In the United States, non-conventional methods of treatment to disease fall under what is called Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Over 77% of patients suffering with multiple sclerosis turn to CAM at some point to find extra support, relief or as an attempt to get away from pharmacology altogether.
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic and progressive neurological disease that destroys the protective fatty tissue (myelin sheath) that surrounds nerve cells. When the protective armor is gone, large amounts of pain, discomfort, disability and a slew of other challenging and unpredictable symptoms occur.
It is also an autoimmune disease people which sets the immune system into overdrive effectively destroying both the bad cells like bacteria and disease and the good cells that we need to live healthy lives. So the goal is a bit counterintuitive here as overstimulating the immune system to “get better” can actually lead to adverse effects for those with MS.
MS is not the same for everyone. It’s a very individualized experience with symptoms ranging from brain atrophy, incontinence, weakness, vision problems, headaches, digestive issues, nerve pain, speech impairment and unfortunately the list goes on.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) classifies complementary and alternative medicines into five categories: Whole Body Medicine, Biological Medicine, Mind-Body Medicine, Energetic Medicine and Body Manipulation Treatments. We will unpack each of these here, along with some natural western treatments and traditional eastern approaches.
Western Approach to Treating MS
The westernized approach to dealing with natural treatments for MS is a little different than the herbal, mind-body-soul, diet-oriented ways of the east (which have - thankfully - permeated our pharmacologically dependent Western ways). There are, however, some non-conventional natural treatments that are underway with promising results for MS patients.
Fecal transplants are typically a remedy associated with the superbug clostridium difficile or C. diff. It’s often antibiotic resistant which led medical researchers down an unlikely avenue.
A fecal transplant is about as it sounds, feces with a certain cocktail of microflora, introduced into the colon of someone who has a gut microbiome that just isn’t working in their best interest. Infact, a study on gut flora found that the gut microbiome, “plays a key role in shaping the immune repertoire and plays an important role in disease susceptibility.” So could a balanced gut slow disease progression, alleviate symptoms or even prevent MS from developing in the first place?
More and more research is being done on the link between what some call leaky gut syndrome and multiple sclerosis. Leaky gut implies an imbalanced gut where the bad bacteria break down the intestinal wall and cause it to “leak” bad microbes and toxins into the surrounding body cavities. Once the wall lining is broken, these microbes can trigger overwhelming immune responses. And, unfortunately, even healthy intestinal microbes can turn rogue causing distress at a moment’s notice. Additionally, MS patients seem to have higher concentrations of inflammation inducing bacteria called Archae and lower concentrations of anti-inflammatory bacteria called Butyricimonas.
So then the question is, what can be done to heal the gut and potentially change the course of the disease?
Since we’re talking about relatively gross ways to feel better (hey, do what it takes, right?) let’s discuss the idea of parasitic worm therapy.
Gut flora obviously plays a crucial role in the health of anyone, but especially the health of someone suffering from MS. So medical pioneers are leaving the arena of traditional pharmacology and headed towards... a small white worm’s eggs.
A probiotic treatment that is made up of Trichuris suis ova (non-infectious porcine whipworm eggs) puts a stop to abnormal immune function and inflammation so typical of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis.
The MS pharmaceutical market made over 12.5 billion dollars in 2010 according to Espicom, a research firm. But what if going au naturel - by eating worm eggs - could cost little to nothing, with no side effects and increased well-being? They just might.
Experts say, “If these trials prove successful, treatment with parasitic worms—known as helminthic therapy—could provide a simple, cheap, natural and controllable treatment for the debilitating condition, which affects 2.5 million people world-wide. “
Box Jellyfish Venom
Should you was out into the Indo-Pacific Ocean begging to get stung? No. But promising research shows that the venom from this nearly 100% translucent sea anemone could provide a first line of defense against the progression of MS. Stichodactyla toxin, known as Shk toxin, blocks specific potassium channels that are known to dysfunction in patients with multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases.
Hormone therapy treatment
For the childbearing aged women out there suffering from MS, pregnancy, of all things, can actually improve your symptoms. University of California neurologist Rhonda Voskhul says, "Pregnancy involves a fetus, which has half of the father's proteins on it. So it's half foreign. In order to not reject that half-foreign fetus, the mother's immune system shifts." And it’s in this shift that researchers determined the hormone estriol as a big player in protecting otherwise susceptible nerve fibers.
