Using food as medicine is changing lives.
Leading the way in helping MS patients utilize the power of food to manage their symptoms is Dr. Terry Wahls, author of “The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine.”
Dr. Wahls graciously took time from her busy schedule for an interview.
Her story begins in 2002, when “my neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic suggested that I investigate the work of Dr. Ashton Embry who had helped his son recover from multiple sclerosis, using diet. Dr. Embry had founded a non-profit, Direct MS, which was dedicated to supporting research and education in the area of diet and multiple sclerosis.”
From there Dr. Wahls studied the work of Dr. Loren Cordain, Paleo diet guru and author of “The Paleo Diet Revised: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat” and “The Paleo Diet Cookbook: More Than 150 Recipes for Paleo Breakfasts, Lunches, Dinners, Snacks, and Beverages.”
Dr. Wahls expresses appreciation for Dr. Cordain’s “advocacy of the Paleo Diet as a means of treating autoimmune conditions and improving health. After 20 years as a vegetarian, I read through the scientific studies and decided that the Paleo Diet as an intervention had merit. I added meat back to my diet and removed grain, dairy and legumes. I continued to slowly decline. The following year my doctors told me that my disease had transitioned to secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. I took the recommended chemotherapy; I got the tilt/recline wheelchair and even took Tysabri, but continued to slowly decline.”
After studying the research, including “studies using vitamins and supplements to protect mouse brains from a variety of neurodegenerative disorders,” Dr. Wahls “translated the mouse doses to human size doses and began the first round of self-experimentation. The speed of my decline slowed.”
Dr. Wahls describes her reaction as “exhilarating because I realized that I was figuring things out that my doctors did not know. I read more and more and slowly added more vitamins/ supplements.”
But then she changed her approach to utilize the vitamins and supplements in food.
“By 2007 I was too weak to sit in a regular chair and needed to be fully reclined or in bed. That was when I discovered the Institute for Functional Medicine. I took their course on Neuroprotection and deepened my understanding of what I could do to protect my brain. I had a longer list of supplements, which I began to take. Then I decided that rather than relying on the supplements I should get the vitamins and supplements from food and researched where those items were in the food supply. That took more research. Then I reorganized my diet to get 31 nutrients that science said my brain cells needed to thrive according the Paleo Principles. That is when the magic began to happen. Within three months my severe fatigue was gone. Within 6 months I could walk throughout the hospital without a cane and my neurologist agreed that I could taper and discontinue my disease modifying drugs. And within 12 months I was able to do an 18-mile bike tour with my family.”
Now Dr. Wahls feels that she recognizes the incredible power of food.
“I now understand that the food we eat is the most powerful driver of epigenetics. Epigenetics is how the environment speaks to our genes, turning some genes on making them active, and others off, making them silent. And in so doing, the environment can shift our naturally occurring ‘wild type’ phenotype (the appearance and performance of our bodies) that is robust and disease resistant into a sickly, inflamed, phenotype that is disease prone. For nearly every chronic disease today (high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, neurological problems, mental health problems, autoimmunity, and cancer) it is an interaction with our genes and diet, toxin exposure, physical activity level, stress level, sleep quality and prior infections that account for the development of disease. The DNA accounts for 5% or less of the risk and the environment accounts for 95%.”
For years, ketogenic diets have been used to control seizures. Recently, for example, a family revealed how their little boy, who suffered from 50 seizures daily, found relief from a ketogenic diet.
But Dr. Wahls feels the potential goes beyond that:
“Ketogenic diets have been known to reduce seizures since the early 1900s. Ketogenic diets are being studied as treatment for other neurological and psychiatric disorders including brain cancer, ALS, Parkinson’s, MS, dementia, bipolar, depression and schizophrenia.
Ketogenic diets are also being studied in other types of cancers including lung, pancreas, prostate, breast, head and neck and colon cancer.
Ketogenic diets are being studied for obesity and diabetes.”
In her research currently, Dr. Wahls is seeking how to balance nutritional needs with the focus on ketosis.
“One of the big challenges with ketogenic diets is maintaining nutrient density as people reduce the carbohydrate content to achieve ketosis. I worked specifically to design a diet that induced ketosis and still provided the 31 key vitamins, minerals, essential fats and antioxidants that science has identified as important to optimal brain cell health. The majority of ketogenic diets require extensive supplementation of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to prevent micronutrient depletion. IF one does not maintain adequate intake of the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) cellular dysfunction will begin to develop leading to chronic disease(s). The Wahls Paleo Plus™ diet has been designed to put people into ketosis and still have sufficient intake of the key 31 nutrients for brain cell health.”