Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic condition affecting the central nervous system. Its symptoms range from mild and intermittent to severe and permanently debilitating (NINDS, 2012). There is currently no cure for MS, but many pharmaceutical and alternative treatments are available.
Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
There are many symptoms of multiple sclerosis; symptoms tend to become more severe as the disease progresses. Common symptoms of MS include vision problems, weakness, memory problems, balance and coordination problems, and a variety of sensations in the limbs (such as prickling, tingling, or numbness) (NIH, 2013).
Certain treatments can be very effective in alleviating and even avoiding the unpleasant symptoms of MS. Before using any herbs, supplements, or alternative or complementary therapies to treat MS, discuss the benefits and risks with a physician.
Herbs and Supplements: Can They Help You Beat MS?
Although no drug or supplement can cure MS, some treatments may help people slow the disease’s progress. Other therapies can significantly reduce symptoms or prolong periods of remission. The use of complementary and alternative medicine among people with MS is high around the world (Skovgaard, et al., 2012; Yadav, Shinto, & Bourdette, 2010). Many people turn to non-pharmaceutical treatments when Western medicine fails to improve their symptoms. Others decide to try these options when referred by their primary care provider or when they hear about the promise of alternative treatments (Olsen, 2009).
Regardless of your reasons for seeking information on herbal and supplementary treatments for MS, always consult a healthcare professional prior to discontinuing the use of pharmaceuticals or adding a new therapy to your treatment regimen. Some herbs, supplements, and alternative therapies can cause drug interactions, adverse health conditions, and medical complications when used incorrectly.
The Top Herbs and Supplements for MS (and What They Offer)
The following list does not cover every available herbal or supplementary option for treating the symptoms of MS. Instead, the list offers a brief summary of the important information about each of the most common herbs and supplements used by people with MS.
Current use of agrimony is based on centuries of its use in treating a variety of health problems. Although different medicinal properties are attributed to the many different varieties of agrimony (Park, et al., 2012), recent research has discovered antiviral (Shin, et al., 2010), antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and metabolism-boosting properties (Ivanova, Vankova, & Nashar, 2012). Human research on this herb as a treatment for MS is virtually nonexistent, although some promising animal model studies are investigating the herb’s properties as they relate to MS symptoms.
Maharishi amrit kalash is an Ayurvedic food supplement used to promote immune health and slow the deterioration of the central nervous system. Human studies are lacking, but animal studies show promise for this supplement in treating potential problems associated with MS (Inaba, Mirbod, & Sugiura, 2005; Vohra, Sharma, & Kansal, 1999).
This Ayurvedic herb is known by many names, including Withania somnifera, Indian ginseng, and asana. Its berries, roots, and extracts are sometimes used for chronic pain, fatigue, inflammation, stress relief, and anxiety. Although some research for clinical uses of ashwagandha are promising (Chopra, et al., 2004; Kataria, et al., 2012), it has not been studied well enough to know whether it can effectively treat multiple sclerosis or its symptoms.
Astragalus is an herb that has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Although there are many species of this plant, only two are typically used for medicinal purposes: Astragalus membranaceus and Astragalus mongholicus. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), astragalus is safe for most adults but may interact with drugs that affect the immune system (2012). This herb is thought to affect the immune system, liver, and heart, but there has not been enough research in humans to fully understand its effects.
Barberry, or Berberis vulgaris, has long been used in Indian and Middle Eastern medicine for easing inflammation, fighting infection, treating diarrhea, and calming heartburn (Ehrlich, 2010). It can be used in many forms and may be used to boost the immune system, but human research is lacking.
Bee Pollen or Venom
Venom of honeybees is a clear liquid, and treatment of health conditions with the venom of bee stings is called apitherapy (the venom is also known as apitoxin). Unlike many of the other herbs and supplements used to treat MS and its symptoms, bee venom has been specifically studied for its effects on MS in several clinical trials. These human trials were typically small, and there are still too few to know for sure whether venom-derived treatments may be useful for treating MS. Trials showing benefits are unreliable (Castro, et al., 2005). Others indicate that bee sting therapy is ineffective (Wessellius, et al., 2005), insufficiently studied (Bowling, 2010), or downright dangerous (Alqutub, 2011).
