The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine
By Terry Wahls, M.D. and Eve Adamson
Q: When were you diagnosed with MS and what were your symptoms?
A: I was diagnosed in 2000, but in retrospect I was having symptoms as early as 1982, with episodes of severe face pain and problems with my vision. In 2000, I began stumbling and had a foot drop, which is what lead to the diagnosis. It only got worse from there, for a long while.
Q: What sort of care did you received between your diagnosis and 2007 when you took matters into your own hands? What was your state of health then in 2007?
A: I had taken Copaxone, one of the so-called “ABC drugs” most frequently prescribed for MS. When my MS transitioned to secondary progressive MS (this is a common occurrence, meaning I would no longer have periods of recovery, but instead, a steady decline), I took several cycles of mitoxantrone, which is also used to treat some cancers. Next, I took Tysabri when it became available, but stopped it after two cycles because Tysabri was pulled from the market. Then I took Cellcept, which is typically used to suppress the rejection of transplanted organs. I’ve certainly had my share of MS medication!
I also experienced what many others experience—declining mobility. When I could no longer sit in a standard chair, I needed to fully recline in a zero gravity chair. I used the tilt recline wheelchair to get around the hospital and clinic. I could still walk short distances with two canes but I had total fatigue disability. I also endured severe brain fog, constantly losing things like my car keys, my cell phone and my daily planners.
Q: How did you come up with your protocol? And where did the discovery come from?
A: It was definitely a journey, marked by many milestones, but triggered by the intense desire not to leave my family saddled with my disability. I was determined to find an answer not yet available to the public. I researched intensively than begin to experiment on myself—first by starting the Paleo diet, then by extensive study I developed a specific vitamin and supplement routine. Next, I dove into the exploration of Functional Medicine, and then I began to experiment with electrical stimulation of muscles. Finally, I developed my own system which pulled what I believed were the most useful elements from all those other methods, combined with everything else I had learned in my personal research and experimentation, into a new way of eating, living, moving, and thinking. The result was something entirely new—and something that had a profound effect on my health, mental state, and mobility.
Q: As a physician, have you received criticism from others in your field for your work/research in functional medicine?
A: When I first started talking to the public and to my colleagues about my experience, I was told that one case (meaning mine) is only one case, and therefore cannot be extrapolated to the general public. Also, there is always some general skepticism about anything new, especially when it seems to have a ‘holistic’ aspect. However, I knew my method could help others, so I was determined to prove it. The chair of medicine encouraged me to do a clinical trial and helped me find senior scientists to mentor me. I wrote the research protocol and secured the funding to begin the trial, which has been exactly what the scientific community needed to give credence to my protocol. We present our research at the College of Medicine research week. My colleagues see the preliminary data, watch the videos, and have been steadily more impressed and supportive.
Q: In your book you talk a lot about mitochondria, can you tell us what mitochondria are? Why do mitochondria make such a difference to people with MS?
A: I liken mitochondria to engines. They are the engines or the fuel processing stations for our cells. We have to convert the energy in the food we eat to a form that our cells can use to conduct the biology of life. This is the job of the mitochondria. People don’t recognize how crucial these tiny little organelles really are, but problems in the mitochondria have a ripple effect—they cause problems in the cells, which cause problems in the organs, which cause problems in the whole body, leading to illness and dysfunction. Chronic disease begins in the mitochondria, and that is where the Wahls Protocol seeks to arrest it. I first discovered this in my research of mouse models for diseases in which the brain shrinks—for example, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. I saw that mitochondria dysfunction and early death were common pathways in all those illnesses. That was my lightbulb moment that mitochondrial dysfunction must be a big issue for MS, and probably a big issue for all chronic diseases. That was why I began researching how to help my mitochondria be healthier.
Q: Briefly, what is the Wahls Diet? How long does it take for someone to notice a difference once starting it?
A: Although there are three specific levels to the diet in the Wahls Protocol, the broad strokes are a profound increase in plant foods in a particular ratio: leafy greens, sulfur rich vegetables, and brightly colored vegetables and fruits every day in specific amounts, as well as high-quality, clean sources of animal protein, including some specific types. Prohibitions include dairy, gluten, and soy. It is a combination of a Paleolithic-style diet and a diet customized to deliver the nutrients functional medicine recommends, along with some other specific additions and prohibitions based on my own research and experience. I teach people how to eat to maximize the vitamin, minerals, and essential fat intake per calorie, because when you have an autoimmune disease, every bite of food you take can be medicine for you. I want to make the most of this. The Wahls Protocol also includes some specific exercise and stress reduction prescriptions, as well as advice on which supplements can be helpful and which might be doing more harm than good. The results will be (and has been in my clinic) more energy, clearer thinking, weight drifting back to the ideal, better blood pressure, better blood sugar, better moods, and in many cases, increased mobility. In most cases in my experience, people begin to notice changes in as little as two weeks after embarking on the Wahls Protocol, and typically notice significant reduction in fatigue and increase in energy within one to three months.
Q: How many people have autoimmune problems in the US? Would the Wahls Diet be helpful for those with other types of autoimmune problems?
A: 24 million people in the US have an autoimmune diagnosis, but another 50 million do not feel well and have autoantibodies but do not yet have enough antibodies to make a diagnosis. So, that means about 75 million have autoimmune problems. That’s extremely significant, and to me it is a sign that our lifestyles have led us down a very dangerous path. Even more disturbing, more and more children are being diagnosed with an autoimmune problem as children. What are we doing wrong? This has been the large-view focus of my research. And yes, the Wahls Diet is absolutely helpful for those with other types of autoimmune problems. As I say in the book, at the cellular level, and in many other ways, we all have the same disease, and what helps reverse chronic cellular dysfunction can improve health no matter the disease state. My protocol in particular is custom-designed to address auto-immunity. However, I also believe it will be extremely helpful for those who are trying to lose weight (especially those struggling with obesity), as well as for those trying to control their blood sugar, their cholesterol, or who are worried about heart disease or stroke risk. It would also likely be helpful for those with mental health or neurological problems. This is because the Wahls Protocol does not treat symptoms. It treats causes.