9 Natural Remedies to Help Tame MS Symptoms
If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you know it can cause a wide range of at-times debilitating symptoms including fatigue, pain, stiffness, and numbness. MS is a disease of the central nervous system—which means natural remedies can’t treat the disease itself. But they can help manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life, says Paven Bhargava, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD. (Remember, while such remedies can offer a solid assist to your regular medical treatment, they never replace it.)
While there’s no specific diet that’s been found to beat MS, most neurologists do recommend an anti-inflammatory diet (like the Mediterranean diet), which is heavy on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables while limiting processed foods, sugar, and red meat, says Dr. Bhargava. Eating in this way can improve energy levels to combat fatigue, reduce the calories your body has to burn, and help prevent other conditions like heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure, which can make MS worse. Bonus: A study in Neurology found that this dietary approach is linked to fewer MS symptoms and less disability.
There’s no scientific evidence that dietary supplements—vitamins, minerals, or herbs—can help with MS symptoms. (Dr. Bhargava says that many may actually be harmful, interacting with other medications you’re taking to potentially cause serious side effects.) The one exception? Vitamin D, which studies have shown may help prevent MS relapses. Florian P. Thomas, M.D., a neurologist and director of the MS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, NJ, recommends vitamin D supplements—you can't get it from food—for people with MS. "Talk to your doctor before taking any [supplement],” advises Dr. Bhargava.
Research shows that regular exercise—that means 30 minutes, five times each week—can relieve fatigue and stiffness; help you maintain a healthy weight, good posture, and core strength (which can in turn help with back pain); prevent heart disease; and preserve brain health. Try aerobic exercises like swimming, cycling, or brisk walking, or strength training with weights or machines. And your workout doesn’t have to leave you a sweaty mess to be helpful—cooking, gardening, and even strolling with a friend all count. Any activity you enjoy and can manage that gets you moving is beneficial, Dr. Thomas says.
Yoga and Stretching
If you grapple with muscle spasticity, fatigue, pain, weakness, bladder function, or difficulty walking, studies show that yoga may offer relief. According to the National MS Society, yoga can also encourage relaxation, as well as build core strength, strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, and help with balance and posture. Anyone can do yoga because it is low-impact, low-risk, and can be adapted to whatever physical limitations you may have. (If you’re not into the whole “namaste” thing, try implementing simple stretching exercises into your daily routine to decrease spasticity and improve balance and coordination.)
A psychologist can help you deal with MS symptoms such as pain and fatigue—and address the concerns that can worsen them, guiding you on such matters as appetite control, smoking cessation, anxious thinking, and tackling sleep problems. “Psychological counseling is really important in MS, not just for adjusting to the disease but for helping [with these issues],” says Dr. Thomas. Mary Rensel, M.D., a neurologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for MS Treatment and Research in Ohio, says her center offers therapy groups for coping with sleep loss and exhaustion, and advises that you ask your doctor for local recommendations.
Acupuncture, which typically uses thin needles to stimulate specific areas on the body, can be especially helpful when you have problems with pain or stiffness that’s related to MS, says Dr. Bhargava. According to the National MS Society, this ancient practice may help with numbness, tingling, bladder problems, and depression, too. Even better, acupuncture is considered safe (as long as you see a trained acupuncturist, that is!), although you may notice some soreness and/or slight bruising or bleeding where the needles were. It’s unclear exactly how acupuncture works, but one possible explanation is that it changes your brain activity.
Stress makes MS symptoms worse for many people, and since stress has been linked to brain health and immune response, finding ways to manage it is crucial, says Dr. Rensel. But how? Dr. Thomas recommends that people with MS practice good sleep hygiene to maximize the restoration process during sleep, and to make it easier to cope with stress the following day. He's also a fan of relaxation techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, listening to music to unwind, and aromatherapy. Be sure to do things every day that you enjoy, like drinking a good cup of coffee or watching the sunset.
Oral Cannabis Extract (OCE)
Oral cannabis extract (OCE) is basically marijuana in pill form. The American Academy of Neurology says there’s “strong evidence” that OCE can decrease spasticity and the pain that it causes. However, for some people it causes side effects like dizziness, drowsiness, attention problems, dry mouth, and nausea. It may even sometimes increase spasticity or upend balance. Since it’s a drug, it can interfere with your medications. Not surprisingly, this makes it a controversial treatment for MS symptoms. Your ability to get OCE depends on your state’s laws. It’s important to work with a doctor who’s familiar with OCE, too.
Who doesn’t love a good massage? Besides relaxing your muscles and melting away stress, regular massages can help reduce MS-related stiffness and pain, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Dr. Rensel says the integrative medicine services at Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center offer massage therapy (as well as yoga classes and acupuncture) to complement patients’ medical treatment. Be aware, however, that while massages feel amazing and seem harmless enough, experts say they might not be safe if you have osteoporosis, edema (swelling), ulcers, heart disease, arthritis, or if you’re pregnant. So, talk to your doc before booking one. Got the green light? Enjoy!
- Diet Study: Neurology. (2018). “Diet Quality Is Associated With Disability and Symptom Severity in Multiple Sclerosis.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29212827/
- Yoga: National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (n.d.). “Yoga and MS.” nationalmssociety.org/Living-Well-With-MS/Diet-Exercise-Healthy-Behaviors/Exercise/Yoga
- Stress and MS: National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (2016). “Taming Stress in Multiple Sclerosis.” nationalmssociety.org/NationalMSSociety/media/MSNationalFiles/Brochures/Brochure-Taming-Stress.pdf
- Acupuncture: National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (n.d.). “Acupuncture: Safety & Effectiveness.” nationalmssociety.org/Treating-MS/Complementary-Alternative-Medicines/Acupuncture
- How Acupuncture Works: National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (2014). “Acupuncture and MS: The Basic Facts.” nationalmssociety.org/NationalMSSociety/media/MSNationalFiles/Brochures/Brochure-Acupuncture-BasicFacts_FINAL.pdf
- Massage Therapy: National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (n.d.). “Massage and Bodywork.” nationalmssociety.org/Treating-MS/Complementary-Alternative-Medicines/Massage-and-Body-Work
- Dietary Supplements: National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (2018). “Vitamins, Minerals & Herbs in MS: An Introduction.” nationalmssociety.org/NationalMSSociety/media/MSNationalFiles/Brochures/Brochure-Vitamins,-Minerals,-and-Herbs-in-MS_-An-Introduction.pdf
- Oral Cannabis Extract: American Academy of Neurology. (2014). “Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Multiple Sclerosis: Patient Summary.” aan.com/Guidelines/home/GuidelineDetail/641