Natural Solutions for Multiple Sclerosis

Diet, lifestyle, and supplements mitigate symptoms for many MS sufferers.
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Illustration by Dave Klug

For Christine Ruch, it started out as a normal Monday morning, snuggling in the bed with her kids before starting her morning routine. But when she got out of bed to put on her jogging pants, a sudden, intense sensation in her body brought her to her knees.

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“It was like an electric shock that started at the base of my neck and shot down my spine into my feet,” says Ruch. “My whole body started tingling, and my legs went numb. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was really bad.”

That was in January 2006. Over the next two weeks, as she consulted a number of health care providers, her symptoms grew progressively worse. “I had a hard time walking,” she says. “My legs felt like they were encased in concrete, and I couldn’t go up a flight of stairs without extreme fatigue.”

Three months later, Ruch—who’s now a certified natural chef and nutrition consultant in Boulder, Colorado—was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic and often disabling autoimmune inflammatory disease. MS attacks the central nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves; early symptoms include weakness, a feeling of heaviness or tingling, lack of coordination, blurred or hazy vision, and sudden loss of vision. As the disease progresses, symptoms may include pain, incontinence, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, depression, anxiety, extreme fatigue, loss of eyesight, uncontrollable shaking, or inability to walk.

The exact causes of MS still aren’t known, but the symptoms are caused by the destruction of myelin, a fatty sheath that surrounds and protects nerve fibers in the central nervous system. In the course of MS, myelin is destroyed, leaving fragile nerve fibers exposed. Their subsequent inability to properly communicate with each other is what causes symptoms of MS.

The usual protocol for MS is the ABC treatment, composed of three injectable drugs—Avonex, Betaseron/Betaferon, and Copaxone—that address the immune portion of the disease. They’re effective in about 30 percent of MS cases; side effects can be substantial, and the financial impact is enormous, with treatments averaging between $10,000 and $30,000 a year.

After the conventional pharmaceutical approach was explained to her, Ruch spoke with several women who had successfully treated MS with natural treatments. “I couldn’t stand the thought of going in for injections and having all these chemicals put into my body,” she says. “And I was completely convinced that I could treat this with alternative methods.”

She was right; natural treatments are often as effective as drug therapy for treating MS. In one study of people
with MS, 70 percent of respondents used complementary and alternative therapies, and the majority of those had significant improvement.

Ruch was tested for allergens, and found that she was allergic to eggs, legumes, wheat, dairy, and many other common foods. When she eliminated allergens, her symptoms improved. “Essentially, I followed a Paleolithic diet with a lot of vegetables, lean meat and some berries, and no processed foods,” she says. “And I got better.”

Today, Ruch is a cookbook writer and chef for the Growe Foundation, a children’s wellness program in Longmont, Colorado. “As long as I’m watching my diet, being careful with stress levels, getting enough sleep and exercise, and taking supplements, I don’t have symptoms,” says Ruch. “Overall, I feel like I’ve been really blessed.”

There’s no one diet that works for everyone, but some common elements include the following:

Emphasize green vegetables. Green vegetables, are high in compounds that permit the activity of the ARE (antioxidant response element) segments in genes that activate the body’s own protection against autoimmune and other diseases. Plus, they are high in antioxidants. (Several studies have noted that MS patients have lower antioxidant levels than control groups.)

Skip wheat and dairy. They’re triggers for almost all autoimmune diseases. Many MS patients also have celiac or other gluten sensitivities. Use dairy in very small amounts, and always choose organic varieties. Eat whole, gluten-free grains.

Ban sugar. It increases inflammation in the body, and exacerbates candida albicans, a yeast that tends to occur in conjunction with MS. One study found that candida albicans infection increased the risk of MS.

Limit saturated fats. Several studies have shown that saturated fat exacerbates MS symptoms. Choose plant sources of protein like legumes and lean meats.

Practice good, clean living. Alcohol exacerbates MS symptoms. Beer is made from glutinous grains, wine is high in sugars.

Exercise. In one study, people who did a weekly yoga practice or weekly exercise class reported less fatigue and increased energy levels. Another study showed people with MS who did eight weeks of supervised resistance training developed stronger muscles and better walking ability, and had fewer episodes of fatigue and disability.

Relax. Meditation has been shown to help people with MS cope with depression, fatigue, and anxiety associated with the disease.

Supplemental Help

Few studies have examined the role of supplements in treating MS, but many people with MS find they help. Ruch gets regular injections of vitamin B12 and takes digestive enzymes with every meal. And probiotics may help heal irritation in the digestive tract that’s common in MS. Other supplements that show promise:

Alpha-lipoic acid acts as an anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective agent in MS.

Carnitine has been shown to reduce fatigue in patients with MS.

Creatine. Research shows that a pure, concentrated form of creatine, sold under the brand name CON-CRET, can assist the body in delivering functional energy to nerve cells.

Curcumin, the active component of turmeric, reduces inflammation that occurs with MS and has neuroprotective effects.

Omega-3 fatty acids are helpful in reducing inflammation and improving mood.

Ginkgo biloba may improve fatigue and cognitive ability in people with MS.

Vitamin D has shown great promise in reducing MS symptoms and preventing relapse.

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