Having a long-term disease like multiple sclerosis (MS) can wear you out physically and mentally. MS symptoms like severe fatigue, loss of mobility, and side effects from medications can all interfere with good nutrition. However, following a healthy diet can go a long way toward helping you stay strong and healthy while managing your condition and any side effects.
Although you may hear about diets that promise to treat or even cure MS, there is no evidence that any extreme diet works – in fact, some could actually hurt you. What does make a positive difference is following proven advice for nutritious eating. Follow these diet do's and don'ts for your best health:
Don't include lots of saturated fat in your diet. Saturated fat comes from animal fat and has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and other chronic health conditions. Here's an easy way to remember which fats to limit: Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, like butter and the white fat on meats.
Do include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated healthy fats. Studies show more direct benefits for MS from omega-6 fatty acids (research on omega-3s is mixed), but both types contribute to general good health. You can get omega-3s from eating coldwater fish, like salmon and mackerel. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in nuts and in the oils such as sunflower, safflower and walnut.
Don't try to lose weight with low-carb diets (like Atkins). Fatigue is a common MS symptom, and an imbalanced diet can make it worse. Low-carb diets tend to be high in fat and low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are important for people with MS.
Do lose weight if you need to. Being inactive because of fatigue or mobility issues can lead to weight gain, and weight gain can make those same symptoms even worse. Steroid medications can also lead to weight gain. The best way to reach a healthy weight is to avoid crash diets. Set a realistic goal of losing 10% of your body weight over a reasonable period of time.
Do gain weight if necessary. Some medications used for MS can make you lose your appetite. Fatigue can also make it harder to go shopping and prepare meals. If you're having trouble maintaining a healthy weight, try eating smaller meals more frequently. and choose healthy snacks to get the nutrition you need.
Don't eliminate dairy from your diet. One result of being inactive (and a possible side effect of steroid medications) is weak bones, a condition called osteoporosis. You can help prevent this problem by eating low-fat dairy products, like milk and protein-rich Greek yogurt, that are high in calcium and have added vitamin D.
Do ask your doctor about taking a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D is important for strong bones, and it may also help people with MS because it has important effects on the immune system. Your vitamin D level may be low if you lack sun exposure. (It's the only vitamin your body makes on its own from the sun's rays.) Studies are ongoing to determine whether increasing vitamin D can reduce MS symptoms specifically.
Don't forget your vegetables. Colorful fruits and vegetables are full of the antioxidant vitamins that help nourish the myelin (lining around the nerves of your central nervous system) that is attacked by MS. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal.
Do include lots of fiber. Constipation is a common MS symptom because the disease interrupts nerve signals to the colon. Medications to treat MS and immobility can also make constipation worse. Fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps prevent constipation – especially when you also exercise regularly.
Do drink plenty of fluids. Some MS medications can cause dehydration, which can increase your risk of MS symptoms such as urinary tract infections, constipation, and fatigue. Bladder dysfunction is a very common MS problem. Try to drink six to eight glasses of water a day, and avoid beverages that dehydrate and irritate your bladder – like coffee and alcoholic drinks.
What you eat won't cause or cure MS, but following a healthy, balanced diet can help you manage your condition better. If you have questions about diet or nutrition, ask your MS healthcare provider or a nutrition specialist familiar with MS. Always let your MS team know before trying any new diet or taking any nutrition supplement.
A nutritious diet is an important part of MS management.
Follow a balanced, low-fat diet with plenty of fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Eating healthy fats and low-fat dairy products, taking vitamin D supplements, being at a healthy weight and drinking plenty of fluids may help reduce some MS symptoms.
Work with your MS medical team to learn more about healthy nutrition for you.