Eat, Sleep, and Exercise Your Way to Better MS Management
Because multiple sclerosis strikes the central nervous system, its effects may be evident in the way you think, the way you walk, your energy levels, and your mood. But taking good care of your body — in addition to sticking to your multiple sclerosis treatment plan — can help you manage your MS symptoms. “We are beginning to better understand the importance of these additional measures,” says Lisa Billars, MD, a neurologist with Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta. “The focus is not only on treating the disease, but about optimizing the health of patients in light of their medical condition.”
From keeping your cool — literally — to sleeping well each night, these lifestyle tips can make each day with multiple sclerosis easier.
Eat More Nutritious Foods
There’s no special MS diet, but an overall healthy one can help you feel better and give your body what it needs to function at its best. “The general approach many neurologists take in patients with MS is recommending a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and omega-3 fatty acids,” Dr. Billars says.
Regardless of how severe your MS symptoms are, it’s essential to stay active in some way. “Movement of the body is crucial in patients with MS at every stage,” Billars says. Regular exercise promotes better flexibility, can boost your balance, and may also help with common MS complications such as bowel difficulty, trouble sleeping, and cognitive issues.
Try walking during the cooler hours of the day if you tend to get overheated, or opt for yoga, swimming, or tai chi if you need more moderate activities. Though it’s important to not overdo it, anything is better than nothing, says Billars. She recommends trying to get some physical activity on at least five days of each week.
Keep Your Brain Busy
In addition to exercising your body, it’s important to exercise your brain. “MS patients often need to use more of their brain to do a specific task than healthy individuals,” says Michael K. Racke, MD, who chairs the neurology department at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “And the old adage ‘use it or lose it’ definitely applies to cognitive function in MS.”
Try doing crossword puzzles or word games, taking a class, playing memory exercises, or reading to keep your brain sharp. It’s also important to stay socially stimulated and interact with others.
Get the Sleep You Need
Sleep is essential to functioning well, particularly when your body is under stress or battling an illness, says Dr. Racke. You can practice good sleep hygiene by sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, keeping your bedroom dark and cool, avoiding too many fluids before bedtime, and creating a relaxing bedtime routine. It’s also important to make sure that you address any bladder issues that interrupt your zzz’s.
Check Your Vitamin D Levels
The link between vitamin D and MS? Scientists aren’t exactly sure, but a study published in the July-September 2014 issue of the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine did show that areas of the country where vitamin D deficiency is common also have higher multiple sclerosis rates. The study also found that people with MS who are vitamin D deficient tend to suffer more significant progression of the disease. It’s unclear if vitamin D supplements help, but says Billars: “Until more solid research becomes available, it seems there is little harm in screening for vitamin D deficiency in MS patients and giving supplements to those with low levels.” She suggests doses of about 2,000 units daily.
Deal With Depression
People with multiple sclerosis may experience certain changes in the brain that, when combined with the stress of dealing with MS, can trigger depression. “Depression is significantly elevated in the MS population,” Dr. Racke says. “It might also be one explanation for the common symptom of fatigue.”
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, antidepressant medications and psychotherapy are often needed to help address severe depression, and support groups may be beneficial in coping with milder depressive symptoms. Talk to your doctor if you suspect depression.
Kick Unhealthy Habits
For optimal health, it’s important to quit unhealthy habits — and that’s especially true about smoking. “Smoking is a big risk factor for having MS as well as for the worsening of the disease,” Racke says. That means that, while smoking is unhealthy for everyone, it’s a particularly harmful lifestyle choice for people with MS.
It’s also important to watch your alcohol intake because even a little can worsen some of the neurological symptoms of MS, such as loss of balance, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Soothe Your Stress
Because stress impacts the immune system, it can be of special concern for people with multiple sclerosis. One study, published in the January 2014 issue of Psychological Management, noted that extreme, negative stress could increase the risk of developing brain lesions in people with MS. “Management of stress is an important part of staying healthy with MS,” Billars says. “Strengthening positive relationships through spending time with loved ones, exercise, finding a club or enjoyable hobby, meditation, and biofeedback are all ways to help cope with stress.” She also suggests visiting the website One-Moment Meditation for ideas to help de-stress.
Keep Your Cool
When your body temperature is too high, your nerves may not function as well. “It is very clear that extreme temperature, particularly heat, can exacerbate the clinical symptoms of MS,” Racke says. Overheating can make it difficult for signals to travel down nerves that have lost myelin, the nerve’s insulating layer that is damaged with MS. So take cool-down breaks and put your air conditioner to work in the hot summer months.
Also take precautions to stay warm when temperatures are frigid; your body’s blood vessels may not be able to push blood as efficiently to your body’s core to warm you up.
Take It Easy on Yourself
Find ways to make each day a little easier. “Sometimes people with MS will benefit from adaptive strategies to help them with things like short-term memory,” Racke says. Consider using a smartphone with daily reminders to help you stay on track. Mobility aids, such as canes, walkers, and wheelchairs, can help conserve energy during daily tasks and keep you mobile if walking is an issue.
And don’t hold back from taking breaks when you start to feel fatigued. “MS patients may be able to function fairly normally when well rested, but may have worsening function at the end of the day when tired,” Racke adds.