Help for Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms
People being treated with medications for multiple sclerosis (MS) can benefit from eating a very-low-fat diet and supplementing with fish oil, according to a study published in Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes, and Essential Fatty Acids (2005; 73:397–404).
MS is a chronic and progressive disease of the nervous system. Although the cause is not completely understood, it is clear that an autoimmune process is responsible for the nerve damage that characterizes MS. In autoimmune processes, specific cells in the body come under attack from the immune system; in the case of MS, myelin—the protective sheath surrounding nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord—is the target of immune system attack. When myelin is damaged or lost, communication between nerve cells becomes dysfunctional. People with MS can experience muscle spasms, weakness, visual changes, numbness and tingling (paresthesias), difficulty with bladder control, and vertigo. These symptoms tend to worsen over time as more myelin is lost, but in some people, and especially in the early stages of MS, the symptoms come and go in cycles of remission and relapse. Medications used to treat MS are intended to suppress the immune system, stimulate myelin regeneration, and improve nerve signal conduction. The usefulness of these medications is limited by serious negative side effects or lack of much beneficial effect.
A number of studies have looked at dietary approaches to treat MS. These approaches include identifying and avoiding foods that cause allergic reactions or other adverse effects, restricting saturated fats in the diet, and supplementing with essential fatty acids. The results of these studies have been inconsistent, but there is evidence that the benefits of supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, found primarily in fish oil, is most pronounced in people with the relapsing-remitting symptom pattern of MS.
Twenty-seven people who had a history of cycles of symptom relapse and remission and currently being treated with medications for MS participated in the current study. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one group was placed on a very-low-fat diet (not more than 15% of calories from fat) and supplemented with 6 grams of fish oil, providing 3.3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day; the other group was placed on a low-fat diet (not more that 30% of calories from fat and not more than 10% of calories from saturated fat) and received a placebo (olive oil). In addition, all the participants used a multivitamin, 400 IU of vitamin E, and 500 mg of calcium per day. Questionnaires were answered at the beginning of the study, and at one month, six months, and one year to evaluate physical functioning, fatigue, emotional well-being, and overall quality of life. Neurological exams and blood tests were done at regular intervals.
Based on answers to the questionnaires, people in the very-low-fat diet plus fish oil group improved significantly more after six months than those in the low-fat diet plus placebo group. Some of this difference was maintained at one year, but it was no longer statistically significant. There was a small but significant drop in the number of relapses during the study year compared with the previous year in both groups.
These results suggest that combining supplemental fish oil with a very-low-fat diet can improve physical and emotional well-being in people receiving medical treatment for MS of the relapsing-remitting type. The benefits of fish oil observed in this study might have been greater if a completely inactive substance, rather than olive oil, had been used as the placebo. Olive oil is known to have anti-inflammatory activity, and might therefore have a favorable effect of its own on the progression of MS. Nonetheless, people with MS who are using medications can be encouraged to eat a low-fat diet and supplement with fish oil.
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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