Published on September 25th, 2017

Multiple Sclerosis: What Every Woman Needs to Know

When you have multiple sclerosis (MS), your immune system attacks your central nervous system, affecting your brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. More than 2.3 million people are affected by MS worldwide. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50.

About two thirds of those diagnosed are women.

Because the disease strikes so many women, recognizing the symptoms is vitally important to get help in time, according to neurologist Nataliya Ternopolska, MD, MS Specialist with the Multiple Sclerosis Center, St. Luke’s University Health Network. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. They can also vary, occur and then disappear, even appear singly or in combination, making MS sometimes difficult to diagnose. An MS Specialist can be an asset to your healthcare team for diagnosis, treatment and helping you live a healthy lifestyle.

“MS can be managed when it’s caught early,” says Dr. Ternopolska. “That’s why it’s so important to recognize the symptoms and find help in specialized MS centers.”

Know the Symptoms

The symptoms of MS may include tingling, numbness, painful sensations, slurred speech and blurred or double vision. Some people experience muscle weakness, poor balance, poor coordination, muscle tightness or spasticity, tremors or paralysis, which may be temporary or permanent. Problems with bladder, bowel, sexual function or mood (particularly depression and anxiety) are also very common. Fatigue is a major concern for most people with MS, as are challenges with memory, attention and concentration.

(A note to whoever keeps a close eye on your family’s health — and most likely it’s you — symptoms for MS in men are usually the same as yours.)

Your Diet and MS

Immune system dysregulation can result in the abnormal inflammatory response responsible for many MS symptoms. “More research suggests 80% of the immune system is in the gut, and bad bacteria colonizing the gut can cause chronic inflammation which is at the heart of many devastating diseases, including MS,” says Dr. Ternopolska. “So your diet should be based around foods that eliminate inflammation while avoiding processed, fried and fast food, among others, that cause inflammation.”

Dr. Ternopolska recommends her patients base their eating habits on the Mediterranean Diet, eating lots of cereals, fruit, vegetables and legumes. This includes nuts, avocado and spinach, olive oil, orange fruits and vegetables and onions and garlic. She also suggests adding inflammation-fighting herbs, such as turmeric, ginger, cayenne and black pepper and cinnamon.

“There’s a lot going on in your gut that can impact MS,” she adds. “A healthier gut equals a healthier brain.”

Vitamin D Could Be Key, Too

You likely already know vitamin D works to promote calcium absorption for strong bones. Recent research also suggests vitamin D may have important effects on the immune system.

A number of genetic and environmental factors influence whether a person will get MS. These factors may also impact the severity of the disease. Research is increasingly pointing to a reduced level of vitamin D in the blood as a risk factor for developing MS, and studies are underway to determine if vitamin D levels influence MS disease activity. Dr. Ternopolska recommends discussing your diet and Vitamin D levels with your Primary Care Physician and your MS Specialist.

Remember, there are steps you can take to help control your MS symptoms and feel better, from lifestyle changes to long-term medication treatments.

“Are you planning on getting pregnant anytime soon?”

That’s Dr. Ternopolska’s first question to her new women patients. Most female MS patients are diagnosed between ages 20 and 29 – their peak child birthing years. That presents its own set of challenges for a healthy pregnancy for women with MS.

The good news: Research has found that MS has no effect on fertility. It won’t keep you from getting pregnant and giving birth to a healthy child.

“I want my patients to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy delivery,” says Dr. Ternopolska. That can include prescribing the safest MS medication possible, since some can decrease fertility. She also counsels her patients on breastfeeding, diet, exercise and maintaining a healthy lifestyle during and after pregnancy.

Multiple Sclerosis specialist Dr. Nataliya Ternopolska cares for patients at St. Luke’s Neurology Associates in its multidisciplinary Multiple Sclerosis Center.

Dr. Ternopolska served as a multiple sclerosis fellow at the Judith Jaffe Multiple Sclerosis Center at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Before that she was chief resident at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia.

She received a prestigious National Multiple Sclerosis Society Grant in 2013 and has presented her research to the American Academy of Neurology and the Tykeson Fellows Conference, a forum in which young scientists share MS research, ideas and advice.

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