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How To Choose Vitamins and Other Supplement Products for MS

Posted on March 13, 2023

People living with multiple sclerosis (MS) sometimes turn to vitamins and supplements to improve their MS symptoms. These types of complementary and alternative therapies may help with certain symptoms. However, before spending a lot of money on vitamins and supplements that may not work — or even cause health problems — it’s important to do your research. Not only should you learn about the potential benefits and risks of particular types of supplements — whether calcium, magnesium, or vitamin D — you should also choose with care which brands to buy.

When considering whether to try supplements, it’s important to be wary of a couple of points. First, some supplement companies make wild claims about their products, framing them as quick fixes or cures for MS. Only disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are proven to slow MS progression, reduce the rate of relapses, and treat the condition.

Second, the FDA doesn’t regulate vitamins and supplements with nearly as much rigor as they do prescription medication. Unlike prescription drugs, supplements don’t need to undergo rigorous testing.

Nonetheless, it is possible to find good-quality, beneficial supplements when you do your research and follow your health professional’s medical advice.

Learn more about using vitamins and supplements safely with MS.

Preparing To Buy Supplements

Before starting your search for dietary supplements, ask yourself whether you should instead seek medical treatment for whatever issue you’re trying to address — such as depression or insomnia. You’ll also want to check if supplements interact with your current medications for MS or other medical conditions.

Consider Your Options

Once you know what symptoms you’re trying to address, it’s time to start looking at what vitamins and supplements are available — and what the research has to say about their effectiveness.

Some people with MS use various herbal supplements, such as Asian ginseng, cranberry, echinacea, ginkgo biloba, valerian, and Saint-John’s-wort. Unfortunately, there’s limited evidence on the safety and effectiveness of herbal supplements, especially in humans with specific diseases.

However, there are some studies on vitamin A and D, biotin, carnitine, omega-3, coenzyme Q10, melatonin, probiotics, and lemon verbena. Research suggests these supplements could help improve inflammation, fatigue, sleep, or cognitive function in people with MS. Still, most studies conclude that additional research is needed before practical recommendations can be made.

Some of the vitamin and mineral supplements that are popular among people with MS include:

  • B vitamins (particularly B6 and B12)
  • Calcium
  • Folic acid
  • Magnesium
  • Multivitamins
  • Vitamin A or beta-carotene
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Selenium
  • Zinc

Vitamins A, E, and C are antioxidant vitamins that can help protect the body against damage from stress. However, it’s unclear whether supplements offer the same benefits as getting these vitamins from food such as fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, high-dose vitamins can be dangerous and may not produce the desired effects. For example, too much vitamin A is toxic to the liver.

Probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids are other supplements that can be found naturally in foods, such as yogurt and chia seeds. Whenever possible, tweaking your diet to include health-promoting nutrients is a safer strategy than using dietary supplements.

How much do you know about supplements for MS? Take our quiz to find out.

Get Tested for Deficiencies

Studies show that people with MS are more likely to have low levels of vitamins A, B12, and D. Your doctor can order a blood test to check your status and determine if a supplement is appropriate. For example, prescription vitamin D supplements treat vitamin D deficiency (low vitamin D levels). You may be able to get a prescription that’s covered by insurance.

Also, some deficiencies may be related to your diet and lifestyle, so meeting with a registered dietitian nutritionist can help you discover ways to adjust your diet.

Find Reliable Research

Researching supplements for MS isn’t an easy task, as many studies are inconclusive. It may be tough to find a study that applies to your unique situation. Ensure you use reliable sources like the National Institutes of Health or medically reviewed articles and studies. Blog posts and other articles that aren’t medically edited and reviewed may be inaccurate.

Ideally, you’ll want to search for randomized controlled trials (RTCs) in which the supplement was tested against a placebo (sugar pill). A meta-analysis of multiple RTCs is a review of several studies and can help you see where the research consensus stands on a certain topic. Studies that were published within the past five to 10 years provide the most updated information.

Finally, animal studies or trials with a small number of participants aren’t considered strong evidence.

Shopping for Supplements

The dietary supplement industry is filled with products that make an array of promises, but it's important to know what to look for to stay safe and have the best chance at managing MS symptoms. After all, you don’t want to waste your money on supplements that are unlikely to help or, worse, cause harm. But more expensive doesn’t always mean better quality.

Check for Quality

The supplement industry is challenging to navigate, even for the most well-informed consumer. The FDA doesn’t regulate dietary supplements with the same rigor that it does prescription medications, so it’s difficult to know if the product you’re buying actually contains what’s stated on the label. Products may contain heavy metals, bacteria, or other contaminants without warning. And some don’t have the listed ingredients or accurate dosages.

Fortunately, third-party companies test supplements to verify their ingredients and check for purity. Not all supplements are tested, though, so you’ll need to check the specific brand. Look for any of the following certifications on the label before you buy:

  • ConsumerLab.com
  • NSF International
  • UL
  • U.S. Pharmacopeia

These nonprofit and for-profit labs review dietary supplements to make sure they contain what’s advertised and are free of certain contaminants. However, they cannot guarantee that a product is safe to take or effective in treating specific health issues.

Many supplement manufacturers put additional “quality” labels on their bottles, but these can be more of a marketing ploy than a reliable indicator. Reading reviews, looking for money-back guarantees, and asking your health care provider for recommendations are additional ways to find quality supplements and trusted brands.

Consider Costs

Supplements can get expensive, so you might want to look for coupons or sales on your favorite products. Most insurance companies don’t cover the cost of nonprescription supplements. However, if your health care plan includes a health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA), you can usually use them to help pay for over-the-counter supplements.

If you try a supplement and decide to continue it for the long term, consider buying it in bulk to save money. Just be sure to check the expiration dates to ensure you’ll have enough time to use what you purchase before it goes bad.

Take Supplements Wisely

It’s usually best not to introduce too many changes to your diet. Allow yourself time to see how your body reacts. If you’re interested in trying a few different supplements for MS, start with one and watch for symptom changes. After a few weeks, you can think about adding another supplement if needed.

Many supplements are available in pills, powders, gummies, or liquid form. For people with swallowing difficulty or constipation, it’s important to consider the supplement form and potential side effects on your digestive system. Some supplements are easier to tolerate when taken at night or with food, for instance.

Remember that supplements are not a substitute for medical care. They can be used alongside other treatments to manage symptoms and improve overall health.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 196,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.

Do you have any experience with alternative medicine for MS, including supplements? What health benefits or problems have you encountered after using supplements? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyMSTeam.

    Posted on March 13, 2023
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    Luc Jasmin, M.D., Ph.D., FRCS (C), FACS is a board-certified neurosurgery specialist. Learn more about him here.
    Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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