How Diet and Exercise Have Greatly Improved My Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms
Ashley Ringstaff shares what it was like being diagnosed with MS at 22-years-old and how diet and exercise played a role in keeping her symptoms from getting worse.
It had just been a few months since I gave birth to my son when feelings of numbness began spreading through my body. At first, I brushed it off, thinking it was a consequence of becoming a new mom. But then, the numbness returned. This time across my arms and legs—and it kept coming back over and over again for days on end. It eventually got to the point where my quality of life was being affected which is when I knew it was time to see someone about it.
The Long Road to Diagnosis
I got in with my family practitioner as soon as I could and was told my symptoms were a byproduct of stress. Between giving birth and going back to college to get a degree, there was a lot on my plate. So my doctor put me on some anti-anxiety and stress medication and sent me on my way.
Weeks went by and I continued feeling numb sporadically. I continued to stress to my doctor that something wasn’t right, so he agreed for me to have an MRI to see if there might be a more concerning underlying cause.
I was visiting my mom while I waited for my scheduled appointment when I felt my face and part of my arm go completely numb. I went straight to the ER where they did a stroke test and CT scan—both of which came back clean. I asked the hospital to send my results to my primary care doctor, who decided to cancel my MRI since the CT scan showed nothing. (Related: 7 Symptoms You Should Never Ignore)
But over the next several months, I continued to experience numbness all over my body. One time, I even woke up to find that the side of my face had drooped down as if I’d had a stroke. But several blood tests, stroke tests, and more CT scans later, doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. After so many tests and no answer, I felt like I had no other option but to just try to move on.
By then, two years went by since I first began feeling numb and the only test I hadn’t gotten done was the MRI. Since I was running out of options, my doctor decided to refer me to a neurologist. After hearing about my symptoms, he scheduled me for an MRI, ASAP.
I ended up getting two scans, one with contrast media, a chemical substance that's injected to improve the quality of MRI images, and one without it. I left the appointment feeling extremely nauseous but chalked it up to being allergic to the contrast. (Related: Doctors Ignored My Symptoms for Three Years Before I Was Diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma)
I woke up the next day feeling like I was drunk. I was seeing double and couldn’t walk a straight line. Twenty-four hours went by, and I didn’t feel any better. So my husband drove me to my neurologist—and at a loss, I begged them to hurry up with the test results and tell me what was wrong with me.
That day, in August of 2010, I finally got my answer. I had Multiple Sclerosis or MS.
At first, a sense of relief washed over me. For starters, I finally had a diagnosis, and from what little I knew about MS, I realized it wasn’t a death sentence. Still, I had a million questions about what this meant for me, my health and my life. But when I asked the doctors for more info, I was handed an informational DVD, and a pamphlet with a number to call on it. (Related: Female Doctors Are Better Than Male Docs, New Research Shows)
I walked out of that appointment into the car with my husband and remember feeling everything: fear, anger, frustration, confusion—but most of all, I felt alone. I was left completely in the dark with a diagnosis that was going to change my life forever, and I didn't even fully understand how.
Learning to Live with MS
Thankfully, both my husband and mom are in the medical field and offered me some guidance and support over the next few days. Begrudgingly, I also watched the DVD my neurologist gave me. That's when I realized that not one person in the video was anything like me.
The video was targeted at people who were either so affected by MS that they were disabled or were 60 plus years old. At 22-years-old, watching that video made me feel even more isolated. I didn’t even know where to start or what kind of future I would have. How bad would my MS get?
I spent the next two months learning more about my condition using whatever resources I could find when suddenly, I had one of the worse MS flare-ups of my life. I became paralyzed on the left side of my body and ended up hospitalized. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t eat solid food, and worst of all, I couldn’t speak. (Related: 5 Health Issues That Hit Women Differently)
When I got home several days later, my husband had to help me with everything—whether that was tying my hair, brushing my teeth, or feeding me. As sensation began to return on the left side of my body, I began working with a physical therapist to start strengthening my muscles. I also started seeing a speech therapist, since I had to relearn how to talk again. It took two months before I was able to function again on my own.
