Multiple sclerosis (or MS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. MS affects 2.5 million people worldwide and around 400,000 people in the United States.
What are the symptoms of MS and how is it diagnosed? MS symptoms affect each person differently. They can include weakness, numbness, cognitive changes and blurred vision. Currently there is no single test that is used for diagnosing multiple sclerosis, so multiple tests will often need to be performed. Doctors will usually diagnose MS based on a patient’s symptoms, a physical examination and results from magnetic resonance imaging tests (MRI). (1)
What age does multiple sclerosis start? MS can develop at any age and affects women more often than men. The disorder is most commonly diagnosed between ages 20 and 40, but can be seen in both younger and older people. (2)
Because it’s not entirely known what causes MS, there is no “cure” for the condition. The good news is that there are multiple sclerosis natural treatments that often can cause a great improvement in symptoms, and, when combined with other approaches, might even be able to help reverse the condition.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society:
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. (3)
Multiple sclerosis refers to many (multiple) areas of tissue scarring (sclerosis) and damage. The main type of tissue that is damaged by MS is called myelin, the tissue that wraps around nerves and helps nerve fibers send chemical signals throughout the body.
When myelin is damaged it’s called demyelination. Some of the earliest signs and symptoms of multiple sclerosis include changes in sense of touch, loss of strength in one arm or leg, tingling, burning and itching. When myelin is damaged, nerve signals reaching the eyes, brain and spinal cord slow down or stop. As MS worsens with time the brain can sometimes shrinks in size as more myelin and axons are destroyed, leading to decreased cognitive functioning and many other symptoms related to nervous system dysfunction.
Can you be born with multiple sclerosis? Most people who develop MS do so as young adults. It’s not exactly known what causes all cases of MS, but experts believe that one common cause might be exposure to viruses early in life. Examples of two viruses that might trigger MS include herpesvirus and retrovirus. It’s possible to start developing symptoms of MS early in life but not receive a diagnosis until years later when the condition has progressed.
Symptoms and Signs
MS symptoms include those that are sensory (resulting in problems with sensations) and related to motor control (muscle movements and coordination). The most common multiple sclerosis symptoms include: (4)
- Vision changes including blurred or double vision. Some might experience partial blindness, dimmed vision, inability to see straight ahead (central vision loss) and uncoordinated movements of the eyes. Vision changes are due to increased inflammation of the optic nerves leading to the eyes (optic neuritis).
- Cognitive changes and mental impairment, including trouble thinking clearly, memory loss, poor judgement and inattention.
- Lack of coordination, clumsy movements and loss of balance.
- Numbness, tingling, reduced sense of touch.
- Sense of shock running down the neck and spinal cord, especially when moving the head/neck.
- Burning, itching or pain on the skin.
- Cramping, spasms and weakness in the arms or legs, tremors, trouble walking, and stiffness.
- Mood changes, including mood swings, depression or manic depression, inability to control emotions, increasing crying and inappropriate laughing.
- Sexual dysfunction, including lack of sensation in the genitals, trouble experiencing pleasure or orgasm and impotence.
- Dizziness and vertigo.
- Digestive symptoms including constipation, diarrhea/loss of control over bowel movements, and trouble controlling urination.
- Slowed, slurred and hesitant speech.
- Partial paralyzation and involuntary movements as the condition worsens.
- Dementia and mania as the condition worsens.
Relapses and Remission in Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms:
MS symptoms can vary widely from person to person. It’s common for MS symptoms to come and go, as many people experience alternating periods of remission and relapses (or flare-ups). This means that it’s common for people with MS to feel relatively healthy for a period of time followed by a period of feeling ill as symptoms worsen.
There are several different types of multiple sclerosis that describe the severity of the disease and also the fluctuations between remission and flare-ups. The reason that remission and flare-ups occur is because the myelin surrounding nerves may be repaired, then damaged again, then repaired again, and so on. Remissions in MS symptoms can last for months or even years. The majority of people with MS — about 80 percent–85 percent — have relapsing-remitting MS.
Relapses of multiple sclerosis symptoms can be debilitating in some cases, but mild in others. Most of the time recovery from MS will only be short-lived and incomplete, as the condition tends to get worse with time. Some might have only a single ongoing symptom and go months or years without experiencing any others. A flare in symptoms can sometimes only happen one time, go away, and never return. For other people the symptoms are more usually intense and may become worse within weeks or months of them first beginning. This is called “primary progressive pattern.” When MS remissions and flare-ups alternate it is called “secondary progressive pattern” or “progressive relapsing pattern.”
Causes and Risk Factors
What does multiple sclerosis do to the body that causes the symptoms described above? As mentioned above, MS is caused by damage to the myelin sheath, the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells. Nerves are covered by tissue (myelin) that acts like insulation, much like the coating used to protect electric wires. The covering of nerves is needed to help conduct nerve impulses and therefore many bodily functions, such as muscle coordination and control over emotions.
