Hello! My name is Melanie and I live in Austin, TX with my husband and our rambunctious pups, Bogey the Beagle and Dahlia the Dalmatian. I recently completed my BA in Psychology from The University of Texas at Austin and am very excited to be preparing for my first baby due in September. Despite the slow pace COVID has presented, it seems there is always something keeping us on our toes, including managing my relationship to and experience of relapsing remitting MS.
Receiving a diagnosis
I was diagnosed with MS two and half years ago. My MS diagnosis was not shocking news to me. I had been through the typical obstacle course of testing before completing my diagnostic MRI. By the time my doctor called to tell me I had MS, the diagnosis seemed to be more of a formality than an earth-shattering discovery. In many ways, this drawn-out experience was a blessing as it positioned me to spring into action.
I know this is not everyone’s experience, and the months that followed certainly came with lots of work to ensure I was not remiss in physically and emotionally processing this life-altering news. However, I will always be thankful that, for whatever reason, I was ready to initiate action.
Hours after receiving the news from my doctor, I was checked into the hospital and began receiving IV steroids to counteract the active lesions found in my MRI. My doctors were swift to begin discussing disease modifying therapy (DMT) options with me. I was extremely grateful and relieved to finally be able to treat the symptoms I had been living with for so long, however, the answers they were able to provide to my questions regarding diet and lifestyle were limited.
Searching for answers
As I began to search for these answers on my own, I found this polarization to be a theme. It seemed as though there was a battle between Eastern ideologies and Western medicine, where the message was predicated on an “all-in” mindset. For example, my doctors seemed so convicted by the science of medicine that prioritizing diet and lifestyle seemed to be an after-thought.
At the same time, I found the message from many leaders in the world of nutrition and holistic medicine to rest solely on healing from food and mindset, and oftentimes held a negative tone towards the use of modern medicine. I believe in the science and benefit of a great deal of medicine. I also believe that the food that I put into my body and the thoughts in my mind hold extraordinary healing properties in their own right.
In a time where I felt most vulnerable, it seemed as though I was trapped in the middle of this dichotomous world, being forced to pick the team that would support my health. Although frustrating, the dissonance this created only further propelled me to continue searching and working toward a health plan that resonated with my core beliefs.
Finding the Overcoming MS lifestyle was such a relief. In a quick scan of the program I was reassured to see diet, meditation, community, and disease modifying therapy to all be incorporated. Furthermore, the fact that the program was evidence based gave me the confidence to really invest my time and energy into slowly incorporating OMS into my life.
It was as if OMS had cherry picked what resonated most with me, wrapped it in a bow, and gifted me the assurance I was searching for that I was doing right by myself and my health. I continued to find hidden gems of support as I delved further into the program. I’d like to share my OMS journey through each principle of the program.
I found the guidance of the OMS diet to be tremendously helpful. I had been a rather clean eater prior to my MS diagnosis, however, simply having a roadmap to eat more Omega-3 fatty fish, nuts, and vitamin-rich vegetables was encouraging. I was also pretty happy to discover there was evidence supporting a bit of wine here and there! I must admit, I love a good doughnut and pastry, and eliminating saturated fats has probably been the most challenging part of the OMS diet. I would be lying if I said I don’t have doughnuts anymore, however, the frequency has diminished significantly. I’ve also found the most delicious, locally made vegan (dairy free) doughnuts for days when I do decide to indulge.
Sunlight and Vitamin D
My neurologist had me start taking a high dose of Vitamin D immediately following my diagnosis, which is a routine I still maintain. Interestingly, I hadn’t considered the benefit of also getting my vitamin D naturally from the sun.
To be completely honest, I haven’t always loved the outdoors. I was the kid who used to ask my teacher to go to the library at recess because I didn’t want to have that “recess smell” on me for that rest of the day. It would be a huge stretch to call me an adventurer. For this reason, I’ve always written off the outdoors. I credit the OMS lifestyle for re-introducing me to loving my time outside. I have not all of a sudden started scaling mountains or fighting wild rapids, but I do choose to sit outside to read, or go on long walks with my husband now. I’ve also found that meditating outdoors can be an extremely grounding experience.
I am a lifelong dancer, having completed by BFA in Dance in my early twenties. I am very thankful to still have most of my physical ability. During the relapse that led to my diagnosis I struggled with walking, balance, and rising up on my toes. I fell several times during my relapse doing physical tasks that once seemed so normal to me.
Exercise has certainly helped to counteract any residual weakness and balance issues. I’ve learned to listen to my body and be gentle with myself on days that feel more difficult. I’ve also learned how far to push myself on days I have more energy.
Regardless, I try to move in some capacity every day. Whether it’s casually walking around my neighborhood, doing strength conditioning at home, or hopping on the Peloton for a more rigorous ride. One of the most interesting and consistent correlations I’ve noticed is between exercise and cognitive fog. Besides the obvious benefit of strength and coordination, I have noticeably clearer cognition on days that I move my body.
I’ve always believed in the benefit of meditation, and the OMS lifestyle has certainly motivated me to prioritize my practice. I firmly believe that the pace and thoughts of our mind can elicit a physiological response, promoting healing or damage within the cells of our body. I will occasionally meditate on my own, although I prefer a guided practice. I find my guided meditations on YouTube (you can search anything: Loving-Kindness meditation, or relaxing meditation), as well as the Calm app. I enjoy guided meditations from Tara Brach, Kristin Neff, Vinny Ferraro, and Elisha Goldstein. You can access at least some of their content for free on either YouTube or their webpages.
This was one of the more challenging, and ironically, simple aspects of the OMS lifestyle for me. I was relieved to finally have treatment options available to me after my diagnosis, however, many sounded scary and intrusive. I read about the risks and benefits within each medication’s profile but always fixated on the risks. A contributing doctor on the OMS podcast actually helped me the most in coming to terms with medication. His honest and straightforward advice was to consider the statistical risk of relapse without medication as compared to the statistical risk of side effects from a medication.
The experience of my relapse caused me to understand that I am personally at a greater risk by not being on a DMT than being on a DMT. I have decided not to be on a DMT during pregnancy. I have a plan in place with my doctor, knowing that the timing for my return to DMT will make itself known at some point in my postpartum journey.
Prevention in Family Members
My husband has been an incredible support system to me throughout my journey with MS. He has listened to many of the OMS podcasts, which has allowed him to be educated on the evidence and tenor of the lifestyle. He helps me test new recipes, listens to me lament about the difficulties of MS, and reminds to celebrate every victory, no matter how small.
Change Your Life, For Life
It is extraordinarily comforting to have each element of the OMS program be so supportive to the longevity of my health. I am grateful to have an evidence-based lifestyle that feels gentle, balanced, and resonate with my own core beliefs. It is crucial to remember, and something I remind myself of constantly, not to expect perfection. I am a human, living with a chronic illness, and doing the best I can to do right by myself.
Breathe, be kind to yourself, and keep going.