How Diet Helped Creator of Wahls Protocol in Personal MS Journey: A Nutritionist’s View

How Diet Helped Creator of Wahls Protocol in Personal MS Journey: A Nutritionist’s View

In my recent conversation with Terry Wahls, MD, creator of the Wahls diet for multiple sclerosis (MS), she said something that resonated with me: “You can’t change your genes, but you can change your gene’s expression.”

How true this statement is. However, it was only a few short years ago that Dr. Wahls’ diet protocol, and “food as medicine” philosophy was being met with strong criticism from the medical community. Nowadays, the modified paleolithic diet and lifestyle program she facilitates at the Wahls Institute in Iowa is being touted as the work of a visionary.

In speaking with Dr. Wahls, it’s easy to understand the intensity behind her work. Passionate about medicine and science, she practiced internal medicine, graduating from the University of Iowa in 1982. A western medicine traditionalist, she was initially very skeptical of complementary alternative medicine.  

Her perspective shifted when, as an athlete in college, she began experiencing loss of balance and electrical pains along the side of her face when under stress, a condition called trigeminal neuralgia. This went on for 10 years, and in 2000, she was diagnosed with MS, verified by both the Marshall and Cleveland clinics.

Immediately, she was put on a protocol of disease-modifying therapies but was becoming steadily weaker and more fatigued. A vegetarian for 20 years, she read paleo founder Loren Cordain’s papers on nutrition and went back to eating meat while giving up all grains, legumes, and dairy.

In 2002, the decline continued, and by 2003, she needed a wheelchair due to secondary progressive MS. Primary progressive MS is when the disease presents as a steady decline with no relapses. In secondary progressive MS, the disease progresses further and can be accompanied by relapses such as blindness and hand weakness.

By 2004, the best therapies on the market weren’t stopping the progressive decline of MS. She was told she would be bedridden, demented by the illness, and the painful trigeminal neuralgia would be permanently activated all the time.

Determined to slow down the progression in 2005, Dr. Wahls began to listen to her intuition. “Cellular nutrition is key, mitochondria is key” was her mantra as she began to look for optimal vitamins and supplements to support cellular health.

The MS was still progressing, albeit at a slower pace with the supplements, and the fatigue was less inhibitive so that she was still able to work at the VA reviewing clinical trials. By 2007, however, she was unable to sit up, and was still taking medication. Her face pain was severe, and she had a marked decrease in coordination. “I almost had to take a leave of absence,” she said.

Shortly after, Dr. Wahls decided to take her healing into her own hands. In an unprecedented move, she redesigned the paleo diet, which would become the Wahls protocol. This therapeutic diet and lifestyle program includes more plant-based foods and a wide variety of protein sources including wild salmon and trout, and grass-fed bison, lamb, pork, and beef specifically for optimal brain and mitochondria functioning.

The microbiome needs diversity, which is why her therapeutic protocol is described as the “modified paleolithic diet.” The original paleo diet focuses more on what to remove, without enough nutrition from micronutrients to recover and regenerate from illness and disability.

In the modified paleo diet, the recommendation is 12–15 cups of vegetables per day including six cups of greens daily. This detail is the one that showed the greatest improvement in energy levels and remyelination secondary to the concentration of vitamin K from these food sources. Dr. Wahls reported “a severe decrease in energy over a 24-hour period if greens and vegetables are not consumed in sufficient amounts.”

Her anti-inflammatory protocol also includes the removal of gluten, casein, egg albumin, lectins, legumes, and nightshades. Vegetarians who do not consume meat are instructed to cook legumes and gluten-free grains in a crockpot under high pressure. This method allows for easy digestion and absorption of complete protein.

In 2009, Dr. Wahls was the only person conducting dietary intervention studies in the treatment of MS. Now, there are 12–13 food-based studies running. The medical community has begun to take note of other important therapeutic pillars influencing the symptoms of pain, fatigue, and brain fog associated with MS that are included in Dr. Wahls’ clinics. These pillars include stress management, breathwork and relaxation, low to medium impact movement, strength training, and learning new motor skills.

These days Dr. Wahls lives an active and robust life with her wife and children, and her work has been cited by MS researchers and funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In 2018, she was awarded the Linus Pauling award for contributions in research, teaching, and patient advocacy.