Bee pollen, on the other hand, is increasingly used as a dietary supplement. Although its properties are still under investigation, it appears to have antioxidant and antimicrobial abilities (Fatrcova-Sramkova, et al., 2013). Others claim it is useful in boosting immune system health and fighting chronic conditions. Research is limited, and deadly allergic reactions to bee pollen are possible (Greenberger & Flais, 2001). People with suspected allergies to bee stings or bee pollen should avoid all treatment options using extracts or products from honeybees.
Bilberry, also known as huckleberry, is a relative of the blueberry and can be used for its fruit or leaves. Although it is often used in foods, the berries and leaves can be used to derive plant extracts for supplements and other medicinal uses. Historically, this herb was used to treat everything from vision problems and scurvy to diarrhea and circulation problems (NCCAM, 2012). There are few reliable human trials studying this plant, and bilberry research specifically related to MS is virtually nonexistent. However, there is evidence suggesting bilberry is rich in antioxidants and has the potential to improve vision, reduce inflammation, and protect cognitive function (Chu, et al., 2011).
Arctium lappa, commonly known as burdock, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and European medicine for centuries. It is touted for its apparent ability to promote circulation and reduce inflammation (Chan, et al., 2011). Burdock is being studied for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory abilities and its potential impact on cancer, diabetes, skin conditions, and the gastrointestinal system. Severe allergic reactions to burdock are possible, and not enough research on MS and burdock has been done to determine whether it is useful for people with MS.
Calcium is a crucial mineral for the body’s health and proper function. It is a common part of many diets and is a common supplement. Research indicates that calcium plays an important role in bone health, cardiovascular health, and cancer risk (ODS, 2012). Proper levels of calcium are important for everyone, but individuals with MS who are also taking vitamin D or medications with one of these ingredients should consult a physician before adding one of these supplements to their routine. Vitamin D increases the body’s absorption of calcium, and an overdose of calcium can be toxic (ODS, 2012).
Apparently catnip is not just for kitties—some individuals use this herb for MS pain management. Catnip has sedative effects, which may actually make fatigue worse or multiply the effect of other sedative medications (Bowling & Stewart, 2004). Research in humans is sorely lacking, but early animal trials on extracts of various species of this plant indicate that catnip may have anti-inflammatory and pain relief abilities (Ali, et al., 2012; Bouidida, et al., 2008).
Chamomile has been used for centuries both topically and orally for skin conditions, sleeplessness or anxiety, stomach upset, and gas or diarrhea (NCCAM, 2012). Trials in humans are few and far between, but its common use and availability in a variety of forms make chamomile a popular remedy for some people with MS. Chamomile offers antioxidant (Guimaraes, et al., 2013) and antibacterial (Baradari, Khezri, & Arabi, 2012) effects, and it is also being studied for its ability to prevent tumor growth and mouth ulcers for cancer patients (Lefort & Blay, 2013). However, not enough is known specifically about chamomile’s role in treating MS to indicate whether it is effective for this purpose.
Chyawanprash is an herbal tonic commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine. Early animal studies indicate it may protect cognitive function by aiding memory (Parle & Bansal, 2011). It also may have ingredients that promote immune system health (Sur, et al., 2004). Formal studies on humans are scarce, and there is not enough evidence to determine whether Chyawanprash is effective or helpful in managing MS symptoms.
Cramp bark, or Viburnum opulus, is plant bark that is used to treat cramps and spasms. Although human research on this herb is in its infancy, it appears to have antioxidants and anti-cancer effects that may inhibit the growth of tumors or lesions (Rop, et al., 2010; Ulger, et al., 2012).
Although cranberry juice (unsweetened 100% juice, not cocktail or mixed juices) and cranberry tablets have long been used to fend off urinary tract infections, research indicates that its benefit may be less than previously expected (Jepson, Williams, & Craig, 2012). Diluted pure cranberry juice (which is high in antioxidants) and cranberry tablets may be an easy way to give MS patients with bladder dysfunction a bit of an advantage, however. Complications with this remedy are rare.
Coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10, is used for its potential ability to slow neurodegenerative diseases. Research on its effectiveness is mixed, but certain studies have shown a small positive effect of CoQ10 in patients with a variety of neurological disorders (Spindler, Beal, & Henchcliffe, 2009). CoQ10 deficiency does not appear to be a risk factor for MS (de Bustos, et al., 2000), but the supplement is typically well tolerated and generally safe. More research is needed before it can be broadly recommended for people with MS or other conditions that cause degenerative problems.
Dandelion Root & Leaf
Korean medicine has used the dandelion in herbal remedies for energy improvement and general health, while Native American and Arabic medicine used dandelion for digestive and skin problems. Animal trials suggest dandelion may reduce fatigue and promote immune health (Lee, Lee, & An, 2012). Research also suggests that dandelion has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects (Gonzalez-Castejon, Visioli, & Rodriguez-Casado, 2012). No research has examined the impact of dandelion on multiple sclerosis, but the plant does appear to have some medicinal properties that might be helpful to individuals with MS symptoms.
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid, which can be obtained by consuming vegetable oils, fatty fish, or omega-3 dietary supplements. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), DHA is essential for blood flow, muscle activity, digestion, cell growth, and brain function (2012). In patients with MS, DHA supplements may help protect the central nervous system (Shinto, et al., 2011). Its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to promote brain health may prove useful for people with MS (Simopoulos, 2002; Kong, Yen, & Ganea, 2011). Side effects to DHA supplementation are typically mild, although it can thin the blood and make clotting difficult. Most people with MS may be able to safely supplement with DHA with the guidance of a physician.
Echinacea is available in many forms and has long been used to treat colds and upper respiratory infections. Evidence is mixed as to its ability to prevent and treat colds (NCCAM, 2012). For MS patients, research generally supports the plant’s anti-inflammatory potential for the central nervous system and its ability to promote immune cell health (Bauer, Woelkhart, & Salo-Ahen, 2008). Some people may be allergic to echinacea and should take great caution with its use, but the herb is typically safe as a temporary supplement.
Elderflower is known by many names, including European elder, Sambucus nigra, and elderberry. The berries and flowers of the elder tree have traditionally been used for skin conditions, infections, colds, fevers, pain, and swelling. The uncooked or unripe berries are toxic, and inappropriate use of the plant can cause diarrhea and vomiting (NCCAM, 2012). Limited research supports the use of the elderflower in treating the flu, as well as for chronic inflammatory conditions (Schwaiger, et al., 2011). Animal studies also suggest a role of elderflower extracts in regulating immune response in the central nervous system (Wielgat, Holownia, & Braszko, 2012). More research in humans needs to be done to define the potential of elderflower in managing MS symptoms.
Fish or Cod Liver Oil
Fish liver oil and cod liver oil are not the same as plain fish oils, which many people take for the omega-3 fatty acids. Liver oils from fish contain omega-3 fatty acids as well as vitamins A and D, which can cause overdose effects in large amounts (NCCAM, 2012). Some research indicates that cod liver oil is not as useful as regular fish in the diet for diseases that cause demyelination (Torkildsen, et al., 2009). However, the vitamin D in cod liver oil may have a protective effect prior to the onset of MS (McDowell, et al., 2011). In general, however, vitamin D and the fatty acids found in fish liver and its oils may offer a variety of health benefits from which people with MS are not excluded.
Ginger has long been used for its remarkable flavor and its medicinal purposes. In folk medicines, it is commonly used to aid in stomach problems, nausea, joint and muscle pain, and diarrhea (NCCAM, 2012). Research is starting to uncover anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective potential in ginger and other spices (Kannappan, et al., 2011). The potential role of ginger in preventing inflammatory problems makes ginger an excellent choice for use in cooking or supplements (Aggarwal & Shishodia, 2004). Most people can tolerate reasonable use of ginger with few or no side effects.
