March is National Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month
This month I chose to highlight Multiple Sclerosis, an illness that affects my family personally and has been an area of focus in my practice for some time. While the exact cause of Multiple Sclerosis, like many neurodegenerative illnesses, is largely unknown, prevention of further damage and improving quality of life can be attained.
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
MS is considered an autoimmune disease, meaning, the body is now attacking our own healthy tissues. In MS, the nerve fibers and protective layers are the target of degradation. These damaged areas of the nervous system lead to scars seen in the brain or spinal cord, which is where the name multiple sclerosis (or scars) came from. When nerve fibers are damaged their ability to send signals to one another become weak or lost and this is when symptoms ensue.
Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
Classic symptoms include sudden vision changes or loss, due to a condition called optic neuritis, numbness or tingling in areas of the body, balance issues, extreme sudden fatigue, difficulty emptying your bladder and changes in bowel habits.
Diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis
If MS is suspected, an MRI of the brain and spinal cord is often ordered to see if there are any lesions, or scars, in the central nervous system tissue. Depending on the size and number of lesions seen in addition to symptoms a diagnosis can be made. Additionally, a spinal tap can be run looking for immune system makers and specific proteins that are only related to MS.
MS is an unpredictable illness, meaning, many patients experience a surge of symptoms followed by a long period of time of remittance of illness. Learning triggers and preventing relapse is key. Additionally, immune modifying medication is often prescribed to prevent the immune system from further damaging your nervous tissue.
From a naturopathic perspective, MS is not just treated though immunosuppression, while this is a powerful tool and often a necessary adjunct, does carry its fair amount of side effects. Drilling down into all other aspects of health from nutrients deficiencies, hormone imbalances, life events and exposures and the foundation of all health, diet is a foundational part of a naturopathic work up.
Naturopathic Support of MS
A typical evaluation of a patient with any neurological illness, including MS includes:
- Vitamin testing including B12, Vitamin D
- Hormone evaluation: including thyroid and sex hormones
- Inflammation markers
- Sleep, Stress, Diet, Lifestyle
Addressing these factors are key components in recovery and relapse prevention. The cause of an MS flair is largely unknown, however, stress being a trigger is a plausible speculation.
Stress comes in many forms from over work, lack of sleep, lack of hydration and physical movement, injury, loss of a loved one, career change… the list is endless to what can tip the scales in the body. While life is never stress free and events will inevitably come our way, having the body in the best shape to handle these stressors is how to shield from them becoming a trigger.
In naturopathic medicine, we focus on what is called the determinants of health. These include sleep, exercise, diet, hydration and stress management. While we are not 100% on point with just one of these categories at any one time, the plan is to evaluate where we are lacking and work to correct these imbalances.
Diet is, in my opinion, the first place and the hardest place to start with an individual. We have habits that are ingrained over a lifetime and can be difficult to break. We know high sugar and carbohydrate foods are pro-inflammatory and can alter the immune system. In MS, the goal is to keep the immune system in balance, not in over or under active. Other sources of inflammation and immune disruption from food includes food intolerances/sensitivities. Largely, there are groups of foods that are known to be more problematic including:
How to know what you are reacting to? The best way to know is to cut these items out for a period and see how you feel. Again, acknowledging the difficulty in this, there are many ways to navigate this.
In my quest to find ways to improve patient’s health through diet, I came across the Wahls protocol. A version of a Paleolithic diet that is based on the idea that humans should eat more like our ancestors and avoid foods we started eating in the past several hundreds of years including wheat, processed foods, and sugar. Eliminated are dairy, eggs, gluten and sugar and emphasized are vitamin and minerals from plants that support detox obtain and promote nutrients that support the health of our cells, mainly our mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells. When these powerhouses are supported cells can regenerate, including nervous system cells, which is key in an illness like MS.
There are various levels of the Wahls Protocol but the foundation is the same focusing on 9 cups of vegetables in the day:
- 3 cups of greens: examples: collards, kale, spinach, arugula
- 3 cups of color: examples: beets, carrots, dark berries
- 3 cups of sulfur: examples: garlic, onions, cabbage, Brussels, broccoli
Not only are patients with MS a candidate for this type of diet, anyone who increases their plants and reduces inflammatory foods will benefit from this protocol, therefore, making it a healthy choice for the whole family.
For more information on the diet, resources and a detox plan based off of this protocol see our website at ctnaturalhealth.com