MS and Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids

For years, MS has been associated with polyunsaturated fatty acids. In the early 1950s, studies were conducted in several countries to evaluate the possible impact of food intake on MS. Some of these studies suggested that MS was more common in areas where the consumption of saturated fat, especially animal fat, was relatively high. Some research also associated MS with a high intake of dairy products. In contrast, in some studies, populations with a relatively high intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including vegetable oil and fish, appeared to have lower rates of MS.

As a result of the studies of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet of different populations, the actual levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids were determined in people with MS. Some, but not all, blood studies found decreased levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially omega-six fatty acids such as linoleic acid. A few studies also reported decreased levels of omega-three fatty acids.

Many hypotheses have been proposed for the possibly decreased polyunsaturated fatty-acid levels in MS. One hypothesis is that people with MS have some type of abnormality in the fatty-acid chemical pathway. Another hypothesis is that people with MS do not eat adequate amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids.

How could fatty acids have anything to do with MS? When the original fatty-acid studies were conducted, it was claimed that people with MS may have blood that is too thick and, as a result, flows slowly or "sludges." This idea is not consistent with our current scientific understanding of MS. It also has been proposed that, because polyunsaturated fatty acids are an important component of the lining of nerve cells (myelin), an abnormality of polyunsaturated fatty acids could produce abnormalities in the myelin, as is observed in MS. A more current idea is that prostaglandins and other chemicals in the pathway of the omega-six and omega-three fatty acids (Figures 18.1 and 18.2) decrease the activity of the immune system. This immune-suppressing effect may be beneficial because the immune system is excessively active in MS.

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