Habits for Healthier Living With Multiple Sclerosis

What You Can Do to Take Back Some Control

Optimizing Your Health
Optimizing Your Health. sofiategnefur/Getty Images

When living with multiple sclerosis, it's important to focus on your MS care, but you do not want to neglect the rest of your body's needs.

Become empowered by engaging in healthy lifestyle habits like eating well-balanced meals, finding an exercise regimen that is both enjoyable and suitable for your MS needs, and seeing your primary care physician regularly

Eat Well

The role of diet in multiple sclerosis is a controversial topic.

Some studies suggest that certain plant-based, low-fat diets can ease MS-related symptoms, like fatigue. The thought behind these diets is that they exert an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, preventing a person's immune system from attacking myelin in the brain and spinal cord.

The problem is that research studies so far show mixed results and are speculative at this point. Larger, more rigorous studies on the role of diet in MS need to be done in order for specific guidelines to be adopted.

Still, choosing a healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (one that is low in saturated fat and high in fiber) is good for your overall physical and mental health—and it may just help your MS too.

So next time you go grocery shopping, stay a bit longer in the produce section. Choose a rainbow of vegetables, and consider adding veggie dips to spice up the flavor, like low-fat salad dressing, hummus, or guacamole.

For fruit, consider dipping in a lite whip cream, freezing grapes into popsicles, or making a slushie with unsweetened apple juice and ice.

Remember to opt for whole grain bread (not white bread). If you are not sure, look for the red American Heart Association heart-check mark on the packaging. In addition, don't forget bone-healthy foods (ones that are rich in calcium) like low-fat yogurt and milk, spinach and kale, and fortified cereals.

Finally, speak with your doctor about how much alcohol is safe for you. Also, when thirsty, choose to drink water and avoid sugary beverages like soda, sweet tea, or energy drinks.

Exercise

Exercise plays a central role in a person's MS care, and there is scientific research to back it up. Studies show that exercise can reduce the number of MS relapses and walking-related problems. Exercise has also been found to improve MS-related fatigue and depression.

Of course, it's important to speak with your doctor when starting a new exercise program, and don't be surprised if he or she refers you to a physical therapist—someone who can help you develop an exercise regimen that is right for you based on your interests, goals, and MS-related limitations.

Also, if you cannot engage in aerobic exercise, yoga may be a good option for you. In fact, research suggests that yoga is as effective as exercise in reducing MS-related fatigue.

See a Primary Care Physician

While you see a neurologist regularly for your MS care, it's also a good idea to have a regular primary care physician, like an internist or family medicine doctor.

Your primary care physician can ensure you are up-to-date on your immunizations, like your annual flu shot.

She will also take into account how your lifestyle habits are intertwined with your MS care. For instance, your doctor may check your vitamin D level or order a test to screen for osteoporosis (especially if you have received a number of steroid courses for your MS). Cancer screening tests and bloodwork to detect common health problems, like diabetes or high cholesterol, are also usually ordered by a primary care physician.

In addition, a primary care physician can provide counseling and treatment referrals for a variety of needs like smoking cessation, weight loss, and mood problems like depression or anxiety.

Smoking cessation is particularly important in MS, as smoking can quicken the progression of your or your loved one's MS. The good news is that it's never too late to stop smoking, and there are a number of therapies available including medications and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Take Your MS Disease-Modifying Medication

If you have been recently diagnosed with MS, it's important to start a disease-modifying medication as soon as possible. Taking your MS medication as part of your "living well with MS plan" will guarantee its priority in your life.

Scientific studies suggest that even before a person experiences symptoms, they may be undergoing MS-related damage to their brain and spinal cord—so waiting until you have more MS symptoms or stopping your medication because you feel better is not prudent.

In addition, MS medications are best during the early phase of MS. This is when your immune system cells attack myelin and you experience distinct relapses. The later stages of MS are more of a progressive, degenerative process, and the current disease-modifying therapies are not as effective.

This all being said, it's understandable that for some of you, there are obstacles to taking your MS disease-modifying medication. It may be expensive, you may fear needles, or you may find the side effects intolerable. But many of these burdens can be effectively addressed. Be candid with your MS health team about your concerns so you can get back on track with your MS care.

A Word From Verywell

Living well with MS requires a delicate balance of managing your symptoms, taking your disease-modifying medication, attending doctor appointments, and engaging in healthy lifestyle habits. 

That being said, don't fret if you seem to lose that balance once in a while. Living with MS is a journey, so be kind to yourself and take it one day at a time.

Sources:

Hadgkiss EJ, Jelinek GA, Weiland TJ, Pereira NG, March CH, van der Meer DM. The association of diet with quality of life, disability, and relapse rate in ana international sample of people with multiple sclerosis. Nutr Neurosci. 2015 Apr;18(3):125-36.

Moti RW, Pilutti LA. Is physical exercise a multiple sclerosis disease modifying treatment? Expert Rev Neurother. 2016 Aug;16(8):951-60.

National MS Society. Preventive Care Recommendations: The Basic Facts.

Oken B. et al. Randomized controlled trial of yoga and exercise in multiple sclerosis. Neurology 2004 Jun 8;62(11):2058-64.

Riccio P, Rossano R. Nutrition facts in multiple sclerosis. AsN Neuro. 2015 Jan-Feb; 7(1).

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