Multiple sclerosis can seem like the cruelest disease. We’ve all heard of cases where a young adult, once in the bloom of health, becomes disabled and confined to a wheelchair. And while it’s true that MS attacks healthy young people, fortunately very few cases lead to rapid disability. By far the common MS “story” is one of flare-ups followed by very long disease-free periods, so that disability, if it does occur at all, may not happen for decades. Although the cause of MS remains unknown, physicians believe it’s an autoimmune disease, where the immune system winds up attacking its own central nervous system. Doctors are far less helpless in the face of MS than they once were. Disease “modifiers” such as the interferon-based medications Betaseron or Avonex and the drug glatiramer acetate (Copaxone), all have been shown to reduce flare-up rates dramatically and delay the time to disability.
As we know here at WholeHealth Chicago, integrative medicine also has many useful therapies to offer that may not have been taught in medical school. Just don’t deprive yourself of conventional medicines for a strictly “natural” route because the appropriate medications help considerably and newer ones are constantly being developed.
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a degenerative nerve disorder in which the protective outer coatings of nerves in the central nervous system (the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves) gradually and unpredictably degenerate. The fatty nerve coatings, called myelin sheaths, insulate nerves and ensure the quick and efficient transmission of electrical nerve impulses. In a process called sclerosis, patches of myelin are damaged and replaced by scar tissue at multiple sites throughout the central nervous system (which also explains how the disease got its name. Sclerosis means “scar formation.”). In those nerves affected by sclerosis, the transmission of nerve impulses is reduced or blocked completely.
The course of MS and its symptoms vary widely from patient to patient. Sclerosis of the optic nerves, for example, may cause vision problems. Damage to the nerves that control muscle function may result in muscle weakness, spasms, and difficulty walking.
Depending on the affected areas of the brain and spinal cord, other MS symptoms may include slurred speech, loss of bowel or bladder control, mild mental confusion, and memory loss. Patients may experience combinations of symptoms that come and go and change over time.
About 70% of MS patients have what is known as relapsing/remitting MS, in which periodic flare-ups are followed by periods of normal or near-normal health that can last for months or years. In a few cases, remission becomes permanent. A small minority of MS patients has the chronic/progressive form of the disorder, in which symptoms gradually worsen without remission.
Although the disease eventually takes its toll on muscle, nerve, and, in some cases, brain function, average survival after diagnosis is 35 years and most patients are able to carry out normal activities for years with the help of medications, supplements, and supportive therapy.
Multiple sclerosis tends to strike younger adults between the ages of 20 and 50. Women are more susceptible to it than men. The disease is neither preventable nor curable, and there is no definitive diagnostic test for it. (Diagnoses are usually based on patient history, neurological and eye examinations and tests, spinal taps, and MRI scans to detect scar tissue on nerves.)
A variety of prescription drugs are available to help reduce the frequency and severity of attacks and to treat specific symptoms. Supplements and changes in dietary habits can help slow the disease’s progress, while physical therapy and psychological counseling can help MS patients cope with the changes and limitations imposed by the disease.
Early signs of MS may be difficult to distinguish from those of other conditions affecting the nervous system. They include a variety of visual, sensory, and motor problems, such as:
- Unexplained fatigue
- Sudden loss of the central field of vision in one eye
- Muscle weakness or stiffness, especially in the arms and legs
- Poor coordination
- Blurry or double vision
- Tingling or prickling sensations in the arms or legs
- Clumsiness and unsteady gait
Depending on its severity, in addition to the symptoms listed above, MS may produce many different symptoms that vary from person to person and that can change over time in the same patient. These symptoms include:
- Muscle spasms
- Poor coordination
- Eye pain, loss of vision in one eye, or a sudden inability to distinguish colors
- Slurred speech
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Mood swings and emotional depression
- Mental confusion or loss of memory
What Causes Multiple Sclerosis?
There is abundant evidence that MS is an autoimmune disorder, in which the immune system attacks the body’s own nerve cells, mistaking them for foreign invaders. What actually sets off the autoimmune reaction is unknown. One possible trigger is a long-dormant virus, such as the measles or herpes simplex virus. Heredity and environmental factors (most MS cases occur in temperate climates) are also thought to play a role.
Treatment and Prevention
The frequency and severity of MS attacks can be controlled to a degree with prescription drugs, such as corticosteroids. Newer injectable drugs such as interferon (Avonex, Betaseron) and glatiramer (Copaxone) can reduce the frequency of relapses in relapsing/remitting MS, although they are not helpful in the other form. A doctor may also prescribe medications to treat specific symptoms such as muscle spasms, incontinence, and depression.
