Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence
Controlling Smoking and Alcohol Use to Decrease MS Symptoms
Aaron Turner, PhD – VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle, WA
Living with MS requires patience and flexibility to deal with chronic and often unexpected life changes. Despite the challenges, there are many opportunities for people to take charge of their health and become active managers of their disease. Research on healthy living with chronic illness has consistently shown that people who engage in intentional and systematic self-management of their disease report a higher quality of life and better health outcomes. This can be done by identifying personal goals for health and well being, monitoring and pursing those goals, reflecting on whether their actions were successful, and making changes when needed. Health habits such as smoking and alcohol use represent areas where people with MS can make important health changes that contribute to long term health.
Most people are aware that smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Smoking worsens many chronic illnesses, decreases sexual functioning, and shortens the life span of the average smoker by 8 to 13 years. Fewer people know that smoking may also be linked to MS. Several studies have shown that smokers have a higher risk of developing MS, and that smoking is linked to a more aggressive disease course. Smoking may also complicate other challenges people face with MS, like decreasing lung functioning, making wounds or ulcers heal more slowly, and increasing fatigue.
The good news is it’s never too late to quit, and the benefits are numerous. Some benefits can be felt almost immediately; many last for years to come. Within 24 hours of quitting the risk of heart attack decreases. Within 3 months lung capacity increases up to 30%. At one year, many people report increased energy and decreased coughing and shortness of breath. By year five, the risk of heart attack, stroke, and many cancers is cut in half.
Many people have smoked for years and just thinking about quitting is stressful and overwhelming, but it can be done. People have many reasons for stopping their smoking. Not all are related to health. Smoking is also expensive and time consuming. Think about why you want to quit. Helpful strategies include writing down the reasons you want to quit and keeping the list where you can see it, setting a quit date, and telling people about it.
All VA facilities offer some assistance with smoking cessation. Often people start by talking to their doctor or another provider who can put you in touch with a VA smoking cessation program that may include medications and counseling. Both have been shown to be helpful to assist quitting. Help and support are also available from the National Quitline 1-800-QUIT NOW (800.784.8669). You can call this number any time, or in conjunction with the plan you establish with your doctor.
There is increasing evidence that moderate alcohol consumption may bring some health benefits, but it is far clearer that alcohol misuse is linked to a host of medical problems including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and cirrhosis, as well as oral, gastrointestinal, and breast cancer. As a result it is still considered one of the leading causes of preventable death.
Drinking more than 14 drinks a week for men or more than 7 drinks a week for women is associated with an increased risk of health consequences, as is drinking more than 4 (women) or 5 (men) drinks per occasion. Alcohol consumption is only one piece of the equation, however. Not everyone who drinks has a drinking problem, and not everyone who has a drinking problem drinks every day. Try asking yourself the following questions:
Have I failed to do what was expected of me because of my drinking?
Have I ever felt guilty or concerned about my drinking?
Has drinking impacted my relationships with family and friends?
Has anyone in my life been worried about my drinking or asked me to cut down?
If you answered yes to any of these questions you might want to think about the impact drinking has on your life and whether making a change would improve your health and quality of life. Most people who make changes in their alcohol use do this on their own. If you have additional questions, or would like some assistance, talk with your doctor who can help you formulate a plan, or refer you for additional assistance.
Smoking and Tobacco Cessation Programs - http://www.publichealth.va.gov/smoking/
Reducing alcohol abuse and dependence programs - http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/alcohol.asp
US Department of Health and Human Services, smoking cessation website - http://1800quitnow.cancer.gov/
Last Updated: November 2009