Acalorie-restricted diet which mimics the effects of fasting may reverse the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and help repair the damage caused by the disease.
Scientists are so excited about the finding that they are moving to large human trials and are already recommending it for very ill patients ‘who cannot wait.’
The regime simply involves cutting normal calorie counts in half for three days in every seven.
Although it is unclear what causes MS, it is thought the immune system attacks the protective coating on nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading to inflammation and pain, disability and in severe cases, death..
But scientists from the University of Southern California showed that, in mice, the Fasting Mimicking Diet (FMD) significantly lowered the percentage of damaging immune cells, while allowing the protective coating to regrow.
Human MS patients who were put on the diet to check that it was not harmful to their health, also reported improved quality of life and scored better on the Extended Disability Status Scale (EDSS) which assesses movement, tremors, speech and swallowing.
Prof Walter Longo, the study’s lead author and professor who directs the USC Longevity Institute said: “The effect on humans was improvements for both quality of life and EDSS, which is remarkable because we only did a single cycle of the FMD for humans and tested them three and six months after.
“Since the pilot human trial was small, now we are setting up a large multi-center clinical trial. However, because we have already tested this and similar diets on hundreds of patients with various diseases, I believe this can be tried now by MS patients who cannot wait.”
Scientists discovered that the diet triggers a death-and-life process for cells that appears critical for the body’s repair.
These latest findings follow studies by the same USC lab that the diet, can entirely reboot the immune system
In a separate study published last year, the lab found that the diet can cut visceral belly fat and reduce markers of ageing.
“We started thinking: If it kills a lot of immune cells and turns on the stem cells, is it possible that maybe it will kill the bad ones and then generate new good ones?” added Prof Longo said. “That’s why we started this study.”
“During the fasting-mimicking diet, cortisone is produced and that initiates a killing of autoimmune cells.
“This process also leads to the production of new healthy cells.”
For the first part of the study, researchers put a group of mice with autoimmune disease on a fasting-mimicking diet for three days, every seven days for three cycles, with a control group on a standard diet for comparison.
Results showed that the fasting-mimicking diet reduced disease symptoms in all the mice and cured 20 per cent completely.
They also saw a reduction in the inflammation-causing cytokines – proteins that order other cells to repair sites of trauma, infection or other pain.
And they found that white blood “T cells,” responsible for immunity were boosted.
Finally, the researchers found that the fasting-mimicking diet promotes regeneration of the myelin – the sheath of proteins and fats that insulate nerve fibers in the spine and brain – that is damaged by the autoimmunity.
Myelin is critical for the conduction of nerve impulses through the nervous system.
Nick Rijke, Executive Director of Policy and Research at the MS Society said: “Diet is an emerging area of MS research and one that we know many people with MS are interested in. While this study showed encouraging results into the effect of fasting on animal models on MS, there was little investigation into the benefits for people with MS, which is why we’re funding research into this area.”
The research was published in the journal Cell Reports.