Healthy lifestyle can help with a healthy mind

  • A large Australian study provides further evidence that depression and anxiety are common in people with MS.
  • This study’s findings also suggest that, like the broader population, most people with MS are not meeting recommendations on lifestyle behaviours for general health relating to smoking, alcohol consumption, diet and physical activity (known as SNAP factors).
  • The research shows links between lifestyle factors and depression and anxiety outcomes.
  • These findings indicate more research is needed to investigate if modifying lifestyle factors can provide a helpful treatment and management approach for people with MS experiencing depression and anxiety.

Maintaining a healthy diet was shown to be linked to lower levels of depression in people with MS according to new Australian research.

What is the link between MS and depression and anxiety?

Depression and anxiety are observed in up to 40% of people with MS, nearly double that of the general population. Both conditions may be considered symptoms of MS, as they can result from inflammation occurring in the brain and spinal cord. However, the psychological impact of a diagnosis of a chronic illness like MS can also contribute to these conditions.

Depression and anxiety have also been associated with increased inflammation, fatigue and disability, and contribute significantly towards reduced quality of life in people with MS. While interventions such as medications and psychological support can be effective, only a small proportion of those with MS seek medical help for such issues.

What are modifiable lifestyle factors?

Modifiable lifestyle factors are parts of a person’s lifestyle that they may be able to change or influence in some way. Examples of this could include smoking, nutrition, alcohol consumption and physical activity. People with MS are often interested in how they can make changes to their lifestyle to help manage their condition, and research in this area is ongoing.

Research into depression and anxiety and modifiable lifestyle factors

To explore whether modifiable lifestyle factors contribute to some of the symptoms of MS, Dr Claudia Marck from the University of Melbourne collaborated with Dr Ingrid van der Mei from Menzies Institute for Medical Research, who runs MS Research Australia’s Australian MS Longitudinal Study (AMSLS).

Over 1,500 people with MS completed a survey via the running AMSLS study on various lifestyle behaviours such as smoking, nutrition, alcohol consumption and levels of physical activity (consistent with the SNAP guidelines published by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners). In addition, they also responded to survey questions to gather data on anxiety and depression. The data was then carefully analysed to explore if there was any connection between lifestyle behaviours and the occurrence and severity of anxiety and depression symptoms.

What did this latest research study discover?

  • Most people with MS who participated in this study did not smoke (90%) and consumed alcohol within recommended levels (83%).
  • 10% of participants met the optimal daily intake of two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables*.
  • Just over half (53%) engaged in adequate amounts of physical activity and less than half (39%) had a healthy body mass index (a measure of body fat based on a person’s height and weight).
  • Overall, 3% of people in this study met all five healthy lifestyle factor requirements (nutrition, physical activity, body weight, smoking and alcohol consumption).
  • Findings showed that smoking (defined as more than one cigarette, cigar or pipe per day) and consuming more than the nationally recommended amounts of alcohol (two or more standard drinks per day) are linked to the increased occurrence of depression in this study. Severity of depression also increased with increasing levels of smoking.
  • Those who followed a healthy diet according to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (five or more serves of vegetables per day and two or more serves of fruit at least six days per week) were on the whole found to have lower severity of depression.
  • This study also showed that with each additional healthy behaviour, the occurrence and severity of depression reduced proportionally.

The full results from this study have recently been published in the journal Acta Neurologica Scandinavia.

What do these research findings mean?

This study confirms previous studies suggesting there is a high prevalence of depression and anxiety in Australian people with MS, also provides a link between lifestyle factors and these symptoms.

While this research shows links between diet and other lifestyle factors and depression and anxiety outcomes, further research is needed to fully understand if modifying lifestyle factors can become a treatment option for people with MS experiencing these symptoms.

This study is a stepping stone towards developing a strong, evidence-based and holistic approach towards the management of MS and its symptoms, which includes factors people with MS can control themselves to reduce the impact of MS on their lives.

* Nutrition Australia – Australian Dietary Guidelines


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Healthy lifestyle can help with a healthy mind