For men, testosterone treatment has shown cognitive improvement and reduced brain atrophy - but no reduction in lesions.
Recommended dose: 8/mg per day of estriol and 10/mg per day of testosterone
Over 88% of people who use CAM treatment methods for MS turn to biological medicine for relief. This includes herbal supplements like gingko biloba, nutritional supplements like Vitamin D and mineral supplements like Calcium.
Obtaining these nutrients through food is preferable because of the vitamins and minerals in capsules are synthesized. So for instance, if you need Vitamin C, in pill form you’re getting ascorbic acid. If you get it from nature you’re getting bioflavonoids, the entire Vitamin C complex which makes it more effective.
Of course, if you can’t naturally source these supplements, at least check to make sure that vitamins are in vegetarian pill capsule and don’t contain any unnecessary fillers like gum arabic and color additives (chlorophyll is best). Also make sure that your minerals are chelated, making them more bioavailable to you.
Many patients that have multiple sclerosis may suffer from a deficiency of Vitamin D. In a 2014 study published in JAMA Neurology, researchers found that, “higher serum 25(OH)D levels robustly predicted a lower degree of MS activity, MRI lesion load, brain atrophy, and clinical progression during the 5 years of follow-up.”
In layman speak: higher levels of Vitamin D can lessen the frequency of attacks (or exacerbations) and can help reduce the onset of new MRI lesions. Reduced levels of Vitamin D in the system also put patients at higher risk for developing osteoporosis, a common complication of MS. Bone health is crucial for those with this disease because decreased physical activity, reduced exposure to sunlight and frequent steroid use are common plights of patients.
If you’re unsure of your Vitamin D levels, contact your doctor for a simple blood test to confirm your levels. If levels are low, consider amping up your diet with fish, liver, milk fortified with Vitamin D and processed cereals (although the latter is not ultimately recommended.) Obtaining nutrients via food versus through a supplement is preferred however, and getting your daily D from the sun - well that’s good for the body and the mind.
Recommended dose: 600–800 IU for adults of Vitamin D3
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 Fatty Acids are the one group of omegas that most people don’t get enough of. Since our bodies don’t produce omegas on their own it’s crucial that we get them through our diet.
A deficiency in Omega-3 isn’t good for anyone's health, but for someone suffering from MS it could be a huge set back. Omega-3 deficiency presents itself with worsening symptoms of mental deterioration, tingling of the hands and feet, immune dysfunction, tissue inflammation and motor incoordination.
Research shows that patients with increased levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, “exhibited significantly reduced levels of matrix metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9), a factor correlated with disease progression.”
Omega-3 rich foods include fish (like sockeye salmon and sushi), olive oil, dark leafy greens, nuts, hemp, or flax. Make a yogurt parfait in the morning with some nuts, hemp and flax; you’ll get some Omega-3 and probiotics which are good for gut health, another leading factor in alleviating symptoms and progression of MS.
Recommended dose: Start taking 2-3 tablespoons of organically grown cold-pressed flaxseed oil and see a reduction in symptoms within just a few days.
Coenzyme Q10 or CoQ10
This supplement has been shown to have some benefits for individuals that suffer from neurological disorders. As with many of these supplements, this has not been studied when it comes to MS patients, but this is a supplement that is generally considered safe and well tolerated by users.
Recommended dose: talk with your doctor
B12, also known as “the red pill”, is thought to increase quality of life for those who suffer with MS. A complication of MS can be pernicious anemia which stems from a serious deficiency of B12. Your doctor can give you a shot for an immediate boost (and it bypasses the stomach which makes it more bioavailable). Find B12 naturally in liver, fish, eggs, milk and cheese.
Vitamin B12 boosts energy, can restore nerve functioning, improve cognitive function and is the only vitamin that contains essential minerals as well. It’s recommended to take B12 sublingually as it absorbs better into the body, but if you have to take a pill make sure to take calcium with it so the body can properly use it.
Antacids can interfere with the ability to utilize B12 and B12 can interrupt the course of antibiotics. So make sure you talk with your doctor about supplementing.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’’s Wort can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. It has a tendency to make you feel a little drowsy so be careful of extra fatigue. Also talk to your doctor before you decide to take St. John’s Wort with other MS meds like SSRI’s (Celexa, Lexapro, Zoloft) or benzodiazepines like Xanex or Klonopin.
