Maintaining good health — including staying active, eating well, and caring for mental health — is important for everyone. Healthy living is especially key when you have a chronic, autoimmune disorder such as multiple sclerosis (MS). Lifestyle changes can help ensure your overall physical health, as well as keep you emotionally balanced. Healthy habits can also preserve cognitive functioning and prevent your condition from worsening.
MS is an autoimmune disease wherein the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks myelin in the central nervous system. There currently is no cure for MS, but it is manageable and treatable. Regular physical activity, a balanced diet, and mindfulness practices can support your general well-being and help you handle the stress that comes with a serious, lifelong diagnosis.
This article is written in collaboration with MyHealthTeams (MyHealthTeams creates social networks for communities of people facing chronic conditions).
This article is not intended to provide diagnosis, treatment or medical advice. Please consult with a physician or other healthcare professional regarding any medical or health-related diagnosis or treatment options. The information here should not be considered as a substitute for advice from a healthcare professional.
Staying active when you have multiple sclerosis is one of the best tools to support your physical health — and it helps your mental health too. Exercise can also help prevent the health conditions that are more likely to affect people with MS, called comorbidities, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
Stretching, resistance, and strength training can help you manage MS leg weakness, improve strength, maintain flexibility, and help with balance and coordination. Research has shown exercise can slow progression or lessen severity of several symptoms of MS including:
- Balance problems
- Leg weakness
- Muscle atrophy
- Muscle spasticity
Exercising with MS has its challenges. The irony is the symptoms physical activity can alleviate are also those that can limit the types of exercise a person with MS can do. Overexertion can also be a relapse trigger or exacerbate symptoms.
Talk to your doctor to find the activity that works for you and your health. If you don’t have access to a pool, a fancy gym, or a physical therapist, don’t worry! There is plenty of safe exercise to be had at home. Even just walking the dog or getting out to do some gardening can make a difference. The goal is simply to get your body moving.
Low-intensity exercises like yoga and low-impact workouts, such as hydrotherapy or water aerobics, are good alternatives to intensive cardiovascular activities that can be a challenge for people with MS. Physical therapy is also sometimes prescribed for people living with MS.
There is no special MS diet clinically proven to treat multiple sclerosis. However, healthy diets have been linked to lower levels of disability in people with MS, as compared to those who have less healthy eating habits. With MS, what you eat can make a difference in bladder and bowel function, as well as improve energy levels and fatigue.
A balanced diet, together with exercise, can also help maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese may heighten the risk of developing MS for girls under 18 years of age. One study found that adolescent girls who are overweight are at 1.5 times greater risk of developing MS. They are at 2 or 3 times greater risk if they are considered obese.
If you have MS, it’s best to eat fresh, predominantly plant-based foods and avoid highly processed foods with high saturated fat content. Health care providers recommend people with MS eat a low-fat, high-fiber, heart healthy diet similar to those recommended by the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.
If you’re living with MS, here are some general dietary guidelines:
- Limit refined sugars.
- Increase fruits and vegetables.
- Choose lean sources of protein.
- Choose healthy fats.
- Eat whole grains and high-fiber foods.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
Always talk to your doctor before beginning any new diet or exercise program.
Life is stressful during the best of times. Living with a chronic illness like MS can add even more stress. Research indicates a link between chronic stress and more severe MS symptoms. Scientists believe stress can lead to a higher rate of MS relapse. Managing the increased stress of having MS is an important part of managing the condition and maintaining your quality of life.
It’s impossible to eliminate stress from your life entirely, but you can learn healthy ways to cope with stressful events. Researchers believe mindfulness is a technique that may help people better respond to stress. Mindfulness involves practicing focusing on the present moment and noticing your feelings. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is just one tool in an arsenal that includes therapy, exercise, and ample rest.
MBSR has proven effective for stress management and improved mental health. Mindfulness may also increase other positive coping strategies, such as information gathering, planning, and seeking out social support. Studies of MBSR in people with MS have shown a positive effect on psychological and emotional health. Mindfulness has also been shown to improve depression, anxiety, and self-compassion, important facets of psychological well-being.
- Moving More with MS — Multiple Sclerosis Society
- Eating habits — Momentum
- The Science Behind Mindfulness and MS — MultipleSclerosis.net
- Do Lifestyle Choices Affect MS? — Momentum
- Mindfulness and MS — Multiple Sclerosis Society