Gabby Landsverk, Insider, Mar 1, 2022
A high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet may help improve the lives of people with multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic illness in which the immune system attacks and damages the nerves and spinal cord, new research suggests.
Researchers from the University of Virginia, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Virginia Commonwealth University studied a group of 65 people with MS who followed a keto diet for six months. The results are included in a preliminary paper to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 74th Annual Meeting.
Participants were instructed to eat no more than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day (fewer than in one medium banana or apple).
They based their meals on foods like eggs, meat, and fish, with hefty servings of fats from olive oil, avocado, butter, or heavy cream, with a few cups of non-starchy veggies like leafy greens.
By the end of the study, 83% of the participants had stuck to the diet, and self-reported significant improvements to their mental and physical health, including symptoms of MS.
The results suggest a keto diet could be a promising and accessible treatment for the chronic illness, according to Dr. J. Nicholas Brenton, lead author of the study and pediatric neurologist at the University of Virginia.
"Diet changes can be an inexpensive way to improve overall health," Brenton said in a press release. "Our study provides evidence that a ketogenic diet may indeed be safe and beneficial."
After the six month keto diet, participants in the study reported that their mood and energy significantly improved. Their experiences were recorded via a quality of life survey with questions about how often they felt worn out or downhearted, compared to happy and energized.
Participants also saw specific improvements in their MS symptoms, ranking themselves as experiencing slightly less disability after the diet, and better able to complete daily tasks such as walking. By the end of the study, participants had also lost weight, specifically body fat.
The results of the study are comparable to a pilot study led by Brenton, published in 2019. The keto diet has similar effects as fasting, and both may change how the immune system functions in regulating excessive activity or reducing inflammation, previous research suggests.
Some evidence also suggests the benefits of the diet are related to ketones, compounds the body produces from fat to fuel the brain and body when carbs aren't available. Ketones may help reduce inflammation, protect nerve cells, and improve the function of mitochondria, which power cells.
Prior studies have found keto diets are potentially effective for treating other neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
The current study was limited in that it did not include a control group of people with MS who followed their regular diet for six months. As a result, there was no data on symptoms to compare with participants' typical diet or other possible dietary changes that may be beneficial.
Potential risks of the keto diet include kidney stones, digestive issues, and nutrient deficiencies, Brenton said in the press release.
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