Renowned for its potential to improve memory and mental clarity, Gingko biloba has been used for a wide variety of ailments over the centuries. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), gingko extract or supplements are possibly effective for improving thinking and memory difficulties, relieving leg pain and overactive nerve responses, impacting eye and vision problems, and even reducing dizziness and vertigo (2012). It has not been widely studied in individuals with MS. Most people can safely take gingko biloba in supplement form, but it may interact with a wide variety of other medications and herbs (NIH, 2012). For this reason, it is essential to ask a doctor before beginning the use of this supplement.
There are several varieties of ginseng used for medicinal purposes. Most forms of ginseng have some well-supported health benefits. Panax ginseng, for instance, is possibly effective for improving thinking and memory and relieving erectile dysfunction, although its safety is less well known (NIH, 2012). American ginseng may help prevent respiratory infections, and Siberian ginseng may have antiviral properties that could help fight a cold. Most forms of ginseng also have benefits for diabetics, but all forms carry the risk of allergy and drug interaction. Always ask a physician before adding ginseng to an MS dietary regimen.
Gotu kola is a popular traditional medicine in Chinese and Ayurvedic history. It has been promoted as an herb that can lengthen life and improve symptoms of eye diseases, swelling, inflammation, skin conditions, and fatigue (ACS, 2008). Gotu kola has been studied very little, and its actual impact on MS symptoms is unknown (ACS, 2008). It is available in a wide variety of forms, and it is generally considered safe in low doses.
Hawthorn plants have long been used in medical treatments for heart conditions, such as heart failure or irregular heartbeats (Ehrlich, 2011). More recently, it has been studied (primarily in animals) for its effect on circulation. Recent research also suggests it has anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory properties that could play a role in fighting other diseases (Jurikova, et al., 2012). In general, this plant has not been well studied for its effects on human health.
Huo Ma Ren (Chinese Hemp Seed)
This traditional Chinese medicine, used for its sedative properties for a variety of illnesses, is believed to soothe problems of the nervous system. Extracts from plants in the cannabis family have been studied for their role in reducing spasticity, neurodegeneration, and inflammation (Saito, Rezende, & Teixeira, 2012). Some practitioners believe that closely monitored use of specific members of this plant family can be highly effective for treating symptoms of multiple sclerosis (Grotenhermen & Muller-Vahl, 2012), but its use in the clinical setting remains controversial.
Lemongrass, a widely known plant popular in aromatherapy and Asian cooking, has been well studied for its antimicrobial properties. It may also have properties that promote sleep and prevent seizures, based on animal studies (Bianco et al., 2009). Other animal trials do not show these effects, however, and the medicinal properties of lemongrass have been studied very little in humans—particularly for symptoms related to multiple sclerosis.
Licorice root and its extracts have long been used to treat viral conditions, stomach ulcers, and throat problems. Very limited research suggests that licorice may reduce inflammation (Li, et al., 2011). It may also have some neuroprotective effects (Kannappan, et al., 2011). Research is still insufficient to make a recommendation for the use of licorice to treat MS symptoms.
Magnesium is essential for a wide variety of bodily functions. Deficiencies in this mineral can cause weakness, fatigue, tingling, cramps, seizures, muscle contraction, numbness, and personality changes (ODS, 2009). Some research indicates that magnesium deficiencies may be associated with some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and a number of other chronic and progressive conditions (Johnson, 2001). Magnesium supplements and a diet containing natural sources of magnesium may be useful for preventing a deficiency that could aggravate symptoms of MS (NIH, 2012).
Traditionally used as a liver tonic, milk thistle is being studied in the modern age for its impact on liver inflammation and health (Hackett, Twedt, & Gustafson, 2013). The herb is available in a variety of forms (tinctures, supplements, etc.), but the appropriate doses for treatment of conditions in humans is unknown. More research needs to be done before this herb can be officially recommended for treatment of MS symptoms.
Often used to treat constipation and for skin care, mineral oil is commonly found in cosmetics and laxatives. The use of mineral oil for laxative purposes should not be done for long-term relief (NMSS, n.d.). It is possible to overdose on mineral oil; its minerals and vitamins can build up to toxic levels in the body. This oil can also make other gastrointestinal problems worse in some individuals.
