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Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Heidi Maloni, PhD, APRN, BC-ANP, CNRN, MSCN

Most people with MS, between 50 and 84 percent, have used non-traditional products or therapies either along with their prescribed medical regimen, considered complementary, or instead of traditional medicine, known as alternative. Called Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), these products and therapies can include herbs, nutritional supplements, acupuncture, massage, diet, mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, and visits to naturopaths, homeopaths, and chiropractors. The attraction to CAM is supported by the personal belief that traditional medicine has failed to relieve suffering or prevent disease, CAM is “natural”, CAM is less expensive and safer than traditional medicines, or the user feels more control over what is put into the body.

But STOP - what about the science? What is the evidence that a CAM treatment will have the desired effect and is safe? US adults spend over $34 billion annually out-of-pocket on CAM, yet many CAM products and therapies are supported by very little, if any, scientific evidence. Before plunking down your hard-earned dollars, ask these questions: What does the treatment involve? How effective is it? Is it safe? How does it work? How much does it cost? And most importantly, could it impact my MS? This article will review some common CAM treatments and discuss the benefits and possible harm to those with MS.

Herbs are plants that may improve and maintain health. Certain herbs can have a stimulating effect on the immune system. Experts suggest that immune stimulation may be detrimental in MS and can lead to disease activation or progression. The immune system may be activated by herbs such as echinacea, Asian ginseng, garlic, alfalfa, and astragalus. Herbs that may help MS symptoms include psyllium for constipation; coffee for improved fatigue and attention; cranberry to prevent urinary tract infections; valerian for improved sleep and calm as well as reduced anxiety and spasticity; and St. John’s wort for mild depression.

Diet in MS has received a great deal of attention and several low-fat diets have been studied for their effect on MS. A well-balanced, low fat diet can be beneficial for maintaining wellness, but scientists agree that there is currently no convincing evidence that diet changes the course of MS. Although there isn’t a cure-all-diet for MS, some vitamins, minerals, and fats may be beneficial. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (found in the oil of fish, soybeans, canolas, walnuts, and flaxseeds) and omega-6 fatty acids (found in the oil of safflower, sunflower, and sesame seeds) may decrease the severity and duration of a MS relapse. Vitamin C may help with urinary tract infections while vitamin B1 may reduce fatigue. Antioxidant vitamins (A, E, and C) while advertised as good for the body are anti-inflammatory. Antioxidant vitamins should be obtained mostly from fruits and vegetables in the diet and supplements should be used in moderation.

Supplements may be needed when food cannot supply needed vitamins and minerals. Vitamin D is often low in people with MS and scientists are trying to understand why this is the case. What is known through recent studies is that insufficient vitamin D contributes to the risk of getting MS and worsening MS. Vitamin D can be obtained from exposure to the sun, fortified milk products, and fatty fish. Vitamin D may reduce risk of attacks and slow MS disease progression. Calcium and vitamin D are needed for strong bones. Some CAM that have shown no benefit for MS include increased intake of aspirin, sodium salicylate, colchicine, myelin basic protein, coral calcium, prokarin, and hydrogen peroxide.

Body-mind therapies such as acupuncture, massage, tai chi, and yoga may have a beneficial effect on MS symptoms including pain, spasticity, bladder, and insomnia. Some alternative therapies that have shown no benefit for MS include hyperbaric oxygen therapy (breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized room); thymectomy (remove thymus); mercury-amalgam (remove tooth fillings); chelation therapy (receive metal-binding chemicals through IV); supersonic wave energy programs (energy interacts with body); bee sting therapy (live bees sting body); and molecular magnetic energizers (magnets interact with body).

CAM products and therapies have the potential for enhancing quality of life, managing MS symptoms and disease, and contributing to overall health. Embracing all things natural to forgo proven disease treatments puts a person with MS at risk and there should be a balance. Knowledge of the safety and efficacy of CAM specific to MS is essential and continued research in this area is needed.