( — Scientists have learned a lot about this debilitating nerve disease, but there is still no cure. According to research or other evidence, the following self-care steps may help you manage MS:

What You Need To Know:

  • Discover Padma Basic
    Improve muscle strength and other symptoms by taking two pills of this herbal remedy three times a day
  • Switch to the Swank diet
    Reduce disability and mortality by eating a diet low in animal fats and hydrogenated oils and high in linoleic acid from natural vegetable oils, and by supplementing with 5 grams of cod liver oil daily
  • Say good-bye to smoking
    Kick the habit to reduce the risk of impaired movement

These recommendations are not comprehensive and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or pharmacist. Continue reading the full multiple sclerosis article for more in-depth, fully-referenced information on medicines, vitamins, herbs, and dietary and lifestyle changes that may be helpful.

Dietary changes that may be helpful
The amount and type of fat eaten may affect both the likelihood of healthy people getting the disease and the outcome of the disease for those already diagnosed with MS. For many years, the leading researcher linking dietary fat to MS risk and progression has been Dr. Roy Swank.

In one of Dr. Swank’s reports, a low-fat diet was recommended to 150 people with MS.3 Although hydrogenated oils, peanut butter, and animal fat (including fat from dairy) were dramatically reduced or eliminated, 5 grams per day of cod liver oil were added, and linoleic acid from vegetable oil was used. After 34 years, the mortality rate among people consuming an average of 17 grams of saturated fat per day was only 31%, compared with 79% among those who consumed a higher average of 25 grams of saturated fat per day. People who began to follow the low-fat diet early in the disease did better than those who changed their eating habits after the disease had progressed.

A survey of people in 36 different countries also suggests that the types of fat people eat may impact MS. In that report, people with MS who ate foods high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids were likely to live longer than those who ate more saturated fats. In another survey, researchers gathered information from nearly 400 people (half with MS) over three years. They found that people who ate more fish were less likely to develop MS, while those who ate pork, hot dogs, and other foods high in animal (saturated) fats were at greater risk. This same report found consumption of vegetable protein, fruit juice, and foods rich in vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, and potassium correlated with a decreased MS risk. Eating sweets was linked to an increased risk.

Despite research showing improvement with a low-fat diet in some people with MS, the link between foods containing animal fat and MS risk may not necessarily be due to the fat itself. Preliminary evidence from one report revealed an association between eating dairy foods (cows’milk, butter, and cream) and an increased prevalence of MS, yet no link was found between (high fat) cheese and MS in that same report.

MS has been associated with a variety of dietary components apparently unrelated to fat intake, and the link between MS and diet remains poorly understood. Nonetheless, the most consistent links to date appear to involve certain foods containing animal fat. People with MS wishing to pursue a nutritional approach that incorporates an understanding of this research should consult with a doctor familiar with the “Swank diet.”

Some people with MS avoid gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley) in hopes of diminishing symptoms, because a preliminary study reported that consumption of grain (bread and pasta) was linked to development of MS. However, another trial found an association between eating cereals and breads and reduced MS risk. Other researchers have found gluten sensitivity to be no more common among people with MS than among healthy people. Thus, the idea that avoiding gluten will help MS remains speculative.

Lifestyle changes that may be helpful
While some studies dispute it, there is preliminary evidence that exposure to organic solvents, insecticides, and X-rays may cause or aggravate MS. This may explain why clusters of multiple sclerosis cases occasionally occur in certain geographical areas or even in work sites.

Swiss researchers found that nicotine temporarily impairs arm movement in people with MS. In one study, when people with MS smoked cigarettes, movement capacity was diminished for 10 minutes in 76% of them. Although this evidence is preliminary, there are many other adverse health effects of smoking. Smokers with MS should quit smoking.

While the outcome of some research disputes the connection between MS and mercury exposure, other investigations have reported an association between dental amalgams and this disease. One study found that mercury levels in the hair of people with MS are higher than in the hair of healthy people. This same report found that people with MS who had their amalgam fillings removed experienced one-third fewer relapses than people who kept their fillings. Another preliminary study found that people having a large number of fillings that had been in place for a long time appeared to be at increased risk for MS compared with those having fewer fillings. Preliminary evidence has also identified an association between tooth decay—as opposed to fillings—and MS. The importance of the reported links between mercury, tooth decay, and risk of MS has not been clearly established.

Vitamins that may be helpful

Some drugs that are used to treat MS appear to deplete carnitine. In a preliminary trial, supplementation with 3 to 6 grams of L-carnitine per day significantly improved fatigue in 63% of drug-treated MS patients.

