There is growing evidence that lifestyle factors could impact the onset, progression and disease course of MS – this includes diet, exercise, stress and much more. We all know that a healthy diet is what is best for all of us. Recent studies have shown that making changes to some lifestyle factors could reduce the risk of MS or at least slow down its progression. One particular lifestyle factor that has had some focus in the MS world is diet, but most of the research has focused on single foods or nutrients. More research is required to determine the connections between overall diet and risk.
There are studies that suggest that adolescence is a critical period for adult-onset MS. For example, adolescents who move from an area of high MS prevalence to an area of low MS prevalence have a lower risk of MS. But someone who lives in an area of low MS prevalence continues to have a low risk even if they move later in life. Other studies have shown that dietary supplement use during adolescence was linked with a lower risk of MS, but supplement use during early childhood had no impact on MS risk.
A study led by Associate Professor Ingrid van der Mei from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Tasmania, along with research groups from Italy and Iran, has investigated the link between diet during adolescence and MS risk. The study was a population-based case-control study in Iran – this means that both cases (people with MS) and controls (people without MS) come from a defined population, in this case, Iran. The researchers conducted phone interviews with 547 people with MS and 1057 people without MS, and asked about their diet during their adolescent years, including frequency and portion sizes. Information was collected on meat, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and dietary supplements.
Published in Nutritional Neuroscience, the researchers found that people with MS consumed lower amounts of fish, poultry, eggs, yoghurt, cheese, fruits and vegetables during adolescence. They also found that people with MS reported lower use of dietary supplements, particularly vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin C, fish oil and folic acid. There was also a dose-response link – for example, the higher the amount of fish eaten, the lower the MS risk. This could be a result of the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. A similar effect was noticed with poultry, eggs, cheese and dietary supplements (particularly vitamin B12, vitamin D and fish oil).
The research findings show that a higher intake of foods that are considered healthy during adolescence is linked to a lower risk of MS. So it is possible that a healthier diet, particularly during adolescence, may have a protective effect on whether someone goes on to develop MS later in life. While this sounds promising, further research is needed that involves looking at more food groups and taking into account body mass index, which is also a risk factor for the development of MS.
This research highlights the importance of having a diet consisting of a range of fresh foods and minimally processed foods. It also brings us a step closer to an evidence-based approach to modifying a lifestyle factor for reducing the risk of MS.