Our bodies are made up of systems, no different than the eco-systems making up our planet. Our musculoskeletal, digestive, central nervous, and endocrine systems – to name only a few – each require a specific set of environmental factors to function optimally. A healthy, nutrient-rich diet has the power to optimize the efficiency of each individual system, allowing the entire body to work together to the best of its ability. This is called holistic health, a concept defined by the treatment of your person as a whole, including mental, emotional, and – for some people – spiritual health, rather than just the physical symptoms of a disease.
For Alanna, who lives with multiple sclerosis (MS) – a disease of the central nervous system, which can cause symptoms including, but not limited to extreme fatigue, bladder problems, cognitive impairment, and mood changes – this whole-body approach to health has become vital to managing her symptoms and remaining hopeful for her future.
“I was officially diagnosed with MS in April of 2013, but the year leading up to that was spent in and out of doctor’s offices looking for answers to symptoms like numbness in different parts of my body, and increasingly frequent dizzy spells. I was finishing college at the time, and as many doctors are prone to do, mine kept blaming these symptoms on stress and anxiety. The recommendation was to focus on staying healthy, whatever that meant. I went back again in the winter of 2013 and was sent for my first MRI. The neurologist told me the lesions on my brain were the same types of lesions commonly found in people with MS, but he wasn’t ready to diagnose me yet. About a month later, I was diagnosed. I was 22 at the time, about to turn 23.
Being diagnosed so young, I realized quickly that I had to prioritize taking care of myself both physically and mentally. I’ve always been a fairly active person. I love doing cardio and lifting weights. Before my diagnosis I just did it because it felt good, but now I also know how important it is for me to keep my body moving and my mind active. Living with MS, I don’t always feel like I have control over my health, but I do feel I can control the way I think of my health, and that’s a huge piece in staying motivated for me. Exercise – all those endorphins – helps me maintain that positivity.”
The trifecta of self-care: Mind, body & spirit
A holistic approach to her health is the only way Alanna feels she thrives. She recognizes that MS is unique to every individual who lives with it. As a result, she believes that people’s individual treatment plans should be equally unique. When she was first diagnosed, she managed her symptoms through diet, supplements, and exercise alone, but after a rather severe relapse in the winter of 2017 left her numb from the chest down and unable to exercise, she began to include a disease-modifying therapy (medication) to her self-care routine.
“The medication keeps my more severe symptoms in check, which allows me to keep moving. Exercise and meditation help me keep my mind calm and able to focus on the things I have
going for me in my life. Without those two things, I can fall so easily into anxiety and depression, worrying about the future. My favourite forms of exercise are running, weight lifting, and yoga.
I have a varied healthcare team that helps me care for my body in a way that optimizes my health. My neurologist and I determine the best medication plan together. I also see a naturopath who makes recommendations about my nutrition and supplementation based on my bloodwork.
What does a holistic healthcare team look like?
Holistic healthcare deals with the body as an entire unit, which encompasses mental and emotional health, as well as physical. Generally, the holistic approach to one’s health would include diet, movement/exercise, supplementation, mindfulness/meditation, and any other form of therapy or manipulation, such as osteopathy, massage therapy, cranial-sacral therapy, etc. A psychologist or psychotherapist could also make up a portion of one’s holistic healthcare team.
Eating healthy for me means aiming to eat up to six cups of fruits and vegetables per day and generally sticking to whole foods and clean eating. My naturopath currently has me supplementing with omega-3 fish oil, a daily probiotic, vitamin E and a greens powder supplement. All of this is what works for me, but for another person living with MS, it might mean taking a completely different approach.”
6 ways to consume 6 cups of fruits and vegetables per day
1. Hearty vegetable soups and stews are a delicious option.
2. Smoothies and juices are a great way to incorporate your daily requirements without having to prepare a whole bunch of food.
3. Zucchini muffins or loaves can be a fun and original way of incorporating greens into your diet.
4. Vegetarian alternatives to your usual favourites are also a fun way to sneak veggies into your day-to-day. Think veggie burgers, pâtés, and crackers!
5. Throw a bunch of your favourite fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds into a bowl and call it a salad!
6. Plain old crudités or steamed vegetables with your meals, or as snacks is as simple as it gets, and really easy.
MS in the 21st Century
The final piece of the self-care puzzle for Alanna is community.
“Reaching out to other people who live with MS is a key component to my well-being. Even though we all have different experiences with the disease, there are many commonalities, too: the fears, the battery of tests and medical appointments, the fatigue. I was able to connect with an online community of women my age when I was first diagnosed. It was such an important source of comfort and support for me at such a difficult time in my life. It’s just so nice to be able to send a message to someone about a particularly jarring appointment or relapse and know that the person on the other end will more than likely be able to relate. It makes the whole thing feel so much less lonely and isolating. I know I’m lucky to live in a time when that’s possible.”
“I would say that my diagnosis and my relapse were both really overwhelming periods for me. Even when I’m feeling good, I’m always kind of battling my own mind with the What if’s and that’s tough. Over time, I’ve learned that staying healthy – in every sense of the word – is key to managing this disease. We don’t always have control over the physical things that happen in our bodies, but I do have control over my life. Every element of my self-care is as important as the next, and each one impacts the others. The mindfulness, the exercise, the community aspect, and the nutrition; each of these puzzle pieces fit together to make a whole picture of my overall health.
For me, having MS has made me a stronger and more resilient woman. There are bad days for sure, but in a lot of ways I am more motivated than I was before I had MS to really take care of myself and to keep moving forward being as healthy as I possibly can be.”
Through its SHOPPERS LOVE. YOU. initiative, Shoppers Drug Mart is committed to positively impact women’s health and MS, helping the MS Society update and create new resources, and raise awareness of topics related to women’s health. Visit mssociety.ca/womenshealth to access new resources and materials.