Multimineral & Multivitamin Supplements
Although they can be purchased as separate supplements, many supplements combine numerous vitamins and minerals in a single pill or powder. In most cases, it is preferable to obtain as many nutrients as possible from a healthy, balanced diet. However, some health problems make it harder for people to get enough out of food or make it easier to develop deficiencies. There is still disagreement in the scientific community as to the importance of multiminerals or multivitamins in the prevention of a wide range of health problems and the maintenance of health. Some evidence does suggest that certain varieties of multimineral and/or multivitamin supplementation may help prevent eye problems (Seddon, 2007), brain inflammation (Ryan, O’Gorman, & Nolan, 2011), neurodegenerative problems (Mazzio, Close, & Soliman, 2011), fatigue and cognitive problems (Haskell, et al., 2010), and other health problems. For some individuals with MS, a general multimineral-multivitamin supplement may help prevent deficiencies that could worsen symptoms of the disease.
Myrrh has historically been treasured for its aroma and use in ritual religious ceremonies. In addition, it has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties. It was believed to have antiseptic abilities as well as the power to fight diabetes, circulation problems, and rheumatism (Etman, et al., 2011). It also appears to have useful anti-inflammatory properties (Kim, et al., 2012) for the modern treatment of health problems. It does not appear to have been studied specifically for symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
Oat Seed or Oat Straw
Whole oats are often used to reduce cholesterol and promote cardiovascular health. Despite their reputation for improving heart health, the research supporting oats’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in humans is limited (Andersson & Hellstrand, 2012). Oat seed is believed to have anti-fungal properties (Sorenson, et al., 2010). Oat straw is believed to be helpful for multiple sclerosis, spasms, depression, and degenerative diseases (Ritchason, 1995). Research supporting these abilities of oat straw is lacking, however.
Omega-3 & Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids (EFAs), or polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), that are revered for their potential to promote everything from a healthy cardiovascular system to a healthy brain. Although their exact impact on MS is yet unknown, clinical studies are under way. The anti-inflammatory and immune-promoting effects of these fats are expected to be a promising option for supplementation in the treatment of MS (Mehta, Dworkin, & Schwid, 2009). These fatty acids can be found naturally in foods as well as in over-the-counter pills (Franzen-Castle & Ritter-Gooder, 2010).
Peppermint has long been used topically and in the form of tea or capsules to promote digestive health, fight muscle and nerve pain, relieve headaches, and ease nausea or stress (NCCAM, 2012). There is insufficient research to determine whether it is clinically useful for the treatment of MS, but research is promising for its effect on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) can be found naturally in the diet as well as in supplements. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may be helpful for reducing inflammation and promoting health in a variety of ways, but the role of PUFAs in treating MS symptoms is not well studied. Some research suggests that PUFA supplements may reduce the severity and length of MS relapses (von Geldern & Mowry, 2012).
Probiotics are bacteria that are thought to be useful to the body. They are often called “good bacteria” and are similar to the microorganisms found in the human body (NCCAM, 2012). Probiotics are available in the form of supplements and yogurts. Limited research suggests that probiotics may be useful in avoiding malabsorption of nutrients in people with MS (Kidd, 2001). In general, probiotics may have anti-inflammatory properties that may boost immune and neurological health (Hemarajata & Versalovic, 2013).
Red clover is a legume that has historically been used to treat respiratory problems, cancers, and menopausal symptoms. Some research suggests it could help prevent cardiovascular disease (Mueller, Hobiger, & Jungbauer, 2010), but long-term use of red clover may not be safe. It has not been evaluated in human trials for its impact on MS symptoms.
Throughout the ages, sage has been used for more than just its rich herb flavor. Historically, it has been used to address mouth and throat problems, indigestion, and mental acuity (NCCAM, 2012). While sage may have properties that are linked to memory enhancement and improved mood (Senol, et al., 2011; Kennedy, et al., 2011), there is not enough research in humans to know how effective it might be in treating MS symptoms.
Schizandra (Schisandra) berry is thought to have antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties (Jung, et al., 2012; Takimoto, et al., 2013). Animal trials suggest it may also have a neuroprotective ability (Lee, Jung, & Lee, 2012). However, schizandra berries have not been well studied for their potential to relieve MS symptoms in humans.
