Multiple Sclerosis and Alcohol --Do they Mix?

Merely Me Health Guide August 09, 2009
  • Shortly after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I began to research on the internet for information about this disease.  I happened to stumble upon a story of a young man who talked about how drinking several beers would cause him to be "hammered" much more quickly than before.  Soon after, he was diagnosed with MS and he felt that his new ability to get drunk more quickly was one of the first symptoms of MS.  It was one of the many stories I ingested during that time when I was reading everything I could get my hands on about MS and I found his story to not be that unusual.

     

    I began to wonder, is alcohol and Multiple Sclerosis a bad mix?

     

    I once joked to a fellow MSer that we should have t-shirts (I am sure they are probably already out there) saying "I'm not drunk, I have MS!"  Her dark humored response was that there should be another t-shirt proclaiming, "I'm drunk AND I have MS."  It certainly would be difficult for observers to know the difference.  Some of the symptoms of both drunkenness and Multiple Sclerosis include feeling off balance, an unstable gait, vision difficulties, cognitive problems, and slurred speech.  Sometimes a warning sign for me that MS symptoms are pending is that I will feel as though I am in an altered state. 

     

    So if I am already feeling these symptoms what would a drink or two of alcohol do to me?

     

    I looked to the National MS Society for answers.  They have this to say about MS patients drinking alcohol:  "Some people with MS report that some of their neurologic symptoms, especially imbalance and lack of coordination, temporarily worsen after even one drink. Since alcohol depresses the central nervous system, it may also have an additive effect with certain medications that are commonly prescribed for MS. These include baclofen, diazepam, clonazepam and some antidepressants. For all of these reasons, people with MS should talk to their physician about how much alcohol is appropriate for them to drink and how often."   In addition some doctors say that alcohol is an immune suppressor and therefore MS exacerbations could be worse if you drink alcohol.  So for all these reasons it seems that the medical community is cautious about MS patients consuming alcohol.

     

    But isn't drinking alcohol supposed to be good for us?  There seem to be many studies to show that moderate drinking can be very beneficial for our health.  Just listen to this report to find out why:

     

    "Moderate drinkers tend to have better health and live longer than those who are either abstainers or heavy drinkers do. In addition to having fewer heart attacks and strokes, moderate consumers of alcoholic beverages (beer, wine or distilled spirits or liquor) are generally less likely to suffer hypertension or high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, Alzheimer's disease and the common cold. Sensible drinking also appears to be beneficial in reducing or preventing diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, bone fractures and osteoporosis, kidney stones, digestive ailments, stress and depression, poor cognition and memory, Parkinson's disease, hepatitis A, pancreatic cancer, macular degeneration (a major cause of blindness), angina pectoris, duodenal ulcer, erectile dysfunction, hearing loss, gallstones, liver disease and poor physical condition in elderly." 

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    But note that the key words here are "moderate drinkers" or "sensible drinking."  But what exactly does that mean?  The literature is full of varied responses to what is considered to be moderate drinking.  For example, Reid K. Hester, Ph.D., who wrote an article entitled, "Moderate Drinking?  That's not Drinking" claims there is a consensus in the scientific community which defines moderate drinking as: "It's no more than 2 or 3 standard drinks per drinking episode, no more than 9 drinks per week for women and 12-14 for men. Also, moderate drinking means limiting how fast you drink and, as a result, keeping your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) below .045-.055 (.10 is the DWI limit in most states)."  

     

    What is to be considered a standard drink?  Doctor Hester says that a standard drink is:  ",,, the equivalent of a 12 oz beer with 5% alcohol (average for most U.S. beers). A 5 oz. glass of wine (12.5% alcohol) and 1.5 oz. of 80 proof liquor are also 1 standard drink each."

     

    Other sources cite the U.S. government standards which say that moderate drinking can be defined as consuming no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women.

     

    There are also web sites such as this one which describe the conditions for drinking moderately.  They offer the following advice:

     

    • Eat before you drink
    • Be well hydrated
    • Count and pace your drinks
    • Measure your drinks
    • Do not drink more than one drink per half hour.
    • Avoid drinking when you feel bad

     

    There is a wide variety of opinions on all this of course with some people advocating that you should never drink, particularly if you have a disease such as MS and some who say that drinking in moderation despite having MS is okay. 

     

    There are not very many studies about MS patients and the use of alcohol. Of the several I did find, one 2004 study by Bombardier et al. who found that younger, employed, less disabled, and depressed patients are at higher risk for alcohol abuse compared to other MS patients.  In yet another study the researchers found a strong correlation between the presence of a positive family history of mental illness and prominent anxiety with MS patients who abused alcohol. In the 2007 issue of Neuroscience Nursing, author Carrie Lyn Sammarco, presents a study entitled, "A case study: Identifying alcohol Abuse in Multiple Sclerosis" where the author concludes that the abuse of alcohol is a way some MS patients self medicate and cope with the emotional impact of having such a disease.

     

    What can one conclude from all of this?  My first suggestion is that it is probably best to speak with your doctor about any precautions you should take if you are any medications to treat your MS or depression.  Ask what your limits are as far as drinking alcohol and taking your prescribed medications.  Be cautious about how much you drink and especially during an exacerbation of MS.  You never want to put yourself in danger is the bottom line.  And if you do drink, it seems that moderation is critical. 

     

    So how about you?  Do you think that drinking a glass of wine or two is okay when you have MS?  What happens to you when you drink alcohol?  When do you feel that drinking alcohol when you have MS can be a problem?  Have you found any benefits to drinking moderately when you have MS?  Do tell all!  We want to hear your story.