The lesions are still present in her spinal cord, but there have been no relapses or active lesions since she started intervention. After 12 months on the protocol, she did an 18.5-mile bike ride with her family, resting every 5 miles. “I take each day as it unfolds,” she said.

Exposure to gluten, dairy, or eggs, triggers her trigeminal neuralgia activating its symptoms within six to 24 hours, but in classic Dr. Wahls fashion and a testament to her spirit and joy for life, she says, “I see the flare-up as a gift, because it helps me stay careful, present and grateful.”

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Alana Kessler, MS RDAlana Kessler, MS, RD, CDN, E-RYT, is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, weight management expert, and an accredited member of the CDR (Commission on Dietetic Registration) and the American Dietetic Association. She is also a yoga and meditation teacher, Ayurveda specialist, and the founder of the New York City-based fully integrated mind, body, and spirit urban sanctuary, BE WELL. Alana’s BE WELL ARC System and Method Mapping technique is a holistic multi-disciplinary approach to health and wellness that blends Eastern and clinical Western diet and lifestyle support to effect long-lasting behavior change.

A graduate of NYU with a BA and MS in clinical nutrition, Alana is dedicated to helping others learn how to nourish themselves, create balance, and understand their true nature through nutrition, yoga, and inner wellness. She leads Yin Yoga workshops and trainings as well as wellness retreats at international locations. Her health, fitness, and lifestyle expertise has been featured in Aaptiv.com, Droz.com, EatThis.com, RD.com, Redbook, WomensHealthmag.com, and Vogue. For more information, visit her website at bewellbyak.com.

8 comments

  1. Greg Bond says:

    I read Wahls book and also George Jelkins as well. The two share in common many elements, exercise, meditation, and eating unprocessed healthy foods. They they are diametrically opposed in terms of meat, and saturated fats. So in the end, I believe elements of both are best. Lots of veggies, low fat intake, especially saturated fats, and high Omega 3s and Vitamin D.

    It’s also important to note Wahls had at her disposal, a litany of other tools most cannot afford, These include an endless pool, electrical stimulation, and others. I wonder how much of her improvement is due to the diet and how much is due to the exercise and rehab she did?

  2. J. Lamar Freed, Psy.D. says:

    It’s premature to call Wahls a visionary. The MS Society funded her study, but the results are not yet out. Dr. Wahls’ changes in her symptoms do not prove her diet is effective. MS changes without warning or known cause. Just because she is a physician and has a theory does not mean she has not been taken in by coincidence. We have to wait for study results.

    Premature praise for this diet is unfair to those people with MS who will try it and fail to improve. The diet is rigorous and expensive. Better to wait to see how the research pans out. Results will come soon. Be patient.

  3. Debbie mcgrann says:

    I was diagnosed with MS in 2001. Horrible pain and other serious symptoms. Went gluten free 5/2008. Pain and other symptoms disappeared within weeks. NO DRUGS…NO SIDE EFFECTS. I never used any drugs. Diet alone cured me

  4. Kathy says:

    Hello
    I followed the diet prescribed in her book, there is a level 1, 2, & 3.
    I did 1 then 2 then 3. The level 3 had Coconut oil etc to bring one into ketosis. I did get into ketosis which I understood to be the goal. My doctor found too much fat (is it creatine?) in my liver & said ‘stop’.
    Lately when Terry Wahls is mentioned, I’m not hearing about the Coconut oil. Any comments?

  5. LuAnn Sullivan says:

    I am glad to see this information about the Wahls Protocol posted here. I am also glad to hear that the National MS Society is funding Dr Wahls research. I have been following this protocol for 3 years and have had no new lesions on my MRIs in these 3 years.

  6. Tim says:

    I have Dr Wahls’ book and find it to be very informative. I agree with another post observing most do not have her resources (I can’t afford my own sauna, endless pool, ordering kelp powder and seaweed from exotic locations). Would be nice to have a follow up: Wahls protocol for those who make less than $40,000 annually. I did find the research and testimonials very helpful, and her nutritional studies are a great resource tool, far exceeding what you can get from a doctor’s visit. The dietary changes are a big leap from what most Americans consume. Avoiding all diary, eggs, and gluten is a challenge, and my wife who has had MS for over 18 yrs will not agree to those dietary changes…yet. As her ability to walk diminishes, I hope that more progress will be made in any and all possible ways to help those with MS.

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