If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you may wonder if vitamins, supplements, and herbs can help you feel better. Some studies show benefits for certain ones, but overall the research is mixed.
If you're thinking of taking supplements, keep in mind that the FDA doesn't regulate them as closely as drugs. So you may not be sure exactly what's in the item you purchase or how well it works. Also, some supplements don't mix well with medicines you may take. Talk to your doctor before you start taking any.
Several studies show that high levels of vitamin D in your body may lower your chances of getting multiple sclerosis. The research also suggests that if you have low vitamin D levels and already have MS, you may have higher odds of getting a flare-up.
One study suggests that vitamin D may help repair myelin, a substance in your body that coats and protects nerves. That's important if you have MS because the disease damages myelin, which leads to symptoms like muscle weakness. More research is needed to confirm these findings.
Your body makes vitamin D when your skin is in sunlight. You can also get the vitamin from foods like fatty fish, dairy, and eggs.
The recommended daily amount of vitamin D for adults is 600 to 800 IU (international units), depending on your age and whether you're a man or woman. A blood test can show your levels.
Vitamins A, C, and E
Some research concludes that "free radicals" -- molecules in your body that may play a role in illness and aging -- may also have an impact on the advance of MS. Since antioxidant vitamins like A, C, and E lessen cell damage by free radicals, some researchers believe they may also help improve MS. But much more study is needed.
There may also be some risks if you have MS and take antioxidant supplements. For instance, most MS treatments aim to curb your immune system, the body's defense against germs. Since antioxidants can boost your immune system, they might undo some of the benefits of your treatment.
Supplements aren't the only way to get antioxidants. You can find them in fruits and vegetables. Try eating 1 to 2 cups of fruits and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables a day.
Some people take vitamin B6 because they think it can boost their energy. There aren't any studies, though, that back this up.
It's possible to take too much B6, which can cause MS-like symptoms, including tingling. The recommended daily amount of vitamin B6 is 1.3 to 2 milligrams for adults, depending on your age, sex, and whether you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
You don't need supplements to get vitamin B6. You can also find it in foods like fish, pork, chicken, beans, and a number of vegetables.
Studies suggest that people with MS tend to have lower levels of B12 than other folks, which could be linked to MS-like symptoms.
There aren't any studies, though, that show that taking vitamin B12 supplements can improve MS symptoms.
Vegetarians can sometimes have low B12 levels, since the vitamin is found mostly in animal products. Your doctor can test your B12 levels and will likely only suggest a supplement if your levels are low.
Some studies show that people with MS tend to have lower selenium levels. One study in animals, though, showed that selenium supplements made MS symptoms worse.
Because selenium may boost your immune system, in theory it could make MS worse. Instead of supplements, it's best to get selenium from foods such as seafood, meat, cereal, bread, grains, and dairy.
Scientists once speculated that MS might be linked to how much calcium you took in when you were a child. There's little evidence to back up this theory.
Calcium does build strong bones and helps prevent osteoporosis, a disease that causes brittle bones. People with MS may have a higher risk of getting osteoporosis. You can find calcium in foods like dairy, eggs, and leafy greens.
A few studies show a link between zinc and multiple sclerosis, but the findings are mixed. Some tie low zinc levels to MS, while others suggest high zinc levels may activate the immune system and make symptoms worse.
There's a risk that getting too much zinc can cause nerve symptoms similar to MS.
Although the Chinese medicinal root ginkgo biloba may improve how well the brain works in healthy people, according to some studies, it hasn't been shown to slow down a drop-off in thinking skills.
Research is mixed as to whether it improves how well people with MS can think.
A small study shows gingko biloba may lessen fatigue in people with MS. Keep in mind that the supplement can be dangerous if you have a bleeding disorder. It also doesn't interact well with many medications.
Viral respiratory infections, like colds, have been linked to MS attacks. While some research suggests echinacea might shorten how long colds last and make them less severe, the evidence is inconclusive.
Also keep in mind that because the herb might boost the immune system, it could theoretically make your MS symptoms worse.
St. John's Wort
Depression is more common among people with MS, and many studies suggest that St. John's wort may help with depression.
The herb doesn't work for everyone, though. And it interacts with a laundry list of medications, including antidepressants. If you get depressed, talk to your doctor for a safe and effective treatment.
Several studies show that valerian may help you fall asleep, so some people with MS take it to get a better night's sleep.
The research is inconclusive. And keep in mind that valerian can have a sedative effect that might make you more tired when paired with some medications.
MS causes severe fatigue, and the Chinese have used Asian ginseng for years to increase energy and strength. Studies have mixed results. Ginseng could also boost the immune system, making it potentially unsafe for people with MS.