Is There a Link Between Food Allergies and MS?

What Research Shows So Far

Food Allergy and MS: Is There a Connection?

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With multiple sclerosis (MS), your immune system misguidedly attacks the protective coating—called the myelin sheath—of nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord. It is unknown as to why one person's immune system goes awry and launches these nervous system attacks and another person's immune system does not.

That said, scientific evidence suggests that both genetics and some sort of environmental trigger play a role in MS pathogenesis. In other words, in order for MS to develop, a genetically vulnerable person must be exposed to something in their environment. Research suggests that these same environmental exposures may be the driving force behind increased MS disease activity.

While many environmental factors have been investigated over the years—Epstein Barr virus, smoking, and vitamin D deficiency, among others—investigators from Brigham and Women's Hospital studied the connection between allergies and multiple sclerosis. What they found is that having food allergies is associated with increased MS relapses and brain lesions on MRIs.

The Connection

One study from Brigham and Women's Hospital examined over 1,300 participants with MS. Through a survey analysis, the investigators discovered that individuals with both MS and food allergies experienced more relapses and more gadolinium-enhancing lesions (highlighted spots) on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) than individuals with MS and no allergies.

The total number of relapses in was 1.38 times higher in patients with MS and food allergies than people with MS and no allergies. Likewise, those with food allergies were more than twice as likely to have gadolinium-enhancing lesions on MRI.

The link behind food allergies and MS disease activity is not clear. Besides the fact that certain food allergens may boost MS-related inflammation, the authors of the study propose that food allergies may alter gut bacteria, meaning that allergies change the type of bacteria and the products they produce in your digestive system.

The modification of gut bacteria may lead to the release of chemicals that stimulate an immune system attack on the brain and spinal cord.

Keep in mind, the participants with other environmental allergies (such as pollen, dust mites, grass, or pets) or prescription medication allergies did not differ significantly in terms of MS relapses/disease activity when compared to people with no allergies.

The fact that only food allergies (not other types) were connected to MS disease activity further supports the theory of gut bacteria alteration. 

Opposite Findings

Despite these interesting findings, other studies do not necessarily support such a connection between food allergies and MS disease activity.

For instance, one study of children with MS and allergies found the opposite association—children with MS and food allergies had fewer relapses compared to those without food allergies.

Another study in the medical journal Neurology found that adults with MS and allergies reported better motor function in their legs and arms and better vision than those with MS but no allergies.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that the link between food allergies and MS disease activity is just that—a connection or an association. There is no evidence of a cause and effect relationship.

The mixed study results may be partially due to methodology differences.

It's also likely that the relationship between MS disease activity and food allergies is complex and multifaceted—there is still research to be done.

Perhaps, for certain people, food allergies play a significant role in their MS disease flares, whereas for others, some other factors such as stress, smoking, or hormone changes are what triggers their relapses.

What This Means

Sorting out your unique triggers with your doctor is a reasonable plan of care at this time. However, for many people, this is difficult to do considering how infrequent their relapses are or how—despite a thoughtful approach—no known triggers for their relapses are found.

In the end, it's best to take note of the food allergy and MS disease activity link, but not to worry too much about it at this time. Instead, if you find certain foods make you feel unwell, limiting their intake seems prudent. Even more, if you are really bothered by specific foods, consider visiting an allergist. She may recommend allergy testing and/or undergoing an elimination diet.

At the end of the day, remember that the best thing you can do to prevent MS relapses and slow the disease's progression is to adhere to your disease-modifying therapy.

A Word From Verywell

While you may feel like a lot of information regarding MS is still uncertain, the truth is that researchers have come a long way in understanding this neurological disease. Often times, it's through these subtle links found through research studies that most help experts piece together the story of MS—how it develops, uniquely manifests, and progresses. As the story of MS continues to unfold, be gentle and good to yourself—remain hopeful that one day there will be a cure.

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Article Sources
  • Fakih R et al. Food allergies are associated with increased disease activity in multiple sclerosis. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2018 Dec 18. DOI: 10.1136/jnnp-2018-319301

  • Bourne T et al. Evaluating the association of allergies with multiple sclerosis susceptibility risk and disease activity in a pediatric population. J Neurol Sci. 2017 Apr 15;375:371-75. DOI: 10.1016/j.jns.2017.02.041

  • Gupta S, Kavak K, Teter B, Weinstock-Guttman B. Multiple Sclerosis Patients with Allergies Demonstrate Better Physical Outcomes but Worse Psychological Symptoms. Neurology Apr 2014, 82 (10 Supplement) P6.172. http://n.neurology.org/content/82/10_Supplement/P6.172.