Multiple Sclerosis: The Definitive Functional Medicine Guide To Overcoming This Chronic Condition
As a functional medicine practitioner, I am no stranger to autoimmune diseases. What mainstream medicine might consider a “life-sentence”, I tend to look at these chronic conditions differently.
While these conditions don’t have a cure, they can be managed and even put into remission with the right tools - whether that’s through natural lifestyle and dietary changes, medication, or a little of both. After all, what works for one person doesn’t always work for the next.
One condition I see on the rise is Multiple Sclerosis. This degenerative, debilitating disease can be a scary health problem to go through. But it doesn’t have to define your life. Here’s your go-to guide to understanding what Multiple Sclerosis is and what you can do to overcome it.
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What is MS?
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, autoimmune condition where your immune system ends up attacking your nerve’s protective covering known as myelin, leading to lesions and scar tissue throughout your body. When this happens the communication between your brain and central nervous system is disrupted causing the breakdown of normal bodily functions.
Since multiple sclerosis affects each person differently, not everyone is going to experience the same symptoms to the same degree. However, these are the most common symptoms associated with MS:
- Vision problems
- Numbness and tingling
- Vertigo and dizziness
- Cognitive changes
- Stiffness/muscle spasms
- Difficulty walking
Types of MS
There’s no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to Multiple Sclerosis. There are actually a few different types of MS depending on your disease state and symptoms.
- Relapsing-remitting MS
RRMS is the most common type of MS and is characterized by relapses of disease activity coinciding with remission of symptoms.
- Primary progressive MS
PPMS is correlated with neurological function that continues to decline starting at the time you’re diagnosed.
- Secondary progressive MS
A person with RRMS can move to SPMS if MS becomes worse and disease starts to progress with worsening symptoms.
Traditional medicine treatment
It’s easy to dismiss the early signs of MS since they can be mild and are not necessarily debilitating. Plus, not many people are educated about the connection between these symptoms and MS. If you are experiencing any of of these symptoms (without any obvious, natural triggers!), it’s important to see your doctor right away as these are your body’s first warning signs that your nerves might be taking a hit:
- Weak legs/uneven balance
- Numbness/tingling of extremities
- Double vision or blurry vision
In order to get diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis your doctor - typically a neurologist - will run a series of diagnostic tests to determine if you have any demyelination occurring in your body.
- MRI: This determines the presence of lesions on your brain and spinal cord
- Spinal tap: This looks for the presence of oligoclonal bands which is an indicator of MS while also ruling out any other diseases.
- Optical coherence tomography: This test involves taking a picture of the nerve layers toward the back of your eye to determine if there is any thinning of your optic nerve
Since symptoms can vary for each person and look similar to other health problems, doctors will also conduct blood work to rule out other diseases.
One thing to note is that you won’t get diagnosed with MS unless you have demyelination happening in more than one area of your brain, spinal cord, or optic nerves. While it definitely helps mitigate any misdiagnoses, the problem with this process is that someone could be suffering for years with mild to moderate symptoms and demyelination before being officially diagnosed and getting the proper treatment.
As of right now, researchers don’t know what causes MS. While there is unfortunately no known cure, conventional and holistic medicine have come up with solutions to help slow down disease progression and even put symptoms into remission.
Conventional medicine treatments
- Disease modifying drugs
Certain medications have been developed to reduce symptom flare-ups and slow down the progression of MS by suppressing your immune system to keep new lesions from forming.
- Relapse management medications
Steroids are a type of anti-inflammatory medication that can help reduce inflammation quickly if you are struggling with an MS flare-up. They are often given as a shot or IV therapy and can slow down demyelination.
- Botulinum Toxin
Also known as botox, this toxin is so much more than an anti-aging tool. Because botox is a muscle relaxer, it can help reduce the frequency of muscle spasms as MS progresses.
- Deep brain stimulation
While this is not a go-to treatment for everyone with MS, it has been found to be helpful in severe cases of MS that include tremors or spasms. This involves a doctor surgically placing an electrode in the thalamus of your brain connected to a pacemaker-like device that generates electrical shocks.
Even though these conventional treatments can help slow progression of MS, a lot of them come with their own set of side-effects that also inhibit your quality of day-to-day life such as fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, hair loss, headaches, liver problems, blood clots, high blood pressure, and more.
