Health Watch: Fasting for multiple sclerosis

Nearly one million Americans are living with multiple sclerosis. There are nearly 15 FDA approved drugs to slow or modify the course of the disease. And there are dozens more to treat specific symptoms of the disease. Now, new research is offering hope not with a drug but by changing how patients eat. It's early, but the preliminary results are encouraging.

Amy Thomas was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 13 years ago.

Thomas said, "It's just another component of my life to manage. It's not defining who I am."

Today, she's getting blood drawn to measure the benefits of intermittent fasting. In the study, she eats non-starchy vegetables two days a week. She eats what she wants the other five days.

"I'm hopeful that this is going to show implications that are going to be beneficial and help," Thomas said.

Anne Haney Cross, MD, Professor of Neurology at the Washington University St. Louis is hopeful too.

"Intermittent fasting reduces the inflammatory profile in the blood and possibly in the central nervous system," Dr. Cross said.

The potential benefit of fasting was an accidental discovery. In a study on mice immunized to develop MS, one mouse had abnormal teeth.

Dr. Cross said, "That particular mouse that couldn't eat well didn't get it."

When his teeth were fixed, the mouse ate better and soon developed the animal model of the disease. That led to further research.

"It delayed the onset of this animal model. It reduced the severity. The mice had much less pathology. They had less nerve fiber loss," Dr. Cross explained.

An early study in humans shows encouraging effects.

"It seemed to change their immune system," Dr. Cross said.

It won't replace drugs for MS, but it could be a valuable addition to them. Thomas says she'll keep fasting one day a week after the study.

"Ultimately, I want to be in control of this body, not allow the disease to be."

Dr. Cross says intermittent fasting seems to have an anti-inflammatory effect. This could actually change the course of the disease, rather than be a treatment to manage the symptoms. The next step is to do a larger trial with more patients to determine just how beneficial intermittent fasting can be for people with MS.

Contributors: Stacie Overton Johnson, Field Producer; Rusty Reed, Videographer; Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Dave Harrison, Editor.
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