Multiple Sclerosis


Symptoms Herbal Remedies
Causes References
Treatments Acknowledgements

By: Kathlyn Drexler, Savanna Reyes, and Chris Cuellar


Multiple sclerosis (MS) was first described by physician Jean Martin Charcot in the1800s (Iyer, 2000 ).  MS is a disease of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) in which nerve impulses are slowed or prevented due to damaged myelin along nerve cell axons.  Myelin is a fatty insulating covering on axons which allows action potentials to travel very quickly down the length of the axon by a jumping action called saltatory conduction.  The cells responsible for creating the myelin sheath are oligodendroglial cells; these cells are sometimes destroyed in MS so that no new myelin can be produced (Boyce, 1998).  Therefore, most of the damage in the area of the MS lesion is permanent.  Current treatments focus on preventing attacks before they occur.

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MS lesions can develop in any area of the CNS and therefore the symptoms will depend upon which specific brain or spinal cord function has been compromised.  According to Dr. Louis Rosner and Shelley Ross, spinal cord lesions are the most common type, and these produce sensory and motor related impairments (1992).  Sensory symptoms may include numbness and other uncomfortable sensations which result from nervous information reaching an impasse at the site of a lesion in the spinal cord.  If sensory symptoms are severe, they may be treatable with a tricyclic antidepressant, commonly with amytriptyline (Holland et al, 2002, pg. 32).  Most sources report the most common motor difficulties to be spasticity and related problems.  Spasticity describes the tendency of a group of muscles to contract simultaneously creating a “stiff” leg or arm.  Along with spasticity, debilitating tremors and spasms can necessitate surgery in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle (Guebert et al., 2004).  While every case of MS is unique, some of the most commonly reported symptoms that may be at least partially treated through alternative and herbal therapies are the following:

-Muscle spasm           -Bladder control          -Numbness           -Mood swings

-Depression                -Anxiety                     -Irritability

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Although the disease is not fully understood, research indicates that MS is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body’s own immune system is responsible for destroying the myelin sheath in the CNS.  Normally, T-cells in the immune system chemically recognize foreign and harmful substances in the body; but, in MS the T-cells are responding to CNS myelin (Boyce, 1998).  The activated T-cells cause an inflamation of the blood brain barrier and allow B-cells and macrophages to enter the CNS where they proceed to destroy myelin and oligodendrocytes.  The combination of environmental and genetic factors that triggers the onset of MS is unknown and the power to predict an oncoming attack is still very weak.  Because damage is permanent and can occur at virtually any time, treatment should begin immediately after a first attack has been medically confirmed.

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            There are two areas of focus when treating cases of MS.  In all instances, the malfunctioning immune system must be brought under control so that disease progression is arrested.  Doctors aim to accomplish this by prescribing Betaseron or Avonex: these medications are Interferons, the substances made by the body to control the immune system.  Also prescribed for this purpose are Copaxon, which works by an unknown mechanism, and immune globulin, which may actually help remylinate damaged CNS axons (Treatment Options, 2003).  These basic drugs are used to control both relapsing-remitting and secondary progressive MS: to date, no treatments have proven effective in treating chronic progressive MS.

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It is important to realize that MS can affect many different body systems, and the specific symptoms of a patient will depend heavily on which area of the brain or spinal cord has been damaged.  Paralysis, loss of coordination and balance, heat intolerance and the extreme mental and physical fatigue that are common symptoms in MS all contribute to a sedentary life style, which causes a host of new complications.  The following herbs are traditionally used to treat the symptoms that accompany MS.  In many cases the herbs’ affects on the immune system have not been adequately studied in the context of a complicated autoimmune disease such as MS.  As always, you should consult your physician before using herbal or alternative remedies to ensure that no drug to drug interactions will occur and to discover an herbal dose that is correct for your body.

            The herbs in the following list are described as constituents of specific mixtures that should be made by experienced herbalists.  Depending on the intended use of the treatment and the nature of the chemicals to be extracted from the plant, an herbalist may choose to make a tea, infusion, tincture, decoction, bath, capsule, oil or cream.  These are distinguished as follows:

            Tea- generally made by combining 1tsp of dried plant with 1 cup of boiling water, allowing the mixture to steep for 5 minutes and then straining out the plant parts.  Teas are typically drunk

            Infusion-  Like a tea, an infusion combines dried plant parts (1 oz) in boiling water (3 cups) but allows the mixture to steep for much longer (30 min).  After straining, an infusion can be consumed hot or refrigerated first.

