Wellness and Lifestyle Research - National Multiple Sclerosis Society

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Driving Research on Wellness and Lifestyle Solutions for Everyone with MS

A great deal of progress has been made in the development of therapies that can help slow MS and reduce attacks in many, and substantial research is underway to find better therapies for everyone with MS. Yet there is an unmet need for information on additional ways for people with MS to live their best lives each and every day. For that reason, the National MS Society has made research on wellness and lifestyle factors a priority. 

Increasing evidence suggests that lifestyle factors help influence whether a person develops MS, and may also influence disease course and quality of life. Some candidates include:

  • Smoking seems to increase MS risk and progression.
  • Obesity in teenage girls may be associated with increased MS risk.
  • Vitamin D levels are associated with reduced risk of MS.

Targeting research on rehabilitative techniques, exercise, diet, complementary therapies and other factors allows us to respond to the most crucial concerns of people who live with MS.  In 2014, the Society convened a Wellness Strategy Meeting with leaders in the fields of diet, exercise and psychology, including individuals who also directly live with MS. This meeting launched an initiative whose future steps include creating an MS Wellness Research Network – including researchers in the areas of diet, exercise and mood – with the goal of developing research priorities, refining study methodologies, and engaging more scientists in MS wellness research.

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Diet and Complementary Medicine

Maintenance of general good health is important for people with MS or any chronic disorder. While many different diets or complementary treatments have been proposed in MS, evidence of effectiveness is very limited. Most of these proposed diets or treatments have not been subjected to rigorous, controlled studies, and the few that have produced mixed results. Researchers are making significant connections, however, that may eventually impact the lives of people living with MS.

  • Vitamin D – Research is increasingly pointing to a reduced level of vitamin D in the blood as a risk factor for developing MS. The Society led the way in preclinical studies, and is now funding a nationwide clinical trial of vitamin D supplementation, led by a team at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Salt may speed the development of an MS-like disease in mice, providing new insights on immune system activity in MS.  These studies pinpoint new avenues for strategies that can decrease MS attacks. These studies were funded by the Society, and current funded research explores how salt may affect the immune system in people.
  • Antioxidants are natural or manmade substances found in many foods that block the action of “free radicals,” by-products of bodily processes that may cause tissue injury and promote immune attacks in MS. The Society is funding scientists at Oregon Health & Science University to test whether an antioxidant can reduce optic nerve damage (often the first symptom of MS).
  • Gut bacteria are critical in the establishment and maintenance of immune balance. Several  teams funded by the Society are conducting comprehensive analyses of gut bacteria in people with MS to determine factors that may drive progression and help to develop probiotic strategies for stopping it.
  • Adolescent obesity has been associated with developing MS. Researchers funded by the Society are exploring further, with one team at Oregon Health & Science University testing whether a diet that restricts calorie intake reduces MS disease activity, while another team at Duke University is exploring whether a hormone that is raised in obese people contributes to immune-system activity in MS.

Sometimes the Society invests in testing a complementary strategy that holds promise, particularly through its Pilot Research Grant program that funds novel ideas. Although studies may lead to disappointing results, this learning is just as crucial to keep research moving in the right direction. Among strategies investigated in the past are a component of red wine (resveratrol) for protecting the nervous system and Ginkgo biloba to treat cognitive impairment. Results so far have not supported benefit of either in MS.
 

Exercise and Rehabilitation Research

Rehabilitation interventions can help people with MS to achieve their physical, psychological, social and vocational potential. But to convince doctors and insurers of their effectiveness, we need the kind of evidence that can only come from well-designed and conducted scientific studies. In 2005 the Society engaged advisors to help determine why the kind of rigorous science applied to other types of research had often been lacking in rehabilitation research. As a result, the Society established a fellowship program that supports expert mentors who train rehabilitation professionals in how to properly conduct MS rehabilitation research studies. The Society now funds more than 30 projects in the area of rehabilitation research, testing these and other solutions so that people with MS can live their best lives every day:

  • Using teleconferencing or virtual technology to increasing physical activity and exercise
  • Exercise regimens for people with advanced MS
  • Dance  to improve mobility
  • New strategies for improving cognitive function and psychosocial wellness

We Are Making Progress

We are making progress - here are some recent reports:

  • Weight training improves walking and quality of life: Women participating in a small study of progressive resistance (weight) training improved significantly in walking. Society-funded researchers at universities in Arizona, Florida and Georgia interviewed participants to assess quality of life, which improved as well. 
  • Balance/eye movement training improves fatigue: A 6-week balance and eye movement-focused exercise program improved balance, fatigue, and disability due to dizziness or disequilibrium in people with MS.  Results lasted for 4 weeks afterward. The University of Colorado study was funded by the Society. 
  • Strong evidence that cognitive rehabilitation improves learning and memory: Researchers at Kessler Foundation in New Jersey reported that a specific type of memory training improves learning in people with MS.  Effects lasted for 6 months after training ended, and improved quality of life. This team is training rehab researchers through the Society’s Mentor-Based fellowship program. 
  • Vitamin D and MS progression: Society-funded researchers at Harvard found that low levels of vitamin D early in MS may predict disease activity and progression later on. Society funding for this study leveraged data that cost millions of dollars to gather during an industry-funded clinical trial.

Finding Solutions That Will Change Lives

The National MS Society pursues all promising paths to uncover solutions for EVERYONE with MS, wherever those opportunities exist. Research going on right now on lifestyle and wellness may uncover substantial results that will help people with MS live their best lives.

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