In a recently published study, scientists have shown that people with MS who have food allergies are more likely to have more clinical attacks and lesions in the brain than those without allergies or other allergies not related to food. More research is needed, but these findings point to new strategies to prevent and treat MS.
The mechanisms behind MS onset and progression involve a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors, which researchers are continually trying to improve their understanding of. The immune system is a particular focus in MS research, as it is known that the immune system mistakenly attacks the protective myelin sheath which coats the nerve fibres in people with MS. However, it is not known clearly what triggers this autoimmune response. In addition to its involvement in MS, the immune system also plays a role in other conditions. Therefore, researchers are looking into whether there are any links between other conditions involving the immune system such as allergies and MS disease activity.
In a recently published study, scientists at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, USA, studied the link between allergies and MS. This investigation was part of a large, long term study taking place at the MS clinic (known as the Comprehensive Longitudinal Investigation of Multiple Sclerosis at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital or CLIMB).
More than 1,300 people with MS completed a questionnaire outlining their food, environmental and/or drug allergies for this study. Each person’s MS activity was assessed by recording the number of clinical attacks experienced throughout the entire course of their disease and noting the severity of clinical symptoms during the most recent visit to the clinic. Additionally, the lesions in the brains of participants were monitored using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). A specific MRI technique known as Gadolinium (Gd) enhancement, which helps experts spot the active inflammatory phase of lesion development was used in this study. The number of new lesions in the brain observed 90 days before and after the allergy questionnaire date were monitored and used as indicators of MS disease activity.
Results showed that people with MS who have food allergies have a significantly higher number of MS attacks and more than twice the likelihood of developing new lesions compared to those without allergies. People with other forms of allergies (not related to food) did not show a significant difference in their MS symptoms.
While this study shows an association between food allergies and MS disease activity, it does not necessarily confirm that food allergies cause MS or cause more frequent attacks in MS. The study also relied on people’s recall and self-report of food allergies, rather than clinically confirmed allergies. Despite this, the results do suggest that there is a potential link, and the researchers discuss the possibilities that food allergies may affect the balance of gut bacteria which in turn can affect the immune system, or the allergies may directly affect the regulation of the immune system.
While more studies are required to confirm these findings and identify the biological mechanisms involved, these results open a new avenue for the development of potential strategies to prevent and treat MS.
For people with MS who suspect they may have food allergies it is important to consult health professionals to get a clear diagnosis of the food allergy and get support in identifying appropriate strategies to avoid the allergens. Cutting out broad food groups without a diagnosis and nutritional advice could result in deficiencies in important nutrients.