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Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) can be frightening. This autoimmune disease of the brain and spinal cord causes the immune system to attack the protective sheath surrounding nerve fibers. As a result, MS can lead to loss of sight in one or both eyes or the ability to walk, as well as cognitive problems. And while there are treatments that can slow its progression, there is no cure for MS.
Luckily, in addition to medication, there are plenty of actions you can take to help support your body’s fight against MS. For instance, exercise — particularly resistance training — has been shown to improve fatigue, mobility, muscle strength and aerobic capacity in people with MS. And MS patients undergoing whole-body vibration therapy have reported a reduction in pain and muscle spasms.
Certain dietary changes can also help ease MS progression and symptoms, in part by nourishing and expanding the colonies of friendly bacteria living in the gut. In fact, a recent University of Iowa (UI) study has underlined the role the gut environment may play in MS.
The secret to fighting MS may lie in your gut
UI researchers have discovered that when specific gut bacteria lacking in MS patients break down plant-based phytoestrogens called isoflavones, it may offer protection against symptoms of the disease.
Isoflavones are potent antioxidants found in soybeans, peanuts, chickpeas and other legumes. Their anti-inflammatory properties may help protect against age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and loss of cognitive function.
It’s unknown exactly what causes MS, but some researchers believe the disease is triggered by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. One of those environmental factors involves the gut microbiome — the trillions of gut bacteria living in the human intestinal system.
In earlier studies, researchers have found significant differences between the gut microbes of patients with MS and those without the disease. While the role of the gut microbiome in diseases such as MS has been recognized, the mechanism through which these microbes may influence the disease is still unclear.
In the recent UI study, researchers fed an isoflavone-rich diet to mice with MS. When the mice had gut microbes capable of metabolizing isoflavone, inflammation was suppressed, easing their MS symptoms. But when the team removed the isoflavone-metabolizing gut bacteria from the mice, the isoflavone diet was no longer able to protect against the MS symptoms. Reintroducing the gut microbes restored the diet’s protective effect.
In addition, researchers demonstrated that equol, a specific metabolite produced by the gut bacteria from isoflavone, can also protect against MS.
“Interestingly, previous human studies have demonstrated that patients with multiple sclerosis lack these bacteria compared to individuals without MS,” says study lead Dr. Ashutosh Mangalam, UI associate professor of pathology. He adds that the study suggests a diet high in isoflavones can protect against MS as long as the patient has the isoflavone-metabolizing gut bacteria — and that these microbes may serve as a potential treatment for MS.
Soy is your best bet for isoflavones
Even if you have MS and aren’t sure your gut has the specific microbes it needs to fully break down isoflavones, it still may be a good idea to add some foods with isoflavones to your diet. Since these foods are plant-based, they’ll help steer your diet in a healthier, less-inflammatory direction overall.
Soy is by far the best source of isoflavones, so try replacing dairy milk with soy milk or using tofu instead of meat in your meals. You can also snack on edamame, immature soybeans that are often served steamed in their pods with a pinch of salt as an appetizer or bar snack. Consider substituting soy flour in recipes calling for regular flour, or spreading your crackers with soy nut butter instead of peanut butter.
Also, a traditional Japanese dish known as natto is made from fermented soybeans and is high in isoflavones.
In addition to its benefits for MS, soy can help lower cholesterol and reduce symptoms of menopause, and it may reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis and heart disease.
If you’re not a fan of soy, red clover is another good source of isoflavones. Because fresh red clover flowers can be tough to eat, it’s probably best to brew dried red clover in a tea or take it in tablet or capsule form.
While other legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and peanuts do have isoflavones, they contain much lower amounts than soy and red clover, so it may be difficult to get the amount of isoflavones you need from these foods alone.
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A plant-based diet combined with a healthy microbiome may protect against multiple sclerosis — University of Iowa Health Care
Health benefits of isoflavones in functional foods? Proteomic and metabonomic advances — Inflammopharmacology
Sources of Isoflavones — SFGate