            Tincture-  an alcohol extraction made by pouring about 5 oz of alcohol (Everclear or 100 proof Vodka) over the dry (1 oz) or fresh (3 oz) herb.  Tinctures need many weeks to complete and are very potent compared to teas and infusions.  We recommend that you obtain tinctures and proper dosage information from an experienced herbalist.

            Decoction-  These are made using the tough parts of a plant such as the bark or roots.  Boil 1 oz of plant material in 4 cups of water for 10 min.  Other parts of the plant can be added at this time.  Continue to simmer the mixture for 20 min.  Strain the hot mixture and refrigerate.

            Bath-  Both infusions and decoctions can be used to make herbal baths.  Put about 2 cups of the infusion or decoction in one tub of water.

            Capsule-  this consists of dried herbs tightly packed. Capsules can be swallowed or chewed.

            Oils and creams-  Moisten 90% dried plant material with alcohol (Everclear) and let sit covered for two hours.  Blend a 1 part plant/5 part oil (sesame or olive) mixture in a blender until warm.  Let sit 20 minutes.  Repeat for a total of 3 times.  Strain with a cloth.  This essential oil can be combined with lotions to create herbal creams (personal interview, Deborah Brandt).


The following herbs may have value in treating some symptoms of MS:

            -Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium)  The root of this plant, along with the Asian and American species, has been used to increase endurance and energy, and to decrease fatigue and inflammation (Royal, 1982, p. 28).  The National MS Society cautions MS patients taking Asian Ginseng because although it seems to enhance energy levels, it may also dangerously stimulate the immune system (Bowling, 2003).

            -Angelica (Angelica arguta)  Nearly all parts of this plant can be used to treat irritability and can be useful as antispasmodics.  “The roots or seeds in tea, tincture, or capsule have an effect…[of]…stimulating both sweat and sebaceous secrations in fevers, cooling the skin,” although these will also stimulate the immune system (Moore, 2003, p. 33).  Deborah Brandt recommends the Chinese dong-quai for irritability:  this is a combination of roots from many different Angelica species and it is easier to purchase dong-quai than to make it (personal interview).

            -Poplar buds (Populus species)  Salicin and populin are related to aspirin and these substances can be found in all Populus spcies (Moore, 2003, p 207).  Debhorah Brandt suggests an oil made from the buds of a poplar to ease the skin numbness felt by some MS patients. The leaves of Poplars have historically been used to treat headaches and pain as “most poplars have antipyretic, analgesic, and antibiotic action” (Kay, 1996, p. 219).  Steven Foster also reports P. balsamifera, P. tacamahaca, and P. tramuloides as having anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties (1995, p. 43).

            -Skullcap (Scutellaria species)  A tincture made from this fresh herb can be used to treat “nervous system malfuctions” and pain, but it is most effective in conjunction with California poppy and Corydalis in treating nerve pain (Moore, 2003, p. 235).  Royal also indicates S. lateriflora as a treatment for nervous disorders:  “since skullcap is an antispasmodic, it is one of the most effective nervous system relaxants” (1982, p. 41).

            -Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis)  A fresh plant tincture can be a sedative which “depresses spinal cord function excessively” (Moore, 2003, p. 152).  It is important to start with very small doses (a few drops) of this tincture.  Past abuse of Lobelia species has resulted in death and hospitalization (Moore, 2003).  Royal reports that the alkaloid lobeline is the active constituent that makes this herb an extreme relaxant which should be taken with a stimulant herb like Peppermint or Cayenne (1982, p. 33).

            -Basil (Ocimum basilicum and albahaca)  This common herb which has antispasmodic and antibacterial effects was historically given in steam to “stimulate a paralyzed part” (Kay, 1996, p. 198).  Deborah Brandt recommends Holy Basil for its anti-inflammatory properties (personal interview).

            -Turpentine bush (Gutierrezia sarothrae)  An infusion of this bush can be added to bath water to decrease inflammation and reduce general pain (Moore, 2003, pl 111-2).  The bush also has sweat-inducing properties that may help to cool the body on excessively hot summer days (personal interview, Deborah Brandt).

            -Wormwoods (Artemisia ludovicianai)  As a tea or infusion, this wormwood is effective in stimulating sweating and reducing inflammation (Moore, 2003, p. 264).

