(To hear Dr. Wahls explain her story in person, listen to this Wellness Mama podcast when I had the privilege of interviewing her.)
Her journey started as it does for many of us… searching for answers to the puzzling health problems that can turn our lives upside down.
Dr. Terry Wahls and How She Found a Way to Reverse MS
Dr. Wahls started to experience symptoms of MS while she was in medical school. Her first official diagnosis of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis came in 2000.
It started with episodes of facial nerve pain that were ultimately diagnosed as trigeminal neuralgia.
Over the years, these episodes increased in frequency and severity. In 2000, after developing weakness in her left leg, she was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS). She went to an internationally recognized MS center, saw the best doctors, and took the newest drugs, costing tens of thousands of dollars each month.
Unfortunately, these efforts did not stop her decline.
By 2003, this former national tae-kwon-do competitor needed a tilt-recline wheelchair. Her illness converted to the progressive phase, secondary progressive MS. Her physicians told her that functions once lost would not return. She agreed to take more potent drugs but continued to worsen.
The future looked grim. Dr. Wahls feared she would end up bedridden and demented, suffering from uncontrollable face pain triggered by light, sounds, touch, speaking, and swallowing. But she had two young children and was a devoted wife, and decided not to give up.
Fighting Her Way Back
Dr. Wahls began reading everything she could find about the science behind MS, ancestral health principles, evolutionary biology, and functional medicine.
Then, she began designing a diet and lifestyle program around those principles. Dr. Wahls had switched from a low-fat vegetarian diet to a Paleo diet four years earlier, giving up all grain and dairy and eating meat again. The Paleo diet did not prevent her from needing a wheelchair, but she continued on thinking it might take years for the change in nutrition to change the course of her disease.
Based on her theories that mitochondrial dysfunction was at the heart of progressive MS symptoms and decline, she began experimenting with a mitochondria-boosting cocktail of vitamins and supplements. Those supplements eased the fatigue and appeared to slow the rate of decline somewhat.
In the summer of 2007, she had her “aha!” moment: what if she redesigned her Paleo diet to focus on getting the specific nutrients she had been taking in supplement form from food?
After intensive research, she started this new, highly structured, modified Paleo diet.
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The results stunned her, her family, and her medical team. Here’s what happened:
- Within three months, her fatigue, brain fog and face pain were gone. She began walking with a cane.
- After six months on the protocol, she rode her bike around the block.
- After one year, she completed an 18.5 mile bike ride with her family.
Dr. Terry Wahls knew she was onto something, and that millions of other MS sufferers needed what she had learned.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
What is this dreaded disease that strikes seemingly out of nowhere?
There’s still a long way to go in understanding MS, but it starts with the microglia, the brain’s immune cells, creating inflammation in the brain. This damages the brain and spinal cord.
Immune cells target the myelin, the fatty shield around nerve fibers in the brain, impeding communication between cells in the body and brain. This breakdown results in many debilitating symptoms, including problems with vision, pain, and/or muscle weakness.
Although the precise cause of MS is still unknown, there is increasing recognition that MS is the result of a genetic vulnerability combined with environmental triggers. These triggers likely include an infection that is not properly cleared by the immune cells, low vitamin D level, smoking history, and other environmental toxins, physical activity level, adverse childhood events, hormone levels, and other unknown environmental factors.
Dr. Wahls’ dietary and lifestyle protocol addresses many of these potential triggers.
The Wahls Diet Protocol: Hope for MS Sufferers
I met Dr. Wahls when I happened to sit next to her during a session at a health event we both attended. I found her so energetic and inspirational.
Her work now focuses on researching the impact of the protocol on others with MS and communicating her findings to the world. She conducts clinical trials at the University of Iowa and wrote a book, The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles, to explain her complete protocol of how she got better. The advice in this book is great for anyone struggling with an autoimmune disorder of any kind.
The newly updated and expanded version of Dr. Wahls’ book gives detailed guidance for meat eaters, vegetarian, and ketogenic eaters. It’s one of my guides on topics like ketone testing, various approaches to fasting, calorie restriction, and time-restricted eating.
She has also written a cookbook, Wahls Protocol Cooking for Life: The Revolutionary Modern Paleo Plan to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions, with recipes that follow the protocol and can help restore health.
So what’s in her plan to reverse the symptoms of MS and go from barely surviving to thriving again?
Here are the highlights:
Dr. Wahls’ Dietary Protocol to Reverse MS
Mitochondria are the body’s power producers. They are inside each of our cells, driving the work of our cells, organs, and body. So it makes sense that Dr. Wahls pinpoints their role in optimizing brain and immune system health. The basic tenets of her protocol for MS and autoimmune-specific conditions are:
- Remove processed foods.
- Remove foods that trigger abnormal immune system response, especially these three: gluten (the protein in wheat and many ancient grains), casein (the protein in dairy), and albumin (the protein in egg whites).
- Eat 9 cups of vegetables and fruits daily (fresh, blended, or lightly steamed). Specifically:
- 3 cups of leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, lettuce, etc.)
- 3 cups of bright fruits or vegetables, each different colors, and colored all the way through (like beets, blueberries, and carrots) Bananas, apples, and pears do not count.
- 3 cups of sulfur-rich vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, onions, and garlic.
- Consume bone broth and fermented foods daily.
- Eat high quality, wild-caught fish or grass-fed meat for dinner.
I love that Dr. Wahls focuses not so much on removing foods but on consuming nutrient-dense foods that support mitochondria function, which is so important for MS and autoimmune sufferers. Basically her message is: eat veggies, eat veggies, eat MORE veggies!
This protocol can not only help reverse symptoms of MS but can help anyone suffering from chronic disease, leaky gut, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, lupus, arthritis, psoriasis, chronic pain, diabetes, traumatic brain injury, depression, PTSD… and the list goes on. Food really is medicine!
Of course, getting support from your medical team is always key when you consider any protocol or dietary changes. Functional medicine practitioners and Wahls Protocol® certified health professionals can also be very helpful. They can assist with assessing your specific health concerns and personalizing the protocol to your unique issues.
Research, Help, and Hope on the Horizon
Dr. Wahls’ research is now receiving attention from the mainstream medical world. In 2016 the National MS Society awarded her a $1 million grant to conduct further research, a very exciting development for MS sufferers and the real food movement in general! You can read her research publications and see before and after videos showing improved walking abilities in study participants here.
More neurologists and neuroscientists are now recommending that all patients with multiple sclerosis begin dietary and lifestyle interventions to protect their brains and reduce the risk of early memory loss and dementia. The recommendations include improving diet quality, stopping smoking and reducing toxin exposures, adding a meditative practice, and increasing physical activity and exercise.
Sounds a lot like what Dr. Wahls recommends! Coincidence? I think not!
If you can’t tell, I am a huge fan of Dr. Wahls. If you want to check her out, take a few minutes to watch Dr. Terry’s viral TEDx talk from 2011. It’s worth the watch!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Terry Wahls, a clinical professor of medicine and clinical researcher and has published over 60 peer-reviewed scientific abstracts, posters, and papers. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What do you think of Dr. Wahls’ protocol? Do you struggle with an autoimmune condition or even MS, and have dietary changes helped you?