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5 Tips for Living Better with MS: Patients and Caregivers

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Here are some tips that can make it easier for patients and caregivers alike to deal with MS.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is believed to be caused by the immune system wrongfully attacking a person’s own myelin, the fatty substance that insulates nerves and helps them send electrical signals to control movement, speech and other functions.

If you have MS or care about someone who does, you know that it can be a frustrating, unpredictable condition. It’s hard to tell when symptoms such as numbness, weakness, loss of balance and cognitive difficulties will complicate your life.

Here are some tips that can make it easier for patients and caregivers alike to deal with MS.

1. Eat for optimal health.

Everyone can benefit from a good diet, but especially people with chronic diseases such as MS.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society notes that there’s no special diet for MS, but that eating a diet low in fat and high in vitamins and fiber can help you feel better, while maximizing your energy and supporting healthy bladder and bowel function.

A good diet supports caregivers too, with more energy, optimism and general health.

A better diet may actually be therapeutic for MS patients, since it can help them avoid metabolic syndrome, the all-too-common constellation of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, abdominal obesity and insulin resistance that puts patients at risk for developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions.

Peter Calabresi, M.D., an expert in MS at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, says, “Data around this point are hard to quantify, but our team is very interested in lifestyle modifications in patients with MS.

"There is mounting evidence that metabolic syndrome compounding MS is particularly lethal. We’re seeing that the so-called Western industrial lifestyle breeds autoimmune diseases like MS. It’s hard to get biomarkers, but we’re looking closely at the role of excessive sugar, animal fats and too much salt.”

2. Commit to regular exercise.

Research shows that people with MS who participate in an aerobic exercise program benefit from improved cardiovascular fitness, increased strength, better bladder and bowel function, and a more upbeat attitude.

Yoga, adaptive tai chi and water exercise are also excellent workouts for people with MS and anyone else, including busy caregivers who can benefit from stress management.

3. Address sleep issues.

MS can cause sleep problems, including insomnia, frequent nighttime urination, narcolepsy and leg spasms — over half of MS patients suffer with restless legs syndrome.

Dr. Calabresi says, “Sleep is very much underestimated in brain function. We know there’s a correlation between poor sleep and both Alzheimer’s and MS.

“It’s hard to tell which comes first, since people with MS have disrupted sleep patterns. There can be early morning awakening caused by depression and nighttime awakenings due to overactive bladder. But we do know that poor sleep correlates with poor daytime cognitive ability, which can affect patients’ ability to cope.”

Be proactive and ask your doctor for help, whether you’re suffering with MS or caring for someone who has it. Chronic illness can be exhausting, and MS patients and their caregivers both need as much quality sleep as they can get.

4. Customize your environment.

MS symptoms can strike suddenly and make it hard for patients to physically navigate their environment.

Life is easier for people with MS when their homes and offices are arranged for maximum efficiency and minimum risk. Keep essentials within easy reach, install safety features in the bath and shower and cut down on clutter to reduce the risk of falls.

5. Reach out and get involved.

Self-help and MS support groups can help you connect with other patients and caregivers and establish a valuable network for exchanging ideas, new research news and encouragement. Check your local hospitals or care centers, as well as MS organizations.

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