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Alcohol and Mental Health

Multiple Sclerosis and Alcohol: Everything You Should Know

August 30, 2023
17 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
August 30, 2023
17 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
August 30, 2023
17 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
August 30, 2023
17 min read
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Reframe Content Team
August 30, 2023
17 min read

You’re out to dinner on a Friday night with friends, laughter and enjoying some light conversation after a long work week. The waitress comes around to take your order and you’re about to ask for your usual — a glass of red wine — but you catch yourself: you’ve just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Is it okay to consume alcohol, or will it make your symptoms worse? 

In this post, we’ll explore what multiple sclerosis (MS) is, how alcohol impacts people living with the condition, and offer tips on how to manage it. Let’s get started!

What Is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)? 

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease of the central nervous system that disrupts communication within the brain and spinal cord. It’s believed to be an autoimmune disorder — a condition in which the body attacks itself by mistake. But environmental factors, infectious agents such as viruses, and genetics can also play a role in the development of MS. 

In MS, myelin — the fatty tissue that surrounds and protects nerve fibers — is destroyed in many areas of the brain and spinal cord. The loss of myelin forms scar tissue called “sclerosis.” When the nerves are damaged in this way, they can’t conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain. This interruption of communication signals causes unpredictable symptoms such as numbness, tingling, mood changes, memory problems, pain, and fatigue. 

Signs and symptoms of MS vary widely between patients and depend on the location and severity of nerve fiber damage in the central nervous system. Some may have only mild, short-term symptoms, while others experience paralysis and lose their ability to see clearly, write, speak, or walk. 

How Does Alcohol Affect Multiple Sclerosis? 

When it comes to the relationship between multiple sclerosis and alcohol, there’s a bit of conflicting evidence. Some studies show that alcohol can temporarily worsen symptoms of the condition, while others suggest it can calm an overactive immune system.

Because MS is a chronic inflammatory condition, scientists believe that it’s caused by an overactive immune system. Because of this, MS therapies often aim to suppress the immune response. Some studies discovered regular alcohol intake suppressed one aspect of immunity. However, there’s a lack of conclusive evidence, so scientists agree that more research needs to be done to determine whether alcohol can benefit people with MS.

What we know for sure, though, is that there are some potential negative consequences of drinking alcohol with MS. Here are some of them: 

  • Worsened MS symptoms. People with MS often struggle with coordination, balance, and slurred speech. Even just one alcoholic beverage can cause us to become a bit more wobbly and slow our reaction time. So if we drink alcohol with MS, these symptoms may become more severe and disabling. Similarly, as a central nervous system depressant, alcohol slows the reactions in our brain and spinal cord. This can lead to slow thinking, slow responses, and greater physical weakness in people with MS.

    Additionally, some people with MS report an overactive bladder and a greater need to urinate. Adding alcohol to the mix may only make things worse, since it’s a diuretic that causes us to urinate more frequently. Furthermore, long-term consumption of alcohol can impair the immune system and increase the inflammatory response characteristic of MS. 
  • Altered mood. Mood disorders like anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation are common in people with MS — and often more severe compared to those without the condition. Alcohol on its own can have an emotional depressive effect. Even though it provides a temporary mood boost through the release of dopamine (that “feel good” chemical), it disrupts the balance of neurotransmitters and can leave us feeling more depressed in the long run.

    One study found that MS patients with histories of problematic drinking showed an increased risk of having anxiety throughout their lifetime. Researchers also noted a link between suicidal thoughts and excess drinking in people with MS. 
  • Harmful interactions with medications. Common medications for treating certain symptoms of MS include muscle relaxants, antidepressants, anti-inflammatory agents, such as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug), non-narcotic pain drugs, and opioids. Combining these with alcohol can be harmful. For instance, alcohol’s sedative effect can increase the impact of muscle relaxants and opioids. It can also increase the risk of stomach and intestinal bleeding resulting from NSAID use. Similarly, consuming alcohol while taking antidepressants may increase feelings of depression and hopelessness.

    It’s also worth noting that consuming alcohol can have a negative effect on important vitamins and minerals. For instance, it can lower levels of zinc — a trace element required for normal cell growth and repair.

Is Red Wine Bad for MS?

Okay, so what about a glass of red wine? We often hear that an occasional glass of red wine might be good for us due to its antioxidant properties. Is this true for people with MS?

Interestingly, a 2017 study found that people who consumed three glasses of red wine per week appeared to have lower levels of neurologic disability than those who consumed no alcohol. However, MRI scans also showed that those who drank red wine also had a higher volume of high-intensity lesions than those who didn’t drink red wine. 

The bottom line? More research is needed, but we’re confident that abstaining from wine is better for our overall health than indulging in it. In fact, alcohol can increase our risk of other health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and certain cancers, all which could make MS worse. 

Does Drinking Alcohol Cause MS? 

Here again, there’s a bit of conflicting evidence whether alcohol consumption is an environmental risk factor for MS. One study from 2006 showed that people who drank hard liquor daily had a 6.7-fold increased risk of MS. However, a larger 2014 study showed that people who reported moderate alcohol consumption had half the odds of developing MS compared to those who did not drink alcohol. 

