I needed to get serious about losing weight and improving my gut health for a better MS outcome. I turned to intermittent fasting.
I’ve been living with MS since I was a teenager. I’ve since scouted lots of ways to manage my symptoms, adopting lots of healthy habits along the way, like meditation and aqua aerobics.
Still, I’ve had some worsening symptoms in recent weeks. I felt weak in my legs and often had trouble focusing. My fatigue was worse than ever.
Then, at my most recent appointment with my primary doctor, I couldn’t help but notice my body mass index (BMI) had gradually crept up as I approached my mid-30s. My weight has fluctuated more in the past few years, and now, after a recent vacation, I’ve lingered in the “overweight” range.
I know that managing and maintaining a healthy weight can be important in preventing disease progression and improving the clinical outcome of my MS.
On top of all that, a recent visit with my neuro taught me the importance of maintaining healthy gut flora, which are the beneficial microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts. He suggested probiotics for support in managing my progressing symptoms.
In fact, my diagnosis was recently changed from relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) to secondary progressive MS (SPMS). And because of the link between obesity and disease progression, I knew I had to get serious about getting my BMI back in a healthy range. I also wanted to stabilize my gut health like my neurologist recommended.
So I had some new goals for better managing my MS.
I groaned at the thought of dieting. And because I’m aware that fad diets tend to be unsuccessful weight loss methods, I knew I had to get intentional about my dietary choices rather than merely trusting the latest trend to meet my goal.
My new objectives took me on a whirlwind of internet research. I streamed health documentaries. I read articles and scholarly journals. I crowdsourced tried-and-true healthy eating techniques from my network.
I gathered my new-found diet options to evaluate everything through a lens of scientific evidence and then presented this list to my neuro. In response, he kind of shrugged and said something like, “Sure, whichever works best for you.” He explained that everyone is different, so as long as I moved toward my goals, he was on board with whatever I decided.
I felt deflated. I thought I’d leave that doctor’s appointment with a clear decision on what and how to eat. In the absence of that, I reviewed my list of diet ideas again and quickly felt overwhelmed.
Then a family member eagerly approached me to share how he’d recently lost 30 pounds and was managing his diabetes through intermittent fasting. He said he felt better than ever now, at age 50, than he had in a decade.
Before I got on board with that approach, I dug deep again into the research.
Intermittent fasting (sometimes called IF) is more about when to eat than what you eat.
This is how it works: When you don’t eat for 10–16 hours, your body releases fatty acids called ketones into the bloodstream, kickstarting a process called ketosis, which burns stored fat for energy instead of glucose.
This process, combined with the natural reduction in calorie intake from limiting overall consumption, is theorized to improve health and slow disease processes in the brain.
In fact, a 2017 review of research concluded that periods of fasting may:
Some research suggests that intermittent fasting may also have positive effects on MS and immune-related disorders.
For example, researchers have noted that IF can prevent the development of an MS-like disease in mice called experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis.
In humans, IF may improve the balance of gut flora, which could, in turn, help reduce inflammation and improve the immune response. Because of these factors, some researchers theorize that IF may also improve cognitive function, but more research is needed.
While there are several different approaches to IF, they all involve cycling between intervals of eating and fasting — that is, refraining from eating at all or severely restricting how much you eat.
Some of the most common schedules are:
Eat normally for 5 days each week but restrict yourself to 500–600 calories per day for two nonconsecutive days.
Fast for 16 hours and eat during an 8-hour window. This is the most popular IF style.
Eat for 12 hours and fast for 12 hours. This may be the best IF style for beginners because it requires the shortest amount of time without food.
Fast for a full 24 hours, once a week (or twice on nonconsecutive days), remaining calorie-free throughout. This is also known as the Stop-Eat-Stop method.
Fast by eating no more than 25% of your normal calories one day, then feast (or eat as much as you want) the following day. Repeat.
The 16:8 method works well for me because I usually sleep through most of the fast, and I’m not much of an early-morning breakfast person anyway. During my 8-hour eating window — typically from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. — I don’t restrict my diet and basically eat whatever I fancy, whether it’s a fresh salad or a greasy burger.
This is totally my kind of diet. It’s provided a sense of control over my food schedule, along with less anxiety about my food choices.
In addition, limiting my consumption to a certain set of hours has made me more aware of how many calories I do choose to eat within the 16:8 time frame. As a result, I’ve officially lost 12 pounds in 4 months!
The biggest challenge for me has been managing hunger. When I feel hungry during my fasting period, I drink water or sugar-free flavored tea. This helps keep me hydrated and reduces those hunger pangs that tempt me to open the refrigerator and eat snacks.
Since I’ve started practicing IF, I’ve noticed major positive effects on my MS symptoms, too.
My most frequent MS symptoms include brain fog, fatigue, and foot drop. When I’m consistently doing IF a few days a week, I experience considerably less brain fog. I feel more cognitively alert, and I focus better. I’m also less fatigued and have more energy to tackle my daily activities. That’s made me much more productive throughout the day!
I’ve also found that my awful chronic constipation has totally disappeared, and I’m much more regular — what a relief! My foot drop is less pronounced (perhaps due to less fatigue?), and I notice that I’m walking a little faster, a bit farther. I generally feel more stable and grounded.
Overall, while doing IF, I’ve had more feel-good days than laggy days.
Intermittent fasting has been an extremely beneficial addition to my health and lifestyle. While it may not be for everyone, I encourage anyone with MS who’s interested in it to speak with their doctor about giving it a try.
It is so important to find a method that works best for you and to listen to your body’s needs.
This author didn’t experience any downsides to intermittent fasting, but if you have a history of disordered eating, are pregnant, or have other conditions, it may not be right for you. Consult with your doctor or healthcare provider before beginning an IF program.
Medically reviewed on May 18, 2023
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