Selenium is a mineral that is becoming increasingly well understood for its contribution to human health. It has long been used to prevent heart problems and a number of different cancers, although scientific support for selenium’s effects is limited (NIH, 2012). Research indicates it plays an important role in eye health, immune system health, and a variety of chronic health conditions (Sanmartin, et al., 2011).
American skullcap has traditionally been used to promote sleep, ease anxiety, and treat convulsions (Ehrlich, 2011). Chinese skullcap is used for a wider variety of health conditions, such as headache, cancer, inflammation, infection, and allergies (Ehrlich, 2011). The two varieties of skullcap should be used with caution; both can interact with certain medications and medical conditions. There is not enough research on skullcap’s effects on human health to recommend it to manage MS.
Slippery elm has long been used as a treatment for skin problems, gastrointestinal discomforts, coughs, and sore throats (Ehrlich, 2011). There is not enough research on slippery elm to know whether it is effective at treating MS symptoms.
Soy lecithin is found in soybeans; it is rich in choline, which may be linked to better heart and brain health. Soy lecithin may be useful in fighting high levels of cholesterol (Wilson, Meservey, & Nicolosi, 1998) and in raising choline levels in the brain (Magil, Zeisel, & Wurtman, 1981). It has not been studied well enough in people with MS to determine whether it is useful for treating MS symptoms.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort has traditionally been used for nerve pain, mental health problems (like depression and anxiety), and as a balm for wounds. Its impact on depressive symptoms has been well studied. St. John’s wort is starting to be evaluated for its ability to promote the healing and health of nerves (Mohammadi, Amini, & Charehsaz, 2012; Wan & Chen, 2010). There is not enough research on St.-John’s-wort and MS to be able to recommend its use for treatment of MS symptoms. It may interact with a wide variety of medications and should be discussed with a physician prior to use (NCCAM, 2012).
This popular alternative to sugar has long been used for diabetes treatment. Recent research has also identified antioxidant effects and other properties that could potentially improve liver and kidney health (Shivanna, et al., 2012). There is not enough research on stevia and MS to be able to recommend its use for treatment of MS symptoms.
Turmeric is a popular spice containing curcuminoids. Curcuminoids have been shown to have neuroprotective effects (Kim, Kim, & Han, 2012). Its anti-inflammatory abilities also show promise for the alleviation of MS symptoms (Xie, Li, & Takahara, 2011) and other autoimmune diseases (Bright, 2007). However, its true impact on MS symptoms, as well as its proper dosage, must be studied further before it can be widely recommended for use by people with MS.
Traditionally used for headaches, trembling, and a variety of sleep disorders, valerian has also been used for anxiety and depression. Research on the effectiveness of valerian for insomnia and anxiety is mixed (Nunes & Sousa, 2011). It is uncertain whether valerian is useful for treating symptoms of MS effectively.
This fat-soluble vitamin plays a critical role in vision, reproductive health, and the immune system. Vitamin A is also important for proper function of the heart and other organs (ODS, 2012). Vitamin A can be found naturally in a variety of foods (such as leafy greens, organ meats, fruits, and dairy products) or obtained through a supplement. It is possible to overdose on vitamin A, and it should not be taken in large doses without the advice of a physician. Vitamin A supplementation has been linked to delays in age-related macular degeneration (ODS, 2012). The antioxidants in vitamin A may be useful for people with MS, but the connection has not been well explored (Besler, Comoglu, & Okcu, 2002; Filippi, Preziosa, & Rocca, 2013).
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine or thiamin, is critical for proper brain function. Thiamine is also essential for healthy metabolism and nerve, muscle, and heart function. Deficiencies in thiamine are associated with a variety of neurodegenerative conditions, including multiple sclerosis (Jhala & Hazell, 2011). Too little vitamin B1 can also cause weakness and fatigue (NIH, 2011). Thiamine can be found in nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, eggs, and lean meats.
