Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the nerves of the brain and spinal cord, resulting in motor and sensory deficits. In essence, the body mistakenly attacks the healthy cells of the nervous system, until sufficient damage occurs, as to cause serious complications such as loss of motor control, balance, vision, and other sensory functions.
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
The nerves of the brain and spinal cord are covered by a sheath (myelin) that facilitates the transmission of impulses (messages) between the brain and the rest of the body. With multiple sclerosis (MS), the immune system, which normally protects the body against foreign invaders, attacks the healthy myelin sheaths and gradually destroys them in a process called demyelination. In time, scar formation (sclerosis) on the nerves occurs, leading to dysfunction in the transmission of nerve impulses. This degenerative process affects the nerves that control motor function of the muscles, such as walking, eating and talking, as well as sensory functions, such as vision and touch.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates that approximately 400,000 people in the US are affected, suggesting that next to trauma, it is the most common cause of neurological disability in young adults. Although the disease can affect anyone at any age, women are more likely to be affected, as well as those who are between the ages of 20 to 50 years old. Caucasians and people who have a first degree relative afflicted the disease are also more likely to develop it than others. However, the exact cause is still unknown.
Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
The symptoms of MS vary from person to person. In some cases, these occur subtly and gradually, such that it may not be diagnosed until after several months from onset. These symptoms may begin with eye pain and changes in vision, which may subside. Numbness, tingling, pain or weakness in one or more limbs on one side of the body may occur, followed by decreased coordination and balance. Dizziness, tremors, fatigue, muscle spasms, and slurring of speech also occur. In advanced stages, one may develop loss of bladder and bowel control, as well as sexual dysfunction.
Some people experience periods of remissions (no symptoms) and relapses (worsening of symptoms). Later stages may also include changes in mental function such as memory loss, impaired judgement, loss of concentration, and depression.
Treatment of Multiple Sclerosis
There is yet no cure for MS, and the goals of medical treatment are to reduce the attacks and promote recovery from attacks through the use of steroids, to slow the progression of the disease using disease modifying drugs, and to manage complications, such as muscle spasms and urinary tract infection. Physical therapy, relief of stress and rest are also important.
Diet and Nutrition for Multiple Sclerosis
As with any chronic disorder, maintenance of good health is important for people with MS. Although some experts have proposed different diets for patients with MS, other MS specialists recommend a well-balanced diet that has a low-fat, and high-fiber composition, which is recommended for most people.
Some special diets that have been proposed to treat the signs and symptoms of MS include the Swank Diet, which is low in saturated fats, but supplemented by healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids from oily fishes, flaxseed oil, and cod-liver oil and omega-6 fatty acids from safflower seed oil and evening primrose oil. However, evidence of their benefits are lacking, since studies that have been conducted on these diets are limited. Most MS experts would advise, however, that patients follow the diet recommended by the American Heart Association for most healthy people, which recommends:
- Eating a variety of foods that include samples from each food group.
- Choosing foods that are low in cholesterol and saturated fat.
- Limiting salt and sugar intake.
- Limiting alcohol consumption to one or two servings per day.
- Drinking eight glasses of water daily.
- Limiting caffeine consumption.
Some experts believe that obesity may be a problem in many patients. Maintaining a healthy weight may be achieved by balancing calorie intake and daily exercise. In patients with mild to moderate symptoms of MS, regular exercise may help improve their muscle tone, strength, balance and coordination. Swimming, water exercises, walking, stretching, stationary bicycling, low-impact aerobics, tai chi, and yoga are some examples of exercises MS patients can tolerate.
Health Supplements for Multiple Sclerosis
Most experts recommend eating a nutrient-dense, high fiber diet that includes a variety of foods to maintain health, and some would suggest taking health supplements to correct any deficiencies in nutrition.
Some studies suggest that vitamin D supplements may have potential benefit for patients with MS. Vitamin D, also called the sunshine vitamin, is known to promote calcium absorption, which may lead to stronger bones. Recent research also suggests that it may have significant effects on the immune system, which may help in the regulation of cell growth and cell differentiation. More studies are needed to determine if vitamin D supplementation may play a role in reducing disease activity in MS patients. Other health supplements that may offer some benefits for MS include:
- Vitamin A, which promotes normal growth and cell differentiation
- Vitamin C, which may help reduce the risk of urinary tract infections
- Vitamin E, which helps prevent oxidative damage to the cell membranes
- Vitamin B12, which promotes proper function of the nervous system
- Vitamin B6, which helps in energy production and amino acid conversion
- Selenium, which may have antioxidant effects
- Calcium, which helps strengthen the bones
- Zinc, which plays a role in various processes in the body
- Herbs like gingko biloba, echinacea, St John’s Wort, valerian, Asian ginseng and cranberry
It is best to consult your doctor before taking health supplements to determine if they are beneficial to you and if there are any side effects or drug interactions that you have to be aware of. Experts also advise taking supplements in recommended doses and avoid exceeding them.
This information should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your health care providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health.
Mayo Clinic. Multiple Sclerosis. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/multiple-sclerosis/basics/definition/con-20026689
WebMD. Multiple Sclerosis and Diet.
WebMD. MS and Your Diet: Is There a Link?
National Multiple Sclerosis Society. MS Nutrition. http://www.nationalmssociety.org/Living-Well-With-MS/Health-Wellness/Nutrition
National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Vitamins, Minerals & Herbs in MS. http://www.nationalmssociety.org/NationalMSSociety/media/MSNationalFiles/Brochures/Brochure-Vitamins,-Minerals,-and-Herbs-in-MS_-An-Introduction.pdf