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Lifestyle Changes

By Cherie C. Binns
Lifestyle-Changes_Horizontal-(2).jpegWe seem to always be hearing that wellness and living well with MS requires lifestyle changes. What does that mean and where do we start? When a new year rolls around, we often think of making a resolution to lose weight or to exercise more. Why? Is it because someone is prompting us to do so? Is it so we can fit into clothing that no longer is comfortable? I am here to tell you that unless and until it is something that calls to you, which feels necessary to you, you will likely be unsuccessful in initiating and following through with those changes so I’d like to take a couple of minutes and tell you how I started on this path and what kept me there.

About 15 years ago, I had a friend who was retired from special forces and had joined his local police department. He began to put on weight, become fatigued easily, his muscles hurt and he slept a lot. Balance became an issue, he started falling and having lower body weakness. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with MS but not until he had taken a medical leave from work and had put on nearly 40 pounds. He had always considered his diet to be healthy but as he felt less well, he ate “easier” foods that were single serving packaged or frozen and ready to heat and eat and the weight began to pile on and fatigue and pain worsened. He began to read labels and discovered that most of these foods contained preservatives, artificial flavoring or coloring, high sugar and salt content. Although they addressed hunger and, he thought, nutritional needs, they were making him feel overall unwell. He began to focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and vegetable proteins. He cut out dairy and glutens (the mainstay of our breads and pastas), and within a month he said his energy began to improve and he had actually dropped a few pounds.

I thought I might give what he was doing a try for a few weeks to see if it made any difference. I had been struggling with depression, was putting on weight and was seeing both my blood pressure and blood sugar begin to slip north of normal ranges. I was scooter dependent outside the house and using a cane and furniture to navigate within the house. Literally, I changed my way of eating almost within a month. I first eliminated all sugar except what occurred naturally in whole foods. Then I began to cut out dairy and glutens. My energy began to return and my mood improved. But what really got me hooked was pain ramped down to a point where my sleep improved. The mental fog cleared. I began to work on the deconditioning that had settled in over the previous 20 years. It got me out of my scooter and ultimately I even put away my canes. 

While I continue to follow the same diet (most of the time) today, I may relax during travel or holidays. You know what I notice? On those days where there is gluten or dairy consumed, the following day my balance is off. My mental clarity is not as sharp. My contact lenses need cleaning several times during the day. I am more itchy than usual and my sleep is poorer. I find that I need some form of exercise daily or pain begins to creep in again.

I am taking a disease-modifying therapy but I firmly believe that one needs an entire multifaceted approach to live well with MS. Medication to manage inflammatory changes in the central nervous system must be supported by lifestyle changes, particularly diet and exercise. Stress reduction, vocation, volunteerism, spirituality all must be incorporated and tended for physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Recently I saw something on Facebook that resonated with me. It said:

“Change is HARD. Exercise is HARD. Choosing healthy foods is HARD. 
Being overweight and tired and feeling like crap is HARD.
You just have to choose your hard.”

Lifestyle changes really do help us to live better and more comfortable lives with MS. Start slowly with one or two changes and as they become comfortable and natural add others. I invite you to copy the phrase above and put it on your fridge where you can see it and be encouraged by it each day. If you need help staying the course, MS Focus: the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation Facebook page is a place where others are dealing with similar issues and can help encourage you to stay on track. May your new year be healthy and productive and may the changes you select to make not be too hard.