wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and triticale) in his book, Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous To Your Health. Apparently, the belief is gluten grains have the ability to potentially activate myelin-attacking immune cells. (Some people also claim dairy and legumes have the same potentiality.)
People love herbs and think they can be taken with everything and that they can do no harm because they’re “natural.” Herbs can be helpful when used correctly and for the right reasons. However, herbs, just like prescription medications, can have side effects if used improperly or if a person as an intolerance, allergies, or sensitivities. When you have chronic or degenerative disease, you need to be cautious, and, to illustrate my point, here are a number of herbs (although I’m sure it’s not complete) that should be avoided if you have MS:
- Cistanche and ginseng stimulate the production of proteins that attack nerves, and they activate the immune system, so they probably should be avoided. In addition, ginseng apparently worsens MS fatigue.
- Certain immune-stimulating herbs can sometimes cause problems, and those to avoid are alfalfa, astragalus, Asian ginseng, and echinacea.
- A study published in 2004 showed that turmeric, red pepper, cloves, ginger, cumin, anise, fennel, basil, rosemary, and garlic may contribute to a variety of inflammatory disease, including MS.
- Serious side effects have been reported when people have taken chaparral, comfrey, lobelia, and yohimbe.
- People with MS are often depressed, and many people take St. John’s Wort; however, it may interfere with several medications, including contraceptives. Therefore, if you are taking contraceptives and have MS, you should be cautious.
- Sheperd’s purse has sedative properties and has been known to worsen MS fatigue.
- If a person is taking prescription medications, such as Baclofen, Zanaflex, Valium, or Xanax, they need to avoid chamomile, ginseng, goldenseal, kava kava, stinging nettle, passionflower, sage, St. John’s Wort, and valerian because the have been reports of adverse reactions.
Because MS sufferers are often fatigued, they may think they need iron, but excess iron can be toxic. Additionally, iron promotes inflammation and may worsen MS symptoms. One study shows that iron overload contributes to MS, and U.S. researchers have also found excess iron contributes to a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, including MS. In fact, according to WebMD, iron may actually be the culprit of MS. This comes from a study done by Rohit Bakshi, MD, and his colleagues at the University at Buffalo, New York. The researchers found the brain’s gray matter had iron deposits in it and may play a bigger role in MS than researchers once thought. So, unless your health care practitioner tells you to specifically take iron supplements, you should probably avoid them.
This mushroom is often converted into an extract and marketed as a supplement. However, there are no studies that show it is effective in MS, and, moreover, it should be used cautiously particularly if you have history of low blood pressure or diabetes, or if you use any drugs, herbs, or supplements that treat such conditions.
There are many studies on saturated fats and it’s role in MS. Here’s one, here’s another, another, and one more. Saturated fats seem to promote inflammatory responses in the body and worsen MS symptoms. So, the suggestion is to avoid full fat and 2 percent dairy products, as well as egg yolks. Instead chose 1 percent butterfat dairy products and egg whites. If you’re interested in learning more about fats, read The Skinny on Fats.
Shiitake mushrooms are known immune system boosters. They contain lentinan, which is a polysaccharide complex that possesses immune-enhancing properties and fights against infections and disease. In fact, it’s been shown to be more effective than prescription drugs when it comes to influenza or viruses because it stimulates the production of white bloods cells—lymphocytes and mcarophages—and natural proteins, called interferons, that defend against illnesses. However, as tasty as they are, their immune-stimulating properties may decrease the effectiveness of immune-suppressing medications and pose risks to MS sufferers.
Most doctors admit trans fats are worse than saturated fats for the body, and, in addition, trans fats compete for inclusion in cell members with essential fatty acids, such as Omega-3s. In reality, although many people don’t know it, NO trans fats—not any—are good for the body, and, they are particularly bad for you if have MS or degenerative diseases. If you want to learn more about trans fats, read Trans Fat and Why You Should Avoid It.
This is only the tip of the iceberg in relation to diet and supplements for MS sufferers. The items discussed are some of the more common suggestions MS sufferers may wish to consume or avoid. Additionally, there seem to be many reports of MS sufferers having success when they’ve pursued a dietary MS treatment plan. There are other specific diets and supplementary approaches to MS, and if you are interested in learning more about these, as well as other MS treatment therapies, read Multiple MS Therapies.