What Is Happening?
Your central nervous system—including your brain and spinal cord—is a jumble of wires, or nerves, that transmit messages all over your body. To prevent short circuits, all nerves are covered with an insulation called a myelin sheath. When you develop multiple sclerosis (MS), your immune system attacks the myelin, possibly mistaking it for a virus. Nerves then get injured, and your symptoms will depend on where the damage occurs. Problems range from vision abnormalities and fatigue to poor coordination and tingling sensations.
While the course of MS is unpredictable, an acute flare-up is usually followed by a remission, which can last for months or even years before another episode occurs. After an acute attack, your nerves begin to heal, forming scars, or plaques, over areas of myelin damage. (This process gives MS its name: Sclerosis is from the Greek skleros, which means hard, and multiple sclerosis connotes hard, patchy scarring along the nerves.) If this acute damage is too great, residual symptoms can persist. These may include weakness, fatigue, sensory loss, visual changes, dizziness, tremors, speech difficulties, trouble swallowing, urinary and bowel problems, and mood swings. Eventually, if MS continues unchecked, you can lose the ability to walk as your muscles become increasingly difficult to control.
The Many Faces of MS
About 20% of cases are called benign MS: You have a single attack, which is never repeated. However, most people (up to 75%) have relapsing-remitting MS: You may be symptom-free between attacks, and months (even years) can go by before another flare-up, or relapse. Then there are the more serious forms of the disease: secondary progressive, in which years of relapsing-remitting MS changes to continuous deterioration; primary progressive, in which deterioration is slow but constant, with no remission; and (very rarely) progressive-relapsing, in which continuous deterioration is interspersed with sudden episodes of new symptoms or worsened old ones.
What Can You Do?
One of the greatest challenges of MS is dealing with its impact on your daily life. While the following lifestyle measures may not slow the disease itself, they will help you deal with it much better, both physically and mentally.
Start a Regular Exercise Regimen
Your muscles can weaken with MS, so it’s essential to stay in as good shape as possible. Exercise helps maintain strength, coordination, and balance, and can even reduce spasticity. Try riding a stationary bike, walking, swimming, or doing tai chi or yoga. Just don’t get too warm; many people with MS find that being overheated worsens their symptoms.
Eat a Well-Balanced Diet
Proper nutrition helps boost your immune system and prevent colds and flu, which can worsen MS. Get lots of fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to prevent constipation, a common problem with MS. Drink water, at least 2 liters a day. Keeping well hydrated not only beats constipation, but also may help to prevent the urinary tract infections that occasionally occur with this disease.
Heat worsens symptoms in many people, so make sure your air conditioners are working well in summer, avoid hot tubs, and choose swimming pools that aren’t kept too warm.
Nearly 60% of people with MS try some form of nontraditional therapy. Sometimes these approaches can be very helpful, but be sure to talk to your doctor so you’ll know what to avoid. Some popular dietary supplements, including echinacea, garlic, and ginseng, can actually worsen MS symptoms by overstimulating the immune system. The following therapies have shown some promise:
Because the nerve damage of MS is partly due to oxidation, antioxidants may make sense. In addition to plenty of fruits and vegetables, try vitamin A, C, and E supplements, as well as coenzyme Q10, grape seed extract, and N-acetylcysteine (NAC).
Many report this ancient Chinese therapy helps lessen symptoms. Find a licensed practitioner experienced with MS.
This mineral may help reduce the uncomfortable muscle spasms that often accompany MS.
Essential Fatty Acids
Flaxseed oil and evening primrose oil, both fatty acids, may be helpful in protecting the myelin sheath.