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Integrative Health
|personal story

Could Vegetarianism Increase Your Risk Of Autoimmune Disease?

Terry Wahls, M.D.
March 19, 2014
Terry Wahls, M.D.
Author and Professor of Medicine
By Terry Wahls, M.D.
Author and Professor of Medicine
Terry Wahls, MD is an Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa where she conducts clinical trials. In 2018 she was awarded the Institute for Functional Medicine’s Linus Pauling Award for her contributions in research, clinical care and patient advocacy.
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March 19, 2014

When I was a senior in high school, I read Diet for a Small Planet and became a vegetarian. It was 1972, and the world was changing. Although I lived on a farm in rural Iowa and had grown up helping to slaughter the chickens and the turkeys, I was already beginning to find that duty unpleasant when Frances Moore Lappe’s book found me.

The arguments made sense to both my rational and emotional sides. I decided it was morally wrong to raise and kill animals for food, and I also understood that a vegetarian diet was more environmentally sustainable. I was a convert.

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My parents, however, were not so thrilled. My dad was upset and angry. He told me I would make myself ill, eating that way. My mom was quieter about her concerns, but I could tell she disapproved. Vegetarianism is not the way of the family farm, but because I was an adolescent, my parents’ reaction only reinforced my determination.

I still had to do my farm chores—milking the cows and feeding the hogs twice a day—but I resented contributing in any way to the philosophy behind the farm. I enjoyed wandering about the farm on my own, making pets out of the hogs and cows, even the ones that I knew would go to slaughter. Especially the ones I knew would go to slaughter. I had a knack with the horses and dogs, and animals in general. I considered becoming a small animal veterinarian.

I eventually chose medical school instead of vet school. As a student, I lived on beans and rice, whole-grain bread, eggs and cheese, vegetables and fruit. At the time, the medical profession promoted a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet. I disagreed with this on an intuitive level. I ate eggs and cheese in addition to my beans and rice, believing I needed the fat and protein for my high-energy lifestyle. Through med school, my internship, and various relationships, I remained a vegetarian.

When I became pregnant through artificial insemination with each of my children, my parents begged me to at least eat some fish. My mother, in particular, worried constantly that I would have problems with my pregnancy and my children would become sick if I didn’t eat any meat. I finally agreed to add some fish to my diet, but legumes, grains, eggs, and dairy products remained my dietary staples.

My first multiple sclerosis symptom occurred in the early 1980s, many years before my diagnosis. It began as fleeting twinges of electric pain in my right or left temple. Over the next few days, the twinges would become more uncomfortable and feel more electric, until finally it was like a cattle prod stuck on my face, jolting me with 10,000 volts of electricity.

After peaking, the pains would fade over the next week or two, then disappear again for awhile. I ignored them—I was a busy medical student with no time for personal medical issues, but the face pain was only the first symptom. Over the years, I developed episodes of visual dimming, dragging feet, and crushing fatigue.

When I was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000, I panicked. How had I not seen the signs? How would I support my family, which now consisted of my partner, Jackie, my son, Zach, and my daughter, Zebby? Was I doomed to a life of disability? Would I be bedridden?

I began medication and was steady for awhile, but then rapidly declined. Within a few years, I was in a tilt-recline wheelchair and could barely walk across a room with two canes. In my book, The Wahls Protocol, I go into detail about my tenacious and unrelenting search for answers. I was a doctor, but stubbornly unwilling to spend the rest of my life as a patient.

I began experimenting on myself, and one of my first discoveries was the work of Dr. Ashton Embry, who had connected diet to multiple sclerosis. Nobody had ever suggested to me that there could be any connection between multiple sclerosis and diet (the mainstream medical literature continues to deny the connection).

Dr. Embry’s son had multiple sclerosis, and he wrote that a diet without grains or dairy products that included meat could have a dramatic effect on MS progression. I decided it was worth a try. At first, the thought of eating meat was nauseating to me, both physically and morally. I wanted desperately to heal, and I was willing to try just about anything, but by this time I had been a vegetarian over 15 years.

How could I reconcile eating animals, after all this time, not to mention giving up my beloved bread, beans, and rice? I spent some time reflecting on life in the wild. We all consume one another in the end. Our atoms and molecules are continually recycled. Every living thing without the benefit of photosynthesis must consume other beings—plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals. And in the end, they will consume me.

I prayed and mediated on these ideas. Humans have been eating all these things for thousands of generations, so I decided I was not committing a crime against nature if I ate meat. Perhaps I was getting even closer to nature.

I also thought a great deal about my parents. By this time, they had both passed away, and it broke my heart to recognize the wisdom in their words when it was too late to tell them. I decided to tell them anyway. I spoke to them one evening, when I was alone. I told them that they had been right. I cried.

I found comfort in those two concepts: that my parents had been right after all, and that I was coming back home to what not only my parents but generations of ancestors have been doing. That was the personal peace I found.

It still took me a couple of weeks to actually work up the courage to do it. I began by putting meat into soup, in small amounts and in tiny pieces. Gradually, as I got used to the taste, it began to taste better to me, and I began to feel stronger. Eventually, I transitioned to a Paleolithic-style diet, quitting all grains, legumes, and dairy products. My decline slowed but continued. I kept researching, and then I discovered functional medicine and deepened my understanding of brain biology.

I pored over scientific papers about the nutritional needs of brain cells and determined that there were many micronutrients I was still missing. I decided that since diet was one of the few things about my health I could actually control, I would refine it further, not only eliminating foods that were causing problems for me (grains, legumes, dairy, and eggs) but adding foods in order to get the intensive micronutrients my brain required.

I eventually developed the Wahls Diet, which focuses on vegetables and fruits: 9 cups every day, divided into 3 cups of leafy greens, 3 cups of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and 3 cups of sulfur-rich vegetables, as well as a regimen of organ meats and sea vegetables.

The results speak for themselves. Today, I am not only out of my wheelchair, but I walk without a cane, I ride my bicycle five miles to work every day, I do my rounds at the hospital, and I feel better than I have in decades. I once was a vegetarian because of my conscience, but now, as a doctor, I can no longer in good conscience recommend it.

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Terry Wahls, M.D.
Terry Wahls, M.D.

Dr. Terry Wahls is an Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa where she conducts clinical trials. In 2018 she was awarded the Institute for Functional Medicine’s Linus Pauling Award for her contributions in research, clinical care and patient advocacy. In addition, Dr. Wahls has secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which confined her to a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years. Dr. Wahls restored her health using a diet and lifestyle program she designed specifically for her brain and now pedals her bike to work each day.

She is the author of The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine, The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles (paperback), and the cookbook The Wahls Protocol Cooking for Life: The Revolutionary Modern Paleo Plan to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions. Learn more about the current study Efficacy of Diet on Quality of Life in Multiple Sclerosis. Pick up a one-page handout for the Wahls™ Diet. Follow her on Instagram @drterrywahls, and on Facebook/Twitter at @TerryWahls. Sign up to receive her weekly research updates.

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