The plot thickens on diet and MS

To think that you might be able to change the course of disease, or at least relieve symptoms, by eating or not eating specific types of food is enticing. However, “the proof is in the pudding,” scientifically speaking, since studying diet is challenging. That’s why it’s been exciting to see how many researchers are trying to do just that at this week’s AAN Meeting. Diet and MS has been the subject of numerous platform talks and poster sessions, showing that clinicians and researchers are asking the same questions we hear so often from people living with MS.

In a small study, Dr. Rocco Totaro and a team from the University of L’Aquila in Italy tested whether a six-week diet that was low in saturated animal fats, and high in antioxidants, would be associated with positive changes in body composition and fatigue in 17 people with relapsing-remitting MS. In their study, the percentage of body fat decreased, and fatigue as measured by a clinical scale lessened significantly as well. We need more and larger studies like this, to show how diet may impact symptoms that affect the lives of people with MS. What does it mean for you now? A healthy diet certainly can’t hurt, and it may even help both MS and general health. (Abstract P2.211)

We’re hearing more and more about the possibility that salt may increase the immune activity in the brain and spinal cord in MS. A team from the Network of Pediatric MS Centers showed that this may not be the case in children. Looking at salt intake prior to diagnosis among 174 children or adolescents with MS, compared with 337 people without the disease, they saw no increased risk of developing MS with excess sodium intake. It will be interesting to see if this finding is confirmed, and whether it helps us to understand if, when and how salt becomes a factor in MS. (Abstract S38.003)

Previous studies have suggested that caffeine may protect against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, but there haven’t been definitive studies in MS. I was intrigued by a study by an international team led by Johns Hopkins University researcher Dr. Ellen Mowry, looking at coffee consumption in two large data sets – in a group of 1,629 Swedish people with MS and 2,807 people without MS, as well as a group of 584 people with MS and 581 controls enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente health plan of Northern California. In the Swedish study, drinking 6 cups of coffee a day was associated with a reduced risk of developing MS, and four cups a day did the same in the American study. Studies like this may help us figure out how to prevent MS in the future. What this study doesn’t tell us is whether or how drinking coffee may impact MS in people who already have the disease, so it’s probably not a good idea to increase coffee consumption until we know more. (S45.004)

Gut bacteria is another area where research is increasing, and it presents the exciting possibility that probiotic strategies may ultimately be developed to treat MS. I’m pleased that a small pilot grant from the National MS Society helped launch the MS Microbiome Consortium, a collaboration of researchers in California, Colorado and New York. This week they presented some early findings from their analysis of blood and stool samples from people with MS treated with glatiramer acetate, untreated individuals, and healthy controls. They found differences in gut bacteria between the treated and untreated individuals and also between those with MS and healthy controls. The team recently won a Collaborative MS Research Center Award from the Society to pursue this promising research. I’m eager to see more from this group, and to see how their findings can be translated into a way of stopping immune attacks in MS. (Abstract P2.205)

Not so long ago, searching the medical literature for “diet and MS” yielded little. I’m thrilled to see that we are entering an era where diet and lifestyle are truly considered to be factors that can help lead to innovative treatments and ultimately free the world of MS.

Anyone can get a preview of the summaries, or abstracts, of presentations to be given at the Academy’s Annual Meeting at this link. Registration is necessary, but is free. 

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Nicholas LaRocca, PhD

Dr. Nicholas LaRocca is a consultant to the National MS Society. He is a clinical psychologist who has worked in the field of MS for over 30 years. He was an associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and New York Medical College before joining the Society in 1997. Dr. LaRocca served as vice president of health care delivery and policy research in the research programs department of the Society. In this role, he was responsible for Society funding of research to address the symptoms of MS, and the rehabilitation, epidemiology and psychosocial aspects of MS, as well as health policy studies.