Health experts are increasingly seeing lifestyle changes as a critical component to managing multiple sclerosis (MS), encouraging MS patients to do things as simple as getting more sunlight and going salsa dancing.
“The things people do day in and day out can make a huge impact on the quality of life,” said Timothy Coetzee, chief of advocacy, services and research for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Researchers believe that MS is an autoimmune disorder, in which the body’s immune system attacks the protective myelin sheath that surrounds the nerves of the brain, spinal cord and eye. This causes nerve impulses to slow down, producing the disease’s characteristic problems with balance, muscle control, vision and even thinking. The cause of the disease is unknown, but certain environmental conditions such as smoking or low vitamin D levels are known to increase the risk of developing it.
Salsa dancing stimulates brain
Although many people who first receive an MS diagnosis assume that they are doomed to permanent disability, increased understanding of the disease is showing that this does not have to be the case. Although there is no cure for MS, 85 percent of patients experience a form of the disease that is known as “relapsing-remitting,” rather than progressive. In the relapsing-remitting form, patients suffer acute attacks of MS symptoms, separated by potentially very long stretches with mild or absent symptoms.
Lifestyle changes can help ease symptoms during relapsing periods, and perhaps even lengthen the remission periods, researchers have found. Increased exercise is among the most important of the lifestyle changes now recommended — a radical departure from prior recommendations to limit activity in order to avoid worsening fatigue and other symptoms. Indeed, new research has shown that, while exercise does worsen some symptoms in the short term, this disadvantage is more than outweighed by long-term improvements in cognition, mood and other symptoms.
Researchers even believe that salsa dancing may be one of the most helpful forms of activity for MS patients, because the steps of the dance style involve moving back and forth between multiple directions (in contrast with the more repetitive motions of an aerobics class, for instance). Scientists from Brown University and the Providence VA Medical Center in Rhode Island are currently conducting a study to see if salsa dancing does, as suspected, stimulate brain function in MS patients better than other forms of exercise.
Sunlight, salt and sleep
Other recent studies have linked high-sodium diets and sleep apnea to more severe MS symptoms, suggesting that lowering salt intake and improving sleep quality could also help manage the disease. Quitting smoking also appears to help improve symptoms.
“[These] are general health strategies that are good for us anyway, they are actually making a difference with respect to the behavior of the disease,” said neurologist Dean Wingerchuk of the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix.
In another study, published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior in June, researchers found that mental imaging techniques designed to help brain injury patients absorb and recall information better also improved the memory of MS patients. Just 10 sessions produced an improvement that was sustained six months later.
But one of the most potent lifestyle changes for MS patients may be the simplest of all: spending more time outdoors.
Shanan Munoz, a Dallas neurologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s MS clinic, regularly encourages her patients to increase their levels of sun exposure to boost vitamin D levels. Studies have shown that vitamin D helps prevent MS and may also reduce its severity.
“Medicine alone won’t do it,” Munoz said, “and you have to make some serious lifestyle changes.”