There are many things we can do to improve our MS symptoms. Changing our diet is probably the most significant alteration we can make in order to effectively manage our illness. However, eating the right foods goes hand in hand with so many other factors that can dramatically enhance the benefits of dietary changes. All these 'keys' interact with each other to create the best case scenario for life with a serious disease. By putting these elements in place and keeping them firmly planted, we are investing in our current and future health.
In this post, I will be discussing five such strategies that I have found to be keys to managing my MS symptoms. There definitely are other important things I am doing but I want to highlight these as having made the most difference to how I feel on a daily basis. I know that if I let just one of them slip a little, my chances of having a relapse are greatly increased.
1. Green Food
That just sounds positively delicious, doesn't it? Those who have not known the joys of green vegetables might not think so. It seems that from a very young age, we are programmed to turn our noses up at all things green. My children will only eat their broccoli if a little incentive is offered. My youngest used to eat his broccoli first, before anything else on his plate. Now, he kind of gags on it whilst forcing it down so that he can have his treat. Is it because grass and leaves are green and we know not to eat those? I find it a very strange psychological conundrum.
Dark green leafy vegetables are, calorie for calorie, probably the most concentrated source of nutrition of any food. These foods contain a magical ingredient called chlorophyll. This is the substance that makes plants green and converts the sun’s energy into food. Life as we know it could not exist without chlorophyll. It’s the “blood” of the plants. The chemical structure of chlorophyll is similar to haemoglobin in human blood. This means that by consuming green food, your blood will carry much more oxygen.
Increased oxygen is beneficial for anaemic conditions, respiratory conditions, and mental clarity. In addition, your energy levels are able to stay elevated for a longer period of time without causing fatigue. It is also very important to feed the cells, giving them the energy and fuel to carry out essential tasks such as healing the body!
Green veggies also contain a very high concentration of Vitamin K which may be a key regulator of inflammation. Researchers have found that it may help protect us from inflammatory diseases such as MS. Bingo! The abundant presence of vitamin K is one of the reasons why dark green vegetables are highly anti-inflammatory and will help to calm areas of inflammation. This is why our symptoms begin to improve when we start enjoying these green miracle workers.
My favourites are spinach, kale, rocket, broccoli and zucchini. I steam them, roast them and eat them raw and they make me feel incredible. I also have a large glass of green barley juice every morning. I enjoy the BarleyLife supplement from AIM. This deep green power punch of nutrients is delivered to my cells every morning and gets me going for the day. I cannot recommend it more and I will never, ever stop taking it.
Feeding Your Soul & Stress Relief
What images does 'feeding your soul' conjure up in your mind? Reading an inspiring book? Having a deep and meaningful conversation with a good friend? Or maybe, it's just going for a walk in the park with the family. Whatever this phrase means to you, it is of the utmost importance that you regularly do it! Nourishing this part of you is a sure fire way to, not only, reduce your stress levels but protect yourself from future stress.
Probably all the women I have connected with can trace their first and subsequent onset of symptoms to a particularly stressful period of their lives. For me it was the death of my beloved father and a very stretching job that preceded my first symptoms. We don't truly know how damaging the effects of stress are on our sensitive systems. Prolonged stress is definitely one of the primary the causes of relapses and increased disease progression.
Stress induces certain hormones and enzymes which have an unbalancing effect on the immune system. The immune system is a delicate balance between causing inflammation (usually to foreign agents) and dampening down inflammation to bring healing to an area of the body. When this balance is upset, the immune system may be more prone to cause inflammation. This is the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve with a healthy MS diet.
Stress is, unfortunately, a normal part of modern everyday existence. We live complicated lives! It is stressful bringing up children and running a household. It is also stressful maintaining a demanding job and balancing the opposing worlds of family and career. Sometimes we can plan to avoid stressful situations but most of the the time, stress is unavoidable and we need to learn how to cope with it effectively. So, how do we do this? I feel that a big part of the solution is feeding your soul and taking time to enjoy life. The following strategies have worked well for me:
Make time for yourself: Go shopping!
Do something you REALLY enjoy doing, regularly: Cycle through the park?
Spend time with good friends : A burden shared is a burden halved
Exercise: Get out of the house and feel the fresh air on your face.
Breathing techniques: Stop whatever you are doing, sit down and take a few slow breaths. Perspective will return.
Exercise is a must for all of us but for MS'ers it is absolutely essential. I feel that it is important to focus on more gentle types of exercise. I know that some of you enjoy running and even compete in marathons. Amazing! If you are feeling good on this then continue unless you feel your body starting to take strain. I do believe, however, that it is important not to push ourselves too hard. A body that is in healing mode, needs tender love and care. Heating your core temperature too high can also cause an onset of symptoms so keep this in mind when choosing your exercise regimen.