After that episode, my neurologist ordered a series of other tests including a spinal tap and another MRI. I was then more accurately diagnosed with Relapsing-Remitting MS—a type of MS where you have flare-ups and can relapse but you eventually go back to normal, or close to it, even if it takes weeks or months. (Related: Selma Blair Makes an Emotional Appearance at the Oscars After MS Diagnosis)
To manage the frequency of these relapses, I was put on more than a dozen different medications. That came with a whole other series of side-effects that made living my life, being a mom and doing the things I loved extremely difficult.
It had been three years since I first developed symptoms, and now I finally knew what was wrong with me. Yet, I still hadn't found relief; mostly because there weren’t a lot of resources out there telling you how to live your life with this chronic illness. That's what made me the most anxious and nervous.
For years after, I was scared for anyone to leave me completely alone with my kids. I didn’t know when a flare-up could happen and didn’t want to put them in a situation where they’d have to call for help. I felt like I couldn’t be the mom or parents I’d always dreamed of being—and that broke my heart.
I was so determined to avoid flare-ups at any cost that I was nervous to put any kind of stress on my body at all. This meant I struggled to be active—whether that meant working out or playing with my kids. Even though I thought I was listening to my body, I ended up feeling weaker and more lethargic than I’d ever felt my whole life.
How I Finally Got My Life Back
The Internet became a huge resource for me after I got diagnosed. I began sharing my symptoms, feelings, and experiences with MS on Facebook and even started an MS blog of my own. Slowly but surely, I began educating myself about what it really means to live with this disease. The more educated I became, the more confident I felt.
In fact, that's what inspired me to partner with the MS Mindshift campaign, an initiative that teaches people about what they can do to help keep their brain as healthy as possible, for as long as possible. Through my own experiences with learning about MS, I've realized how important it is to have educational resources readily available so that you don't feel lost and alone, and MS Mindshift is doing just that.
While I didn't have a resource like MS Mindshift all those years ago, it was through online communities and my own research (not a DVD and pamphlet) that I learned how much of an impact things like diet and exercise can have when it comes to managing MS. For the next several years, I experimented with several different workouts and diet plans before finally finding what worked for me. (Related: Fitness Saved My Life: From MS Patient to Elite Triathlete)
Fatigue is a major MS symptom, so I quickly realized I couldn’t do strenuous workouts. I also had to find a way to stay cool while working out since heat can easily trigger a flare-up. I eventually found that swimming was a great way for me to get my workout in, still cool, and still have the energy to do other things.
Other ways to stay active that worked for me: playing with my sons in the back yard once the sun went down or doing stretches and short spouts of resistance band training inside my home. (Related: I'm a Young, Fit Spin Instructor-and Nearly Died of a Heart Attack)
Diet also played a huge role in increasing my quality of life. I stumbled upon the ketogenic diet in October of 2017 just as it started to become popular, and I was attracted to it because it’s thought to decrease inflammation. MS symptoms are directly connected to inflammation in the body, which can disrupt the transmission of nerve impulses and damage brain cells. Ketosis, a state where the body is burning fat for fuel, helps decrease inflammation, which I found to be helpful in keeping some of my MS symptoms at bay.
Within weeks on the diet, I felt better than I ever had before. My energy levels went up, I lost weight and felt more like myself. (Related: (Check Out the Results This Woman Had After Following the Keto Diet.)
Now, almost two years later, I can proudly say that I haven’t had a relapse or flare-up since.
It might have taken nine years, but I was finally able to find the combination of lifestyle habits that helps me manage my MS. I still take some medications but only as needed. It's my own personal MS cocktail. After all, this is only what has seemed to work for me. Everyone's MS and experience and treatment will and should be different.
Plus, even though I’ve been generally healthy for a while now, I’ve still had my struggles. There are days when I’m so exhausted that I can’t even get myself to the shower. I’ve also had some cognitive issues here and there and struggled with my vision. But compared to how I felt when I was first diagnosed, I’m doing much much better.
Over the past nine years, I’ve had my ups and down with this debilitating illness. If it’s taught me anything, it’s to listen and also interprets what my body is trying to tell me. I now know when I need a break and when I can push a little further to make sure I’m strong enough to be there for my kids—both physically and mentally. Most of all, I’ve learned to stop living in fear. I’ve been in a wheelchair before, and I know there is a possibility I might end up back there. But, bottom line: None of this is going to stop me from living.