            -Hawthorn (Crataegus species)  A decoction made from the berries of dark-colored species will contain many flavenoids which “have often been shown to aid in chronic inflammations” (Moore, 2003, p. 129).  Most commonly, Hawthorn is used to regulate blood pressure.

            -Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata)  This herb has sedative properties and is useful in treating nervous conditions and insomnia (Foster, 1995, p. 49).  A good night’s sleep in an essential weapon to combat the extreme fatigue experienced by many MS patients.

            -Blueberry (Vaccinium species)  An infusion or tea can be made from the leaves of this plant to be taken instead of cranberry juice in order to prevent urinary tract infections.  Like cranberry, blueberry also prevents E. coli bacteria from attaching to the urethra and bladder, thus preventing infection (Moore, 2003, p. 56).


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Herbal Remedies

-Muscle spasm:  A variety of herbs are potentially useful in reducing muscle spasms.  These can be taken in isolation or in conjunction with one another.  They include kava, valerian, betony, ginger, and California poppy (personal interview, Deborah Brandt). 

            -Bladder control:  Mullen Root “will increase the tone of the trigone, the triangular base of the bladder, and help prevent bedwetting and incontinence” (Moore, 2003, pg. 173).  Moore describes a mixture of one-half teaspoon of Mullen root in one-fourth cup of water consumed prior to sleeping.  Related to bladder problems are general urinary tract infections which can be a major problem for MS patients.  Cranberry juice is a tasty drink which is great for preventing UTI but should not be used as a treatment for an infection.

            -Numbness:  An oil from poplar buds can be massaged into the skin to relieve nerve derived numbness (personal interview, Deborah Brandt).  St. John’s Wort is also very helpful in relieving pain and numbness associated with nerve inflammation:  “The steeped oil makes an excellent ointment for virtually any skin inflammation and is often helpful for regional nerve pain, such as sciatica, lower back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome” (Moore, 2003, pg 230).

            -Mood swings:  Again St. John’s Wort can be taken in capsule form to relieve nerve irritability and mild depression (personal interview, Deborah Brandt).

            -Anxiety:  a tincture of lobelia and kava should be prepared using fresh plant material and can reduce feelings of anxiety (personal interview, Deborah Brandt).

            -Irritability:  A fresh tincture of skullcap is useful in “…lessening nerve irritability and increasing the threshold of firing along the spinal cord and the ganglia of the sympathetic and parasympathetics…” (Moore, 2003, pg. 235).

*Importance of a colorful diet:  a diet of fresh fruits, vegetables and fish is an “anti-inflammatory diet” which is rich in antioxidants, flavenoids and prostaglandin inhibitors.  Fish are also great sources of omega 3-fatty acids that can reduce depression (personal interview, Deborah Brandt).  Farm fish and red meats should be avoided.

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Bowling, A., & Stewart, T. (2003).  Vitamins, minerals, and hers in MS: An introduction. New York: ______National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Boyce, M.  (1998).  Multiple Sclerosis.  Retrieved July 7, 2004, from Serendip Web site: ______

Foster, S.  (1995).  Forest pharmacy: Medicinal plants in American forests.  Durham: Forest ______History Society.

Guebert, G. et al.  (2004).  Multiple Sclerosis.  Retrieved July 1, 2004, form Integrative Medicine Web  ______site:

Holland, N., Murray, T., & Reingold, S.  (2002).  Multiple sclerosis: A guide for the newly diagnosed. 2nd ed.  New York: Demos.

Iyer, S.R.  (2000).  The immune system’s big mistake: Multiple sclerosis.  Retrieved July 7, 2004,     ______from Serendip Web site:

Kay, M. A.  (1996).  Healing with plants in the American and Mexican west.  Tucson: The ______University of Arizona Press.

Moore, M.  (2003).  Medicinal plants of the mountain west.  Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.  

Rosner, L. J. & Ross, S.  (1992).  Multiple Sclerosis.  New York: Fireside.

Royal, P. C.  (1982).  Herbally yours.  Payson: Sound Nutrition.

Treatment options: Multiple Sclerosis (MS).  (2003).  Retrieved July 1, 2004, from Drug Digest Web   ______site:,4047,550020,00.html

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We are deeply indebted to our local herbalist Deborah Brandt for generously donating her time and resources to help us better understand natural and safe ways to treat the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. Thank you Debbie.

Last updated July 26, 2004
For more information contact Dr. Mary O'Connell at

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