Research examines intermittent fasting's effects for multiple sclerosis

ST. LOUIS – Nearly 1 million Americans are living with multiple sclerosis. 

There are nearly 15 U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs to slow or modify the course of the disease, and there are dozens more to treat specific symptoms of the disease. 

New research is offering hope -- not with a drug -- but by changing how patients eat. 

Amy Thomas was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 13 years ago. 

Thomas is participating in a study to measure the benefits of intermittent fasting. 

She eats non-starchy vegetables two days a week and 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.

Dr. Anne Haney Cross, professor of neurology at Washington University in St. Louis is hopeful, too. 

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

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

When the mouse's teeth were fixed, it ate better and soon developed the animal model of the disease, which 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," Cross said.

An early study in humans shows encouraging effects. 

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

Fasting won't replace drugs for MS, but it could be a valuable addition to them. Thomas said 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," she said. 

Cross said intermittent fasting seems to have an anti-inflammatory effect, which 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.