Vitamin B6 is an essential nutrient for metabolism that is found in certain foods (such as organ meats, fish, and starchy vegetables) and supplements. Although deficiencies are rare, low vitamin B6 levels are not uncommon in autoimmune disorders. Vitamin B6 deficiency can be associated with abnormal brain function, depression, confusion, and kidney problems (ODS, 2011). Research on B6 and multiple sclerosis is limited, and there is little scientific support indicating vitamin B6 supplementation can prevent MS symptoms.
Vitamin B12 is important for the proper function of nerve cells, red blood cells, the brain, and many other body parts. Deficiencies lead to weakness, weight loss, numbness and tingling in hands and feet, balance problems, confusion, memory problems, and even nerve damage (ODS, 2011). People with MS may be more likely to develop a B12 deficiency, making supplementation a good option for some individuals (Biswas, et al., 2012; Zhu, He, & Liu, 2011). Together, vitamins B6 and B12 may be important for eye health. However, there is insufficient evidence to connect vitamin B12 supplementation to improved MS symptoms.
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is an important player in the function of the immune system. It is an antioxidant that may not be absorbed as well by individuals with MS. Although vitamin C deficiencies are rare, they can cause serious problems (depression, tooth loss, fatigue, joint pain, and even death) (ODS, 2011). Some research indicates that ascorbic acid is essential to eye health and the prevention of macular degeneration and cataracts (ODS, 2011). Some evidence suggests that vitamin C’s antioxidants may help protect individuals with MS from deterioration (Odinak, Bisaga, & Zarubina, 2002), but more research is needed.
Vitamin D is essential for bone, muscle, nerve, and immune system health. Most people obtain vitamin D from sun exposure, fatty fish, and fortified foods and drinks. Mounting research suggests a strong connection between vitamin D levels and the development and progression of MS (Dorr, Doring, & Paul, 2013). Sun exposure and monitored vitamin D supplementation is becoming a more common recommendation for the treatment of MS (Holmoy, et al., 2012). More research is necessary, however, before the practice becomes standardized and the strength of vitamin D’s effects on MS is fully understood.
Vitamin E is an important fat-soluble nutrient and antioxidant. It is essential for immune system health and preventing blood clots. Vegetable oils, nuts, and green vegetables are the best food sources of vitamin E (ODS, 2011). The antioxidant abilities of vitamin E have been of interest to researchers for their potential protective role in MS (Butterfield, et al., 2002). People with MS may already have low levels of vitamin E (Salemi, et al., 2010). However, there is not enough research on vitamin E and MS to know whether it is a truly effective treatment option for MS symptoms.
Wood betony, or Stachys lavandulifolia, has traditionally been used as a tea to treat respiratory and digestive problems. Wood betony oil has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties (Iscan, et al., 2012). Early research suggests it may have the potential to fight other disease-causing processes (Basaran, et al., 1996), but more research is needed to understand whether wood betony may be useful in treating MS symptoms.
This plant may have anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory properties (Cheeke, Piacente, & Oleszek, 2006). Yucca also has anti-platelet effects and antioxidant abilities (Olas, et al., 2008). It has not been well studied for its impact on MS symptoms specifically.
Zinc is a mineral that is necessary in small amounts for human health. It is used to boost the immune system, treat a variety of eye problems, address skin conditions, and even fight viruses and neurodegenerative conditions. Research suggests many people with multiple sclerosis may have a low intake of zinc (Ramsaransing, Mellema, & De Keyser, 2009). More research is needed, but it is possible that some individuals with MS may benefit from the apparent promotion of eye health and the neuroprotective effect of zinc (Organisciak, et al., 2012; Sobieszczanska, et al., 2012).
Understanding Herbs and Supplements for MS
On the whole, research into natural remedies for multiple sclerosis (as with most other diseases) is limited. Human trials must be based on significant lab and animal research findings; the scientific process can be lengthy. In the meantime, people interested in using herbal and supplement therapies should take extreme caution. It is essential to discuss all plans to use alternative or complementary therapies with a physician prior to making any changes in a treatment regimen.
Many herbs and supplements have strong medicinal properties. Because of this, they may interact with prescription medications, other herbs and supplements, and even diet. Effective MS treatments may vary significantly from person to person. Take the time to build a sensible treatment regimen—then reap the benefits.