Editor’s note: “Need to Know” is a series inspired by common forum questions and comments from readers. Have a comment or question about MS? Visit our forum.
This week’s question was inspired by the forum topic “Do you know any natural remedies that help fight inflammation?“, from May 3.
The role of inflammation in MS
Inflammation is a double-edged sword. When healthy, it’s a process that promotes healing. But when the immune system runs awry, as it does with chronic autoimmune conditions like MS, it can be damaging and disabling.
Chronic “silent inflammation” is a foe every person with MS must be wary of.
How inflammation hacks the brain
When a person has MS, inflammation in their bodies leads to the release of proteins called cytokines, which wreak havoc on the central nervous system.
Cytokines can disturb the brain’s “firewall,” known as the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The BBB exists to prevent inflammation from reaching the brain, but in MS, these cytokines “hack” the brain’s “firewall,” leading to potential demyelination by the immune system.
What inflammation does to the central nervous system
Once these inflammatory substances breach the BBB, they can attack the brain, optic nerve, basal ganglia, and spinal cord, releasing T lymphocytes (T-cells), which are known to increase inflammation and swelling.
Their attacking of the myelin coating of white matter nerves is dangerous. White matter is in charge of sending electrical signals between the brain and gray matter regions, where major processing and function takes place.
Demyelination of these nerves disrupts and can even destroy these functions. In MS, T-cell attacks are constant, making it impossible for the brain to re-myelinate damaged nerves.
Natural strategies to relieve inflammation
Several therapies are used to treat inflammation. They can be extremely useful during major MS flare-ups or for relief when symptoms are painful and disabling. However, they have side effects. Sometimes, a flare-up may be mild to moderate and treatment with medication may not be needed. Instead, it might be controlled in the following ways:
Foods that promote inflammation include those with high-sugar and high-fat content. Animal proteins are high in saturated fat, as are most dairy products.
Trans fats found in margarine, snack foods, fried foods, and packaged baked goods are highly inflammatory as well. These foods create an imbalance in the gut microbiome which may lead to chronic inflammation. Avoid simple carbohydrates or “white” foods such as bread, rice, potatoes, and pasta.
Home cooking is the best way to control what you eat. Freshly prepared meals rich in fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains are usually lower in saturated fat and higher in healthier monounsaturated fat or Omega-3 fatty acids.
Incorporate fresh herbs and spices using olive or flaxseed oils into your dishes. Water, sparkling water (with citrus slices), and teas (white, oolong, or green) are the best bets for beverages to enjoy during the day.
Finally, for the sweet-tooth craving, try unsweetened dried fruit, nonfat yogurt, fresh fruit sorbets, or dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa) in moderation. Maintaining stable blood sugar is key to calming the immune system.
Smoking and second-hand smoke should be avoided. Nicotine is a suspected trigger for increased disease activity (and inflammation) in people with MS.
Other environmental toxins and allergens should also be avoided: These include smog, household cleaners, pesticides, herbicides, hidden toxins in health and beauty products, heavy metals, and even naturally occurring biotoxins such as mold.
Supplements that may be useful include:
- Vitamin D. This nutrient is a powerful immunomodulator and immune system relaxant. Vitamin D can be taken as a supplement, obtained by consuming certain foods such as cold-water fish, fortified dairy products, and eggs, or absorbed by exposure to natural sunlight or a light therapy device.
- Alpha lipoic acid. This antioxidant has strong anti-inflammatory properties and is particularly effective for preventing optic neuritis, a common symptom of MS. It is found in spinach, broccoli, green peas, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, and brewer’s yeast.
- Saint John’s wort. This substance inhibits the cytokine known as interleukin-6. It is typically taken as a supplement and is doubly beneficial when used for stress reduction.
- Resveratrol. Another natural inhibitor of interleukin-6, this substance naturally occurs in red wine, red grapes, dark-colored berries, and dark chocolate.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. These polyunsaturated or essential fatty acids are known anti-inflammatory agents.
Research suggests that the coordination of signal delivery in the central nervous system is hampered by misalignment where the bones of the skull (the occiput and atlas) meet the spine. Compression here, at the top of the spinal cord, may cause inflammation, and chiropractic adjustment may bring relief.
What have you done to alleviate inflammation? What’s worked, what hasn’t, and what are you interested in trying? Reply in the comments below or at the original “Do you know any natural remedies that help fight inflammation?” forum entry.
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