Is diet a risk factor for MS?

Many of us with multiple sclerosis follow specific diets in hopes that eating in a specific way will slow disease progression or at least keep our symptoms at bay. I’ll fess up about what I do, which is basically follow a regimen that is dairy-free, legume-free and gluten-free, with almost no sugar or processed foods. However, I will admit that I eat plenty of fat, including massive amounts of olive oil, coconut oil and some red meat. I am caffeine-free, but drink some alcohol. I guess it’s pretty similar to the Paleo Diet (if cavemen drank wine). It seems to be working for me and I keep honing it as I notice things that make me feel worse (or better) when I eat them.

Of course, there are several different diets that people with MS follow, including the Swank Diet, the Best Bet Diet and the Wahls Protocol. Many neurologists will point out that no diet has been proven through rigorous scientific study to make any difference in disease progression or disability. But what about diet impacting your risk for developing MS?

I was interested to see the session called “Dietary patterns not associated with the risk of multiple sclerosis” at the 2014 Joint ACTRIMS-ECTRIMS Meeting, as I had never seen information about the influence of overall diet on developing MS presented at a scientific meeting – most research done to date has focused on the influence of certain components of a diet (such as fat or salt) or supplements.

Researchers looked at data from the huge cohort studies known as the Nurses Cohort Study I and II, comprising data from over 185,000 women followed over decades. Their dietary habits were determined by a survey given every four years. Researchers were able to apply several different dietary models and give the women a “score” based on their answers. Over the time that the data was collected, 480 women were diagnosed with MS.

When the dietary scores of the women who developed MS were compared to the scores of those who didn’t, it turns out that there was really no difference. In other words, the women that had a healthy diet had the same chance of developing MS as those who ate poorly.

Interestingly, previous studies suggest that obesity is a risk factor for MS, especially among young females. One study showed that women who were obese at 18 had twice as much risk of developing MS as those who weren’t obese. Even more extreme was other data that showed that young girls who were extremely obese between ages 7 to 10 had a four-fold risk for developing MS later in life.

Bottom line: So far, it doesn’t look like anything that we did or didn’t eat caused us to have MS. However, more research is needed in this area.The obesity information is interesting, and further research is being planned to see if people who have MS can lessen symptoms and disease progression by losing weight through intermittent fasting. We’ll stay tuned to that one.

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