Dr. Wahls Beats MS | by Warren Goldie
Iowa Source magazine
When Terry Wahls, M.D., stepped up to the lectern in a large meeting room at Iowa City Public Library in mid-March to tell her incredible story to a crowd of about 100, it was one of the smaller gatherings she will speak at this year. Hers is a kind of miracle story, the tale of a physician stricken with multiple sclerosis, bedridden and wheelchair bound, who worked passionately on her own in search of a non-drug intervention that might slow or even halt the disease’s progression. Her research led to the extraordinary Wahls Protocol, a radical diet plan that actually reversed her MS symptoms. Wahls’ groundbreaking triumph may fundamentally change the way chronic autoimmune illnesses and other disorders are treated.
Her work may even offer the hope of recovery from many of these illnesses as well.
Terry Wahls gained international attention following a 17-minute TEDx talk she gave in November 2011 that’s since been viewed by 1.6 million people. Her new book, The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine, soared up into the rarified air of Amazon’s top 250 bestsellers and has been number one in several health-related categories. Her lecture schedule this year is heavily booked, and she regularly turns down international speaking opportunities to manage ongoing clinical research and stay close to her patients and family.
The way things are shaping up, Terry Wahls is poised to become a phenomenon.
This is Your Brain on Antinutrients
Wahls was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000, after years of serious health struggles. “I had total fatigue disability,” she told me by phone from her office at the Iowa City VA Health Care center, where she is assistant chief of staff. She is also a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa.
“The muscles in my back and stomach were so weak I had to use a motorized tilt-recline wheelchair to get around,” she said. “I needed two canes to walk. I stumbled.” A former national Taekwondo champion, Wahls spent years barely mobile.
Today, she suffers virtually no MS-related pain. “A physical therapist looking at me would have a hard time finding an abnormality,” she said.
The path to the protocol began when she started to look into the relationship of nutrition to brain health. She pored over scientific studies and scoured online resources. She relearned biochemistry, cellular physiology, and neuroimmunology, finding that the brain of an MS sufferer literally shrinks (as with Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s) due to malnutrition. The problem is in the mitochondria, the cell’s tiny fuel-processing plants that convert the energy in food to a form our cells can use. Mitochondria are critical for anyone with a brain-related illness such as multiple sclerosis.
Wahls realized she could get all the nutrients the mitochondria needed from food. The key was choosing exactly the right foods and ingesting them in the optimal amounts. She got to work on figuring it all out. “That’s where the magic really began,” she said.
She completed lists of the vitamins and nutrients that feed the brain and the foods that provide them. She borrowed heavily from the work of Dr. Loren Cordain, creator of the nutrient-rich “Paleolithic” or hunter-gatherer diet. And she found useful insights in functional medicine, an integrative, holistic model that looks beyond just symptoms in treating chronic conditions and autoimmune illnesses.
In 2007, she created the Wahls diet, a food plan architected to provide exactly the micronutrients a depleted brain requires. And, importantly, she defined the toxic antinutrients that undid the work of these beneficial foods.
Once she got on the diet, amazing things began to happen. She started to heal. In three months’ time, she was able to walk with just one cane. A month later she was striding the VA hospital hallways on her rounds without either cane. At five months she pedaled her bicycle around the block. Nine months in, she cycled for 18 miles. The following year she was enjoying trail rides in the Canadian Rockies.
Not exactly the typical multiple sclerosis experience.
A Diet with Prehistoric Roots (and Other Vegetables)
So what is this miracle diet? Can it help people with milder illness or discomfort?
Simply put, the Wahls Protocol is a structured Paleolithic diet, similar to what some experts believe our ancestors ate 20,000 years ago. It is comprised of vegetables, berries, nuts, organic meat, and wild fish—period. It eliminates processed foods, dairy, sugar, gluten, and soy.
There are three levels to the diet, from easiest to most restrictive. The cornerstone of each is vegetables, and lots of ’em. Wahls firmly recommends nine cups a day, to get all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants required to heal the body, divided equally into greens (lettuce, kale, etc.), “colors” (carrots, berries, etc.), and “sulfurs” (cabbage, broccoli, etc.). At the more extreme paleo levels, you’ll be eating nutrient-rich organ meats such as liver and heart, along with seaweed and other atypical foods that may test one’s mettle. (Wahls left her vegetarianism behind for the diet.) The protocol may also include lifestyle changes such as stress reduction, yoga, and electromuscular stimulation.
Based on the clinical trials, now in their second year, the doctor’s “Wahls Warriors” have seen profound biochemical restoration and healing—which happens even in non MS-patients, such as people trying to lose weight, control blood sugar or cholesterol, or prevent heart disease. It also helps reduce mental and neurological problems, said Wahls, who claims that people can see changes in as little as two weeks, and increased energy levels in one to three months.
The Wahls Protocol, however, is challenging. It is expensive, restrictive, and not for the hurried or harried, since you will be spending a lot of time shopping and preparing meals. Take heart, though. If you suffer from a milder autoimmune disorder or food allergy, you may simply have to eliminate allergy- or inflammation-inducing substances like sugar, gluten, and dairy.
If you do chose to undertake the Wahls Protocol, which is described in the book, help is on the way. Plans are currently in the works for Wahls frozen meals and a 30-day Wahls residential retreat. And you can find recipes at www.terrywahls.com, along with supportive stories.
Losing Weight, Feeling Better
Wahls is riding a tidal wave of momentum and thus far much seems to be breaking her way—except for the endorsement of the traditional medical community. Wahls’ hope is that the scientific validation coming out of her research will change this.
“Our clinical trials show that we’re having a very large impact on fatigue—a 40- percent reduction,” she said. “The most serious side effect? If you’re overweight, you lose weight without being hungry and get back to your ideal body weight.”
These clinical trials employ the same interventions Wahls used in the first year of her recovery. The 20-person study’s first year concluded in December 2013. Wahls plans to publish several papers showing changes in balance, walking, mood, thinking ability, and quality of life. Her first paper was published in January 2014 in Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
Blips on the Radar Screen
At this early stage of the Wahls revolution, the doctor’s presence is still a faint blip on the radar screens of the multi-trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry. But if Terry Wahls is right, and drugs may not be needed in treating MS and other complex chronic diseases, the corporate Goliath will certainly take note of her.
To advance the cause and prepare for that day, Wahls and her team are ever in search of angel donors to support her research, operations, and outreach efforts. Until then, Wahls will take every opportunity she can get to tell her story.
“If I can come back from MS,” she said, “then people with serious obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, eczema, PTSD, and depression can be helped, too. When we get them into diet and lifestyle, their symptoms decline and even reverse.”
In her TEDx video she warns about the dangers of SAD—the Standard American Diet of processed foods—which she sees as the root cause of much chronic and autoimmune illness: “I am the canary in the coal mine. I’m here as a warning.”
Her hope is that her work will help to change the practice of medical science. If that happens, then the price she’s paid may well have been worth it.
“Getting MS was a profound gift,” she told me as we wound down our call so she could prepare for her next patient. “I’ve changed the conversation about the role of diet in all sorts of disease. It’s my gift to the world to tell people to consider the possibility that you too can reclaim your life.”
A Trailblazer at Heart
Dr. Terry Wahls herself may be one of the best arguments for her protocol. At 58, she radiates health and vitality. Sporting smartly clipped short gray hair and a sharp sense of style, she marries no-nonsense with congenial, a physician-scientist with an encyclopedic grasp of biochemistry and the confidence to defend her positions. Wahls is a married lesbian who speaks readily of her children, her wife Jackie (a nurse practitioner, also at the VA hospital), and her personal history in an honest, salt-of-the-earth way that no doubt derives from a childhood spent riding horses and chasing fowl around an Iowa farm. Wahls earned a BFA in studio art before attending IU’s medical school. Except for a short stint living in Wisconsin, she and her family have always lived in Iowa.
Wahls is the mother of a son and a daughter who are true biological siblings (they share the same male donor DNA). The trailblazer gene seems to be very much in the family. A YouTube video of son Zach’s impassioned testimony in defense of gay marriage at a 2011 Iowa House Judiciary Committee hearing is currently at 2.6 million views—a cool million ahead of his mother’s own viral video. A Truman Scholar, Zach will head to Washington, D.C., for an internship later this spring. Wahls’ college-age daughter, Zebby, aspires to work for the FBI as a fraud detective.
Has being a gay female physician presented any obstacles for Wahls? Not at all. “I’ve always been straightforward about who I am,” she said. “If you’re comfortable with who you are, the public will be, too.”