I have recently started doing one yoga class each week. I leave each class feeling completely relaxed and yet invigorated. The benefits of yoga seem to be far reaching for people with MS. You are strengthening the body whilst keeping the muscles supple. It is aIso a safe place to forget about your current stresses and just be mindful of what you are doing in the moment. It is a very healing exercise for the body and mind. I asked the ladies on the Facebook page if any of them had benefited from yoga and these were some of their comments:
'Thanks to MS I started to practise Yoga 17 years ago, and this changed my life. Today I am totally recovered from my last episode, and I feel stronger, flexible and more balanced than ever. I think the best exercise for the people with MS is Yoga, Pranayama, Meditation, it keeps you calm, strong, and balanced!!'
'It's saved me from MS'.
'Yes, yoga is the best exercise!'
Pilates is also fantastic. It is kind on the body yet, dramatic results can still be achieved. I have done a few sessions and loved every minute of it.
Another one of my favorite forms of gentle exercise is power walking. Walking through the park, alone with my thoughts is very freeing. It can't just be a stroll though. You need to walk quickly and with purpose!
Early Nights and Naps
Sleep is the time that our body uses to carry out necessary repairs. We are not moving around or digesting food so the body can use the spare energy for healing and reconstruction. It is also important to have regular early nights. The sleep before 12am is more restful than after 12am. I have heard it said that one hour before midnight is the equivalent of four hours after midnight. This is because a larger portion of the sleep cycle is deep sleep before 12am and as you move through the night, active or REM sleep becomes more dominant.
I know that I feel far better, the next day, if I go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 6am rather than going to bed at 12pm and waking up at 8am. That early night makes the world of difference. The body is far more rested and as a result, is able to handle any stresses and strains that may pop up during the following day. If I have had an early night, I feel far more in control. I am able to concentrate for longer, think more clearly and I'm generally a nicer person to be around! I also find that any symptoms I have are far better after an early night.
It is also very helpful to have a power nap during the day, if you can. I am very lucky to be at home with my children and so I often have a 15-20 minute nap when they are napping. I find that it helps me get through the afternoon effectively and I'm not absolutely exhausted at the end of the day. Sometimes I don't even sleep properly. I just lie down, close my eyes and still my mind. This seems to be enough to replenish my energy resources. It really helps when you avoid living in a state of perpetual exhaustion.
I am convinced that the body receives the opportunity to heal itself when it is given rest. If you are not allowing down time for these healing processes to take place, then the chances are higher that disease progression is taking place. If you work and can't nap in the day, try and find a quiet half an hour where you can sit by yourself and read a book or just contemplate life. If you can't nap then make it a priority to get to bed early.
Supplements: Vitamin D & Omega 3
I'm sure many of you have read my article on vitamin D and it's important role in our healing. I shared that my vitamin D levels were critically low when I had them tested. They were 8.3 nMol/L and the recommended levels are 150-180 nMol/L. I am convinced that this was one of the factors that brought on my illness. It had obviously been low for a long time. My levels shot up quite quickly when I started taking supplements and within 2 months they were at 185nMol/L. Currently they are just under 200nMol/L. The sun is our main natural source of vitamin D. You can read all about how to get vitamin D in the post 'Sources of Vitamin D for your MS Diet'.
Vitamin D plays a vital role in regulating the immune system. In MS, it is the person’s immune system that starts attacking the nerve cells of the body. The irony is that the very system in charge of protecting the body starts to attack and break it down. T-cells, the fighter cells of the immune system, are the main culprits in MS. These are the cells that attack and kill germs when they enter our bodies. If not kept in check, they start attacking the myelin sheath of nerves causing inflammation and symptoms of MS.
Enter vitamin D, our knight in shining armour. Vitamin D is thought to boost the immune system and bring rogue T-cells back into line if they start to attack their own cells. When T-cells are exposed to foreign pathogens a recent study has found that they expose a vitamin D receptor that searches for vitamin D. Activation of these receptors results in suppression of the cell’s activity. Hence, a lack of vitamin D allows these cells to act unchecked. Basically, they start behaving like naughty teenagers doing what they want without parental supervision and start attacking cells at random. Vitamin D, the parent in this scenario, modulates the immune system, keeping it in check and reducing the random attacks of those rebellious T-cells. As you can see, it is of vital importance that optimal vitamin D levels are maintained.
I have said quite a bit about the importance of Omega 3 fatty acids recently so I'm not going to go into too much detail. You can read my recent post on flaxseeds for more detail. I do believe that these essential fats are another vital key to our recovery. They help to keep our engine running smoothly and our healing maintenance up to date. They help to rebuild the walls of our myelin sheath and calm inflammation which causes MS symptoms. Flaxseed oil has recently been proven to reduce relapse rate. This research was carried out by Prof George Jelinek and his team. I am one hundred percent sure that regular doses of flaxseed oil has kept my symptoms as stable as they have been.
Summing it all up
There you have my five keys to recovery and management of MS symptoms. Eat an abundance of greens, make sure your soul is nourished, exercise gently, keep your body rested and make sure your vitamin D and Omega 3 levels are consistently high. These factors, in combination, are keeping me well. They may not necessarily be your top five and I would love to hear what your keys to recovery are. Let me know by leaving a comment below!