One of the big things I advocate is to take control of the things that are within your control. With a disease like multiple sclerosis we can’t control when our relapses happen, nor how they will affect us. What we can control are other aspects of our health that are known to have negative impacts on our bodies and minds, regardless of whether you have MS or not. We can take full control of our diets, our exercise, the amount of stress in our lives, the disease-modifying therapies we may take, the picture of our overall lifestyle. With that in mind I’m going to summarise the 3 most talked about diets designed for multiple sclerosis to hopefully help you make an informed decision about what you will change to help manage your ms.
The Swank Diet
The first diet to consider is the Swank diet. This was really the jumping off point for addressing nutrition as an influencing factor on the development and progression of MS. In the 1940s Dr. Roy Swank began studying multiple sclerosis and noticed that MS was less common in coastal fishing towns where people tend to eat more seafood and less meat. To investigate this further he developed a low-fat diet and examined 150 people with MS on this diet for 34 years, publishing his results in the 1970s. There was no control group for this study but as many patients were unable to stick to the diet he had a comparison of good dieters and poor dieters to draw conclusions from.
Over the 34 years the good dieters showed less progression of their disease, i.e. were less disabled than their poor dieter counterparts at the end of 34 years. At the end of the 34 years a significant percentage of the good dieters were still alive, 95% in fact, and were still physically active. Of the poor dieters over 80% were dead, 62% of which had died specifically of MS related causes, and only 7% of those alive remained active. A follow up study found 47 of those original good dieters has continued the low-fat diet for 50 years. Swank found that they were largely physically normal and walked without difficulty despite being in their 70s and 80s. This is good evidence behind the negative effect of a high-saturated fat diet, which sadly is often the norm in Western societies, Australia included.
The Overcoming MS diet
This leads on to the Overcoming MS diet (OMS). Professor George Jelinek developed a diet that is based off his own experience with ms as well as research he has undertaken since his diagnosis. This diet is a wholefood and plant-based diet that includes seafood if desired although an omega-3 supplement can be taken instead. The main purpose is to reduce saturated fat to levels even lower that those of the Swank diet, as it is clear from many long-term studies that saturated fats are linked to the development and progression of MS, as well as other conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and obesity, both of which are preventable.
Professor Jelinek continues to research the impact of diet on ms and his website is constantly updating with the latest research in this area. His research group along with some international collaborators undertook a large observational study on diet, lifestyle, medication and disease outcome in an ongoing database that is collecting data still. To date, there have been some significant findings across all aspects of life, including the positive impacts of exercise and meditation, the lower incidence of depression in individuals following the OMS diet, the positive impacts of sunlight exposure and vitamin D supplementation. Specifically for dietary perspectives, their studies show the strong association of omega-3 and fish consumption with a significant decrease in disease activity, relapse rate, disability and improved quality of life in MS patients. Further, they demonstrate that a healthy diet, i.e. one high in fruit and vegetables, low in dietary fat, resulted in better physical and mental quality of life and a lower level of disability.
The Wahls protocol
The last diet I’m going to detail is the Wahls protocol. There are many other diets out there but these three are the most common that I’ve come across in relation to multiple sclerosis and I believe provide a good basis for learning about your nutrition and making informed choices when it comes to your diet and taking control of your disease.
The Wahls protocol was developed by Dr Terry Wahls after she began researching nutrition after her diagnosis of secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. Before her diet she was confined to a wheelchair, yet now she is ambulatory and rides her bike to work, attributing the change in her condition to the changes in her diet and associated lifestyle changes (as with the OMS diet, the food you eat is one part of your recovery process, other lifestyle changes are also made).
The Wahls protocol is a version of the Paleo diet, eating lots of meat (contrary to the Swank and OMS diets), vegetables, fruits, and nuts, but avoiding dairy, eggs, grains, legumes, and sugar. The paleo diet has previously been studied in other people and shown some benefits for improved glucose tolerance, blood pressure control and weight loss, again all things that benefit your health overall. A small study on the Wahls protocol and people with MS showed less fatigue after a year on the diet, however these people also received massage therapy and daily stretches so it’s difficult to be sure of the efficacy of this diet. There is a study underway comparing the impacts of the Wahls protocol and the Swank diet, which will be interesting to see the results of. Despite the lack of studies behind this particular diet it is undeniable that Dr Wahls did something right in order to reverse her MS from being wheelchair bound to cycling daily, so it’s a diet worth considering.
Each of the diets mentioned here have more information, websites, books, and social media accounts for you to access to learn more when making any decision to change how you eat. It is also advisable to seek the opinion of your doctor or neurologist. However, there appears to be many well-documented benefits of changing your diet regardless of whatever chronic illness you may have. We all know what constitutes a healthy diet, we are taught it in schools, we see it online, we’re told it by our doctors. We are all aware that high-saturated fat diets increase cholesterol and your risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as obesity. We know that refined sugar and highly-processed foods increase the likelihood of developing diabetes. There are many things we can do to improve our health regardless of whether or not we have MS, diet is one we have complete control over, so why not choose to eat to nourish and protect your body?