Research shows possible benefits of fasting—not eating anything or strictly limiting your food intake—for people with multiple sclerosis (MS), though the practice is not without controversy. MS is a disease in which the immune system damages the body’s central nervous system (CNS). This causes communication signals within the brain and between the brain and body to be interrupted.
This interference with the flow of information can cause various symptoms such as pain, fatigue, numbness, tingling, mood changes, memory problems, blindness, and paralysis. MS symptoms will vary from person to person with MS and can range from only temporary to chronic.
Learn more about what intermittent fasting is, how it might be beneficial for people with MS, and its risks and contraindications.
Talk With Your Healthcare Provider
Always speak with a healthcare provider before changing your diet, including trying intermittent fasting, to manage your MS symptoms.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Fasting has been used for cultural and religious reasons for centuries across the globe. More recently, intermittent fasting—an eating pattern in which you cycle between eating and abstaining from eating—has been covered in the mainstream media as a solution for weight loss.
This has consequently sparked a renewed interest in how it may benefit people with various medical conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis.
There are different types of intermittent fasting.
Types of intermittent fasting include:
- Time-restricted: This is probably the most common type of intermittent fasting. With this method, you have a set window of time during which you are allowed to eat each day. Ideally, your eating window should be around eight to 10 hours in the day, 14 to 16 hours of fasting leaving.
- 5:2This involves eating as you normally would five days of the week, with the other two days restricting yourself to eating only 500 to 600 calories. You can choose which days to eat normally and which to limit your calories. For example, you might eat as usual on every day of the week except Sundays and Wednesdays, which would be your restricted/fasting days.
- Fasting-mimicking: This type of intermittent fasting imitates fasting by eating a very low-calorie diet for a few days, followed by your regular diet.
- alternate-day fasting: This involves fasting or eating nothing every other day. On the other days you would eat as you normally would.
- Modified alternate-day fasting: You eat normally every other day. The other days would be your “fasting” days, consisting of roughly 25% of your calorie needs, or about 500 calories.
Why It Might Work for MS
Researchers are exploring how intermittent fasting may impact MS. When the immune system attacks the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) in MS, inflammation results. The can inflammation cause damage to the protective coating around nerve fibers (myelin). This nerve damage results in MS-related symptoms.
Symptoms of MS will vary from person to person. Common symptoms include:
- Mood changes
- Memory problems
Symptoms may be only temporary or can be chronic (long term).
Some researchers suggest that fasting and calorie restriction may alter the gut bacteria in people with MS. In turn, this might decrease inflammation and reduce the body’s immune response to decrease or change it to no longer attack the central nervous system.
The Role of Inflammation in MS
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system. The body’s immune system attacks the myelin sheath covering nerve fibers in the body, which in turn causes inflammation. Ongoing inflammation and deterioration of the CNS stimulate the progression of the disease.
What Research Shows
Most studies investigating intermittent fasting’s effects on MS have been done on animal (mice) subjects.
A 2021 systematic review (summary of medical literature focused benefits on one issue) of randomized clinical trials studied the possible of intermittent fasting on obesity, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. The researchers concluded that there is not enough data available to draw definitive conclusions about people with multiple sclerosis. However, it does seem that intermittent fasting may be a safe and manageable complementary therapy.
Another review study looked at intermittent fasting on cognitive function and the possible effects on the prevention and progression of brain-related disorders, including MS, in both animals and humans. The researchers concluded that clinical studies show the benefits of intermittent fasting for MS on both disease symptoms and progression.
A small study of 31 people with MS researched the effects of different types of calorie restriction on weight and other outcomes. Participants were randomized to receive one of three diets for eight weeks, including:
- A daily 22% calorie reduction
- An intermittent 75% calorie-restricted diet for two days per week and 0% reduction the other five days of the week
- A weight-stable diet with a 0% reduction in calories.
At the end of the eight weeks, adherence to the daily calorie-restricted diet was higher than the intermittent calorie restriction. Thus, greater weight loss was seen in the daily calorie-restricted group—though both groups did achieve some weight loss.
Both calorie-restricted diets were associated with significant improvements in emotional well-being and depression scores compared to the weight-stable group.
Though this study didn’t look at specific MS-related symptoms or disease progression, it did show the benefit of intermittent fasting for emotional and mental health for people with MS.
While these studies seem promising, additional larger and longer-term studies in humans are still needed in this area before intermittent fasting is widely recognized as a complementary therapy for people with MS.
Risks and Contraindications
While the benefits of intermittent fasting seem promising, it is not without risks and contraindications (reasons not to try it).
Possible side effects of fasting include:
Intermittent fasting is not recommended for pregnant or lactating people, older adults who are weak, people at risk for eating disorders, or those who are immunocompromised (have a weakened immune system).
People with diabetes should talk with their healthcare provider before trying intermittent fasting, as it may be dangerous for them due to the increased chance of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
People with MS should talk with their healthcare provider or dietitian before beginning intermittent fasting to discuss any concerns and possible side effects, as well as to make sure all nutritional needs are met.
There are different types of intermittent fasting used today for various reasons, including to improve health. Recent research shows promising benefits of intermittent fasting on symptoms and disease progression in people with MS. It is suspected to help by balancing the bacteria in the gut, which may help decrease inflammation in the body.
Possible side effects of fasting include hunger, weakness, dehydration, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, poor mood, and low blood pressure. People with MS should discuss intermittent fasting with their healthcare provider before changing their diet.
A Word From Verywell
MS can be unpredictable and frustrating. Early, small studies on intermittent fasting as a complementary therapy for people with MS are encouraging. Research is ongoing in this area, but it’s promising.
In the meantime, continue to work with your healthcare team to ensure the best treatment plan for you. Always talk with your healthcare provider or dietitian before starting a new diet plan, including intermittent fasting.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can intermittent fasting help with nerve damage?
In animal studies, fasting has been shown to alter the metabolic state to improve nerve cell function and health. Fasting may slow neurodegeneration (progressive decline of nerve tissue). More long-term research is needed on humans in this area of study to confirm the effects of fasting on nerve health.
Can fasting pain MS symptoms?
As there is not much research on fasting in humans with MS, it is not clear whether fasting can worsen MS symptoms. However, most researchers have reported no short-term unfavorable side effects of fasting on MS.
One concern is that during fasting some of the symptoms of MS might worse. However one study reported that during Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar in which people abstain from eating from sunup to sundown), usual symptom levels returned once normal eating resumed.
Does fasting prevent multiple sclerosis?
There are not many quality human studies on whether fasting can prevent multiple sclerosis. However, one animal study suggests that intermittent fasting can prevent autoimmunity in part by reducing the levels of inflammation responsible for the autoimmune response and MS symptoms in mice.
These results are promising and may lead to future research into preventing MS by means of fasting.
Can autophagy help manage MS?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is distinguished by inflammation, neurodegeneration (progressive loss of function of nerve cells), and demyelination (damage to the myelin sheath surrounding nerve fibers), all processes in which autophagy in which old, damaged, or abnormal cells are destroyed ) is involved.
Available research shows autophagy is connected to the management of the immune response during typical conditions as well as in preventing the progression of an autoimmune reaction, such as seen in MS.
Some research suggests that caloric restriction or exercise improves autophagy and thus may be successful as a complementary treatment for people with MS.
What is the best diet for multiple sclerosis?
Though diet is recognized to impact multiple sclerosis (MS) in different ways, the National MS Society states there is no best diet for people with MS. Most MS experts acknowledge a healthy diet is important to the overall health and maintenance of the nervous system. This includes eating vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and whole grains, and limiting highly processed foods and added sugars.