Improving MS symptoms through a change of diet – Allyson’s story

Allyson cutting vegetablesAllyson Brown, owner of everheal - an online business offering healthy food for people living with autoimmune conditions, was diagnosed with MS in 2005. After intermittently struggling with numerous symptoms over the next 14 years, she was forced to resign from her corporate job in 2018, due to chronic fatigue and brain fog. Feeling like her brain and body would never recover, she decided to change her diet. We spoke to Allyson about her journey with MS and the impact that changing the food she ate had on her MS symptoms.

How did you become interested in the effect of diet on MS symptoms?

I was diagnosed with MS 15 years ago, during the second year of my PhD as an analytical researcher, and have experienced a number of debilitating relapses resulting in leg weakness, optic neuritis, nerve pain, sensory loss, bladder instability and more. In 2018, I was crippled by fatigue, depression, anxiety and brain fog that were so severe, I felt like a prisoner in my own body, trapped and watching my life drift away. 

After 10 months of waiting for my body to heal, I resigned from my job as an analyst due to my declining health, feeling like I would never recover. Desperate to improve my situation, I knew I needed to take action to try and restore my health, despite having little energy or motivation to make a change. After depleting my options, I reluctantly decided to start eating a healthy diet, as I had read several articles about how others had used dietary changes to improve these symptoms. 

What did your new diet look like?
Effectively, I cut out processed foods, sugar, dairy and gluten. When I started the diet in 2018, I made a deal with myself that I would do the healthy diet 80:20, meaning 80 percent of the time healthy and 20 percent of the time my “normal” diet, as I couldn’t grapple with the idea of having to cut out all of the foods and drinks that I enjoyed – especially since there was very little joy in my life at that time. So, 80 percent is where I started. I had a healthy smoothie for breakfast, leftovers for lunch and something simple but nutritious for dinner. I created a food plan of healthy, anti-inflammatory meals and snacks and I made sure I had very little foods in the house that were not healthy, as I knew I would give in to temptation if they were there.

About two months into my diet, I wasn’t actually feeling better but I attended some gut and brain health seminars that helped me tighten up my diet a little and added in some extra foods that would boost my health such as salmon for omega 3, activated walnuts, avocado, herbs and blueberries. And by the third month, my symptoms were gone, and I was feeling much better. It’s impossible for me to tell whether I would still have felt better only doing the diet 80 percent of the time, but it is certainly a great place for people to start. I only started eating healthy 100 percent of the time (and stopped drinking alcohol) once I started feeling the results - that’s what convinced me!

Was it hard to make these changes?
In the beginning, it was difficult. I guess the main issue is that with chronic illness, we often feel unwell, so we just want to feel better straight away. We’ll try a diet for a few weeks, decide that it doesn’t work and then give up and go back to our normal eating habits. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. What I learnt is that healing the body takes time. I was ready to quit after week two, but something inside me told me to keep going. It takes time and commitment, but I can definitely say it was worth all of the effort.

What were the effects of a change in diet on your MS symptoms?
After eliminating the foods that were causing me digestive discomforts such as bloating and cramping, compromising my gut health and causing chronic inflammation, my brain fog and chronic fatigue disappeared. 
Within three months of implementing my new diet, my symptoms had dramatically improved – my cognitive function had returned, the depression and anxiety had disappeared, and my energy was restored. It was like a switch went off and my body started functioning again.

What would be your advice to members of the MS community wishing to change the way they eat?  
It’s definitely ok for people to start eating healthy 80 percent of the time only, but they have to stick with it and keep going for three to six months before they start to form healthy habits for the best chance of feeling better. For some people, it takes much less time (depending on their individual circumstances) – some of my own clients have reported having more energy, thinking clearer and losing weight within only three weeks. 

I would advise to start simple but stick with it – eliminate foods that don’t support a healthy body (i.e. sugar and processed foods) and focus on eating more of the foods that give us energy such as vegetables. Don’t treat it as a diet, think of it as a new way of living – to fuel your body to function at its best. Also, it takes time for the body to heal so be patient...the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices.

What are the healthy habits you have today?
After going through my journey, I have now created some amazing healthy habits – every day, I have a signature smoothie for breakfast (loaded with greens, veggies, herbs, healthy fats, berries), then a salad or leftovers for lunch, then dinner (anything from butter chicken with cauliflower rice and greens, to crispy skin salmon with steamed vegetables or even a healthy pizza!). I’ve learned that healthy food CAN taste great...especially when it makes you feel great too!

This article is intended for informational purposes only and presents the opinions of the interviewee and not MSL. MSL provides a range of services for people living with MS, including healthy eating advice. Phone MS Connect on 1800 042 138 for more information.

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