The kind of nerve damage that is associated with MS is caused by factors including autoimmune responses, dysbiotic gut microbiota, and increased inflammation. (5) In other words, MS is believed to be caused by the body’s own immune cells attacking the nervous system. This damage can happen anywhere in the brain or spinal cord.
Although no specific causes of MS are known, some possible causes include:
- Viruses and infections, such as herpesvirus or retrovirus.
- Mold toxicity.
- Toxic exposure and heavy metal posioning.
- Vitamin D deficiency, especially during the early stages of life. It’s been found that living near the equator/in a tropical climate, where vitamin D deficiency is less common due to more sunlight exposure, lowers someone’s risk for MS substantially. People living in temperate climates where it is cooler and darker are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D and considered to be at an increased risk for developing MS. (6)
- Food allergies.
- Heredity, or family history of MS and similar conditions. It’s estimated that about 5 percent of people with multiple sclerosis have a sibling who is also affected, and about 15 percent have a close relative with MS. It’s been found that people with certain genetic markers (human leukocyte antigens) are at an increased risk for MS.
- Hormonal imbalances.
- High levels of emotional stress (this may not be the underlying cause but can trigger symptom flare-ups).
- A poor diet that causes inflammation, poor gut health and nutrient deficiencies. (7)
Other risk factors for multiple sclerosis include:
- Being between the ages of 20–40. Of the 400,000 people living in the U.S. that have MS, the majority are believed to be young adults under 40.
- Being a woman.
- Smoking cigarettes.
- Childhood obesity. Some research shows that those with a high body mass index (BMI) before age 20 may be twice as likely to develop MS as those within a normal weight range. (8)
- Vitamin D deficiency during the first 15 years of life.
Some of the most common causes of a flare in MS symptoms include:
- Having a fever, the flu, a virus or another illness that stresses the immune system.
- Lack of sleep and increased stress.
- Overexertion and dehydration.
- Spending time in very hot temperatures or situations, such as being in a sauna, experiencing heat exhaustion or even taking very hot baths.
- Hormonal fluctuations.
Conventional treatments for multiple sclerosis typically include use of corticosteroid drugs that help to suppress the immune system and limit autoimmune reactions. Steroids are used to stop the body from attacking its own cells and tissue, while other drugs might be used to treat specific symptoms such as weakness, tingling and blurred vision. Recently a number of “disease modifying drugs” have been developed that are given to patients with MS to help lengthen the time of remission periods and to lower the severity of flare-ups. These drugs don’t work for every person and all types of MS, but can be very helpful for some.
Meanwhile, a promising clinical trial led by Dr. Richard Burt of Northwestern University that explores the potential benefits of stem cell therapy for multiple sclerosis is underway as of March 2018. The 110 patients participating either received a drug treatment or hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT). The clinical trial looks promising given that after one year of treatment only one relapse occurred among patients in the stem cell group compared with 39 relapses in the drug treatment. And, after about three years, the stem cell transplants had a 6 percent failure rate compared with a failure rate of 60 percent in the control (drug treatment) group.
The researchers note that stem cell therapy doesn’t work for all cases of MS and it’s not an easy process. First patients must undergo chemotherapy to destroy their “faulty” immune system. Then stem cells that help make blood through a process called hematopoiesis are removed from the patient’s bone marrow and reinfused into the patient’s bloodstream. These fresh stem cells, which are not affected by MS, rebuild the patient’s immune system. Despite this challenging process, preliminary results demonstrate that this could be an effective treatment in the future. (9, 10)
Unfortunately, currently, even with treatment it’s still common for MS to slowly worsen over time, sometimes leaving people disabled and unable to live on their own. However, the good news is that the lifespan of people living with multiple sclerosis is usually unaffected, unless the disorder becomes very severe. Below are examples of multiple sclerosis natural treatments that can also help manage symptoms and improve quality of life:
1. Nutrient-Dense Diet High in Healthy Fats
A 2015 report published in the journal ASN Neuro states:
Dietary factors and lifestyle may exacerbate or ameliorate MS symptoms by modulating the inflammatory status of the disease, both in relapsing-remitting MS and in primary-progressive MS. This is achieved by controlling both the metabolic and inflammatory pathways in the human cell and the composition of commensal gut microbiota. (11)
No specific type of diet has been proven to prevent or cure multiple sclerosis. But there is some evidence that following a diet that’s high in antioxidants and healthy fats can be one of several basic multiple sclerosis natural treatments that may help with symptom management. Experts believe that high-calorie, highly-processed “Western diets” may be a trigger for MS and other neurological disorders. MS is more prevalent in Western countries with the highest income (and also the greatest distance from the equator). Western diets are characterized by high amounts of salt, animal fat, factory-farm-raised red meat, sugar-sweetened drinks, fried food and low-fiber foods. To top it off, most people eating a Western diet are not getting enough physical exercise and potentially lacking sleep and time for relaxation too.
