Terry Wahls, MD: From wheelchair to wellness through nutrition and exercise.

Terry Wahls, MD: From wheelchair to wellness through nutrition and exercise. Photo by Jonathan David Saber / Photographic Productions

Terry Wahls, MD, is an Assistant Chief of Staff at Iowa City VA Health Care and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa. She has practiced medicine for over 30 years and is board-certified in internal medicine.

Like most physicians, Dr. Wahls treated her patients’ ailments with drugs and surgical procedures, until she herself was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis in 2000, and conventional medicine began to fail her.

Even though she was working with top specialists in the field at the Cleveland Clinic and had tried numerous medications, by 2007 she was confined to a recliner or bed and could walk only a few steps with two canes.

As a decorated athlete in her youth, Dr. Wahls could not accept what her life had become and throughout her decline continued to research and look for answers. She focused on animal studies that had not yet progressed to human trial related to brain biology, biochemistry, and autoimmune disease. She tried dietary changes, adding meat and Paleo principles after being a vegetarian for twenty years, and supplements based on specific nutrients she had identified that are commonly lacking in those with autoimmune diseases such as MS.

She added electrical stimulation therapy (e-stim) after researching this protocol as used on paralysis due to acute spinal injury, and eliminated toxins from her environment.

Her decline slowed, and in November of 2007, her online research led her to the Institute for Functional Medicine. Functional medicine differs from mainstream medicine in its willingness to employ treatments which may not be well evidenced by clinical research.1 Its goal is to provide clinicians with a better way to care for people with complex chronic disease by looking at the interaction between genetics, diet, hormone balance, toxin exposure, infections and psychological factors which contribute to the development of disease or improvement of one’s health and vitality.2

“Although it wasn’t the way I was trained,” says Wahls, “it made sense to me. It was all logical and scientifically supported, so it resonated with me as a doctor, but it also fit into the context of my experience as an MS patient.”

She learned that she could improve the condition of her mitochondria (which fuel the body’s cells) and brain cells by providing them with the nutrients they so badly needed. And although the functional medicine studies helped her identify those nutrients, it didn’t tell her how to get them. Was she to take a huge fistful of supplements every day?

“I knew that if I could get those nutrients from the foods I was eating, it would be more effective than taking the synthetic version, and that I might also pick up additional compounds – maybe thousands of compounds yet to be identified – that contribute synergistically to the effectiveness of those vitamins and minerals.”

Incorporating Paleo principles, functional medicine concepts, and her own research, Wahls devised an eating plan specifically designed to maximize her mitochondrial and brain function.

“Physician self-experimentation sometimes does not go as anticipated,” states Wahls. “I had wanted to only slow my descent; I had no hope of recovery. However, the unthinkable – the unimaginable – happened, stunning me, my family, and my physicians.”

She immediately experienced more energy and enhanced mental clarity; in three months, she was walking with a cane; at six months she was walking without a cane and riding a bike; at nine months, she did an 18-mile bike ride, and the following year, a trail ride on horseback in the Canadian Rockies.

Her progress rapidly continued and in 2010, she started her clinical trials with patients. This year, she launched The Wahls Protocol, an educational book that details her transformation, and outlines recommended treatment plans based on diet and lifestyle. The book includes both her own and current medical research on MS, and possibly most importantly, how patients can work with their own medical team on a comprehensive plan.

In an interview with Desert Health®, Dr. Wahls shared some of the answers to questions of interest to both the medical community and those who may benefit personally from The Wahls Protocol.

Dr. Wahls in 2007

Dr. Wahls in 2007. Photo by Jonathan David Saber / Photographic Productions.

What was the response of your medical peers when you started employing functional medicine?

TW: My peers saw me looking awful and regress to a wheelchair, and suddenly I’m walking around and looking better. I did a grand round (case study presentation) to the department of medicine, and as a result, interested scientists joined my study team to help refine our study design and secure a grant proposal. We then got funding and started our clinical trials in 2010.

Since then, my peers in both the Department of Medicine and the College of Medicine have seen my lab present data on both the first 10 subjects in our study, and now the full 20, with results that are really very exciting. Now I am going around to other university departments presenting our research findings.

In speaking with other clinicians (who get to see the before and after videos), I discuss how I am incorporating The Wahls Protocol into my clinical practice, and how the public is reacting to this.

 Why is this not common knowledge in the medical community?

TW: Most members of the medical community who are working with MS patients have been taught a lot about very sophisticated medication which suppresses the immune system, but not a lot about the environmental factors like diet and lifestyle which accounts for 70-95% of the risks for getting MS.

If you have two parents with MS, it has been scientifically determined that you have a 30% risk of getting the disease. That leaves at least 70% due to environmental factors that are often within your control. Hundreds of scientific studies and papers indicate that diet and lifestyle issues account for 70-97% of the risk for acquiring MS, and for the risk of the relative disease severity.

What is standard care for autoimmune disease and MS?

TW: Standard care is some kind of immune suppressing drug, and because the immune cell function is critical to the normal working of our cells, these drugs usually come with a long list of side effects that can be mild to life threatening.

And there is usually a large impact on the quality of life. So you trade off feeling worse today – which you are happy to do – because you are afraid of being totally disabled tomorrow.

