Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a very serious chronic debilitating condition in which the protective myelin sheath surrounding nerves is destroyed, and the nerve function is compromised causing a myriad of symptoms and severe disability over time. Conventional therapy consists of disease modifying therapies (DMTs) that can delay progression of the disease as well as reduce symptom flare ups, but they are far from perfect. Some DMTs can have significant side effects and some don’t work at all for particular people, which makes finding the right pharmaceutical a wild guess-and-check method at times. And although they can bring significant relief to people with MS, they are far from a cure.
Because of this, many patients with MS are turning to alternative treatments to help with symptom management and disease progression. One of the main treatments that has shown some benefit for MS patients is diet and nutrition modification.
Nutrition for MS started to become popular in the 1950s when Dr. Roy Swank came up with a theory that MS was caused by increased fat in the diet that caused small clots in areas of the brain that lead to inflammation and myelin destruction. Though we now know that MS is most likely caused by an autoimmune inflammatory response, Dr. Swank’s dietary program (known as the Swank Diet), did actually help with symptom severity and disease progression for those with MS, and paved the way for future nutrition programs.
So what is the Swank Diet and how does it help? The Swank Diet suggests that people with MS should avoid saturated fats, red meat and dairy (foods that can contribute to clot formation) and increase foods that are high in nutrients and fiber (such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats). Most practitioners do not hold exactly to the Swank Diet and we tend to do a modified version known as the anti-inflammatory diet.
The anti-inflammatory diet includes dietary modifications that aim to decrease inflammation and promote consumption of vitamin- and mineral- rich foods. In naturopathic medicine, our goals for treating MS include the following: reduce inflammation, change the immune system behavior, repair the myelin, and reduce symptoms. The anti-inflammatory diet helps us do just that. By changing what we eat, we can reduce the immune system’s tendency toward inflammation, and provide the body with the vitamins and minerals necessary to help repair the myelin, thereby reducing symptoms and disease progression over time.
So what kind of foods does the anti-inflammatory diet include? The anti-inflammatory diet focuses on avoiding foods that are scientifically known to produce inflammation in the body such as red meats, dairy, saturated fats, processed foods, refined foods, and sugar. These types of foods tend to provide the necessary ingredients for inflammation to occur. At the same time, it also focuses on including foods that are known to be anti-inflammatory (meaning to decrease inflammation) that are high in vitamins and nutrients (such as vegetables, fruits, omega-3 fatty acids, beans and legumes, fish and lean meats). Whole grains are usually somewhat tolerated in the anti-inflammatory diet, assuming that the person does not have an allergic or sensitivity reaction to those foods, and that they are not high in sugar.
Although research is still being done to look into the benefits of dietary therapies, many people with MS have found that they can get significant relief by modifying their diet. Management of diet and nutrition can in some cases be extremely challenging, especially for those with severe MS; this is why it is important to have a physician on board that can work with you and find ways around the challenges of changing your nutrition habits. At Aria Integrative Medicine, our physicians are trained to work with the most challenging cases and to help find creative solutions to improving health. If you have questions about how you can change your diet, call our clinic today!
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