Navigating Nutrition with MS

Multiple sclerosis management through nutrition and diet choices to help ease symptoms and stay healthy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

Even for conditions that are not centered around the digestive system, nutrition can still play a key role. This is the case in one neuromuscular condition — multiple sclerosis.

In multiple sclerosis (MS), the body's immune system attacks the central nervous system, causing communication problems between the brain, spinal cord, nerves and other areas of the body. Symptoms vary widely from case to case, but often involve vision problems, fatigue, numbness or paralysis, bladder problems, concentration issues and trouble walking or speaking.

Though this chronic condition is centered around the nervous system and isn't directly tied to food, good nutrition and certain strategies may help some patients cope with the disease.

Balance is Key

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), staying healthy through physical activity and a nutritious diet is very important for anyone coping with a chronic health problem, including MS patients, and should be an important goal for these patients.

"A well-balanced and planned diet will help achieve this goal," explained NMSS. "MS specialists recommend that people with MS adhere to the same low-fat, high-fiber diet that is recommended for the general population."'

NMSS explained that for some patients, specific dietary changes can help manage their symptoms, but MS patients must find their own ways to manage their unique symptoms.

Patients who cope with constipation as a result of MS may find it helps to gradually introduce more fiber, which is found in foods like whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits. For patients who experience fatigue, strategies like keeping healthy basics on hand, including canned beans, frozen veggies and frozen fish filets, can help people maintain a healthy diet even when energy is running low.

Keep it Fresh

In an interview with dailyRx News, Jane Sadler, MD, family medicine physician at Baylor Medical Center at Garland in Garland, Texas, recommended focusing on fresh foods.

"The key to foods for MS patients is that they keep with fresh foods," said Dr. Sadler. "Much like the people in the Mediterranean, frequent visits to the grocery stores allow selection of naturally fresh produce."

This focus on fresh foods should help eliminate some less healthy food choices, like fast food options or foods with a lot of unnatural ingredients. Dr. Sadler suggested considering cutting back on unnatural foods and to watch for overuse of supplements.

"Avoid processed foods and too many supplements," said Dr. Sadler. "Most vitamins/minerals should be obtained through a healthy diet instead of pills — [MS patients] take enough pills as it is!"

Considering Vitamin D

According to NMSS, there may be one supplement that MS patients should consider — vitamin D. Vitamin D is found in certain foods (either because it naturally occurs there or because it is added in), and the body produces vitamin D when exposed to the sun.

"It is well known that vitamin D works to promote calcium absorption for strong bones," explained NMSS. "However, recent research also suggests that vitamin D may have important effects on the immune system and may help regulate cell growth and differentiation."

NMSS stressed that clinical trials and studies are being performed to improve understanding of how vitamin D supplementation may affect MS patients.

However, it may be helpful for MS patients to at least try to meet the recommended daily intake of vitamin D of 200 to 600 international units. And in the meantime, Dr. Sadler preached caution when it comes to supplements.

"I would avoid supplements from overseas or supplements that have not been FDA regulated. Many studies suggest some herbal supplements may contain fillers such as aluminum, lead or mercury," Dr. Sadler told dailyRx News.

Patients should follow directions on product labels and talk to their doctors before adding any supplements to their diets.

It is important to remember that each patient should find what works best for them as individuals, but that maintaining a healthy, balanced diet is important for all people, including MS patients.

"Since the course of MS is often unpredictable, focusing on those aspects of health you can control becomes even more meaningful," noted NMSS. "Working to improve your diet to maximize the positive effects it can have on MS symptoms is one area where you’re in charge!"

Review Date: 
April 15, 2014