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Behind the headlines - can lifestyle changes help you overcome MS?

Dr Catherine Godbold

We know a healthy lifestyle is an important tool to help people manage their MS. Right now there's little evidence lifestyle changes alone can stop disability progression. But studies show disease modifying therapies (DMTs) reduce relapses and can slow progression.

Can lifestyle changes have any impact on my MS?

Yes. Studies have shown lifestyle changes like stopping smoking and doing more exercise can help improve a range of MS symptoms. Exercise in particular can improve symptoms like fatigue, pain and balance and mobility problems. And we know giving up smoking can slow progression and reduce relapses.

A healthy diet is good for everyone, and many people with MS find it a good way to help manage their health.

Find out more about living well with MS

Should I combine lifestyle changes with medication?

Yes. Many large clinical trials have shown that DMTs reduce relapses and may slow progression. There are more than a dozen available on the NHS, and the first DMT for early primary progressive MS is now available in England and Wales. Research shows the earlier you start treatment with a DMT the more effective it is.

“Starting drug therapy doesn’t mean that the lifestyle changes can’t be made in addition. Indeed there is every reason to expect that they will complement each other...medications should be seriously considered by anyone wanting to do everything possible to stabilise the illness, particularly early on after diagnosis"

Professor George Jelinek, 'Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis'

What does the research say?

Research into areas like diet is difficult. For example, drugs trials compare potential treatments to a placebo (dummy drug) and participants don’t know which they are taking. But in diet studies, people always know what they're eating, so there's more potential for this to influence how they feel.

So far, studies haven't been able to provide conclusive evidence that lifestyle changes alone can stop MS. Recent research into following a low fat diet failed to replicate most of the benefits for people with MS claimed in earlier studies. And a large review published this week found that vitamin D supplements did not affect disability.

It's hard to know whether benefits reported in some studies are due to lifestyle changes alone, or for other reasons, like participants were also taking DMTs.

Early treatment with a DMT can slow down progression

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, our Director of Research says: “People often ask us whether there are lifestyle changes that they can make to improve their MS.

"We know early treatment with a DMT can slow down progression. And evidence suggests a healthy lifestyle, including physical activity and stopping smoking may slow the progression of the condition and help to manage MS"

We need more research to assess the effectiveness of diets and other lifestyle changes in MS. And we're funding studies in many of these areas.

Everyone's lifestyle is a their personal choice, but if you're thinking of making any big changes, we encourage you to speak to your MS specialist first.

Explore research papers