Natural Remedies, Complementary & Alternative Medicine

Dealing with multiple sclerosis (MS) and its symptoms can be complex. In some cases, traditional treatment options like disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) and symptomatic therapy do not control MS and its symptoms as well as expected. When this happens, some turn to complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) or other natural remedies for relief.1

Complementary medicine is used with traditional treatment options like DMTs. Alternative medicine is used instead of standard care. CAM therapies have not been demonstrated in large clinical trials to be effective in altering MS disease course. Thus, they are not considred DMTs. However, CAM therapies may help with symptoms related to MS.1

Deciding whether to use CAM

There is less known about alternative medicine than complementary medicine. Each person’s situation will be unique. Before considering any new complementary or alternative treatment, talk with your doctor. They can help determine what is safe or what might work for you.1

CAM can be used to help cope with side effects, manage stress, or help slow the progression of certain health conditions. There are many types of CAM. These range from vitamins, supplements, and diet changes to yoga, meditation, and massage. Different experts are involved in each CAM treatment. These are often great people to add to your care team for a broad approach to managing your MS.1

Types of CAM

Several common types of CAM are outlined below. However, this is not a complete list of all the CAM treatments and other natural remedies available.

Body-based treatments

Body-based treatments involve a trained expert moving or touching your body to relieve symptoms. Examples include acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic medicine. Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine that uses tiny needles to align the body’s energy. Massage uses physical touch and pressure to relieve stress and relax muscles. Chiropractic medicine involves adjusting the joints of the spine for pain relief.2-4

These three options have varying levels of success for those with MS. All need to be done by a trained professional to prevent injury or adverse effects.2-4

Exercise

Exercise, within personal limits, can help improve your quality of life with MS. It can help reduce symptoms like fatigue, depression, muscle weakness, and walking problems. Exercise also may help improve bladder or bowel function.5-7

Creating a safe and enjoyable exercise plan is possible for most people with MS. Talk with your doctor or another expert about what activities are best for you.5-7

Mind-body treatments

There are many mind-body treatments you can try. Some of the most common include yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. Yoga involves focused breathing and purposeful posing of your body. Yoga can be challenging or relaxing, depending on your skill level and goals. Yoga can be done from a seated position, too.8

Meditation and mindfulness focus on how the mind is thinking. People practicing meditation or mindfulness may focus on their breath, their thoughts, or the sounds around them to stay in the moment. This can help them learn to have more control over their reactions. Mind-body techniques like these can help with stress, anxiety, fatigue, and pain, among other troubles.8,9

Food and diet

There is no specific diet that is best for people with MS. Each person’s food decisions should be made based on their situation. But in general, eating a well-balanced diet can reduce the risk for other health conditions with MS. It can also help with MS-related symptoms like fatigue. Your gut and brain talk to one another along what is called the gut-brain axis. Fueling your gut and its bacteria with a healthy diet may improve your overall health.10,11

Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are staples of a well-balanced diet. Your doctor or a nutritionist can help plan the best diet for you. They can also connect you with resources if you are having trouble getting to the grocery store or affording food.10

Vitamins, minerals, and supplements

Our body needs vitamins and minerals to carry out its regular functions. Other supplements, like probiotics or fatty acids, can be helpful, too. Research is limited and results are mixed, but some people take vitamins, minerals, and supplements to help with their symptoms. Vitamin D may slightly help with preventing MS disease, but it and other vitamins are not replacements for DMTs. Evidence for other vitamins in MS care is less clear.12,13

Vitamins, minerals, and supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same way traditional drugs are. There also are risks of taking vitamins, minerals, and supplements. They can have side effects on their own or conflict with other treatment options. Make sure to buy them from a reputable source and ask your doctor before trying something new.12,13

Herbal medicine

Herbs have been used as medicine for centuries. Herbs are a part of traditional Chinese medicine, and their use has gained popularity in recent years. Like with vitamins, minerals, and supplements, there is limited research on herbs for MS. The studies that do exist are often small and have mixed results. Common herbs used in MS include ginkgo biloba, cranberry, and St. John’s wort, among others. Similar to vitamins, these herbal remedies are not replacements for DMTs.12,14,15

Also like supplements, there are risks with taking herbs. There is no government regulation of herbs, either. While many of them are natural and easy to find, the risks can be significant. Talk to your doctor before you begin any herbal medicine therapy.12,14

Cannabis

One herb that gets a lot of attention in MS is cannabis. Cannabis is more commonly known as marijuana. Some research suggests that cannabis can improve pain and muscle spasticity in MS. However, laws around marijuana use vary state to state. Talk with your doctor about your options if you are interested in trying cannabis as a potential treatment.16

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Written by: Casey Hribar │ Last reviewed: July 2022.