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4 Dietary Changes that May Help Relieve Some of Your MS Symptoms

By Gay Falkowski

Throughout the years, many special diets have been proposed as a way to treat and, in some cases, cure multiple sclerosis. None of the claims associated with these diets have been scientifically proven, though research on the relationship between food and MS continues. In the meantime, many MS experts advise those with MS to follow a low-fat, high-fiber diet similar to the one recommended by the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association.

Dietary recommendations based on current science can also be found by accessing the Healthy Eating Plate and Healthy Eating Pyramid from the Harvard T.H. Chan Public School of Health.

While these dietary recommendations are made for the general population, they do contain suggestions that can benefit people with MS, and, in some instances, help relieve some of the troubling symptoms of the disease. Here are four healthy dietary changes you may want to consider on your journey to better living with MS:

Less saturated fats and added sugars: Those with cognitive issues related to MS may be interested to know a diet high in saturated fats and added sugars (the so-called ‘Western diet’) actually affects the parts of the brain that are important to memory and make people more likely to crave the unhealthful food, says psychologist Terry Davidson, director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at American University in Washington, D.C. In addition, a recent study from researchers at the University of Arizona supports a leading theory that high body mass (resulting from a diet high in saturated fats and sugars) is linked to inflammation, which affects the brain.

The AHA recommends on average a daily intake of no more than six teaspoons of added sugar daily for women, nine teaspoons for men. As for saturated fat (found in butter, cheese, red meat, and other animal-based foods), the limit is about 13 grams daily for individuals who consume about 2,000 a day. Figuring out how much fat and added sugar each day isn’t always easy, as these ingredients are commonly included in the processed food you eat. The easiest and healthiest solution is to eat less processed food and more whole fruits and vegetables from your grocer’s produce section. Frozen fruits and veggies are also a good choice, provided no sauces or other ingredients are added.

More fiber: A diet high in fiber is good for the heart, but also good for relieving a common MS symptom – constipation. If you’re like most Americans you consume about 16 grams of fiber per day, not enough according to The Institute of Medicine. For men up to age 50, it recommends 38 grams of fiber per day. After age 50, they should aim for 30 grams daily. The corresponding amounts for women are 25 and 21 grams.

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a label can claim a food is a "good source" of fiber if it delivers 10 percent of your daily dose of fiber — about 2.5 grams per serving. The terms "rich in," "high in," or "an excellent source of" fiber are allowed if the product contains five or more grams of fiber per serving. Spooning up a bowl of high-fiber cereal is one of simplest ways to reach your fiber target. Look for brands with at least six grams of fiber per serving. For bread, look for "100 percent whole wheat" or "100 percent whole grain" on the label and at least three grams of fiber per slice. Prunes, cooked barley, pears, kidney beans, broccoli, and spinach are other good sources of fiber. Add fiber gradually, and since fiber absorbs water, be sure to drink plenty of it.

Less caffeine and alcohol: These two types of beverages may appeal to those who struggle to cope with fatigue and/or anxiety, both common symptoms of MS. But while it’s true caffeine can give you a quick blast of energy, it may also irritate your bladder – not good if you’re one of many people with MS who experience bladder urgency and frequency. On the other extreme, alcohol can provide a calming effect when the stress of MS seems too much to bear, but the downside is once the ‘buzz’ wears off, the rebound effect can be even greater anxiety. Here’s how that works, according to Rashini Roj, a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at New York University Medical Center. In an article on Health.com she said:

“As your body removes the alcohol from your system, two things happen: Your blood sugar drops (because your body is diverting energy to excreting the booze rather than maintaining healthy glucose levels) and inflammation kicks in. Studies link the latter to mood changes and memory issues; an uptick in inflammatory chemicals can affect your nervous system. And low blood sugar can lead to feelings of nervousness.”

If fatigue and/or anxiety are interfering with your quality of life, speak with your doctor about lifestyle changes and pharmaceutical options that may help. And ask about which foods offer a healthy way to boost energy, such as …

More whole grains: Whole grains are unrefined grains that haven't had their bran and germ removed by milling. They are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients (such as selenium, potassium and magnesium) than refined grains (white flour, for example.) Complex carbohydrates like whole grain bread, whole-wheat pasta, and brown rice give your body long-term energy because it takes longer to convert them to glucose.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of public health suggests incorporating more whole grains into your diet by:
  • Starting the day with whole grains. Try a hot cereal, like steel cut or old-fashioned oats (not instant oatmeal), or a cold cereal that lists a whole grain first on the ingredient list and is low in sugar.
  • Using whole grain breads for lunch or snacks. Look for bread that lists as the first ingredient whole wheat, whole rye, or some other whole grain — and even better, one that is made with only whole grains, such as 100 percent whole wheat bread.
  • Looking beyond the bread aisle. Whole wheat bread is often made with finely ground flour, and bread products are often high in sodium. Instead of bread, try a whole grain in salad form such as brown rice or quinoa.