Imagine for a moment knowing that you have problems keeping your balance but not knowing when you will lose it. Most of the time you are fine, but sometimes you just can’t keep your feet under you. Will it be at the grocery store? While you’re walking to the bathroom? While holding your daughter? Imagine again that you also suffer from intolerable spasms and pain that cripple you at times, but you don’t know how long they’ll last or when they will happen.
Welcome to the world of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
With more than 400,000 Americans suffering from MS, more cases are being diagnosed every day. This degenerative illness interferes with your central nervous system—the part of your body that controls behavior and movement—and manifests in unpredictable ways, creating different symptoms for each sufferer. Furthermore, the symptoms often “come and go” and are rarely consistent. They may include numbness and tingling of limbs, loss of coordination, tremors, loss or distortion of eyesight, dizziness, and pain.
What is it?
MS is a chronic, unpredictable, autoimmune disease of the central nervous system that affects the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. It’s considered autoimmune because it’s believed that the body’s own immune system attacks the person’s healthy tissue—in this case the healthy tissue of the central nervous system. More specifically, the immune system compromises the integrity of the myelin sheath that surrounds the nerves in the spinal cord and brain.
Think of the myelin sheath like a coaxial cable, the one that brings cable or satellite TV to your home. If you peel back the black plastic coating of the cable, you will find delicate wires underneath. If one of them is cut or damaged, the picture to your TV may not be as crisp or may fail completely. This is the same with your nerves.
Myelin is the protective insulation of your nerve fibers and is made of proteins and fats, and supports the correct transmission of signals along the nerve fibers. So when your brain tells you to pick up a cup of coffee, your hand will actually reach for the cup and pick it up. When the myelin is worn down, inflammation occurs and interferes with the transmission of nerve signals and can damage the nerve fibers themselves. So instead of picking up that cup, your hand may suffer a tremor instead, or not react at all.
Once the myelin is destroyed, it’s often replaced with scar tissue (also called sclerotic tissue). This is where the term “Multiple Sclerosis” originated, meaning “multiple scars.” Patches of these scars are found in random locations along the central nervous system because the body’s immune system seems to attack the central nervous system at random. Therefore, the symptoms and onsets of MS vary and are essentially unpredictable.
Diagnosis occurs in women at least twice as often as men, and MS is more prevalent in colder climates than in their tropical counterparts. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, but even children as young as 2 years old and others as old as 75 have developed the condition. It’s not considered a fatal disease, and the vast majority of people with MS end up living a normal life span, accented with unpredictable symptoms and attacks.
There are different types of MS, including relapsing remitting, secondary progressive, primary progressive, and progressive relapsing. About 85 percent of individuals are initially diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS, which means that the attacks of neurological dysfunction can become acute, followed by complete or partial recovery periods. After being diagnosed, an MS sufferer may fall into the other three categories depending on the severity, duration, and onset of symptoms.
The symptoms vary greatly from one individual to another and can come and go in an unpredictable manner. These symptoms are all neurological in nature and can include numbness and tingling in the extremities such as the hands and feet, and often occur on one side of the body. Loss of coordination of any limb and visual disturbances such as dim or double vision in one eye is common. Walking difficulties, tremors, lack of bladder control, bouts of dizziness, and mood changes also can appear, sometimes for years before the condition is diagnosed.
This makes diagnosis difficult because there is no actual definitive test for MS. The patient will usually go through several physicians and batteries of diagnostic tests to rule out other possibilities before the final diagnosis is made.
Obtaining a diagnosis can also be a struggle because conventional medicine says the exact cause of MS is unknown. Genetics is thought to play a role, since studies have uncovered an increased risk to relatives of people stricken with MS. Viral infections, such as Epstein Barr, have been established as a possible risk factor, and over the years, experts theorized that MS was caused by overexertion, toxins in the system, poor circulation, and allergies.
Modern science now supports the role of these “causes” as possible triggers that can lead to the development of a deregulated autoimmune response. Experts believe this could, theoretically, contribute to the development of MS, although no direct link has been established. “Research suggests that multiple causative factors convene in the development of auto-immune diseases,” says Nita Bishop, ND. “Components include genetic predisposition (HLA Dr2 haplotype) and a trigger, such as a virus or environmental insult.”
For instance, several studies have shown that exposure to insecticides, solvents, X-rays, and other pollutants may be involved as a triggering agent in this illness. Mercury in amalgam fillings have been linked by some reports (although disputed in others) to MS. Furthermore, MS patients who had their mercury fillings removed reported a 34 percent fewer relapse rate than a group of MS sufferers that kept their fillings.
