Patient Blogs | Multiple Sclerosis
Sugar Makes Me Sick
photo of birthday cake

I am not expert on what to eat with multiple sclerosis (MS), but my body knows one thing: sugary foods makes it sick. Whenever I break down and eat a doughnut or a piece of cake, I get tired. Worse, I often get a urinary tract infection (UTI). So I looked it up. Is there any evidence that sugar is bad for MS? Turns out, there is a lot.

The MS Society released a report saying sugar intake leads to fatigue. That has certainly been my experience and millions of others’. It could be a rebound effect, where, according to the Mayo Clinic, raised sugar causes the body to use the sugar quickly, leaving us too low. That can happen to anyone, but MS people also face the risk that sugar intake, according to Harvard Medical School, increases inflammation. MS is an inflammatory disease, so sugar makes it worse.

Multiple Sclerosis Diets

Many diets have been proposed for MS, and I’ve tried most of them. First was the low-fat Swank Diet. No processed foods and no butter. Then there was Dr. Terry Wahls’ Elimination Diet, which is very high in protein with almost no grains. Now people are trying Paleo and ketogenic diets, which are also very low in carbs.  

I didn’t notice any of these making a big difference for me, though I felt a little better on all of them. I noticed what all these different plans have in common: They don’t include any sugar. Now most medical experts and journals agree that a good MS diet includes fruit, vegetables, fish, and in some cases grains. It’s a lot like other conditions’ healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. They’re not radical. But they do not allow sugar.

What Sugar Does to Me

I don’t think eating sugar causes UTIs. I think in my case, having to self-catheterize five times a day has led to infections, and over years, they have become chronic. Usually, they don’t bother me, but eating sugar seems to set them off, maybe because some sugar gets into the urine to feed the germs.

I can tell right away when sugar is affecting me because my exercise capacity shrinks. I can do fewer reps of weights, and my left arm will not rise as high as my right, which it can on a good day.

If I’ve had a sugary snack or meal, I’ll want to take a nap. My legs will be stiffer than usual. I’m more likely to fall because my legs are weaker and my judgment is confused. 

I recently saw a study from Europe that kind of confirmed my thoughts about diet in general and sugar specifically. Researchers compared the progression of disability in 135 people with MS on two diets, DASH and eating whatever they wanted. They measured subjects’ EDSS (disability scale) scores and found no significant difference between the diets, except for one thing. People who drank a daily average of 290 calories of sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, juices, and sweet teas had much more disability. They were five times more likely to have severe disability than people who seldom drank such beverages.

I’ve learned these lessons by now, and I do pretty well with avoiding sugar. Just today, I passed up a doughnut shop and a chocolate bar, even though I was hungry. I got home and made myself a sandwich instead. I felt kind of proud of myself.

Other times I give in, though. Why is it so hard to resist sweet foods and drinks? Dr. David Sobel explained in his book Healthy Pleasures that, in nature, sweet things are almost always good sources of energy and are not poison. Our taste system evolved to want sweets because they’re good for us.

But industry has hijacked our natural sweet tooth and uses it against us. They create foods and drink that taste healthy but are too much of a good thing. Our systems can’t handle them. And then the marketing departments come along and create holidays in which we show our love for someone by giving them sweet treats in a box. We’re being emotionally and physically manipulated to think “Sugar = love. Sugar is good.”

So how to avoid foods we like on our tongues but make us sick afterward? For me, the No. 1 trick is to keep them out of the house. Don’t buy them. If someone sends a box of candies, don’t open it!

Plan No. 2 is habit change. It’s like stopping smoking. When you get the urge to eat chocolate, eat something mildly sweet like a piece of fruit instead. If there’s some cake sitting around, compost it before the attraction gets too strong. Over time, sweet cravings have gotten far weaker for me, though they have not disappeared.

Plan No. 3 is to keep some healthy snacks around for when the sugar temptation gets strong. When you’re craving, your blood sugar might be low, and you might need to raise your blood sugar in a healthy way. Fruit, nuts, or breads might satisfy us safely.

I’m still working on it. Probably some of you are, too. Good luck! 


To connect with other people living with multiple sclerosis, join our MS Facebook Support Group.





Photo Credit: SolStock via Getty Images


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David Spero, RN

David Spero, RN

Diagnosed since 1989

David Spero, RN, became a writer and health coach after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1989. He writes books and blogs about living with chronic illness and the social causes of illness. A married father of two and grandfather of one, Spero is active in causes including health care, peace, and the environment. See his books; follow him on Medium or Twitter.

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