A study published in 2018 assessed the association between diet quality and the intake of particular foods with the severity of symptoms in multiple sclerosis patients. Participants in the study completed a dietary questionnaire that estimated the intake of red/processed meats, whole grains, added sugars, fruits, vegetables and legumes to construct a diet quality score based on the reported food groups. In addition to the food groups, the questionnaire also assessed whether an overall healthy lifestyle (healthy weight, diet, physical activity and smoking abstinence) is associated with symptom severity of MS. Out of the respondents, those with MS whose diet quality scores were in the highest percentile had lower levels of disability and depression. Those with an overall healthy lifestyle had lower chances of reporting severe fatigue, pain, depression or cognitive impairment. The study concludes that the healthier choices in diet and lifestyle contributed to a lighter burden of disability and symptoms associated with MS. (12)
Fats are essential nutrients for forming and protecting the nerves’ myelin sheath, while antioxidants help to reduce oxidative damage. Aim to eat a diet that is similar to the Mediterranean diet, which research shows helps to reduce inflammation, protect cognitive health, reduce cardiovascular mortality risk, and improve endothelial functions. (13) Foods to include in a healthy multiple sclerosis diet are:
- Unprocessed foods — Choose whole, organic, unprocessed foods as often as possible.
- Coconut Oil — Coconut oil contains large amounts of medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) that support the brain and nervous system. Olive oil is another healthy source of fat that is associated with cognitive health.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables — Aim for a variety of colors to provide antioxidants that can help prevent free radical damage and inflammation. Plant foods that provide sulforaphane (SFN) — an organosulfur compound that has potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activities — are some of the best foods for managing MS because they reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, demyelination and autoimmune responses. (14) The best sources of sulforaphane are cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, kale and collards.
- Foods high in polyphenols — For example, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, spices, herbs, fruits, wine, fruit juices, tea and coffee.
- Foods high in lycopene and carotenoids — These include plant foods like tomatoes, carrots, watermelon, sweet potatoes, winter squash and grapefruit.
- Omega-3 fats — The EPA/DHA fats found in wild-caught fish (and fish oil supplements) can help reduce inflammation. The best omega-3 foods include wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout and herring.
- Prebiotics and probiotics — These are “beneficial bacteria” that help to restore or maintain a healthy symbiotic gut microbiota. Probiotic foods include fermented dairy products like yogurt or kefir (if dairy is tolerated well), cultured veggies and kombucha. Prebiotic foods include raw dandelion greens, raw garlic, raw leeks or onions, raw jicama, raw asparagus and under-ripe bananas.
- Complex carbohydrates — Examples include ancient grains that are high in fiber such as millet and sorghum. Complex carbs may help with the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, helping to control inflammation.
- Cabbage and bean sprouts — Foods high in lecithin may help strengthen the nerves.
Foods to avoid in order to help with MS recovery include:
- Processed foods — Reduce your exposure to chemicals and toxins by avoiding any foods that are processed. Try to eat whole foods (foods that are only one ingredient) and check ingredient labels on packaged foods to avoid additives and chemicals. Avoid foods with lots of saturated fatty acids of animal origin, hydrogenated fatty acids, added sweeteners/artificial sweeteners, refined carbohydrates, lots of added salt, MSG, and cow’s milk.
- Gluten — Certain food allergies and sensitivities are known to make MS symptoms worse. People with MS may be more prone to having a gluten-intolerance. Gluten might make symptoms worse for some people with MS, which is why a gluten-free diet is recommended.
- Dairy — Just like with gluten, people with MS may have a harder time digesting cow’s milk. A dairy-free diet might be able to help manage symptoms and improve gut health, although it depends on the person.
- Potential food allergens — Allergens may make MS symptoms worse by triggering autoimmune reactions, so carefully avoid any foods you might be allergic to.
- Sugar — Too much sugar in the diet may disrupt immune responses and contribute to systemic inflammation and premature aging.
- Alcohol — Above moderate levels, alcohol can increase inflammation and can create a toxic bodily environment.
2. Limit Exposure to Viruses and Infections
Below are steps you can take to practice good hygiene and prevent catching illnesses from those around you that can trigger a flare-up:
- Wash your hands regularly, especially after going to the bathroom.
- Avoid sharing personal items, such as towels or razors, that can carry bodily fluids.
- Regularly wash all fabrics and linens using a natural antibacterial detergent. Wash all dirty clothes containing bodily fluids, towels and bedding, particularly after they come into contact with someone who has an infection.
- Clean and disinfect all working surfaces thoroughly and regularly. Frequently disinfect shared items in your home or workplace using natural cleaning products.