How to beat MS naturally
Thankfully, there are many natural remedies for Multiple Sclerosis. But just as MS doesn’t look the same across the board, natural treatments are going to vary as well in terms of effectiveness.
Multiple studies have shown the link between various deficiencies and the risk of developing MS.
- Vitamin D
One study (1) in particular found that individuals who supplemented with vitamin D decreased their risk of developing MS by 40%! Vitamin D has also been shown to help alleviate symptoms and decrease the formation of new lesions once diagnosed. This is believed to be because of Vitamin D’s impact on the immune system.
- Vitamin K2
Vitamin K2 is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the Western diet, but it is essential for controlling inflammation. A study (2) published in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found that vitamin K2 was effective at inhibiting the pro-inflammatory iNOS in the spinal cord and the brain immune system in rats that had multiple sclerosis symptoms.
- Vitamin A
Vitamin A is essential for a strong immune system with vitamin A deficiency being linked (3) to autoimmune diseases, - specifically in patients with MS. Some researchers believe this has to do with our dendritic cells; our alarm cells of the immune system that can send out a “red alert” to stimulate immunity, or a “calm down” message that tones down excessive immune reactions that can damage the body. The “calm down” message makes use of vitamin A.
- Exercise + physical therapy
According to the National MS Society, (4) exercise has been proven in many studies to help with multiple areas of MS including:
- Cognitive function
- Bladder and bowel function
Ultimately, research has linked (5) moderate exercise and physical activity - even in the case of assisted movement through physical therapy - to reduced symptoms, restored function, and increased participation in daily activities.
Not only does exercise help improve cognitive function it can play a role in lowering autoimmune-inflammation markers like CRP which play a role in MS symptoms.
- Stress management
While more studies need to be done to fully understand the relationship between stress and Multiple Sclerosis, research is showing (6) that stress can be a major trigger for developing MS as well as exacerbating symptoms. Developing a regular mindfulness practice like journaling, prayer, meditation, or breathwork can be a great way to alleviate stress throughout your day.
- Anti-inflammatory diet
One of the biggest things you can do for MS is adopt an anti-inflammatory diet filled with clean, whole food sources. The biggest advocate for food as medicine is my good friend, Dr. Terry Wahl’s. After years of living with debilitating progressive MS, she was able to reverse her condition and put her symptoms into remission all by changing her diet using Paleo principles.
Since autoimmune conditions are characterized by chronic inflammation, the goal is to eliminate foods most likely to cause inflammation in people such as sugar, grains, nightshades, dairy products, legumes, and vegetable oils and instead focusing on high-quality animal protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and low-fructose fruit. Studies have shown (7) that the Wahls Diet in particular was able to improve fatigue and quality of life in MS patients after just 12 weeks.
Unfortunately, the studies surrounding diet and MS specifically are limited; however, it has shown significant promise in initial clinical trials. If you want to learn more about how to address autoimmune-inflammation through diet, check out my book The Inflammation Spectrum.
If you are struggling with Multiple Sclerosis, I want to be the first person to tell you that hope is not lost. While there is no cure, steps can be taken to help you thrive. If you are wondering how to beat MS naturally and are ready to take the next step in your health journey, check out our consultation process to learn more about how we can help you with functional medicine.
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- Brown, Sherrill J. “The role of vitamin D in multiple sclerosis.” The Annals of pharmacotherapy vol. 40,6 (2006): 1158-61. doi:10.1345/aph.1G513
- Moriya, Masayuki et al. “Vitamin K2 ameliorates experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis in Lewis rats.” Journal of neuroimmunology vol. 170,1-2 (2005): 11-20. doi:10.1016/j.jneuroim.2005.08.001
- Reza Dorosty-Motlagh, Ahmad et al. “The Molecular Mechanisms of Vitamin A Deficiency in Multiple Sclerosis.” Journal of molecular neuroscience : MN vol. 60,1 (2016): 82-90. doi:10.1007/s12031-016-0781-0
- National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “Exercise” 8/15/22. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Living-Well-With-MS/Diet-Exercise-Healthy-Behaviors/Exercise
- Motl, Robert W et al. “Exercise in patients with multiple sclerosis.” The Lancet. Neurology vol. 16,10 (2017): 848-856. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(17)30281-8
- Mohr, David C. “Stress and multiple sclerosis.” Journal of neurology vol. 254 Suppl 2 (2007): II65-8. doi:10.1007/s00415-007-2015-4
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.