Multiple Sclerosis and Nutrition

A look at how nutrition in general and food allergies specifically impact multiple sclerosis. 

by Leann Reynolds • More.com Member { View Profile }
Photograph: Shutterstock.com

Multiple Sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that is two to three times as common in women as in men, and tends to be diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 to 50. While the cause of multiple sclerosis is not known—and there are a variety of theories from genetics to geography—many experts are looking at the importance of nutrition in who might be more susceptible to the disease and how they can manage their symptoms.

“I think that most neurologists would say there maybe a specific role for vitamin D, possibly in the management of MS,” said, Thomas Stewart, a co-author of “Dietary Supplements and Multiple Sclerosis: A Health Professional’s Guide” and medical advisor with the Rocky Mountain MS Center. “I would go so far as to say it’s almost unequivocal that vitamin D metabolism is sort of implicated in the pathogenesis of MS—at least for some people.”

The reason for this connection is the positive benefits of vitamin D on the immune system, which attacks the protective coating on the nerve cells when someone has MS, according to Mayo Clinic experts. There is some debate in the medical community about how much vitamin D people should take as a dietary supplement, so it is suggested that you check with your doctor to not only get an adequate amount but also to avoid toxicity.

In addition to vitamin D, Mr. Stewart and other experts also recommend either a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids or a supplement. “There is little downside to omega-3 fatty acids,” Mr. Stewart said. “A diet low in saturated fat, and the obvious general recommendations to reduce cholesterol and weight.” Also, eliminating smoking can be beneficial for people with MS.

Back in the late 1990s, Elizabeth Yarnell was, by her own admission, ignoring any such dietary advice and literally woke up one day to discover she had multiple sclerosis at age 29. “I was a girl on the go, I skipped meals, and the only food I kept in my house was gummy bears,” she said. When she awoke blind in one eye, her neurologist father scheduled an MRI and the results confirmed his suspicion that his daughter had multiple sclerosis.

Ms. Yarnell’s boyfriend at the time commented that he wasn’t surprised at her diagnosis and told her “to look at your diet.” Rather than take the obvious path to a nutritionist, she began researching food and the chemical reactions, and learning the difference between processed foods and whole foods. While this led the gummy bear lover to become such a shrewd chef that she patented a cooking method and published her own cookbook, she eventually went on to become a naturopathic doctor with a mission to help others with inflammatory autoimmune diseases.

“For a long time, I thought the answer lay in whole foods and avoiding processed foods and cleaning up your body and that very much worked for me,” she said. “I stopped drinking diet Coke and gave up gummy bears completely.” Ms. Yarnell said that her Relapsing Emitting MS went into remission in 2002, and she has been symptom free. Prior to that she was having three symptomatic attacks every two years.

However, her chronically ill son saw a naturopathic doctor and was diagnosed with 41 food sensitivities at age 6. “It was such a life-changing event,” she said. “In two months he gained 15 pounds and grew two inches. His acid reflux disappeared and he began sleeping through the night.”

Now certified in food sensitivities and able to sign up her own patients for the same blood test her son took, Ms. Yarnell is happy to be an example of how diet can change MS. “Basically it is unique to every person,” she said. “Because of that it is hard to make generalizations, but I do feel comfortable saying that you should get tested for food sensitivities and adjust your life accordingly.”

In fact, Ms. Yarnell reports that everyone is sensitive to at least one thing—whether it’s in a food or personal care product. “Nobody I test has no sensitivity,” she said. “Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease so remove the things causing inflammation. My MS clients respond so well.”

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