My MS Journey Going Sugar Free

by Lisa Emrich Patient Advocate

Last July was the last time I dipped my spoon into the sugar bowl. This was a huge step because coffee with sugar had been a favorite morning ritual for years. But going sugar-free has not been the dramatic challenge that I anticipated. As a self-proclaimed sugar addict, I thought that I would struggle and certainly falter. Little did I know that cutting sugar and high carbohydrate foods from my diet would be one of the easiest things I’ve done for myself in quite some time.

Last year was a tough one for our family. As a result I reverted to an old habit of distracting myself from emotions with food. Eventually, however, I reached a point of frustration when, despite being very active and riding my bicycle several times a week, I was carrying so much extra weight that it was bringing me down physically and emotionally. I realize now that it is true that eating large amounts of carb-laden foods will beget overwhelming cravings for carb-laden foods which fuels a vicious cycle.

Over the years, I’ve been asked if there is a particular diet I use to combat multiple sclerosis. My answer has always been and continues to be “no.” Although there are several nutritional approaches to MS, there is no singularly accepted “MS diet.” The National MS Society recommends that people with MS eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet.

What is the ketogenic diet?

As part of kicking the sugar habit, I’ve chosen to eat a low-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, high-fat diet, otherwise known as the “ketogenic diet.” Although there are different approaches to the ketogenic diet, e.g., “strict” keto, “lazy” keto, or “dirty” keto, each version has one thing in common — the consumption of very few grams of net carbohydrates daily (less than 20-30 grams ideally). In general, to follow a keto diet, only a small percentage (5-10 percent) of your daily calories would come from carbohydrates, 15-25 percent from protein, and 65-80 percent from healthy fats.

With this way of eating, your body begins to convert stored body fat into a usable energy source, called ketones. Once a body becomes much more efficient at creating and burning ketones, you may find that you don’t need to eat as much dietary fat to maintain ketosis because your body will burn what it needs from your own fat stores. It was at this point in my keto journey that I began to notice several benefits.

What I experienced on a ketogenic diet

Does the ketogenic diet affect MS symptoms?

To answer this question, I would normally turn to trusted information provided by the National MS Society (NMSS). However, the extent of what the NMSS has to say about this way of eating is presented with their low down on low-carb diets, which reads more like a warning than an objective review.

So I want to share with you some of what I’ve personally experienced during the past five months of shunning sugar, grains, starches, and legumes.

Weight loss. My primary goal of changing my way of eating (WOE) was to lose some weight while retaining muscle mass. In five months, I have burned through 40 pounds of excess weight. It’s a steady loss, averaging about two pounds per week, and I’m happy with that. After seeing how my body is changing shape, I have decided that this WOE has become less of a weight-loss diet and more of a healthy-body composition tool for me.

Less fatigue. Fatigue is a common symptom of MS, but it can also be a troubling symptom for people who have recently switched to a low-carb diet. As the body uses up its glycogen stores, you might experience the “keto flu” characterized by symptoms such as fatigue, headache, brain fog, irritability, sugar cravings, nausea, and muscle cramps. To reduce potential keto flu-like symptoms at the beginning, I drank lots of water (2-3 liters) each day, increased electrolyte intake with sea salt and magnesium supplements, avoided strenuous exercise for a short time (until my body became “fat adapted”), and ate more avocados and cream cheese (i.e., healthy fats) to feel satiated.

A few weeks into this new way of eating, I experienced less fatigue and much MORE energy than before. Once my body became better at burning fat for fuel, I was even able to go on long bike rides after only having coffee and an egg for breakfast.

Dry skin. At first, I experienced an increase in dry, itchy skin that felt much like the type of itchiness that MS can cause. I noticed that my body was shedding layers of old skin to reveal healthier, more supple skin. Exfoliating in the shower helped me get through this stage more quickly. As long as I stay hydrated, my skin stays happy.

Hair loss. Probably the most prominent side-effect I experienced due to changing my diet was considerable hair shedding/loss that continued for a couple of months. I noticed this primarily in the shower when my hands would become covered in loose strands of hair each time I shampooed. The amount of hair I shed never really made my hair look thin, but I definitely had to keep it out of my shower drain.

Muscle spasms. One of the major complaints I read about in keto forums is severe muscle cramps. Since muscle spasticity is one of my MS symptoms, I was worried that this would be a problem. I did experience some extra muscle spasms early on, but once I upped my electrolyte and water consumption, I felt much better. For years, a friend of mine has been encouraging me to take magnesium to reduce MS-related muscle spasms. I had not done so until now. I’ve learned that it really does make a difference.

Constipation. One might think that eating a low-carb diet which eliminates grains could lead to consuming low amounts of fiber-rich foods. However, this has not been my experience. In fact, I believe that I’m getting more fiber in my diet than I was previously with all of the vegetables, nuts, seeds, and avocados I am consuming most days. The frequent constipation I have experienced for years with MS has improved significantly. I’m sure that drinking plenty of fluids and the aforementioned magnesium helps this as well.

What eating right can do for you

Improving your diet by eating fresh, natural foods and avoiding processed foods is important for overall health. Although researchers have determined in a small pilot study that the ketogenic diet is safe and may reduce MS related symptoms, you should always discuss any changes in diet or exercise with your physicians.

As I continue this way of eating into the New Year, I look forward to improved health in a sleeker, stronger body. It will be most fun to see how a lighter me can power up the steep hills on the bike paths near my home come spring time. Watch out, folks, here I come up “on your left.”

Lisa Emrich
Meet Our Writer
Lisa Emrich

Living with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid Arthritis, Lisa Emrich is an award-winning, passionate patient advocate, health writer, classical musician, and backroad cyclist. Her stories inspire others to live better and stay active. Lisa is author of the blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers. Lisa frequently works with organizations in support of better policies, patient-centered research, and research funding. Lisa serves on HealthCentral’s Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the MSHealthCentral Facebook page.