When you’re busy with the medical management of multiple sclerosis symptoms, it can be easy to forget the effectiveness of simple, good lifestyle choices. These steps may help slow down MS and give you an all-over health boost, too.
There’s no doubt that living with multiple sclerosis (MS) can be tough. But researchers are working hard to find out the causes of MS, and what factors can ease or aggravate multiple sclerosis symptoms and even slow down MS progression. Many involve making the right lifestyle choices every day, such as not smoking and getting enough vitamin D — steps that are definitely within your control. And some of these choices can improve your overall health while positively impacting your MS. Find out the steps you can start taking today.
Fight Back With Food
“Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory condition,” says neurologist Mary Rensel, MD, staff neurologist at the Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis Treatment and Research at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “There’s no specific diet for MS, but we do recommend an anti-inflammatory diet — lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy oils.”
Try eating a diet rich in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Sources for these healthy fats are fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel, plant-based oils, and flaxseed (which is great ground and sprinkled on foods from breakfast cereal to yogurt). According to a review of MS alternative therapeutic approaches published in the journal Expert Review of Clinical Immunology, diets that are low-fat but include omega-3s hold promise as a way to manage MS symptoms and, although there are no definitive studies, are safe to try.
Get a Move On
Just 30 minutes of moderate physical activity like walking or swimming two times a week can reduce fatigue and depression among people with multiple sclerosis, according to results from a study published in the journal Health Quality of Life Outcomes. Researchers in Australia concluded this from studying 121 people with MS, comparing those who exercised with those who didn’t. Of course, you don’t have to stop at 60 minutes a week; exercise as you’re able. Aerobic activity that gets your heart pumping is good when done five days a week, and resistance training that maintains muscle mass has also been shown to benefit people with MS — aim for twice a week, although not on consecutive days. “Regular exercise also improves energy levels,” Dr. Rensel says. She also suggests working with a physical therapist if you aren’t sure of the best ways to start exercising on a regular basis.
Get Your Vitamin D
“Sometimes we see pain and energy levels improve with adequate vitamin D,” Rensel says, whose clinic routinely tests vitamin D blood levels and recommends supplements to those with multiple sclerosis who are deficient. “There is some relationship between low vitamin D and developing MS or worsening MS symptoms.” In fact, the relationship between MS and sunlight appears to be life-long. People who spent childhood summer vacations in sunny spots seem less likely to develop multiple sclerosis later on. Be aware, however, that people living in northern latitudes might not get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone. There are several other options for getting sufficient vitamin D, including eating vitamin D-rich foods such as eggs, fortified milk, and cod liver oil. You can also take a vitamin D supplement, And if you are getting your daily dose of vitamin D from sunlight, remember that as few as 15 minutes a day should be sufficient. Of course, be sure to put on sunscreen before heading out into the sun — although you do want vitamin D, you don’t want skin damage from ultraviolet rays
Stop Smoking (or Certainly Don’t Start)
Smoking cigarettes is one of three environmental factors strongly tied to multiple sclerosis risk, and continuing to smoke once you have MS seems to increase the damage to your brain, according to research published in the journal Neurology. Researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo compared the progression of MS in 240 people who had never smoked to 128 current and former smokers, conducting imaging scans of their brains over a course of up to 20 years. They saw a clear pattern of increased damage and atrophy (wasting away) in brain tissue among the smokers. It can be a hard thing to quit smoking, but a good health care provider will be able to connect you with a support system that can help you through the challenges of smoking cessation. There are many effective tools to help quit smoking, including nicotine patches and counseling; if you’ve tried to quit before and weren’t successful, don’t be discouraged. It may take multiple tries to quit smoking for good.
You may feel like you’re trapped in a vicious cycle: Stress worsens multiple sclerosis symptoms, but MS can also be stressful. Stress management techniques such as asking for help with certain tasks, learning how to prioritize, managing your time effectively, and doing deep-breathing or relaxation exercises should all be on your to-do list. These techniques help with managing multiple sclerosis day-to-day, Rensel says. Beyond that, many people who have MS also battle depression; therapy and medication for depression and anxiety can also help you get stress under control. Don’t be afraid to bring up any emotional challenges you’re going through with your doctor.
Get to Bed
Yawning throughout your day? You’re not alone. Research published in the journal Clinical Epidemiology shows that nearly half of those with multiple sclerosis also have sleep disturbances at night. Fatigue is a hallmark MS symptom, but researchers are only just learning more about the sleep problems that people with multiple sclerosis face. An analysis of data from 473 adults living with MS showed a strong link between depression and sleep problems. If you are depressed, getting treatment could help you sleep better, but you should also consider your sleep habits. Try developing a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, as well as a soothing bedtime ritual. MS symptoms such as leg pain and spasms may also be preventing restorative sleep, Rensel says. Let your doctor know if your multiple sclerosis management plans isn’t letting you get the sleep you need.
Take Care of Your Health in General
Multiple sclerosis may seem like the focal point of your life, but living with MS can be more complicated if you also have diabetes, high blood pressure, or other chronic health conditions. “Physically, people who have MS do worse if they also have these conditions that can be related to lifestyle,” Rensel says. Many of the healthy changes you can make to help multiple sclerosis, such as exercising more and eating healthfully, can also help prevent or improve other health conditions. Make it a priority to check in with your doctor to be sure you’re on top of it all. Your body will thank you for it!