Your diet can promote healthy myelin, which is a substance that insulates your nerves and transmits electrical impulses to help your body function. But some conditions can damage it, which is why understanding what foods help repair the myelin sheath can help support nerve function and healing.
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Here are some key nutrients that may help increase myelin production and repair.
A diet rich in nutrients like vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids and good cholesterol may help support healthy myelin production and repair.
What Is Myelin?
The primary function of the myelin sheath is to support, protect and nourish nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Myelin is rich in fatty substances, and it transmits impulses along the nerves to control various bodily processes like movement and vision.
But when myelin is damaged, impulses don't transmit correctly, thus impairing bodily functions and causing symptoms like weakness, loss of coordination, memory problems and vision loss, according to the NLM.
Per the Mayo Clinic, damaged myelin is associated with conditions like:
Your body can repair damaged myelin sheath naturally with the help of myelin-producing brain cells called oligodendrocytes, according to the MS Society. Lifestyle habits like eating a nutrient-rich diet may help support this natural repair process, per March 2015 research in Missouri Medicine.
But healthy eating isn't a cure for myelin-related conditions: For instance, if you have MS, your body may not be as capable of natural myelin sheath repair or regrowth as you age and as the disease progresses, according to the MS Society.
What Foods Help Repair the Myelin Sheath?
So what should you eat to promote myelin growth? According to a July 2020 review in Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, there are some specific nutrients — like vitamins and fatty acids — to look out for in regards to myelin sheath support.
Here are some of the best foods for MS and other myelin-related conditions.
1. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is a crucial part of your nervous system health because it helps maintain your nerves' myelin sheath, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Trust. In fact, it's such an integral part of your nerve health that having a vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to symptoms similar to those of MS, such as weakness, numbness or impaired memory.
Foods high in vitamin B12 include:
- Meat like chicken breast and beef liver
- Seafood like clams and crab
- Nutritional yeast
- Fortified soy products like tofu, soy milk and tempeh
- Low- or nonfat dairy products like milk and yogurt
People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet — whether or not you have multiple sclerosis — are at higher risk for a vitamin B12 deficiency than those who eat meat, per January 2013 research in Nutrition Reviews. Talk to your doctor if you suspect you have a deficiency, and work with them or a dietitian to build an eating plan that supplies enough vitamin B12.
2. Good Cholesterol
Cholesterol helps produce myelin and is an essential component of the myelin membrane, according to the July 2020 Biochimica et Biophysica Acta research. Eating more cholesterol-rich foods was even linked to increased remyelination in people with MS, per a January 2017 study in Nature.
Prioritize eating healthy sources of cholesterol, such as:
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
At the same time, limit or avoid unhealthy cholesterol, which can put you at increased risk for conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. This includes foods with trans and saturated fats, such as:
- Red meat
- High-fat dairy products like goat cheese
- Processed baked goods like cakes and cookies
- Fried or fast food
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that support healthy cell membranes (including nerve cells), help your immune system work well and provide energy, per the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS).
Research has linked the nutrient to a lower risk for demyelination, per an August 2018 review in Physiological Research. However, it's important to note that this is a link and not necessarily the cause of demyelination, which is why omega-3s have not been shown to reverse the course of myelin-related diseases like MS.
Here are good sources of omega-3s:
- Nuts and seeds like walnuts, flax and chia seeds
- Fish like herring, salmon and sardines
- Canola oil
- Beans like navy and kidney beans
- Vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and squash
- Fruits like avocado and blackberries
What About Fish Oil as a Myelin Supplement?
However, experts recommend getting fatty acids primarily through your food instead of supplements, as whole foods can provide a wealth of other health-supporting nutrients, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Plus, the FDA does not require supplements to be proven safe or effective before they are sold, so there’s no guarantee that any supplement you take is safe, contains the ingredients it says it does or produces the effects it claims.
4. Choline and Lecithin
Choline is an essential nutrient that helps the body produce some of the substances that make up the myelin sheath, according to the ODS. Lecithin is another nutrient found in many of the same foods as choline that likewise supports the myelin sheath.
Per the ODS, foods rich in choline and lecithin include:
- Dairy products like cottage cheese
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts
- Certain beans like kidney and soybeans
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains like brown rice and quinoa
Talk to your doctor about whether you should also try supplements — like vegan-friendly choline bitartrate — to get enough of each nutrient.
Glycine is an amino acid that makes up important proteins in your body like collagen and elastin, per March 2017 research in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. It can help support the health of your body tissue, including connective tissue like the myelin sheath.
It's also a key nutrient in central nervous system function because it helps regulate nerve impulses, according to that same study.
Per the study, foods high in glycine include:
- Meat like turkey, chicken and pork
- Legumes like beans, lentils and peas
If you're concerned you're not getting enough glycine from the foods in your diet, talk to your doctor about whether you should also take it as a myelin repair supplement.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Myelin"
- Mayo Clinic: "Analyzing the role of diet and exercise in myelin production"
- MS Society: "Myelin repair"
- Missouri Medicine: "Food, Mood, and Brain Health: Implications for the Modern Clinician"
- Biochimica et Biophysica Acta: "Interplay between exercise and dietary fat modulates myelinogenesis in the central nervous system
- Biochimica et Biophysica Acta: "Dietary influence on central nervous system myelin production, injury, and regeneration"
- Office of Dietary Supplements: "Choline"
- Multiple Sclerosis Trust: "Vitamin B12"
- Nutrition Reviews: "How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians?"
- Physiological Research: "Nutritional intervention as an essential part of multiple sclerosis treatment?"
- Office of Dietary Supplements: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- BMC Neuroscience: "The effect of omega-3 fatty acids on central nervous system remyelination in fat-1 mice"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Fish oil: friend or foe?"
- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: "Multifarious Beneficial Effect of Nonessential Amino Acid, Glycine: A Review"
- Nature: "Dietary cholesterol promotes repair of demyelinated lesions in the adult brain"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Multiple sclerosis"
- Mayo Clinic: "High cholesterol"
- FDA: "FDA 101: Dietary Supplements"