MS is a complex disease that impacts the brain and spinal cord.

While the exact cause is unknown, experts believe the body’s immune system abnormally attacks the central nervous system causing damage to the myelin. This disrupts communication to and from the brain, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Common MS symptoms include memory problems, weakness, vision problems, fatigue, pain, numbness, tingling, walking difficulties, and mood changes that generally become more severe over time.

But a healthy lifestyle combined with disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) may help reduce symptoms and slow disease progression for some people with MS.

There are four basic disease courses of MS:

  • clinically isolated syndrome (CIS)
  • relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS)
  • secondary progressive MS (SPMS)
  • primary progressive MS (PPMS)

How the disease progresses is dependent on the course.

People with RRMS generally have relapses with periods of remission in between. When RRMS progresses or gets worse, you may develop SPMS, which is more aggressive and features a progressive worsening of neurologic function over time.

About 15 percent of people with MS will be diagnosed with PPMS, which features a slow and steady disease progression with no remission periods.

Although lifestyle changes alone won’t stop disease progression, they may help reduce symptoms, lower the number of relapses, and improve overall health for some people.

With that in mind, here are six practical tips that you can incorporate into your life to help slow the progression of MS.

1. Quitting smoking

If there’s one change you can make that will have the most impact on MS, it’s ditching the cigarette habit. Cigarette smoking is a modifiable risk factor that contributes to MS disease progression.

It’s also a habit that many people don’t associate with an increase in disability and the development of disease progression. In fact, a 2020 study involving 29 active smokers with MS found that 52 percent of the participants were unaware of a relationship between disease progression and smoking.

This shows a need for healthcare professionals to closely monitor lifestyle habits such as smoking and provide treatment options for people wanting to quit.

According to a summary published by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, people who smoke may progress to SPMS at a faster rate than nonsmokers. People with MS who smoke may not get the full effect of DMTs.

The good news, though, is smoking cessation can delay the time it takes to transition to SPMS. Plus, quitting smoking can positively affect MS symptoms, the number of relapses, level of disability, and motor strength and cognition.

If you’re interested in smoking cessation programs, talk with your doctor or check out the resources at

2. Reducing alcohol consumption

The occasional drink or two may not wreak havoc on your system. But too much alcohol could impair balance and coordination, at least temporarily, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Alcohol can also interfere with certain medications due to the effect it has on the central nervous system. Because of this, your doctor may recommend lowering your alcohol intake.

3. Incorporating moderate exercise

Moderate exercise can help improve a range of MS symptoms, including balance, fatigue, mobility issues, and pain. The key to physical activity, though, is finding the right exercise at an intensity that works for your fitness level and ability.

In general, the recommended exercise guidelines for people with MS include at least 150 minutes per week of exercise or at least 150 minutes per week of lifestyle physical activity.

The focus should be on gradual progress based on your abilities, preferences, and safety, according to a 2020 report of physical activity recommendations. Activities can include walking, swimming, water aerobics, gentle stretching, chair yoga, and resistance training.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommends water workouts for stretching tight muscles and improving flexibility but says the pool temperature shouldn’t exceed 84°F (29°C).

If possible, consider working with a physical or occupational therapist experienced in MS who can establish a personalized program and monitor activity, especially if physical mobility is limited. Issues related to balance and mobility need close supervision.

Make sure to talk with your doctor or treatment team before beginning any new exercise program.

4. Making dietary changes

A balanced, healthy diet is essential for overall health. While there isn’t one diet proven to slow MS progression, there are some foods to include and ones to avoid.

Foods high in antioxidants, fiber, calcium, vitamin D, and other vitamins and minerals are a great place to start, according to a 2018 review. Add in lean protein sources such as salmon and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, and you have a well-rounded MS diet.

MS-friendly foods to include:

  • fresh fruits and vegetables
  • whole grains like rice, oats, and quinoa
  • plant-based foods and grains
  • fatty fish, including salmon and mackerel
  • healthy fats found in flaxseed, olive oil, avocado oil
  • eggs
  • legumes, nuts, and seeds
  • low sugar, low fat yogurt

Foods to minimize or avoid:

  • saturated and animal fats
  • trans fats
  • processed red meat
  • highly processed foods and ready-made meals
  • fried foods like chips and french fries
  • foods high in sugar
  • foods high in sodium
  • sugar sweetened drinks such as sodas

Anecdotally, some people in the MS community are finding relief from symptoms by following specific diet plans like paleo, Wahls Protocol, Swank diet, and going gluten-free.

5. Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule

Getting enough sleep each night is important for general health. But it’s even more critical for people with MS. According to a 2017 study, sleep disturbances may be a trigger for an acute MS relapse. So, what does a good sleep schedule look like?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), habits to improve sleep include:

  • getting 7 or more hours of sleep per night (for people ages 18 to 60)
  • waking and going to bed at about the same time each day
  • keeping the bedroom dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature
  • getting physical activity during the day
  • not using tobacco
  • avoiding alcohol, large meals, and caffeine before bedtime
  • removing all electronic devices from the bedroom

6. Following your treatment plan

The best way to manage MS symptoms and slow disease progression is to follow the treatment plan recommended by your doctor and healthcare team. This includes Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs that delay the progression of disability, reduce relapses, and limit new disease activity, according to the NINDS.

It’s also essential to follow a treatment plan for any other health conditions that may worsen MS symptoms or disease progression.

MS is a lifelong condition that often gets worse over time. But with the right treatment plan and lifestyle modifications, you can improve your overall quality of life.

Once you begin making lifestyle changes, make sure to track your progress and note any increase or decrease in symptoms.

Remember, this process takes time and often includes many ups and downs. Being kind to yourself and having patience will help you see that any change is better than no change.

Read this article in Spanish.