Because MS drugs are only partially successful in controlling the disease, patients should also start taking supplements as soon as possible. The key MS supplements perform several functions. The antioxidants protect nerve cells from the damaging effects of free radicals (highly unstable oxygen molecules). Other nutrients help build healthy nerves and reduce inflammation.
All these supplements can be taken together as well as with prescription drugs. Gentle exercise, physical therapy, and psychological counseling are other important elements in the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it’s always a wise idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
Vitamins C and E have strong antioxidant effects that help protect nerve cells from damage.
A vitamin B complex along with extra vitamin B12 and folic acid can help maintain nerve structure and function. MS patients also appear to have low levels of vitamin B12 or may have difficulty processing it.
Coenzyme Q10 is a substance found in all cells of the body and vital to the processes of cellular energy.
Phosphatidylcholine is involved in the body’s manufacture of neurotransmitters, necessary to optimal brain and nerve function.
The amino acid-like antioxidant NAC (N-acetylcysteine) may help protect nerve cells. To help combat inflammation, alternate NAC every other day with a combination of zinc and copper.
Extra magnesium may be helpful in reducing the uncomfortable muscle spasms associated with MS.
Flaxseed oil and evening primrose oil or borage oil are two good sources of essential fatty acids, which are important for reducing inflammation and building healthy nerves.
Consider adding the herb ginkgo biloba, which has antioxidant effects and helps increase blood flow to the nervous system, and Siberian ginseng, a revitalizing botanical used for centuries to combat fatigue.
Try not to get overheated. Whether caused by sunbathing, a hot bath, or overexertion, a high body temperature can aggravate MS symptoms. Conversely, taking a cool shower or sitting in an air-conditioned room may help alleviate symptoms during an attack.
Special diets designed to slow the degenerative process of MS may be beneficial. Ask your doctor about them.
To keep muscles as strong and flexible as possible, engage in regular, gentle physical exercise. Do not exercise, however, when you’re having an attack.
Physical and occupational therapy may help MS patients cope better with the muscular and sensory effects of the disease.
If full-time work becomes too difficult, ask your employer about the possibility of part-time work or telecommuting.
Psychological counseling may help MS patients who are struggling with depression or with the lifestyle changes brought about by the disease. Family members may also benefit from counseling.
When to Call a Doctor
- If you experience any impairment in your vision or motor skills for which there is no obvious explanation.
- If you have an acute flare-up of symptoms.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: The triggers for MS haven’t yet been pinpointed, but viral, environmental, and dietary factors have all been implicated. Conventional neurologists often don’t emphasize the role that diet, food sensitivities, and stress can play in managing MS. So you may find that it’s surprisingly beneficial to start eating a healthy diet, to explore whether you might have food sensitivities, and to begin assessing and controlling your emotional stress.
Start taking the supplements on our list as soon as you can. The antioxidants help protect nerve cells from damaging free radicals and the fatty acids build up nerves and reduce inflammation. You can take these supplements together and along with your prescription drugs. Give them a month to show benefits.
How to Take the Supplements
Taking a daily high-potency multivitamin plus a well-balanced antioxidant complex is of exceptional importance for anyone with MS. To these basic daily supplements, we also suggest you add extra vitamin C and vitamin E (as well as the NAC and coenzyme Q10) for even more antioxidant protection.
Adding a B-vitamin complex to this daily regimen is necessary for optimal nerve health; and nerve function is even further enhanced by taking additional vitamin B12 and folic acid (a sublingual tablet will enhance absorption).
The amino acid-like NAC (N-acetylcysteine) may protect nerve cells by raising levels of the antioxidant glutathione. Add the zinc/copper combination to improve levels of a second major antioxidant, superoxide dismutase.
Flaxseed oil and evening primrose oil are anti-inflammatory fatty acids that also help build strong nerves. Coenzyme Q10 is a catalyst in providing cellular energy and it’s also a strong nerve protector. Magnesium will help soothe the muscle spasms often associated with MS.
One amino acid-like supplement to consider is phosphatidylcholine. Although not specifically associated with MS, it is popular among nutritionally-oriented physicians for improving the health of the central nervous system.
Two herbs to consider are Siberian ginseng, which can help increase overtaxed energy reserves, and ginkgo biloba, which acts as an antioxidant and enhances blood flow to the nerves.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD