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Natural Therapies for Motor Neuron Disease

Muscles | April 23, 2017 | Author: Naturopath

Nervous system

Natural Therapies for Motor Neuron Disease

Motor neurons are nerve cells that are located in the spinal cord, with fibres extending outwards to control muscles and glands. Electrical signals travel from the brain, down the spinal cord and along the motor neuron fibres into muscles and glands to initiate voluntary movement.

Motor neuron disease is a group of progressive, neurological disorders that involve the ongoing destruction of these nerve cells, making it difficult and eventually impossible to control movement in some parts of the body.

The senses of taste, touch, hearing, sights and taste remain unaffected, and cognitive ability may be only slightly affected.

ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is the most common motor neuron disease, and involves symptoms such as cramping, weakness and loss of muscles in the hands or feet, then progresses up the arms and legs. The face can also be affected, causing difficulty controlling facial expression and tongue movement. Other motor neuron diseases can effect other areas of the body. These include primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), post-polio syndrome, and bulbar palsy.

Motor neuron diseases generally present between ages 50 – 70 years and symptoms progress in severity as time goes on. They may present with:

  • Paralysis on both sides of the body
  • Loss of speech, or slow speech and slurring.
  • Difficulty swallowing, and inadequate saliva production
  • Loss of appetite and digestive secretions
  • Mild cognitive and/or behavioural change
  • Increased dependance on others for day-to-day activity
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drooling, gagging, uncontrollable movement of the tongue
  • Head dropping due to weakness in neck muscles
  • Vocal pitch changes and gruffness to the voice
  • Weight loss

The causes of motor neuron disease is unknown,  but a few factors have been identified:

  • Genetics, but only in about 10% of cases [1] [2].
  • Impaired energy metabolism. This might be due to mitochondria defects, oxidative stress, or both [3] [4].
  • Malabsorption disorders resulting in low B12 – a vitamin that is essential for the health of nerves.

Nutritional Therapies for Motor Neuron Disease

Healthy Fats & High Calories

Believe it or not, obesity and high cholesterol may have their benefits. Patients with motor neuron disease were shown to have better prognosis if they had a higher BMI, diabetes mellitis and/or high levels of cholesterol [5]. The why and how is unknown, but a calorie-rich diet with plenty of healthy fats may help to preserve motor function, while dieting and calorie restriction has been shown to worsen symptoms and life expectancy [6]. 

Focus on healthy fats from calorie-rich foods like avocado, nuts and seeds, salmon, olive oil and butter.


Magnesium is needed for nerve communication, so researchers suspect that this trace element could be linked to motor neuron disease. Patients with ALS seem to have lower concentrations of magnesium within their bones and ligament, and in the 1970s it was discovered that ALS incidences were higher in areas that have poor magnesium levels in the soil [7].

However, a recent review of five large cohort studies with over 1,000,000 participants showed that magnesium does not protect against the risk of developing ALS, but it may have a role in reducing symptoms of cramping by inducing muscle relaxation [8].

Magnesium may also help to reduce spasms by buffering the influx of calcium into damaged neurons, and into muscle fibres.

Calcium is normally the “charge” for a nerve cell. When there is damage to the mitochondria within a motor neuron, the cell will often mishandle calcium by either letting too much into the cell at once, or not enough. This can lead to hyper-excitability –  firing off too many signals or signalling too strongly.

You can imagine how a hyper-excitable motor neuron and muscle combine to create unpredictable and involuntary movement in people with motor neuron disease. By competing with calcium, magnesium can reduce the hyper-excitability of motor neurons and muscle fibres. The more magnesium there is available, the less chance calcium has to cause spasms.

To help in the relief of cramps and spasms, 300mg – 600mg of magnesium can be taken in the forms of magnesium citrate, magnesium orotate or magnesium amino acid chelate– avoid magnesium oxide as it is not readily absorbed and can cause gastrointestinal problems.

Baths with epsom salts are a great way to deliver magnesium right to the muscles without relying on digestion and absorption that are often impaired in motor neuron disease. A medicinal level of epsom salt is between 250g - 500g per bath. Also consider concentrated magnesium oils for easy, potent, topical application of magnesium.

Ubiquinone (CoQ10)

Studies have shown a link between use of cholesterol-lowering medications, statins, and significant decline in ALS patients. While this may be due to the protective effects of high cholesterol, it may have more to do with coenzyme Q10 aka ubiquinone.

CoQ10 has two key roles within motor neurons: as an antioxidant to protect the mitochondria from oxidative stress, and as an essential co-factor in healthy energy metabolism.

Research suggests that patients with motor neuron diseases may have increased need for CoQ10 due to ongoing oxidative damage to the mitochondria that is responsible for the degenerating effects of the disease [9] [10].


Serine is an amino acid  found in certain foods, and is also created within the human body from another amino acid called glycine.

It is a key nutrient for cell protection, and maintains the integrity of the myelin sheath – a protective layer around motor neurons and other nerve fibres.