Exposure to environmental toxins may also help to explain the “cluster effect” where MS is more prevalent than normal in a given geographic area. Current research is also exploring the effect of various environmental toxins which may trigger genetic predispositions to the development or progression of MS.
What Can I Do about It?
Today, a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis no longer means that your vibrant past is over. It’s an exciting time for treatment of the disease because both conventional and natural medicine are coming together to offer sufferers renewed hope. Science is making great strides in tackling the progression and symptoms of the disease, and both pharmaceutically based drug therapies and natural support can work together to focus on curbing the destructive immune responses.
MS is a complex disease, and the most prudent approach is to investigate many treatment options. Natural treatments can often compliment pharmaceutical and conventional therapies, and support the development of a healthy body, which may help to overcome or slow the development of many of the symptoms associated with MS and assist in overall disease management.
Medications are complemented by a growing number of natural therapies that can assist in overall disease management. In 2010 and 2011, there have been several breakthrough oral drugs that help treat symptoms without the pain and inconvenience of traditional injections. Treatments today, according to Dr. Timothy Coetzee, chief research officer of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, can both help to modify the disease course by slowing down its progression and by reducing the number and severity of attacks.
“Basically, there are currently two ways to treat MS,” says Coetzee. “We try to modify the disease by redirecting the immune system so that the brain is not the enemy, and we deal with the symptoms including fatigue or difficulty walking. The current research underway is providing great hope that we will someday soon be able to stop the progression of the disease, restore function that has been lost, and end the disease forever.”
One of the newer medications available to specifically treat MS symptoms is Ampyra (dalfampridine), a potassium-channel blocker that is licensed for use to improve walking in people with MS. It has been shown to assist in promoting the conduction of nerve signals along nerve fibers whose insulating myelin coating has been damaged by MS. This has helped improve the walking abilities in patients experiencing mobility issues. However, as with all drug therapy, side effects exist. Common ones may include urinary tract infections, insomnia, dizziness, headache, and an MS relapse (2 to 5 percent of people tested).
Another breakthrough in the field of MS includes a study of more than 5,000 people with MS, where researchers identified characteristics that can help pinpoint or predict the rate of progression of the illness. There has also been recent FDA approval clearing the way for the first human clinical trials of stem cell-based therapy. Researchers are hoping to generate progenitor cells, which make cells called oligodendrocytes that, in turn, make the insulating myelin that wraps around nerve fibers. This could potentially help to regenerate the myelin that has been destroyed by the immune system.
MS is a complex disease, and the most prudent approach is to investigate many treatment options. Natural treatments can often compliment pharmaceutical and conventional therapies, and support the development of a healthy body, which may help to overcome or slow the development of many of the symptoms associated with MS, and assist in overall disease management. One survey found that most MS patients tried natural therapies because they wanted treatments that recognized the body-mind connection, and they were dissatisfied with conventional medicine. The study found that the most frequently used natural therapies among MS patients included herbs, chiropractic massage, and acupuncture. Coetzee points out that alternative or complimentary treatments for MS “are a very serious area of research for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.”
>> Diet Currently, there is no scientific evidence that proves diet affects the long term course of MS, beyond the fact that it’s important for everyone to have a well-balanced, low fat diet. However, Dr. Roy Swank, Professor Emeritus of Neurology at Oregon Health Science University, began a study in the 1950s on the effect of reducing MS disabilities by eating a diet high in linoleic acid, and low in hydrogenated oils and animal fats, in addition to supplementing with cod liver oil (5 grams) daily.
After following 144 patients for 34 years on this diet, Swank found that there was a positive effect in terms of morbidity and function for those who stayed on the diet. Although the reason is still unknown, there is no negative effect to eating a diet high in vegetables and healthy oils, and low in animal products and hydrogenated fats. This type of diet also coincides with the Mediterranean style of eating.
Many MS patients, as well as all people in general, report better energy levels and less symptoms when they follow a gluten-free diet, and increase their consumption of healthy organic foods, and eliminating junk foods.
>> Exercise “As recently as the early 90s, people with MS were told to take it easy and rest to help manage their disease,” says Coetzee. “Research studies by our Society and others now support the benefits of many types of exercise in maintaining wellness and function, reducing fatigue, and improving the quality of life.”
Virtually all of the nation-wide network of chapters of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society now offer free or minimal cost exercise programs, particularly in the area of yoga because it helps improve coordination, flexibility, and concentration. Not to mention, it supports healthy functioning of the mind-body connection. Other exercises that have also been shown to aid MS patients include aquatics and resistance training.
