According to a recent study, nearly 1 million people in the United States are affected by multiple sclerosis (MS) — more than twice the estimate from a previous study. Although it’s unclear at this point whether that means MS is becoming more prevalent, the result has inspired scientists to work even harder in their search for a cure.
Meanwhile, we’re learning more about the disease every day. For example, researchers recently discovered a link between food allergies and MS, finding that patients with significant food allergies experienced MS relapses along with their allergic episodes. Other allergies like hay fever didn’t have the same effect.
This could indicate an association between gut health and MS activity, which suggests that addressing food allergies and taking other steps to improve gut health might help reduce MS relapses.
Meanwhile, in addition to standard treatments, there are alternative forms of care that can improve symptoms and enhance overall health.
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that damages the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic (eye) nerves. This system sends messages from the brain through the nerves that branch off the spine to the rest of the body so that you can perform all the activities you normally do throughout your day.
When MS exists, the immune system, which typically protects the body from bacteria and viruses, mistakenly attacks “myelin” — the protective sheath covering the nerve fibers in the CNS. Myelin is sort of like the insulated coating on electrical wires. Without it, the fragile nerves are exposed. When the immune system attacks myelin, it causes inflammation that damages both the myelin and the nerve fibers themselves.
In time, these repeated immune system attacks create permanent nerve damage. The damaged areas develop scar tissue that can be seen with imaging tests like an MRI. It’s this scar tissue that gives the disease its name — multiple scarring, or “sclerosis.”
When myelin and nerve fibers in the CNS system are damaged, the brain can no longer communicate with the body as efficiently as it once did. Symptoms of the disease vary depending on the person and which nerves are affected and may include:
- Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs, usually on one side of the body
- Partial or complete loss of vision, again usually on one side
- Chronic pain
- Tingling or pain in various parts of the body
- Tremors or lack of coordination
- Involuntary muscle spasms and muscle stiffness
- Muscle weakness
- Electric-shock sensations that occur with certain neck movements
- Unsteady gait
- Slurred speech
- Fatigue and dizziness
- Problems with bladder and bowel function
- Cognitive difficulties
- Depression and mood swings
The disease tends to follow a back-and-forth course, with periods of new symptoms or relapses — sometimes referred to as attacks or exacerbations — followed by periods of remission or quiet that can last months and even years. Although this relapsing-remitting form of the disease is the most common type, affecting some 85 percent of patients, some people experience a steady progression of symptoms without relapses.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for the disease, and most people with the relapsing type will eventually transition into progressive worsening and increasing disability. Each case is unique, however, and even during progressive worsening, occasional periods of stability may occur.
Currently, scientists don’t know what causes MS. They know that it’s a case of the immune system malfunctioning, but why does the immune system falter in the first place?
So far, it seems that some people may develop the disease while others don’t for a combination of reasons. First, there is a genetic component — if someone in the family had MS, the chances that other family members will develop the disease are higher than if there is no family history of MS.
Gender is also a risk factor — women are about twice as likely to be diagnosed as men are. White people — Caucasians, particularly of Northern European descent — are at a higher risk than Asian, African American or Native American people. Other autoimmune diseases like thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis increase risk as do certain infections like the Epstein-Barr virus.
Current treatment focuses on speeding recovery from attacks, managing symptoms and slowing the progression of the disease. Corticosteroids and other medications help reduce nerve inflammation, immune-therapy helps lower the relapse rate and slow the formation of new lesions or scar tissue and other medications help treat fatigue, depression, pain and bladder, and bowel control problems.
In addition to standard treatments, however, there are natural alternative treatments that can help improve day-to-day life for those with MS.
10 Natural Options to Help Improve Life With MS
1. Get Enough Vitamin D
Research through the years shows that maintaining an adequate level of vitamin D could lessen the frequency and severity of MS symptoms and lengthen the time it takes for the disease to progress from the relapsing-remitting stage to the progressively worsening stage.
Unfortunately, many of us aren’t getting enough vitamin D. A 2009 study identified a “growing epidemic” of vitamin D insufficiency in the U.S. while other studies have identified persistent vitamin D deficiency around the world.
Recommendations are to take between 2,000 and 5,000 IUs daily to maintain levels. If you’re already low, higher doses for a short period of time may be necessary to normalize levels.