While there is no evidence for L-serine's use in treating motor neuron disease, studies have shown that ageing populations with higher dietary serine intake exhibit lower instances of motor neuron diseases [11].


Soy products and seaweeds such as wakame, kombu and sea lettuce are particularly rich sources of serine, and they're also packed with antioxidants.

Methyl-cobalamin (vitamin B12)

Vitamin B12 has a high affinity for motor neurons. Like serine, it gives integrity to the myelin sheath of nerve cells. Without adequate B12, nerves become “frayed”, impulses fail to fire and messages get confused, resulting in tingling, spasms and cramping. As well as protecting the myelin sheath, methyl-cobalamin in particular may also protect motor neurons from oxidative stress and cell death [12] and could be used as a complementary therapy in ALS.

Vegetarians, vegans and people with poor gastric secretions (like those with motor neuron disease!) are at high risk of vitamin B12 insufficiency and may require higher supplement levels. Methyl-cobalamin is a natural form of B12, and is the most active form available in supplements.

Herbal Therapies for Motor Neuron Disease

Herbal medicine interventions in motor neuron disease have not been extensively investigated but one study showed that up to 50% of ALS patients take herbal supplements [13].


Berberine is an ammonium salt found in many herbs including goldenseal, barberry, and Californian poppy. Berberine extract was found to reduce neurodegredation in patients with ALS, and may be useful in all motor neuron diseases [14].

Herbal Bitters

Reduced appetite and secretion of gastric fluids is a common symptom in motor neuron disease.

Herbal bitters such as swedish bitters, gentian, dandelion, chamomile, goldenseal, milk thistle, peppermint and also apple cider vinegar may help to stimulate hunger and promote the release of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Improving caloric intake can help to extend life expectancy and reduce motor neuron disease symptoms [6].

Medicinal Marijuana

While not yet legalised in Australia, many herbalists hold out hope that approved legislation isn't far away! The medicinal properties of marijuana include antioxidant activity, protection of neurons, pain relief, muscle relaxation, and appetite stimulation, so it may have application in motor neuron disease [15].

It's essential to seek advice from a qualified herbalist and consult with your doctor before beginning any herbal supplementation program.  Australia’s best online discount chemist


[1] Andersen, P. M. & Al-Chalabi, A. (2011) Clinical genetics of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: what do we really know? Nat Rev Neurol., 7:11, 603 – 615.

[2] Csilla, A., et al. (2014) Metabolic Therapy with Deanna Protocol Supplementation Delays Disease Progression and Extends Survival in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Mouse Model. PLoS ONE, 9:7, e103526.

[3] Federico, A., et al. (2012) Mitochondria, oxidative stress and neurodegeneration. J Neurol Sci., 322:1, 254 – 262.

[4] Cozzolino, M. & Carri, M. T. (2012) Mitochondrial dysfunction in ALS. Prog Neurobiol., 97:2, 54 – 66.

[5] Sutedj, N. A., et al. (2011) Beneficial vascular risk profile is associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry, 82:6, 638 – 642.

[6] Pedersen, W. A. & Mattson, M. P. (1999) No benefit of dietary restriction on disease onset or progression in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis Cu/Zn-superoxide dismutase mutant mice. Brain Res, 833:1, 117 – 120.

[7] Yase, Y. (1972) The pathogenesis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Lancet, 2, 292 – 296.

[8] Fondell, E., et al. (2013) Magnesium intake and risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: Results from five large cohort studies. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Frontotemporal Degeneration, 14, 356 – 361.

[9] Shults, C. W. & Haas, R. (2005) Clinical trials of coenzyme Q10 in neurological disorders. Biofactors, 25:1-4, 117 - 126.

[10] Murata, T., Ohtuska, C. & Terayama, Y. (2008) Increased mitochondrial oxidative damage in patients with sporadic amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. J Neurol Sci., 267:1-2, 66 – 69.

[11] Cox, P. A. & Metcalf, J. S. (2017) Traditional Food Items in Ogimi, Okinawa: l-Serine Content and the Potential for Neuroprotection. Curr Nutr Rep., 6:1, 24 – 31.

[12] Ito, S., Izumi, Y., Niidome, T. & Ono, Y. (2017) Methylcobalamin prevents mutant superoxide dismutase-1-induced motor neuron death in vitro. Neuroreport., 28:2, 101 – 107.

[13] Vardeny, O. & Bromberg, M. B. (2005) The use of herbal supplements and alternative therapies by patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). J Herb Pharmacotherp., 5:3, 23 – 31.

[14] Chang, C., et al. (2016) Therapeutic effect of berberine on TDP-43-related pathogenesis in FTLD and ALS. J Biomed Sci., 23:72.

[15] Carter, G. T. & Rosen, B. S. (2001) Marijuana in the management of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Am J Hosp Palliat Care., 18:4, 264 – 270.

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