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Behind the headlines : could fasting help with MS?

In MS the immune system goes wrong and attacks the nerves. Current Disease Modifying Therapies (DMTs) try to stop the damage caused in MS by changing the way the immune system behaves.

New research suggests that diets can affect the immune system by causing changes in the gut bacteria.

Previous studies have shown that mice that had their food restricted were less likely to develop an induced MS-like condition than those given a normal diet. A new study led by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine went further and looked at what happened to their immune cells and bacteria.

Fasting and the immune system

The study looked at mice that were only fed every other day. This changed the balance of immune cells and hormones in a way likely to reduce inflammation.

Fasting also increased the number of different gut bacteria the mice had. When the researchers then transferred these bacteria to mice not on a diet, it reduced the severity of their MS-like conditions. They concluded that changes in the immune system were at least in part caused by how fasting had affected their gut.

Can the 5-2 diet help with MS?

16 people with MS were asked to restrict their diet every other day for two weeks. At the end, the levels of cell-signalling proteins in their blood and their gut bacteria had also changed.

Researchers will now follow this up with a 12 week study asking 500 people to follow the 5-2 diet. This involves eating normally for most of the week, but having only 500 calories for two days.

"We're not looking for clinical benefit," said Dr. Laura Piccio, "what we want to find out is whether people on limited fasts undergo changes to their metabolism, immune response, and microbiome similar to what we see in the mouse."

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, our Director of Research, said:

“People ask us all the time if there are any dietary changes they can make to improve their MS. Evidence suggests that a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet, may play a role in helping to manage MS.

Results from this small study are encouraging and are consistent with other studies suggesting that calorie restriction may have an impact on MS.  The next step will be to complete larger studies to understand if this result could be replicated on a larger scale.

Ultimately, diet is a matter of personal choice, and we would encourage people to speak with their MS specialist before making any significant changes to their lifestyle.”