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Why You Can't Medicate Your Way Out Of Poor Diet & Lifestyle Choices

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January 11, 2015

Terry Wahls, MD, is a functional medicine doctor, clinical professor, and a survivor of progressive multiple sclerosis who used her own protocol to heal. This week, we’re sharing her expertise in a series on adrenal fatigue and natural techniques to restore energy. To learn more, check out her new mindbodygreen class, How To Heal Adrenal Fatigue: The Food & Habits You Need For Optimal Health & Energy.

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When I presented my research on the successful treatment of multiple sclerosis using diet and lifestyle changes at the Rheumatology research seminar, I was met with some skepticism. One of the physicians, someone I respect, asked, "Why should we ask people to do these tough-to-implement diet and lifestyle changes when we have medications that are so effective?"

That's a good question. Why choose diet and lifestyle changes over medication? Everybody knows someone who smokes, eats lots of sugar, and still lived into old age. Besides, their doctors often tell them that diet doesn't make a difference to their autoimmune or other chronic disease issue.

The standard of care for treating rheumatoid arthritis and other systemic autoimmune problems is to keep seeing the patient and accelerating the dose of the immune-suppressing medication until the symptoms are manageable. When the disease becomes more active — which often occurs as the person develops neutralizing antibodies to the biologic, disease-modifying medications for serious autoimmune disorders — it's time to switch medications and start all over again.

We do the same thing for other common medical diseases that are chronic and progressive in nature, like high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health problems. Over time, the disease progresses and higher doses of medication and/or additional medications are needed.

This is the nature of chronic disease. Remember, all chronic disease begins at the cellular level when your body's normal chemistry no longer functions properly. Molecules are made with the wrong shape and do not operate as effectively in our bodies. Damage to our tissues and organs develops slowly, one incorrectly made molecule at a time. If we want to stop disease progression and restore full health, then we must get at the root cause of this broken chemistry in the cells.

That means addressing diet quality, smoking status and toxin exposure, physical activity level, sleep quality, and all of the other often overlooked aspects of diet and lifestyle. Medications can be very helpful, lifesaving even, but they do not address years of eating poorly, years of inactivity, years of cigarette smoking or working with chemicals without proper protective equipment, or years of severe psychological stress. Each of those factors disrupts the proper functioning of the cell.

If you do not address the diet and lifestyle factors gone awry, the underlying disease will continue to progress. Higher doses and more medications will eventually be needed.

My answer to the question, "Why should we ask people to do these tough to implement diet and lifestyle changes when we have medications that are so effective?" is this: Patients are willing to make major dietary and lifestyle changes once they understand both the why and the how. For people to have more energy, improved mental clarity, and better moods, their cells will need to conduct the chemistry of life more correctly. To do that, their cells need the proper building blocks, and as many noxious compounds interfering with cellular function removed as possible.

For that to happen, I must be an effective teacher. It's my job to help patients understand why the quality of their diets matters so much to the health of their cells. In addition, I must teach them how plastics, solvents, pesticides, and heavy metals interfere with hormonal balance and how inactivity leads to increased inflammation. Once patients understand why poor diet, toxins in the environment, and inactivity have negative impacts on health, they are much more open to learning how to use diet and lifestyle changes to improve the health of their cells, and therefore the health of their bodies.

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

Terry Wahls, M.D. is a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, where she conducts clinical research on the use of diet and lifestyle to treat brain-related problems. She has also worked at the V.A. for many years in the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic and was the Director of the Therapeutic Lifestyle Clinic. In both clinics, she focused on using diet and lifestyle to treat traumatic brain injury and neurological and neurodegenerative disorders.

She received her master's in medicine from The University of Iowa, as well as her master's in business administration from the University of St. Thomas.

Wahls has progressive MS. For seven years, she declined steadily, and though she took the newest drugs, including very potent biologic drugs, she ended up in a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years. When she started studying the latest brain science and designed a diet and lifestyle program specifically to support her brain cells, her decline slowed, then stopped, then she recovered. Now, she bikes five miles to work. She uses these principles to help others with a wide variety of brain-related symptoms end their decline and suffering, and restore their lives.

She has authored The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles, as well as its companion cookbook, The Wahls Protocol Cooking for Life. Terry also holds her Wahls Protocol® Seminar every August.

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