Reasons to Avoid or Limit Alcohol if You Have MS

Be honest with yourself about the effects of alcohol on your MS symptoms.

Many people, MS or not, enjoy a nice cocktail, glass of wine or beer. It helps us relax and unwind, putting the events of the day behind us. It is also often an important part of social interactions, smoothing out potentially awkward moments and giving a warm, fuzzy feeling about those around you. For those of us living with MS, alcohol can make it easier to temporarily forget some of the challenges of multiple sclerosis, including some huge emotional issues around loss of employment, financial worries, concerns about increasing disability.

Like many people, I used to really look forward to a lovely mixed drink at the end of the day. It was a perfect way to transition into the evening, marking another day that I had lasted through fatigue and cognitive dysfunction with relative grace and style. (And if I hadn’t managed the grace and style part, all the more reason to have a drink…)

However, I began to notice that I fell asleep soon after starting my cocktail – this shortened the precious time that I had with my husband. I also realized that, even after a very small glass of wine the evening before, my constant morning headache was more severe and lasted longer than if I had not had anything alcoholic to drink.

After a couple of weeks of experimentation, I (reluctantly) decided that I was much better off without a daily alcoholic drink. I substituted herbal tea, which I eventually came to enjoy just as much as my cocktail. Occasionally, I’ll have a sip from my husband’s vodka and tonic or a very small glass of wine at a celebratory dinner, but I do this knowing that the next day won’t be as productive.

If you are still unsure of how you feel about alcohol, I’ll list out some important reasons that people with MS should limit alcohol intake:

  • Makes you tired: If you have MS, you probably also have fatigue. People often like the “mellow” feeling that a drink provides. However, keep in mind that when you already have baseline fatigue, alcohol can often speed up the sleepiness and exhaustion that we fight all day.
  • Mimics other MS symptoms, too: Alcohol is a well-known central nervous system depressant. Some of the results of depressing the central nervous system are: impaired vision, muscle weakness, slowed reaction time, hazy or unclear thinking and poor memory. Sound familiar? On a given day, I have many of these symptoms just as a result of my MS, and don’t really feel the need to “turn up the volume” on these particular sensations.
  • Doesn’t mix well with depression: Depression is a well-known symptom of MS. In many cases, there is even a confused, synergistic relationship between the two, with the fact of our MS and all of the stressors that come along with having a chronic disease exacerbating the depression. Often, people who are depressed drink to “feel better,” or at least to temporarily forget the pain of the depression. Not only is drinking not a cure for depression, it can actually feed a dangerous cycle and make depression worse. NOTE: If you think you are depressed, seek help immediately from a medical professional.
  • Affects speech: MS can affect speech in many different ways, including trouble controlling volume of speech and slurring words. Many people with MS also experience frustrating word-finding difficulties. Now, recall your last conversation with someone who had had too much to drink.
  • Impairs balance: If you have any mobility issues, this is another biggie. I’m pretty steady on my feet, but only a teensy bit of wine seems to upset that very fragile state and I find myself more prone to dragging my feet or stumbling (even before I feel any other effects of the alcohol).
  • Doesn’t help memory: Maybe you are one of the (rare) people with MS who does not have a problem with your short-term memory. As for myself, I know that I need every single molecule of brain power to remember a name, follow a complex dinner conversation or understand what is happening in the plot of a movie (even many animated ones). Even a little alcohol has left me in a state where I am just watching things go by, rather than being an active participant.

Bottom Line: Despite what it sounds like, I am not advocating that everyone with MS give up alcohol altogether. If you do not think that alcohol is significantly impairing your functionality and you enjoy a nice drink or two, you should continue to do so, bearing in mind all of the things that I mentioned above. However, do be honest about the effects of alcohol. If you stumble or slur your words more after you have been drinking than you do otherwise, do not blame these symptoms on the MS, either to yourself or to others. Recognize this as having too much to drink. Read more: Alcoholism and Multiple Sclerosis

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