11 Diet

If there’s one thing I learned in the three decades I’ve lived with multiple sclerosis, it’s that good nutrition has played a crucial role in my life. I realized early on how important it was to maintain good health by eating a well-balanced diet. 

When my arms and legs became weak and numb, and I was often losing my balance, my neurologist ordered a battery of tests. He told me the results showed that I had something called multiple sclerosis. I knew nothing about MS. My first clue was my mother sitting next to me, whose face was ashen. No, this diagnosis wasn’t going to be a good thing.

You might be wondering why I never heard of MS. Put yourself in my shoes and you’ll understand. It was 1986, there was no internet and the answers I needed weren’t easily found. 

The only prescription my doctor gave me was to rest, leave my job, and leave my apartment to alleviate stress, move back home to get the care I’d need, and call the office if I had a flareup.   I was horrified not only by my diagnosis but by the bleak picture my neurologist painted. In 1986 there were no FDA-approved MS medications, so flares were treated with a course of steroids. My neurologist’s prescription was standard, a quick fix that offered no long-term hope.

I was frightened and overwhelmed but determined to find answers. I’d be damned if I followed that grim prescription. Aside from wondering if I could lead a full life or if my disease was terminal, I wanted to know how to stay as healthy as possible with my new normal.

I visited our tiny town library that wasn’t helpful, so I headed to our local bookstore. I purchased several books about MS and dove right in. The more I read the more I realized the profound relationship between good nutrition and self-healing. None of the books spelled this out but I knew it’s where I needed to start.

My diagnosis was a wake-up call to be nutritionally conscious and to use food as medicine.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, the medical community didn’t discuss the dangers of consuming high amounts of cholesterol, fat, sodium, sugar, and carbohydrates in our diet. Housewives often relied on “tv dinners” for quick meals to feed their families despite their unhealthy content. No one read food labels or knew the dangers of ingredients like high fructose corn syrup or salt. Supermarkets didn’t offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. I remember the only lettuce and tomatoes offered were iceberg lettuce and pre-packaged beefsteak tomatoes. I may not have grown up eating the healthiest foods but now I’m making up for lost time. 

After my diagnosis, I was fortunate to stumble on an integrative physician. Through his many books and tapes, he introduced me to this emerging field that promotes a combination of traditional medicine along with supplements, meditation, spiritual healing, and healthy eating. I devoured his advice on the power of proper nutrition, exercise, and positive thinking.   

With the help of my integrative physician, I completely changed my diet by eliminating refined grains, high fructose corn syrup, saturated fats, high omega-6 plant oils (such as palm oil, and sesame oil) sugar-sweetened beverages, red meat, and all processed foods. I emphasized fresh organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk products, oily fish, less salt and sugar, and high fiber starchy carbohydrates. I also drank more water to stay hydrated, add energy and improve brain function, relieve constipation and headaches, and help with weight loss. Little did I know what an important role drinking water would play years later.

The full effects of my new diet ultimately led to remarkable improvements in my health: clearer cognition, steadier gait, and increased energy.  And if I strayed by indulging in a piece of chocolate or a slice of pizza, I’d feel nauseous and dizzy. My body was teaching me lessons, signaling me to keep my body well nourished.

Every MS patient needs to discover what works best for them. That includes how to use food as medicine in combination with traditional medicine or on its own. Be your own best advocate, stay curious, read all you can, and ask questions about what nutritional plan will serve you well. I guarantee it will be well worth it.

I wish you good health on your journey. Please stay safe.

– Cathy Chester - Award Winning Blogger and Person with MS 

A Dietitian and Nurse Practitioner’s Perspective:

Integrative Medicine uses conventional medicine along with complementary and alternative medicine that is evidence-based to address a persons’ health and any symptoms they may have.  An integrative medical practitioner listens very carefully to medical history and complaints. Their goal is not only to alleviate disease symptoms but to predict the problems the person with MS may have in the future and prevent those complications. The person with MS participates fully in the decision making of the changes that should be made. Integrative nutrition follows the same principles and looks at the whole person, not just the diagnosis. These nutritionists consider not only the person’s diet, but their lifestyle, culture, sleep patterns, activity, and stress relief techniques. 

You have enough on your “plate” without having to use time and energy preparing gourmet healthy meals. A good diet is delicious!  Scope out the foods that you love that fall into the healthy diet.  Make your environment friendly towards your goals.  Have easy meals in the freezer, healthy snacks that you can see and are likely to eat.  Give all those highly processed junk foods to your enemy. Planning ahead is important and there are many apps that are helpful with this. Apps that help you make a meal plan, find recipes, generate grocery lists – all but pay for your groceries.

Cathy’s story is a great example of finding a nutritional way of living that works best for her.  There are so many fad diet opportunities available to people living with MS.  The truth is, there is no such thing as “the one MS diet.”  People living with MS need to find the diet that works best for them.  It should be plant-based, high in omega 3s, and rich in color and fiber.  It should be free from or low in sugars, processed foods, saturated fats and sugar-sweetened beverages.  Plant-based does not mean that one cannot eat animal products, simply that plants should take up most of the room on your plate.  Your way of eating should easily fit into your life and be enjoyable.  As part of the integrative plan for living with MS that Can Do recommends, your nutrition should improve your quality of life as does getting good rest, managing stress, moving your body, getting regular health care check-ups, staying connected and managing your MS symptoms and disease with your health care provider’s recommendations. 

- Baldwin Sanders, MS, RD, LDN, IFNCP and Megan Weigel, DNP, ARNP-C, MSCN

Check out Cathy's blog at: AnEmpoweredSpirit.com