At 36 years old, Marleigh Brown, an avid exerciser and busy mom of three, suddenly found herself feeling tired and frazzled. Her doctors originally chalked it up to her being a parent, but there was more at play. The fatigue became debilitating at times, and she began losing her short-term memory and ability to multitask. Brown also says she had itching on her arms that felt like spiders crawling all over her skin, as well as excruciating pain and tightness in her hips.
When she complained of intense pain down her back, into her arms and legs, called Lhermitte’s sign -- a telltale symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS) -- her doctors ordered an MRI on her cervical spine and brain, and a lumbar puncture after that, to confirm their suspicions.
Brown was diagnosed with MS, an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system and can interrupt the nerve signals to and from the brain. Symptoms vary, but this disruption tends to cause fatigue, weakness, and memory issues. It has no cure, but medication and lifestyle changes can help relieve symptoms.
Since her 2009 diagnosis, Brown, now 44, has found ways to manage her MS symptoms while keeping a positive attitude. “At first I had so much fear of what I might lose,” she says. “Now, I try to focus on the present with a genuine appreciation of what I have and a celebration of what I’m able to do.” Here's what a typical day is like for her.
1. She works out every morning.
Studies have shown exercise has many benefits for people with MS, including less fatigue and depression, improved strength, better cardiovascular fitness, and a more positive attitude. Brown makes working out a priority by setting her alarm every morning to fit in a workout before the kids wake up. “It’s too easy to put it aside at the end of the day,” she says.
Exercising also eases the spasticity and tightness that many people with MS may have. “For me, exercise helps me get the kinks out every morning so I can move easily. I want to maintain every bit of muscle tone and strength I have!”
Her favorite workout is cycling. “I love the bike. I can get on almost when I’m still asleep, and I just start pedaling -- it’s almost meditative,” she says. “It helps get my blood pumping in the morning -- better than coffee. If I go without it one day, I’m not really on my A-game.”
Yoga also plays a big part in her exercise routine. She says it helps her manage stress, and research confirms that practicing yoga can help reduce MS symptoms, such as fatigue, pain, weakness, and difficulty walking. Brown tries to practice every day, on and off the mat -- both by doing some poses and stretches after cardio, and by breathing deeply and focusing on the present moment all day long.
2. She watches what she eats.
“A salad a day is my special formula,” Brown says. “I also love my salad room temp -- strange but true.” This mix features baby greens and salmon, one of her favorite ways to get protein and omega-3s, which have been shown to help people who have MS. (She also eats lots of walnuts and flaxseed, other good sources of omega-3s). Sometimes, she tops her greens with tuna, hard-boiled eggs, a veggie burger, or grilled chicken.
While Brown likes to focus more on what she can eat, she does avoid some foods that may cause inflammation, such as gluten and dairy. But if she wants a bowl of ice cream every once in a while, she doesn’t deprive herself: “Everything in moderation,” she says.
Working full-time at her kids’ school means she has to pack healthy foods to eat during the day. “I love yogurt parfaits -- I put a little bit of yogurt on a pile of blueberries with gluten-free granola on top. It feels like dessert.” She also snacks on fresh fruit throughout the day, since it’s low in calories but high in nutrients. “I try to look at food as the gas I’m putting in the tank,” she says. “If I put something in my body, I want to get something back from it.”
3. She spends time outdoors.
Brown makes a point to get outside every day, even in the cold winters in her home state of Massachusetts. “Fresh air does the body -- and mind -- good,” she says. She walks with her daughter to and from school, and hikes outside with her dogs as much as she can.
4. She listens to her body.
From exercising to being out at night, Brown makes sure to pay attention to what her body’s telling her. “If I’m tired and ready for bed at 8:30 one night, that’s OK,” she says. “You don’t have to power through it.”
5. She gets enough sleep.
“It’s important to get a solid night’s sleep -- for me, this is 8 hours (7.5 only if I know the following night promises uninterrupted ZZZs),” Brown says. “With MS, it is difficult to fake it. You learn quickly -- sleep is a necessity to keep symptoms at bay and be at my best, both for me personally and as a mom.” To help her de-stress at night, she rubs an essential oil with a relaxing scent on her feet.
6. She cultivates gratitude.
Her bedside reminder of “gratitude” represents her everyday outlook. Brown has found ways to slow down and “smell the roses” daily, from noticing buds on trees to appreciating the sunshine, rather than just rushing to get somewhere. “Being grateful for the little things comes from realizing what MS can potentially take away from you, and the importance of just living today,” she says.