When you have secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, you're not supposed to get better. No one knows that better than Dr. Terry Wahls, the assistant chief of staff at the Iowa Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Wahls herself was diagnosed with MS in 2000 and watched her physical abilities steadily decline. Several years later, when she found herself unable to walk or even sit up in a wheelchair, Walhs became determined to improve. Having already seen the best doctors at the renowned Cleveland Clinic and taken the state-of-the-art drugs, she knew she had to do something radical.
Wahls turned to the ancient healing remedy of food, completely transforming her diet. Remarkably, her fatigue lessened, and she was soon sitting up -- and walking. Five months later, she got on a bicycle, eventually riding for long distances.
Wahls is eager to spread the word that food is powerful medicine. She is currently writing a book about her remarkable experience, The Wahls Protocol, scheduled for publication in 2014. In the meantime, anyone with MS, another autoimmune condition, or who simply wants to improve their health can benefit from her experience, which also included neuromuscular electrical stimulation and exercise.
I recently spoke to Wahls (whose son Zach found his own fame last year when his testimony before the Iowa State House on the joys of having two mothers went viral) about how she discovered the delights of diet and, most importantly, what she actually eats. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
How did you come to focus on nutrition?
I began reading the scientific literature on lab animals, because research in animal models of disease is often 20 or 30 years ahead of clinical practice. From this reading, I gradually reached the conclusion that mitochondria [the power plants of every cell] are involved in all of the brain disorders involving shrinking of the brain: Huntington's, Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's, dementia. Even though MS hadn't been studied, I decided that mitochondria are probably important in this disease as well.
I identified supplements that help support mitochondria, and I started taking them, but after six months I thought maybe I was wasting my money, so I quit. Suddenly I was so exhausted I couldn't get out of bed. That's when I realized the supplements were doing something.
And your diet sprang from that?
Yes. Instead of taking supplements, I knew I should focus on diet, since synthetic vitamins are not the same as what you find in foods. I decided to figure out where these nutrients were in the food supply. Slowly, I pieced together where I could find foods for my long list of nutrients.
Can you describe your eating plan?
I'd learned about the hunter-gatherer/Paleo diet in 2002 and followed it then. [The diet bans grains, dairy, sugar, soy and legumes, primarily leaving free-range meats and organic vegetables and fruits, in any quantity.] But I continued to decline. Eventually, I tweaked the produce into specific categories, and that's when the magic began to happen.
My Wahls Paleo diet features a minimum of nine cups of organic vegetables and fruits every day. Three cups (about one heaping plateful) are leafy green vegetables because they're full of the vitamins A, C, K, B and minerals, all of which the brain needs. Three cups are sulfur-rich vegetables, which include cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, onions, mushrooms and asparagus, because sulfur compounds are really good at helping support the removal of toxins and the creation of neurotransmitters. And three cups are colorful vegetables and fruits (ideally three different colors each day), because they're full of antioxidants. They have to be colored all the way through, so apples and bananas don't count as colored, but cranberries, other berries, peaches, oranges, beets, peppers, sweet potatoes, and carrots do. I prefer that the produce be raw or cooked at low temperatures. By eating this way, you have a plentiful supply on any given day or week of all the things we know the brain needs to function.
At each meal, you should also have high-quality proteins rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as wild salmon and herring, and grass-fed meats. Grass-fed is important because feedlot animals are much more likely to have been diseased, given antibiotics, kept from sunlight, and fed grains treated with herbicides and pesticides. You should also have healthy oils, like coconut oil, olive oil, flax oil, or hemp oil, but not processed vegetable oils or trans fats. And about once each week, eat organ meats and seaweed.
And no grains whatsoever?
The agricultural industry has done a great job convincing Americans that we need five to 11 servings of grain every day. But grains are totally health destroying. Like other Paleo diets, my plan has no grains. For people who don't want my strict Wahls Paleo diet, I did also develop a second diet, which I simply call the Wahls diet. That diet allows some gluten-free grains. Both diets promote health, but you'll get superior health outcomes from the Wahls Paleo version. Certainly, people with MS will be better served the more completely they can observe the Paleo version.
Give us a sample of what you eat in a day.
The other day I had a smoothie in the morning made from coconut milk and Aronia berries and a variety of spices, along with meat left over from supper the night before. I don't eat lunch; when I got home I cooked steak with a lot of sliced onions and mushrooms in coconut oil and a few tablespoons of white wine in a covered skillet for a few minutes. And I had a big salad with that. (You could choose to have some of the salad -- along with protein and colorful vegetables or berries -- for lunch.) It was a healthy, delicious dinner for my family in less time than it takes to cook a frozen pizza.
Another day's breakfast was liver jerky, which I make myself, along with a beet, pear, parsley and cilantro salad, plus coconut milk and yerba mate tea. For supper that day, I had lamb and onions, along with a green salad with beets, rutabaga and cranberries. In winter, I might have more of the vegetables in soups; in summer, I'll have more salads and grilled meats. I still take some supplements, but food is the critical part now.
How would you describe your health?
I'm doing extremely well. My mobility and fatigue continue to improve. I swim and bike. And I no longer take disease-modifying drugs or Provigil (for fatigue). I do still have some pain, so I take gabapentin, but at minuscule doses compared to what I was on previously. I'm not completely normal yet: I walk well in the morning, but by night my physical therapist can tell I have a limp.
And you're studying how your diet works for others with MS?
Yes. We got funding from the Direct-MS charity to study 20 people. This isn't the type of research that drug companies or the government will fund -- it's too radical -- so research dollars need to come from angel donors or the public. We reported our preliminary findings on the first 10 people using the same combined approach I use (nutrition, exercise and neuromuscular electrical stimulation) at the Neuroscience conference in 2011. We reported significant reductions in fatigue after three months, which is huge, because fatigue is the most disabling symptom for people with progressive MS. And people have been doing very well since. We are very excited.
What about those with other medical conditions, like heart disease?
In my primary care clinic, my residents laugh and say, "Dr. Wahls, you use the same diet treatment for everyone, whether they have diabetes, heart disease, mental health problems..." And I say, "We all have mitochondria. We all have cells that have to do the chemistry of life properly." In my clinic, my dietary approach has been very helpful in treating all of these conditions. If you eat to make sure your mitochondria and cells are functioning most efficiently, you will probably reduce the symptoms of most chronic diseases.
Meryl Davids Landau writes about health for Whole Living, Reader's Digest, US News & World Report and other national magazines. She is the author of the women's novel "Downward Dog, Upward Fog," which was recommended by the Yoga Journal and Elephant Journal blogs. ForeWord Reviews calls the novel "an inspirational gem that will appeal to introspective, evolving women." Read excerpts at www.DownwardDogUpwardFog.com.
To contribute to Wahls' research fund for her next study, go to www.TerryWahls.com.
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