Well-known in the MS world for her groundbreaking work on nutrition, Dr. Terry Wahls reflects on her personal experiences living with MS, her recovery, and how she copes.
Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
Research suggests that a quality diet improves some symptoms of MS. However, the effects of the Wahls Protocol aren’t yet fully established.
A tilt wheelchair user for four years straight, Dr. Terry Wahls marvels at the fact that she now rides her bike every day to her job at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
Although Wahls noticed symptoms while she was attending medical school in 1980, she didn’t receive a diagnosis of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis until 2000. By 2003, the disease advanced to the secondary-progressive stage. She began using a wheelchair due to back pain and fatigue.
Since Wahls lived in the Midwest, she sought out treatment from the Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis in Ohio.
“I believed in the best drugs,” she says. “The problem was I had steadily declined… I could see that conventional drugs were not likely to stop my decline into a bedridden, potentially demented life, so I started reading the animal studies.”
Because animal studies are conducted about 10 to 20 years ahead of clinical trials, Wahls began researching drug studies that were based on animal models.
“Then in 2005, it occurred to me I should be looking for vitamin supplement studies,” recalls Wahls.
Based on studies of vitamins and supplements for other brain-related diseases, she started experimenting with what she calls “vitamin cocktails.”
“I figured out that my fatigue is somewhat less with this vitamin cocktail that I’m developing targeting my mitochondria,” she says.
A few years before, her doctors at the Cleveland Clinic referred her to Dr. Loren Cordain’s research on the benefits of the paleo diet. After being a vegetarian for 20 years, Wahls switched to this diet, which meant giving up grains, legumes, berries, and more — as well as going back to eating meat.
“I had not eaten meat in a very long time, so it was a very big decision to go back to eating meat and to reconcile that,” she says.
“But I continued to decline. I stayed with [the paleo diet] because I thought the science that [Cordain] laid out and the papers he referenced made sense, and at least I was doing something.”
While following the paleo diet, she kept experimenting with vitamin supplementation. By 2007, after taking a course on neuroprotection at the Institute for Functional Medicine, Wahls added even more vitamins and supplements to her cocktail, bringing the total to about 17 vitamins and supplements.
“I could tell that helped my fatigue a little bit, so that was very encouraging to continue to read and experiment,” Wahls says.
Then in the fall of 2007, Wahls had her big aha moment: She decided to redesign the paleo diet to maximize the nutrients she was taking in pill form.
“In three months, my fatigue was remarkably reduced, my mental clarity remarkably improved. In six months, I’m walking around again — with a limp and with a cane — but I’m walking around.”
As a result, the Wahls Protocol emerged. The diet she created focuses on stressing certain foods rather than just removing food.
“This diet is really the only diet that’s out there that’s designed intentionally for the nutritional needs of mitochondria and brain cells,” Wahls explains.
She designed the diet so that people who are meat eaters, vegetarians, or those who follow a ketogenic diet could follow it.
“All these other diets focus on what you can’t have. They don’t tell you how to maximize the micronutrients and nutritional needs for your brain and cells,” according to Wahls.
Within a year of following the Wahls Protocol, Wahls was walking without a cane and even completed an 18-mile bicycle tour.
She recalls the first time she got on her bike freely.
“I pedal around the block. My son’s jogging on the left, my daughter’s on the right, and my wife is jogging behind. And we’re all crying because it had been six years since I had biked, and we had all believed what physicians had been telling me since diagnosis: that functions once lost if you have progressive MS are gone forever and that nothing would ever come back.”
Even though she understands the science behind her protocol, Wahls says the effects it’s had on her still feel miraculous.
“As you have a progressive illness, one of the things you do is eventually come to terms with the fact that you have a progressive illness, and just learn to take each day as it comes with no clear expectations about what happens,” she says.
“So, as I was steadily improving, and I’m walking in the neighborhood with my wife, I still didn’t really quite know what all of this meant, because I was still taking it one day at a time,” Wahls remembers. “It was the day that I rode my bike that [Jackie] and I said that we didn’t know what this might mean and how much recovery might be possible.”
Up to that point, Wahls admits that there were difficult times helping her children cope with her condition.
“One of the things that I had been very impressed with was Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’ That between every event that happens in your life, you choose your response, and I could choose to either give up and give in, and model helplessness to my kids, or I could model that you do the best you can no matter what, so they could be resilient despite whatever terrible challenges they would have,” says Wahls.
Her children built their own resilience by stepping up and helping their parents with chores like laundry and other responsibilities that Wahls couldn’t do herself.
“And early on, as I was watching things get more and more difficult, my kids were incredibly helpful, because [they] gave me a lot of purpose,” Wahls says. “I’m modeling for them. I could model destructive helplessness or resilience, and so family was absolutely key.”
She adds that another important part of her recovery was the ability to give back to the MS community by lecturing to medical students about her condition.
“It’s family and the greater community that are so important to our having resilience,” she notes.
Nearly 20 years since her diagnosis, Wahls still feeds on resilience and is thriving both personally and professionally. While she recognizes that the Wahls Protocol, or any diet, can’t cure MS for everyone, there’s no doubt in her mind that nutrition brought back her health and the ability to enjoy her favorite hobby — riding her bike.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.