Apitherapy (Bee Venom)
Bees are more important that many think. Not only do they keep the world as we know it, their little bee-ways of producing venom, wax, pollen and honey lend tremendous benefit to people suffering from serious diseases and allergies.
Bee venom, or the substance released when you’re stung, contains melittin, dolapin and apamin which all have been used to improve communication between nerves and reduce inflammation for diseases like fibromyalgia, tendonitis and MS. Treatment by bee sting is known as apitherapy.
The powerful anti-inflammatory effects of melittin and adolapin in bee venom - along with apamin, improve nerve transmission and are being used to effectively treat fibromyalgia and tendonitis.
Although apitherapy still has a long way to go before it’s scientifically proven as a treatment in the U.S., twelve countries in Europe have officially recognized bee venom as a drug to help with inflammation. And, sometimes a personal account or many may be enough inspiration to give it a whirl.
Recommended dose: depends, some do as many as 80 stings a day
Dandelions have actually been used as traditional medicine in Native American, Arabic, and Korean medicine. Some research has been found that it can help to promote your immune system’s health and reduce fatigue. Other studies have found that it offers anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. This is another herbal remedy that has sat by the wayside of researchers specifically examining how this could assist those that have multiple sclerosis, but many users find it helpful.
Mushrooms aren’t just tasty (and good as a burger substitute) they actually have amazing medical benefits stored away in their tiny fungus molecules. The FDA finally recognized the cancer-fighting agents of turkey tail mushrooms, allowing trials to be conducted for the purpose of reducing tumors, and eliminating free-radicals (which is also huge in slowing the progression of MS). Reishi mushrooms are also known to fight free radicals, encourage the degradation of toxins and to help the liver metabolize more effectively. But these two mushrooms are used to stimulate the immune system of those undergoing chemotherapy, so talk to your doctor first.
Not surprisingly, one of the most common MS drugs Gilenya is actually derived from the cordyceps mushroom. Gilenya works by suppressing the parts of the immune system that are hyperactive. So what if you skipped the expensive drug and went straight for the source? You can.
Cordyceps mushrooms, along with lions mane (to improve mood and memory), the aforementioned turkey tail, reishi can be used as supplements, in teas, or eaten raw (although they don’t taste that great) to help treat MS and alleviate symptoms.
Kratom has offered a natural pain management to patients who experience chronic pain - for centuries. It’s so effective as a analgesic, that people trying to sever their addiction to opiates use kratom in lieu of methadone during detox. Kratom contains mitragynine, a chemical that can alleviate muscle aches and pains, reduce coughs and stop diarrhea. In small doses, Kratom can be used as as stimulant.
Unlike pharmaceutical pain meds, there are little to no side effects and it’s completely natural and (for now) legal.
Recommended dose: It depends on what you are using it for, what strain it is and where you get it
Ginkgo biloba is a pretty well-known Chinese medicine treatment that has traditionally been used for a wide variety of conditions. Historically, ginkgo is thought to increase cognitive function in dementia patients, but no studies have shown this to be true for MS patients - yet. However, ginkgo does offer platelet activating factor (PAF) a substance that may inhibit the activity of certain immune cells involved in blood clotting and inflammation.
Recommended dose: 240 or 360 milligrams of ginkgolide B
Unfortunately, 90% of MS patients suffer from frequent urinary tract infections (UTI’s). They shouldn’t be taken lightly, though. Complications from UTI’s and MS can lead to dementia like symptoms and more serious problems like kidney infections and kidney stones.
And some researchers think that a UTI can actually trigger a relapse. So what can be done to prevent the infection? Cranberries. At least sometimes. Studies done to explore the correlation between cranberries and urinary health have been done - but many have been poorly done.
So the results are this: will cranberries hurt you? Only in large doses for a long period of time. Will they help you? According to Oxford Journal, “Cranberries contain 2 compounds with antiadherence properties that prevent fimbriated Escherichia coli from adhering to uroepithelial cells in the urinary tract.” There’s also evidence to suggest cranberry can kill certain bacteria.
So, yes, cranberry can help. Just rememb