- Food workers should always wash their hands thoroughly to prevent foodborne illnesses from spreading.
- If you go to a gym or exercise facility, make sure to clean equipment after use and shower once you leave.
3. Exercise and Reduce Stress
When considering multiple sclerosis natural treatments, physical exercise is now a very common approach for MS patients as it has been shown to decrease the symptoms of chronic fatigue, help with stress management, improve coordination and prevent or slow the onset of disability. MS patients should practice mild physical exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming, light dancing, yoga, tai chi or light cycling. Working with a trainer in a rehabilitation center or program is also encouraged.
Some of the ways that exercise benefits MS include upregulating oxidative metabolism and downregulating biosynthetic pathways and inflammation. (15) It helps to support energy balance, influences quality of life and may stimulate the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines. In animal studies, exercise has also been shown to stimulate brain mitochondrial activity, to improve neuroplasticity, improve moods and decrease anxiety. (16)
Exercise is considered part of a “holistic treatment plan,” which includes diet, exercise, therapy, stress management and social support. (17) Controlling emotional and physical stress is important for reducing relapses and prolonging remission. Some activities that can help with stress management include yoga, deep breathing, meditation, massages, exercise, journaling, reading, support groups and prayer.
4. Prevent or Treat Vitamin D Deficiency
It is not exactly clear how vitamin D helps prevent multiple sclerosis, but it is known that deficiency in vitamin D can lower immune function and have an effect on neurological development. Studies have uncovered evidence suggesting that vitamin D deficiency during childhood may be most problematic. In animal studies it’s been found that there’s a “developmental stage-dependent efficiency of vitamin D to ameliorate neuroinflammation,” pointing to the need to prevent low vitamin D levels during childhood and adolescence. (18)
The best way to make enough vitamin D on your own is to expose your bare skin to sunlight everyday, if possible, for about 15 minutes. If you live in a place where it’s very dark and cold, or during the winter, then you can supplement with vitamin D3 (5,000 IU daily) to help modulate the immune system and support your brain and nervous system.
5. Take Helpful Supplements
Below are some supplements that can be used as multiple sclerosis natural treatments to help support the immune system and aid in preventing MS symptoms such as fatigue and weakness:
- Fish oil (2,000 milligrams daily) — Fish oil can help reduce inflammation and promote better nerve functioning.
- Probiotics — Helps to restore or maintain a healthy symbiotic gut microbiota that decreases inflammation.
- High potency multi-vitamin — Provides basic nutrients needed for immune function.
- Digestive enzymes (1–2 capsules with meals) — May help with digestion and reduce autoimmune reactions to foods.
- Vitamin B12 (1,000 micrograms daily) — Vitamin B12 helps with the formation of nerves.
- Astaxanthin (2 milligrams, one to two times daily) — A powerful carotenoid antioxidant found in wild-caught salmon that can support the brain and nervous system. It can be found in certain fish oil supplements, helping to improve its effects.
According to research published by the MS Study Group of the TRIP-Graduate School at Goethe-University in Germany, certain “disease modifying nutricals” have also been shown to be helpful for managing multiple sclerosis. These nutricals include: (19)
- Green tea flavonoid extract (especially EGCG, or epigallocatechin-3-gallate), which has the ability to fight oxidative damage and supports metabolic health.
- Curcumin, the active ingredient found in turmeric that has anti-inflammatory benefits and much more.
- Mustard oil, which contains free radical-fighting glycosides.
- Cannabis, which has analgesic and anti-spastic effects.
6. Use Essential Oils
Essential oils including frankincense oil and helichrysum oil naturally support the neurological system. In animal studies, frankincense has been shown to have many anti-inflammatory properties and to help support regeneration of damaged nerves and functional recovery. (20, 21) You may want to try frankincense oil as one of your multiple sclerosis natural treatments. Take 2 drops of frankincense internally three times a day for three weeks, then take one week off and repeat that cycle. You can also rub 2 drops of helichrysum oil on your temples and neck two times daily. Also, basil oil and cypress oil can improve circulation and muscular functions and therefore may help reduce MS symptoms.
Symptoms of MS can be very similar to those caused by other diseases, so it’s important to always get a proper diagnosis from a specialist. Visit a doctor if you notice changes such as unexplained loss of sensation, burning, pain and weakness. Children who are susceptible to MS should be given medical care right away, if possible. If you’re concerned about how having MS will change your dietary or exercise needs, then consult with your doctor.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of nerve signaling. MS is caused by damage to the myelin sheath, the protective coating of nerves.
- Symptoms of multiple sclerosis include both motor-related symptoms and sensory symptoms, such as weakness, fatigue, blurred vision, digestive issues, mood changes, instability, tingling and numbness.
- Currently there is no cure available for MS. But there are multiple sclerosis natural treatments for managing symptoms.