Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that naturally live in the body and play a vital role in helping people maintain good health. Research has suggested that by consuming certain foods and supplements that contain these beneficial microorganisms, people may be able to treat some illnesses, including diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, urinary tract infection, and multiple sclerosis.
These good bacteria appear to have an anti-inflammatory effect that may improve the symptoms and progression of some chronic diseases. With MS, the body’s own immune system attacks myelin (an insulating layer that protects nerves), triggering an inflammatory response. According to the Multiple Sclerosis Trust, "Some beneficial bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids and other substances that can calm inflammation throughout the body and brain."
Certain foods are rich in probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sourdough bread, and some cheeses. Sometimes, however, people turn to probiotic supplements as a way to make sure they are getting a sufficient amount of these healthy bacteria.
While no foods or supplements have been proven to prevent or cure MS, a recent study suggests that probiotic supplements can, indeed, play a positive role in treating MS. Conducted by scientists in Iran, the investigation was primarily based on a meta-analysis of four clinical trials representing 213 individuals with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis who tried probiotic supplementation. The study authors also systematically reviewed six studies with the same structure but different outcome measurements.
Both men and women between the ages of 18 and 60, with disease duration between two and 20 years, were included.
“Our findings revealed that probiotics supplementation can improve disease progression, suppress depression, and [improve] general health in MS patients, although further investigations may be needed,” the study authors wrote.
The researchers analyzed studies featuring individuals with RRMS who were taking supplements containing healthful bacteria. In evaluating measures on the Expanded Disability Status Scale (a method of quantifying disability), scientists observed a reduction in disability in patients who received supplementation versus placebo.
They also noted that those taking probiotic supplements had overall better outcomes on the General Health Questionnaire. Similarly, the researchers recorded improvements in relation to depression (via Beck Depression Inventory measures) among the probiotic consumers.
The study authors noted that more studies may be needed on the subject of probiotics and MS, but also recommend physicians and dietitians consider probiotic supplements for managing health-related concerns in MS.
The study results contribute to a growing body of evidence indicating that probiotics may provide a notable benefit for people with MS. For example, a 12-week intervention study of 60 people with MS showed that probiotic supplementation resulted in improvement in Expanded Disability Status Scale score over placebo.
“A better understanding of how gut bacteria modify immune response will aid in developing therapies for treating MS,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Clare Fleishman in an article for the International Probiotics Association.