Although some doctors recommend fish oil capsules for people with MS, few investigations have explored the effects of this supplement. In one small trial, people with MS were given approximately 20 grams of fish oil in capsules per day. After one to four months, 42% of these people received slight but significant benefits, including reduced urinary incontinence and improved eyesight. However, a longer double-blind trial involving over 300 people with MS found that half this amount of fish oil given per day did not help. A preliminary, two-year intervention trial tested the effects of fish oil supplements (5 ml of fish oil per day, providing 400 mg of EPA and 500 mg of DHA) combined with other dietary supplements and dietary changes in people with newly diagnosed, relapsing-remitting MS. The other supplements included 3,333 IU of vitamin A per day, 400 IU of vitamin D per day, and approximately 5.5 IU of vitamin E per day. The dietary recommendations included reducing intake of sugar, coffee, tea, saturated fat from meat and dairy products, and alcohol, while increasing intake of fish, fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain bread. Sixty-nine percent of those following the regimen improved, 25% remained the same, and 6% (one person) deteriorated. The many interventions used in this trial make it impossible to determine what was responsible for the positive outcomes. Given the lack of other effective treatments for MS, though, this approach is worth trying while awaiting further evidence. In another trial, combining fish oil supplementation (6 grams per day) with a low-fat diet (15% of total calories) appeared to reduce the relapse rate in people with the relapsing-remitting form of MS.

In a small preliminary trial, people with MS were given 20 grams of cod liver oil, as well as approximately 680 mg of magnesium and 1,100 mg of calcium per day in the form of dolomite tablets. After one year, the average number of MS attacks decreased significantly for each person. Unlike fish oil capsules, the cod liver oil in this trial contained not only eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), but 5,000 IU of vitamin D. Therefore, it is not known whether the vitamin D or fatty acids were responsible for the cod liver oil’s effects. (One preliminary study found that giving vitamin D-like drugs to animals with MS was helpful.) It is also possible that the magnesium and/or calcium given to these people reduced MS attacks. Magnesium29 and calcium levels have been reported to be lower in the nerve tissue of people with MS compared with healthy people.

Animal studies have demonstrated that vitamin D can prevent an experimental form of multiple sclerosis. In humans, striking geographical differences in the prevalence of multiple sclerosis suggest t
hat sun exposure (which promotes the synthesis of vitamin D) may protect against the development of the disease. In addition, higher blood levels of vitamin D are associated with a lower risk of developing MS. However, no clinical trials have been done to determine whether increasing vitamin D intake or sunlight exposure would prevent MS.

The omega-6 fatty acids, found in such oils as evening primrose oil (EPO) and sunflower seed oil, also may be beneficial. When people with MS were given 4 grams of EPO for three weeks, their hand grip improved. In a review of three double-blind trials, two of the trials reported that linoleic acid reduced the severity and length of relapses. When the data were re-examined, it was found that taking linoleic acid decreased disability due to MS in all three trials. According to these researchers, taking linoleic acid while following a diet low in animal fat and high in polyunsaturated fat may be even more beneficial. Amounts used in these trials were approximately 17 to 23 grams of linoleic acid per day, provided by 26 to 35 grams of sunflower seed oil.

Deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1) may contribute to nerve damage. Many years ago, researchers found that injecting thiamine into the spinal cord or using intravenous thiamine combined with niacin in people with MS led to a reduction in symptoms. Using injectable vitamins requires medical supervision. No research has yet studied the effects of oral supplementation with B vitamins in people with MS.

Inosine is a precursor to uric acid, a compound that occurs naturally in the body. Uric acid is believed to block the effect of a toxic free-radical compound (peroxynitrite) that may play a role in the development of multiple sclerosis. In an attempt to raise uric acid levels, ten patients with MS were treated with inosine in amounts up to 3 grams per day for 46 weeks. Three of the ten treated patients showed some evidence of improved function and the others remained stable. Controlled studies are needed to confirm these preliminary results.

Are there any side effects or interactions?

Refer to the individual supplement for information about any side effects or interactions.

Herbs that may be helpful

A commercial herbal product called Padma Basic was given to 100 people with MS. After taking two pills three times per day, 44% of these people experienced increased muscle strength and general overall improvement. The composition of Padma Basic is based on a traditional Tibetan herbal formula.

Inflammation of nerve tissue is partly responsible for the breakdown of myelin in people with MS. When intravenous injections of a constituent of Ginkgo biloba, known as ginkgolide B, were given to people with MS for five days, 80% of them reportedly improved. This specialized treatment is experimental, and it is not known whether oral use of ginkgo extracts would have a similar effect.

Are there any side effects or interactions?

Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.