The beauty of The Wahls Protocol is that the quality of life significantly improves. People’s energy and mental clarity steadily improve, and they look more youthful.

This is what I see in all my clinics, that the major side effect in following this protocol is that you actually feel better.

Why aren’t more people with MS turning to diet and lifestyle to help control symptoms?

TW: People have to be ready, and to be ready, you need to understand how diet, toxins, exercise and flow balance influence the biochemistry in your cells and create health from an inflamed and sickly diseased state.

Once people understand, they are usually surprised that there is so much within their own means that they can do to get better.

We are going to eat things that taste good and feel good, so we are going to eat a lot of refined sugar, white flour and casein. We are addicted to all of these things; they release dopamine (stimulating our pleasure center in the brain). So in order for anyone to get over this addiction, they need to understand why particular foods can be harmful, and why particular foods can be incredibly nourishing.

This understanding is necessary for people to make significant lifestyle changes.

What role do nutraceuticals (dietary supplements, herbal products, and or isolated nutrient formulas) play in The Wahls Protocol?

TW: Nutraceuticals do have a place, but should not replace nutrient-dense foods. I think a very thoughtful approach to supplements can be helpful. In my book, I tell people how to work with their primary care physician. I don’t do any functional medicine testing in my clinical practice, and I get incredible results. If we don’t get the results we were hoping for, then I do turn to functional medicine evaluation because the patient may need to be evaluated for parasites or more excessive toxin issues.

I feel that it is better to spend your money on nutritional food and learn how to work with your primary care physician than to buy your vitamins and minerals in nutraceutical form.

What happens now if you eat foods you have removed from your diet?

TW: If I eat gluten, within 48 hours my face pain will turn on and I will probably have some other neurological deficit. If I am exposed to proteins to which I will have an immune reaction, the inflammation in my body sharply increases and I have neurological symptoms. That will be this way forever.

What is the status of your clinical studies?

TW: The Wahls Protocol elements are such radical new ways of treating MS that the review committee granted 10 subjects initially and required a safety and feasibility study upon which they would decide if we could add 10 more.

This report was written and published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and answered the standard questions: Can people do it? Yes. Did we hurt anyone? No. There were very minor side effects, such as, if you were overweight, you lost weight without being hungry and got back to an ideal body mass.

All 20 of our subjects have finished 12 months of the program, and papers will be coming within the next year and a half on the impacts on fatigue, walking and balance, thinking and memory, MRI results (brain size and lesions, which are common with MS), and nutritional status change.

We also have studies on e-stim and exercise and one using nutrition only which will finish up in December.

Wahls-book-cover-p-20What is the greatest knowledge you have learned and can share with others struggling with autoimmune disease, and their doctors?

TW: Life is a series of self-correcting chemical reactions. When that stops, you die. So the key to recovery when you have a chronic disease is to flood yourself with the vitamins, minerals and essential antioxidants you need, and to lose the things that are toxic to your cells, or that cause abnormal immune responses, and to let that self-correcting chemistry do its magic.

For many disease states, you can arrest the disease progression, and then when you keep flooding the cells with good nutrition and taking away the toxins, that self-correcting chemistry will ‘youthen’ the person. Their chronic symptoms will diminish, and then their need for medication – for things like blood pressure, blood sugar and fatigue – will diminish. If you are on a disease modifying immunosuppressant drug and start to show functional improvement and are doing extremely well, that is when we can have the conversation with the treating physician on whether or not you want to try very slowly tapering off those disease-modifying drugs (If you have healed enough that you no longer need them).

This has to be done slowly and cautiously and only after there is evidence of healing at the cellular level.

Where is your progress now?

TW: I don’t have the physical capabilities of a fully healthy 58 year-old, but I continue to get further and further into more normal capabilities.

Seven years into my protocol, and standing for two hours can be challenging, but then again, I was unable to stand at all. My goal is to become athletic again. I have been working out every day of my life since I was 18. I competed nationally in Tae Kwon Do back then, and although I will probably not return to that sport, I would like to go mountain biking with my spouse one day.

I still have multiple sclerosis, but now I have life back.

Desert Health® is honored to be bringing Dr. Terry Wahls to the Desert Monday, May 19. The event is free and open to the public; however, space is limited and RSVPs are required. This special presentation is part of the Eisenhower Wellness Institute’s Wellness Speakers Series and will be held at the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences on the Eisenhower campus in Rancho Mirage. To reserve your seat, please call (760) 610.7360. The Wahls Protocol will be available for purchase, and a book signing will follow the presentation and Q&A.

References: 1) www.wikipedia.org. Def Functional Medicine, 2) Terry Wahls, MD, The Wahls Protocol (Penguin Group NY, 2014)  p.10

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Comments (2)

  • Kelly Ellis, LCSW

    I am happy to say that I have been trained with Dr. Wahls and am now a Certified Wahls Healthcare Practitioner, integrating lifestyle counseling with my psychotherapy practice.

    • Lauren Del Sarto

      WOW! Fantastic news, Kelly. Where are you located? I just referred someone to her protocol yesterday here in the Coachella Valley.

      Thank you for reading Desert Health ~

      Lauren Del Sarto


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