It started off as a diet to help children with epilepsy. Now, you can find the keto label everywhere. Ketogenic diet followers range from body builders and social media influencers to your office mate who wants to lose a few pounds.
Keto’s benefit as a weight-loss diet may be up for debate. It looks like its true power is as a medical tool. Recent studies suggest, for instance, that the keto diet could improve multiple sclerosis symptoms.
The Need for Relief From MS Symptoms
This is exciting news. There's no cure for MS. This neurological condition causes the immune system to attack a person’s nerves. People with MS live with ever-present fatigue, pain, and brain fog.
Unfortunately, symptoms worsen the longer patients go without a correct diagnosis and treatment. With all brain-related conditions, “time is brain.” Once damage is caused, it’s likely permanent.
Most people don’t get diagnosed with MS until their 20-30s, but MS in kids is a growing concern. Actor and activist Selma Blair has spoken publicly about her symptoms at age 10. Her diagnosis took 20 years.
Tricky to diagnose, trickier to treat, MS is a challenging condition. Most autoimmune disorders take roughly 4 years and 6 doctors to diagnose.
Once diagnosed, finding a treatment that works is another hurdle. Many treatments come with side effects. While they're usually mild, in some patients they can lower quality of life.
Often, treatments focus on symptom management, which can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. As soon as one symptom is relieved, another pops up.
Treating MS With Diet
The idea of using diet to control MS symptoms isn’t new. Doctors frequently recommend diet changes to cope with chronic illness. Often adding the right diet helps add missing vitamins or healthy fats. Likewise, removing ingredients linked to intolerances can give the body one less thing to fight.
While diet improves many conditions, when it comes to MS, nothing has really worked. Dairy-free, vegan, and gluten-free diets have all produced mixed results.
But what about using a diet that’s proven to work with epilepsy?
Even though people like me hadn’t heard of keto until recently, the term "ketogenic diet" was first used in 1921. The name comes from the term “ketosis.” In ketosis, the body burns fat instead of carbs for energy. This lowers blood sugar and insulin. It also turns fat into liver ketones, which can supply energy to the brain.
Since the mid-1990s, specialists have used keto to treat childhood epilepsy. With great success. Though we don’t exactly know how ketosis reduces seizures, it works.
Because of how successful it’s been at treating epilepsy, keto’s been studied as a possible treatment for many brain disorders. Some of these include Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), neurotrauma, Parkinson’s disease, and some sleep disorders.
And now, multiple sclerosis.
Struggling With MS Symptoms?
Find treatment options, second opinions, and ongoing research at UVA Health.
MS & Keto
Nick Brenton, MD, a neurologist at UVA Children’s, specializes in epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and similar diseases. Every day, he works with people living with MS who want to reduce their symptoms.
They often ask about diet.
“People living with MS are highly motivated toward research that studies the link between dietary intake and MS,” Brenton says.
No stranger to using keto for his epilepsy patients, Brenton decided to see if the keto diet could improve MS symptoms. His research team found promising results.
After 6 months, people in the study reported:
- Less pain
- Feeling less tired
- Having a better quality of life
They also had better performance on endurance tests.
Should You Try a Ketogenic Diet?
Pump the brakes! The early research is promising. But the long-term effects need to be studied.
“Our data demonstrate its safety over 6 months, but our study was not designed to study the long-term implications of this diet in MS,” Brenton says. “Our data does not support its widespread adoption outside of a clinical trial.”
Frustrated? You still have some diet options you can try right now.
MS Diets That Work
While there’s no one true diet to alleviate MS symptoms, we do have some guidelines.
Check for Other Conditions
Some research suggests that if you have MS, you are more likely to have Celiac disease or lactose intolerance. If you do have these, you should change your diet.
Being overweight can make MS symptoms worse. "Weight loss can positively impact many symptoms of MS — including pain, fatigue, and mood disorders,” Brenton says.
Get Your Vitamin D
A vitamin D deficiency can make MS symptoms worse. Getting enough vitamin D helps. You can get vitamin D naturally from the sun and dairy.
Things like pollution, chemicals, and sugar can cause inflammation and tissue damage. Antioxidants can counteract this damage. Fresh fruits and veggies (especially colorful ones) can help. They also have almost no downsides.
Cut Out Extra Sugar
There’s some evidence that refined sugar can lead to more inflammation, which isn’t good for anyone, but can be especially harmful in MS.
Drinking plenty of water can help reduce bladder infections. It’s also good for your entire body.
Talk About Diet With Your Doctor
It’s reasonable to want your diet to help, especially if you’re dealing with a chronic condition. But before doing anything, talk with your doctor. They can help you balance the risks and benefits of any new diet plan.