NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a painful disease which attacks the brain and central nervous system. While most people probably wouldn’t link this neurological condition to what’s in a patient’s diet, a new study finds there may be an important connection. Researchers at Yale University say MS can be triggered by a lack of fatty acids in a person’s fat tissue.
Study authors find that MS patients typically lack the proper amount of oleic acid in their tissue. This monounsaturated fatty acid is abundant in products like cooking oil, cheese, nuts, sunflower seeds, eggs, pasta, milk, olives, and avocados. Meats like beef, pork, and chicken also carry oleic acid.
Multiple sclerosis causes an unusual immune response in patients. A person’s own natural defenses basically turn on the healthy nerves in the body. The immune system attacks the protective covering (myelin) which surrounds nerve fibers that handle communication between the body and the brain.
Patients with severe cases of MS can lose the ability to walk without assistance. Others can go for long periods of time in remission before symptoms return. There is currently no cure for the condition however, some treatments can help manage the symptoms and quicken the recovery process.
How does fatty acid keep MS away?
Researchers discovered that lacking oleic acid leads to a loss of metabolic sensors which activate T cells. These are one of the immune system’s most important tools in fighting off infectious diseases. However, without the ability to properly suppress and regulate T cells, the immune system starts to attack healthy parts of the body along with infections.
This miscommunication can cause MS patients to experience vision loss, chronic pain, lack of coordination, and other debilitating symptoms.
In experiments on the fatty tissues of MS patients, researchers discovered that introducing more oleic acid into these tissues increased the levels of regulatory T cells.
“We’ve known for a while that both genetics and the environment play a role in the development of MS,” says senior author David Hafler, Yale’s chair of the Department of Neurology, in a university release. “This paper suggests that one of environmental factors involved is diet.”
Hafler adds that obesity can also trigger unhealthy levels of inflammation in the body. This is also a common risk factor for multiple sclerosis and the one that led the team to study what role diet plays in the disease.
The study appears in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.