How I Managed Progressive MS With A Paleo Diet & Functional Medicine
I am a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa and for most of my career, I believed wholeheartedly in the power of modern medicine, in our latest greatest drugs, in our ever more expert procedural interventions. For many years, I focused on treating disease, not on creating health, because that is what I was taught to do. I didn’t know any better, but I was certainly not a “physician of the future.” (That's the term Thomas Edison used to describe the doctor who "will give no medication, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.”) Now, however, I aspire to a physician of the future. Let me tell you why.
In 2000, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that damages the brain and spinal cord, and is the most common cause of early disability in the US. I was told that MS was likely due to a prior infection and unknown environmental factors. No one asked me about or mentioned lifestyle, but they did talk to me about drugs.
I was told it was important for me to take one of the A-B-C drugs (Avonex, Betaseron, or Copaxone). These disease-modifying drugs would decrease the likelihood of an acute MS attack or relapse by about a third. This would cost nearly a thousand dollars a month. Today, MS disease-modifying drugs now cost more than $4500 a month! That price tag comes with a long list of potentially dangerous side effects—flu-like body aches, depression, mouth sores, heart problems, a higher risk of life-threatening infections, and even death. Needless to say, an MS diagnosis presents a scary future.
But what choice did I have?
I was scared. I was terrified. How would I support my family, including my wife Jackie and my two kids? I went to the best MS center I could find: the Cleveland Clinic. I saw the best doctors, received the best care possible in the opinion of conventional medicine, and took those latest, greatest drugs.
But the problem was that I continued to decline slowly. I could feel it, and my family could see it. As the years rolled by, I had an increasingly difficult time with fatigue and endurance. When I couldn’t even jog a few steps, I had to quit playing backyard soccer with the kids. Hikes and athletic activities were out as well. Having always been an active, competitive, athletic woman, this was one of the hardest things I had to give up. I watched from the sidelines as the family played without me.
Then I made a series of discoveries. In 2002, I discovered the The Paleo Diet, by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., who advocated for a caveman-style diet as a treatment for autoimmune diseases like MS. Although I’d been a vegetarian for almost two decades, I decided to follow his advice. Gradually, I introduced meat into my diet and gave up the grains and legumes that had been a mainstay for over a decade. My decline slowed, but continued. The Paleo diet alone was not enough.
In 2003, my doctors told me that my disease had transitioned to secondary progressive MS. I took the recommended chemotherapy drugs, Tysabri and then CellCept, and I got a tilt recline wheelchair because I could no longer sit up for very long. I saw that conventional medicine was failing me. I was increasingly afraid, for both myself and my family, because it was clear to everyone that I would soon be bedridden.
Wanting to forestall that as long as I could, I went on a desperate quest for information. I considered that in MS, the brain shrank over time, as it does with Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. I began searching PubMed.gov, a website that is a clearinghouse for medical research articles, for the latest research on all these diseases, and discovered a common theme: mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria are organelles inside cells that work to produce energy.
In all these disease, the mitochondria don’t work very well, which causes the early death of brain cells and shrinking brains. But what did researchers propose could be done about it? With more searching, I identified studies on mouse brains protected by fish oil, creatine, and coenzyme Q. Ready to try anything, I translated those mouse-sized doses to human-sized ones and began my first round of self-experimentation. The rapidity of my decline slowed again, but continued. Supplements were not enough.
By 2007, I was struggling with such fatigue and brain fog that I couldn’t sit in a regular chair anymore. I needed a zero gravity chair or bed. I thought it likely that I’d need to quit work and apply for disability in the coming year, but as I continued to plow through studies every night with the tenacity of a dog with a bone, I made two more big discoveries that would change my life.
The first was the discovery of neuromuscular electrical stimulation therapy, also called e-stim. I read research about how it had helped with muscle atrophy in people with paralysis. I asked my physical therapist for a test session. It hurt, but I also felt exhilarated at the end, probably from the endorphins released during the session. I began a daily exercise program, along with regular estim. At first, I was so weak that I could only do 10 minutes of movements a day, but the more I did it, the stronger I got. I also started meditating, to manage the stress.
At the same time, I discovered the Institute for Functional Medicine and their continuing medical education course, Neuroprotection: A Functional Medicine Approach to Common and Uncommon Neurologic Syndromes. I came out of that course with a much longer list of vitamins and supplements my brain and cells and mitochondria required for optimal function.
Slowly, I began to get stronger. I was thrilled. I was no longer declining! I knew I had no hope of recovery—I had accepted what my physicians had told me again and again, that functions once lost gone with progressive MS are gone forever. But if I could just freeze the decline right where it was, that would be something great.
My next discovery was more of a personal realization. I decided that if these added nutrients could make such an impact on me, I should be getting them from real food rather than pills. Wouldn’t they be even more potent, even more recognizable to my body, and even more appropriately "packaged" by nature?
Plus, I thought it likely that vitamins occurring in food were more powerful than the synthetic versions I was taking, but where would I find my long list of nutrients in the food supply? Neither the medical texts nor the food science texts had that kind of information. Fortunately, the internet did, and using it, I was able to create a food plan designed specifically for my brain cells and my mitochondria: greens, sulfur-rich vegetables, deeply colored vegetables and berries, grass-fed meat, wild fish, organ meat, and seaweed. I began a new self-created regimen of intense nutrition based on my research.
That is when the magic began to happen. The following month, my energy was much better and the brain fog was gone. Two months later, I was walking between exam rooms using a cane. Six months later, I rode my bike for the first time in nearly six years. At 9 months, I completed an 18-mile bike ride with my family. My world had completely changed.
I finally allowed myself to see it: I was getting better. I was making history. No one with secondary progressive MS regains functions that have been lost. My future was being rewritten, and the old me, the conventional internal medicine doctor who had little patience for complementary or alternative medicine, had been struck down like Paul on the road to Damascus.
Now, I understand, both on an intellectual level and quite literally at the cellular level, the power of eating and living for the health of the cells and the mitochondria. I changed how I practiced medicine. I also wrote a grant and secured funding to test my interventions on others with progressive MS. I did a TEDx talk, Minding Your Mitochondria, about my experience, and that talk has received over 1.5 million views online.
I wrote a book, The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine, going into detail about what I did and what others can do. It has become my mission to help others rewrite their futures, too.
I am grateful for having MS. It is one of the most profound gifts I ever received. Now I know that diet and lifestyle can be utterly transformative. We can all embrace health for ourselves, our families, our communities, our countries, our world. We can all grow younger, stronger, healthier, even sexier, by eating a deeply nutrient-dense diet, giving our cells what they need to heal and thrive. If I can make these profound changes to my heath, imagine what you could do for yours.