>> Mind/Body Relaxation therapies, such as meditation are worth learning and practicing for everyone, including MS patients. Researchers in Basel, Switzerland, held the largest study on the effect of meditation for people who suffered from MS. The controlled study showed that mindfulness-based meditation significantly improved the quality of life, including lifting depression and fatigue, in people with progressive MS.
>> Tens Therapy Ellen Kamhi, PhD, RN, (co-author of this article) says, “I have had tremendous success with MS patients who decided to try TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) therapy. In our clinic, we utilized a specific TENS machine called the Neural Conduction Accelerator as part of our protocol, which also included light therapy, relaxation, and weekly massage along with a super healthy diet including juicing, lots of organic vegetables, and good fats such as organic unrefined coconut oil and avocados. TENS has been useful for MS patients to decrease pain and muscle tension.
“I remember when one patient proudly strutted into the office (no longer in his wheel chair) after 16 weeks of following the program. He said to me ‘See what kind of shirt I am wearing?’ At first I was not sure what he meant, but he pointed out that it was a button down shirt, which he had not been able to put on without help for over 13 years!”
Since MS is a disease where symptoms can be intermittent and remissions are common, this protocol cannot be proven to be the catalyst that caused the positive changes. However, improvements did occur in the many MS patients who received TENS treatment over the course of 10 years.
Will Supplements Work?
Adding dietary supplements has shown to reduce symptoms of MS and aid in the overall health of the MS sufferer. It’s important for MS patients to recognize that they may be at risk for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Natural healthcare practitioners such as licensed Naturopathic Physicians will test all patients for levels of vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, folic acid, vitamin D, and iron, as well as exploring levels of possible contaminants such as heavy metals.
Low level deficiencies in these nutrients, along with high levels of heavy metals and other pollutants can interfere with healthy nerve function and normal tissue repair. This is especially important since most of the conventional drug therapies that are used for managing MS specifically deplete the very nutrients that are already low in most MS patients.
For example, prednisone and related drugs deplete folic acid, vitamin D, zinc, magnesium, vitamin C, and calcium, and MS patients often have low levels of these important nutrients. It would be prudent for everyone— regardless if you suffer from an autommune disease—to be regularly tested for nutrient levels, but this is especially appropriate for anyone suffering from a degenerative illness such as MS. For information on nutrient blood levels testing visit metametrix.com.
There are specific supplements that have been found to be useful for MS patients, including fish oil, L-carnitine, calcium, magnesium, and vitamins D, B1, and B2.
>> Vitamin D Recently, an Australian study proposed that people who live closer to the equator and are exposed to more sun and vitamin D, are less likely to develop MS. Similarly, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association determined that people who have a higher blood level of vitamin D have a lower incidence of MS than those with low vitamin D levels. When asking your physician for a Vitamin D level test, request a Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level, since this more accurately reflects the amount of vitamin D available to body tissues.
>> Fish Oil This supplement has been enjoying wide regard as a healthy addition to the diet, even among mainstream physicians for a number of health conditions. One study that lasted two years investigated a supplement and dietary regimen on the progression of MS. Patients used 5,000 mg of fish oil per day, along with vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and reduced consumption of alcohol, sugar, coffee, tea, meat, and dairy, while increasing their intake of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. Although the study size was small, outcomes were positive for a majority of the participants. It’s important to note that the risk-benefit ratio of attempting such a regimen makes for outstanding odds for the patient!
>> Herbs A specific Tibeten Herbal formula called Padma was tested on MS patients and showed that those patients had increased their muscle strength. A 2010 rat study further investigated the reason for this effect and showed that Padma actually enhances muscle contractility. Plants used in this herbal formula include Iceland moss, costus root, neem fruit, cardamon fruit, red saunders, chebulic myrobalan, allspice fruit, beal tree fruit, columbine, English plantain, licorice root, knotweed, golden cinquefoil, clove flower bud, spiked ginger lily rhizome, heartleaf sida, valerian root, wild lettuce leaf, and calendula flower.
>> Chinese Skullcap Chinese Scullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi) is an Asian herb that enjoys wide use as an aid for inflammatory conditions. A mouse study tested the use of this herb on MS and found that it may be a useful adjunct therapy to reduce the autoimmune response that is prevalent in MS. PhytoDyne RX is an herbal formula that combines Scutelleria baicalensis with white willow bark, ginger, bromelain, boswellia, corydalis, and other natural anti-inflammatories that can help reduce inflammatory symptoms.
By Ellen Kamhi, PhD, RN, AHN-BC, AHG and Lynn Allison