More recently, two studies found no significant association between drinking alcohol and developing MS. As such, there’s not enough conclusive evidence to say whether alcohol leads to an increased risk of developing the condition.

What Are Healthier Drink Alternatives for MS?

So, alcohol might not be the best drink of choice for people with MS. But some non-alcoholic drinks are beneficial:

  • Water. Perhaps not surprisingly, water is the most important beverage for people with MS (and for everyone else!). Staying hydrated is vital for many bodily functions and offers various benefits for people with MS, such as reducing bladder and bowel symptoms, decreasing the side effects of medications, lowering injection site reactions, and preventing the effects of dehydration on MS, such as fatigue and mental decline.
  • Coffee. Coffee also seems to be beneficial for people with MS. Research has found that a higher intake of coffee and caffeine may have a protective effect against MS. Coffee has properties that fight inflammation and stimulate the nervous system, which can be helpful for people with MS. Of course, too much coffee can be dehydrating, so it’s important to consume water alongside it. 
  • Green tea. According to research, green tea and one of its active ingredients — epigallocatechin 3-gallate EGCG — can help modulate immune cell function. This may improve the symptoms of some autoimmune diseases, such as MS.

What Is the Treatment for MS? 

Unfortunately, there is no cure for multiple sclerosis. Treatment usually involves controlling the condition and easing symptoms, but it depends on the stage of the disease and the person’s specific symptoms. 

For instance, disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) are medicines that can help people with MS have fewer and less severe relapses. They’re taken as a pill, an injection, or an infusion. 

Much of the immune response associated with MS occurs in the early stages of the disease. So aggressive treatment with these medications as early as possible can lower the relapse rate and slow the formation of new lesions. 

However, DMTs aren’t suitable for everyone with MS. They’re only prescribed to people with relapsing-remitting MS or some people with primary or secondary progressive MS who have relapses. 

Healthcare providers often work with neurologists, physiotherapists, speech or language therapists, and a number of other professionals to determine a personalized treatment plan.

Tips for Managing MS 

Taking good care of our body — in addition to following a professionally-developed MS treatment plan — can help manage MS symptoms. Here are some tips:

  • Eat nutritious food. There’s no special MS diet, but a healthy eating plan can give you more energy and help stave off chronic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Experts recommend plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also to consume enough fiber to help prevent constipation, which is a common problem for people with MS. Many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils are good sources of fiber. 
  • Keep your body moving. Exercise is important for people with MS for both fitness and function. Regular exercise promotes flexibility, can improve balance, and can also help with other MS symptoms, such as constipation, fatigue, and cognitive issues. Many people with MS benefit from working with a physical therapist to help identify exercises to strengthen body areas that are particularly weak. 
  • Exercise your brain. It’s important to exercise your brain. Because of the condition, MS patients often have to use more of their brain to do a specific task than other individuals. Doing crosswords, playing word games, taking classes, reading, or engaging in other mentally challenging activities can help keep your brain sharp and engaged.
  • Practice stress management techniques. Many people with MS experience heightened levels of stress because of difficulties living with the condition. Meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and other stress-reduction practices have been shown to improve quality of life and possibly slow disease progression. Spending time with loved ones and friends or finding a club to join can also be helpful ways to cope with stress.
  • Protect your mental health. As we’ve learned, many people with MS can struggle with depression. It’s important to prioritize your mental health and seek treatment if necessary. Both psychotherapy and antidepressant medication have been found effective for depression in people with MS. We also might consider joining an MS support group, which can help us feel less alone. 

The Bottom Line

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease of the central nervous system that can cause a variety of symptoms, such as muscle weakness, fatigue, poor coordination, numbness and tingling. While no studies link alcohol consumption to an increased risk of developing MS, alcohol can worsen common MS symptoms like imbalance and lack of coordination. Healthier drinking alternatives include water, coffee, and green tea. In addition to receiving professional medical treatment, people with MS can benefit from eating a healthy diet, exercising their body and brain, and practicing stress management techniques. 

If you’re struggling to control your alcohol intake, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people cut back on their alcohol consumption and become healthier, stronger, and happier in the process. 

Summary FAQs

1. What is multiple sclerosis (MS)?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease of the central nervous system that disrupts communication within the brain and spinal cord. It can cause multiple symptoms that vary in severity, such as numbness, tingling, pain, poor coordination, fatigue, and mood changes.

2. How does alcohol affect MS?

Drinking alcohol can worsen MS symptoms, including poor coordination, balance, and slurred speech. Alcohol can also make people with MS feel more depressed and may cause harmful reactions with medications.

3. Does drinking alcohol cause MS?

There’s not enough conclusive evidence to say whether alcohol leads to an increased risk of developing the condition.

4. What are healthier drink alternatives for MS?

Water, coffee, and green tea can be particularly beneficial for people with MS, helping to manage symptoms.

5. What is the treatment for MS?

There’s no cure for MS, but treatment usually involves controlling the condition and easy symptoms through medication or disease-modifying therapies (DMTs).

6. What are some tips for managing MS?

Eating nutritious food, staying physically active, exercising your brain, and practicing stress management techniques are effective ways to help manage MS.

Get Strong and Healthy With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

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And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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