2. Get Tested for Food Sensitivities
Considering the connection between food allergies and MS inflammatory activity as mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s best to be aware of any food sensitivities or allergies that you may have. Once you know the foods that can trigger inflammation in your body, you can avoid them, and modify your diet to include more inflammation-lowering items.
3. Eat a High-quality Diet
According to a recent study of about 7,000 people with MS, those with high-quality diets — including less added sugars and red or processed meats and more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains — had lower levels of disability and lower depression scores than those with low-quality diets.
4. Eat More Anti-inflammatory Foods
In addition to eating an overall healthy diet, you can also add more foods to your diet that tame inflammation naturally to help with symptom management. Some good options include walnuts, fatty fish, olive oil, berries, avocados, broccoli, green tea, mushrooms, grapes, dark chocolate, tomatoes, almonds, cherries, oranges, spinach, kale, and collard greens.
5. Find a Favorite Form of Exercise & Stick with It
Studies show that regular exercise, in addition to being important for overall health, can also help manage MS symptoms. Those who participate in regular aerobic exercise report improved strength, less fatigue and depression, healthier bladder and bowel function, improved cognition and better mood.
Always check with your doctor before starting a new routine as some forms of exercise may be too aggressive for you. You can also seek help from a physical therapist.
6. Try Yoga
Studies show that yoga can help MS patients battle fatigue and mood swings and may also help manage fatigue, bladder control, pain, mental health, and balance. Yoga’s focus on breath, movement, and stretching improves stamina and flexibility while providing a mindfulness approach that can help MS patients feel less anxious.
In one study of women suffering from MS-induced moderate disability, researchers found that after eight weeks of yoga practice, the participants were able to walk for longer periods of time, had improved balance and motor coordination and could stand up more easily from a sitting position. They also experienced improvements in mental health, concentration, pain, and fatigue.
There’s been some interesting research on MS and epigallocatechin-e-gallate (EGCG), a healthy compound in green tea. In one study, researchers gave patients with MS either 600 mg/day of EGCG or a placebo over a period of 12 weeks. They found that EGCG helped improve muscle metabolism during moderate exercise.
Other studies suggest that EGCG may protect against MS-induced nerve damage in brain tissue while reducing the immune malfunction that leads to that damage in the first place. Green tea also provides natural anti-inflammatory benefits and has shown in studies to reduce levels of harmful inflammation specifically in the brain.
8. Take CoQ10
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a nutrient that occurs naturally in the body and many foods. It acts as a powerful antioxidant and helps generate energy in the cells. Several studies have indicated that supplementing with CoQ10 can help reduce MS-associated fatigue.
In one study, participants took 500 mg/day of CoQ10 or a placebo for 12 weeks. Results showed that those taking the CoQ10 experienced a significant decrease in fatigue and depression while those taking the placebo suffered an increase in both.
Another study also found that CoQ10 (500 mg/day) helped decrease inflammation in patients with MS.
9. Think About Lipoic Acid
This is an antioxidant and naturally occurring fatty acid found in many foods like spinach, broccoli, potatoes, and organ meats. Recent research suggests it may help slow the progression of MS, particularly when it comes to brain tissue loss.
In one study of 57 patients with advanced MS, researchers found that supplementation with lipoic acid reduced the rate of brain tissue loss compared with placebo. In a 2005 pilot study, patients with MS who took 1,200 mg/day of lipoic acid experienced suppressed MS activity.
Other studies have suggested that lipoic acid may help reduce inflammation and MS-related disability. The supplement is well tolerated but check with your doctor before taking it.
In a 2014 study, researchers reported that gut bacteria played a role “in educating the immune system” and thus could be a factor in the development of multiple sclerosis. In fact, low levels of lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium — some of the healthy bacteria in the gut — have been frequently linked with neurological inflammation, which is the hallmark sign of MS.
Several other studies indicate a connection between the gut microbiome and MS, with researchers noting that the link may reveal new ways to treat the disease. Meanwhile, you may experience symptom relief if you eat more probiotic-rich foods, including miso, kombucha, yogurt, and sauerkraut. You may also want to consider taking probiotic supplements.
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