colourful vegetables all the colours of the rainbow in a handmade basket

The Friendly Fighters that Soothe MS Flareups

Drug companies are looking for ways to repair myelin. But the answer lies in your pantry

Twenty years ago, there were half a dozen treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS) and they weren’t particularly effective. They also had nasty side effects. I chose to wait.

Today, MS is big money. 

Globally the market is worth more than $32 billion every year. And with the prevalence of MS rapidly accelerating around the world, drug companies are looking for ways to repair the myelin sheath that is targeted in an MS attack.

But the good news is that we can do this already. And without the expensive price tag. 

Trouble in paradise

We may have low rates of poverty, but the Western diet is heavy on omega-6 fatty acids. We need them but not in the massive quantities we consume.

When we ingest too many omega 6’s — from sources that sound healthy, like vegetable oils, the result is called oxidative stress. It’s highly inflammatory. 

This means an overabundance of free radicals causing mayhem. Like a horrible co-worker in a bad mood, free radicals are highly unstable and reactive. They are molecules with a single or unpaired electron. 

This single electron causes the molecule to be unbalanced and spin out of control.

Eating an omega-6-rich (or highly processed diet), laden with salt, sugar and refined carbohydrates such as white rice, white pasta, and white bread, is like pouring petrol on the fire. 

Enter, the Peace Corps. 

We need look no further than the food we eat to help us soothe the inflammation, and start repairing the damage.

Omega-3s and Antioxidants: The Peace Corp

To balance the scale, we need more omega-3s and more antioxidants to combat these free radicals. The antioxidants add another electron, which stabilises the molecule.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts promote brain health. They support the health of nerve cells and their protective coverings, like myelin.

colourful vegetables on a board including yellow capsicum, green broccoli, orange sweet potato cubes, brown onions
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The modern Western diet is skewed heavily towards omega-6. This imbalance can cause oxidative stress on our cells, which means damage to cell membranes, cellular inflammation, and damage to DNA.

To counteract this onslaught, nature has colour-coded good health for us. Eat a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables, such as berries, leafy greens, citrus fruits, and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower). Eat the rainbow!

Vitamin B12 plays a crucial role in the maintenance of the nervous system and may support myelin health indirectly. Sources of vitamin B12 include fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. 

For vegetarians and vegans, fortified plant-based milk, and nutritional yeast flakes contain B12 (cobalamin). The name Nutritional Yeast can be a bit misleading because the yeast is destroyed in the process. It is low in calories and high in fibre.

I love the gold dust of nutritional yeast flakes because it has an umami, cheesy flavour. My kids love it shaken over popcorn. I love it shaken over popcorn!

Sunlight is from heaven

Sunlight also helps myelin repair. The feeling of winter sun on your bare skin feels divine. It also does celestial wonders for fixing myelin.

Adequate vitamin D levels have been associated with better outcomes for MS. Natural sources include sunlight exposure, while dietary sources include fatty fish, fortified dairy or plant-based milk, and supplements. 

I personally take a high-dose tablet that is 7000 International Units (IU). It’s supposed to be a weekly dose. I take it every day in winter and autumn when the sun is weak. 

Fibre of life: whole grains

Whole grains provide complex carbohydrates, fibre, and various vitamins and minerals that support overall brain health. Opt for whole-grain bread, brown rice, quinoa, oats, and other whole-grain options. It is satisfying and healthier for your gut and small intestine too. You’ll feel the difference.

Spice it up

I live in Australia which is part of Asia. Apart from fresh herbs, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Thai and Chinese are the usual spices. Vegetarian and healing food is easy to come by in those cultures. Incidentally, they have a much lower prevalence of MS.

Barley is my current food love. Barley with brown rice, and quinoa is the perfect base for stirfry vegetables with tofu and chickpeas. My flavour choice is garlic, ginger, coriander powder, cumin, and curry. A splash of soy and the family woofs it down.

Tip the balance toward Healthy Fats 

I strictly use only olive oil in my cooking and baking. Often I find no oil is required at all especially if it is for a cake.

Consuming healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds, can provide essential nutrients and support overall brain function. 

I lightly toast nuts in a small pan with no oil. Then I do the same with sunflower seeds and pepitas, but I add a few drops of soy sauce or tamari at the end for the salty umami.

My entire family can eat a huge salad if I add toasted mixed nuts and seeds on top. Combine with olive oil and honey lemon dressing, and it is a family favourite as well.

Green Tea: an army of polyphenols

Polyphenols are little guys that regulate blood sugar and are great for people with diabetes (T2D). But that’s not all. The green tea neutralises free radicals, and inhibits the growth of cancer cells. No wonder my travel companions snavelled up hundreds of dollars worth of premium green tea leaves stuff in Hangzhou. 

Green tea contains compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. To ramp up your friendly combatants, replace sugary drinks with unsweetened green tea. 

Have to confess, I love a couple of ‘robust’ (read strong) coffees in the morning. But I sip peppermint tea in the afternoon. Any green tea works. 

Food is not the cause of MS, but it can be part of the solution. 

MS flareups are distressing but what we eat can help put out the flames. If we can move toward a healthy, wholefood diet that our great grandma would have known, we are getting more omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and fewer omega-6ers that stoke the flames of demyelination.

Experiencing an MS flare-up is like a sudden and intense electrical storm in the body. Just as a storm disrupts the usual calm and functioning of the environment, an MS flare-up can disrupt the normal functioning of the nervous system. There are surges of unpredictable sensations, symptoms, and challenges throughout the body. 

But just as storms eventually pass, MS flare-ups can also subside, with support and proper management, allowing for a return to a calmer state.

green mortar and pestle with textvreadin Food Medcine FDiet for MS on marble bench backgriound with basil leaves

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