Thriving With Multiple Sclerosis
How to Reduce Inflammation and Promote Neuroregeneration
by Noelle Citarella, RDN, CDN, IFNCP
For people with multiple sclerosis (MS), the concept of “thriving” is becoming increasingly attainable thanks to advances in lifestyle-related research. While MS is not yet curable, life choices that reduce inflammation and promote neuroregeneration can slow or reverse disease progression. This is great news for nearly 1 million Americans living with MS, as estimated by a 2019 National Multiple Sclerosis Association study.
Tony Ferro, the founder of Change MS, credits diet modifications for improving his own symptoms of numbness, tingling, blurred vision, extreme fatigue, brain fog and depression. “It was hard work, but the more I learned and understood, the more I applied and the better I felt,” he says. Recognizing the transformative power of behavioral and attitudinal choices, his nonprofit helps people with MS adopt a wellness mindset and learn strategies to achieve their fullest potential.
According to a 2018 review article published in Current Nutrition Reports, a number of recent studies provide strong preliminary evidence that diet can influence the rise and progression of MS and its symptoms. Large-scale clinical trials are needed to be certain, but the emerging research suggests that the right foods not only provide essential nutrients for cellular function and repair, but also offer anti-inflammatory effects that slow MS activity, protect the nervous system from further damage and allow for nervous-system repair.
A study spearheaded by Terry Wahls, M.D., at the University of Iowa, found a significant improvement in fatigue, quality of life and mental health in MS patients following a modified paleo diet that was rich in certain vitamins, minerals, amino acids and enzymes that have been found to support energy production and nerve repair.
Eating to Reduce Inflammation
Vegetables should make up the bulk of each meal, followed by a smaller portion of fruits. Eat many different-colored varietals to benefit from a full gamut of bioactive compounds. Consume sulfur-rich foods like broccoli, cabbage, asparagus and leafy greens daily.
Quality protein is essential, including omega-3-rich fish, like salmon, twice weekly. Saturated fats found in butter, cheese and red meat are associated with inflammation and should be limited. Use olive oil, which contains more than 30 neuroprotective antioxidants and has been shown to reduce inflammation and promote immune tolerance.
An elimination diet may identify food triggers that exacerbate MS symptoms.
Maintaining a Healthy Microbiome
Most people need 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily. Consume fermented foods, such as pickled vegetables and kefir, as well as prebiotic ingredients like onions, garlic, oats, bananas, apples, cocoa and flax seeds. The microbial fermentation of prebiotic fiber and phytonutrients produces beneficial byproducts including vitamin K, biotin, neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and short-chain fatty acids, which help promote gut integrity, mood, immune balance and overall health.
Studies have found that fasting for 12 to 16 hours increases cell repair and positively impacts hormone balance, metabolism and weight. Start with an overnight fast of 12 hours and slowly extend the fasting period one hour at a time to lengthen the body repair window.
The body does most of its restorative work while we sleep. Adequate, quality slumber is crucial for healthy immune function, balanced hormones and tissue repair. Ensure that the bedroom is quiet, dark and cool. To keep circadian cycles on track, get a daily dose of sunlight. Consider taking melatonin, L-theanine, lemon balm, holy basil, reishi mushrooms or other natural supplements recommended by a healthcare provider, as needed.
For people with MS, regular physical activity can improve their quality of life. According to Dr. Lacey Bromley, a physical therapist who specializes in neurological rehabilitation, “Study after study examining the influence of exercise and physical rehabilitation on persons with MS continue to provide positive outcomes. With the correct rehabilitation program, there is ample opportunity for the central nervous system to recover lost function by enhancing previous motor programs or developing new neural pathways.”
Fluids are essential for important bodily functions, including digestion, nutrient absorption, temperature regulation and toxin excretion. They also help prevent constipation.
Bladder dysfunction, a common MS symptom, leads many patients to restrict fluid intake. This is inadvisable because even mild dehydration can promote fatigue, cause urinary tract infections and impair cognitive function and exercise performance. A better approach is to decrease caffeine and alcohol consumption while slowly increasing fluid intake to build up a tolerance for additional fluids.
A Life Worth Living
By focusing more attention on the delights that can be added rather than what is taken away, people with MS can move forward on a much brighter path.
“We want to support our cells, brain and body with the nutrients we need to thrive, not just survive,” Ferro says. “Make small, obtainable goals, stay consistent and keep a journal to track your food, symptoms and journey along the way.”
Noelle Citarella is a registered dietitian specializing in neurological nutrition and autoimmune disease in the Buffalo, N.Y., area.