MS and Lifestyle: An Integrative Approach

If you have a health problem such as diabetes or heart disease, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear your physician say that you need to eat right, exercise, manage your stress and get enough rest. Now, we’re finding that advice is valuable not only for physical diseases such as diabetes, but neurological ones like multiple sclerosis as well. 

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, progressive neurological disease that affects the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord. Experts believe the disease causes the immune system to attack and break down myelin, which is a protective coating around nerve fibers that helps transmit signals from the central nervous system to the body to control physical and psychological functions. 

Without adequate myelin, nerve impulses to and from the brain are interrupted. This “interruption” in the signal presents as a sudden neurological symptom, known as a relapse in multiple sclerosis. Symptoms include blurred vision, loss of muscle strength in the arms and legs, feelings of numbness, tingling or burning, problems with balance or coordination, fatigue, sexual dysfunction and constipation. Symptoms vary from person to person; some people may experience many symptoms while others have just a few. 

The first signs of the disease usually emerge between the ages of 20 and 50, often affecting young people in the most active years of their lives. Relapses can occur unpredictably and then resolve just as suddenly, so people with MS may live with the constant uncertainty of not knowing whether they will be healthy from one day to the next. 

Current treatments, known as disease-modifying therapies, can help ease the frequency of relapses and slow the progression of the disease. However, in addition to these treatments, many patients also take a number of other medications to treat the symptoms associated with MS. This is where careful attention to nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress can play an important role. If we can address symptoms such as constipation, constant fatigue and depression by integrating lifestyle changes, why not do that instead of depending on medication? 

In fact, a surprising amount of medical literature supports the profound impact of lifestyle habits on MS—much more than might be expected. We know that when somebody who has MS undergoes a stressful emotional, physical, or psychological experience—from having a urinary tract infection to being let go from a job to an argument with a spouse—they are likely to have a relapse within a few days. When my MS patients have a relapse, I look for signs of infection or physical illness, and ask what has been happening in their lives recently. I review their sleep habits, eating schedules, stress levels and stress management techniques, caffeine intake, and so on. 

Whether someone is skipping meals, drinking too much coffee, not getting adequate sleep or having personal problems, all of these translate to the nervous system as stress, consequently causing a pro-inflammatory cascade in the body and creating a perfect setup for MS exacerbation. The goal, then, is to begin decreasing the amount of stress input. 

I help patients use their eating, sleeping and exercise habits to take advantage of their own physiological rhythms to combat the symptoms associated with MS. I use this analogy: If you had $100 to invest in the stock market and you knew exactly when the best times were to invest, you would make money effortlessly. The same is true of your health—if you can learn when your body has the best capacity for digestion and when you get the deepest quality of sleep, it will be easier to maintain overall good health. 

By Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary