Lifestyle Changes That May Help Slow MS Progression

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on March 02, 2023
4 min read

MS is a lifelong disease. Your symptoms may gradually get worse as it progresses and parts of the brain and spinal cord get damaged. But a few simple lifestyle changes can help you stay mobile and have a good quality of life for a long time.

There are more than a dozen medicines that doctors recommend to prevent relapses and slow MS. These treatments can help you feel better, but only if you take them.

It can be hard to think about taking medications for many years to come. But the sooner you get on the right medicine routine and the longer you stick with it, the better you'll control your disease.

Some people stop taking their medicine because they don't think that it helps them or they have side effects. Talk to your doctor if that happens. They may be able to adjust your dose, switch you to a new drug, or help you manage any side effects you do have.

If you've stopped treatment because you can't afford your medicine, check with the MS Society or the company that makes the drug. They may be able to help you cover the cost.

It's also important to manage any other health problems you have. Heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and depression can all make your MS progress more quickly. See your primary care doctor or a specialist to get diagnosed and treated.

Years ago, doctors warned people with MS to avoid exercise because they thought it could make the disease worse. Today they know that the opposite is true.

Exercise strengthens the muscles that help you walk. It also eases fatigue, boosts mood, and improves quality of life in people with MS. There's even some evidence that strength training might help slow MS damage in the brain.

An exercise program for MS includes 150 minutes of "aerobics" each week. These are activities that get your heart pumping, like walking or swimming. Work out at your own pace and level. Also stretch for at least 10 minutes each day to release tight muscles.

Use weights or resistance bands twice a week to strengthen your muscles. A physical therapist can show you how to do each exercise correctly to prevent injury.

A balanced diet is important for your health in general, but especially when you have a long-term disease like MS. Research shows that people with MS who eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have less disability and fewer symptoms like depression and fatigue than those who eat less of these healthy foods.

Limit processed foods and animal fats like red meat and butter. Get your fats from healthier sources such as fish, nuts, avocados, and olive oil.

People who have higher levels of vitamin D in their blood are at lower risk of getting MS. Research is underway to see if there's a link between vitamin D levels and curbing your relapses. 

You can get your daily vitamin D from foods like fatty fish and fortified milk. Your body also makes its own stores of this vitamin when your skin is in sunlight. A blood test can show whether you're low in vitamin D. If so, a supplement will help boost your levels to where they need to be.

A lack of sleep may not make your MS progress, but it can certainly make you feel worse. It's hard to fall asleep and stay asleep all night when you're in pain, you feel depressed, or you have to get up to use the bathroom many times. Steroids and other medicines you take to control MS can also keep you awake.

Ask your doctor whether any of your MS medicines could be affecting your sleep. Treat pain and other symptoms that are getting in the way of a restful night's sleep. Try to relax and let go of stress before bed with a warm bath, calming music, or a good book.

Yet another reason not to smoke is that it can make your MS get worse, more quickly. Smoking also raises your chances of getting heart and lung diseases, which speed up MS progression.

It's not easy to quit, especially if you've smoked for many years. But when you do kick the habit, you'll start to see health benefits right away. Make a plan to quit, get support from your doctor and friends, and have medicines and other tools on hand to lessen the urge to smoke when it hits.

Infections like the flu can make your MS relapse and your symptoms flare up. Get your flu vaccine each fall to avoid getting sick. If you take a disease-modifying drug for MS, don't get the FluMist nasal spray because it's a live vaccine. Since your immune system -- the body's defense against germs -- is weaker from MS, the flu shot, which contains a dead form of the virus, is safer for you.

Ask your doctor whether you're up to date on all the other vaccines you need to stay healthy.