Can a Modern Paleo Diet Beat Chronic Pain? It Worked for This Doctor
If you look at Terry Wahls, MD, a passionate athlete, you wouldn't know she has multiple sclerosis, a progressive, autoimmune disease that affects the brain, and spinal cord. That's because after years of decline and disability that left her in a wheelchair, she's now back on her bike and scaling new heights at a level top experts once thought was completely impossible, thanks to overhauling her diet. Here's how she does it.
A bleak beginning
“When I was first diagnosed with MS, I sought out the top experts in the field, but two years in, I was still declining,” says Dr. Wahls, whose MS had by then progressed to secondary progressive MS. As her back, and stomach muscles became weaker and weaker, Dr. Wahls found herself unable to walk without support or even sit up straight. She spent much of her time confined to a tilt-recline wheelchair. A mother of two who had relished the outdoor life, she started to fear that eventually, she would become completely bed-ridden. Dr. Wahls tried everything that state-of-the-art medical science could throw at her, including chemotherapy and the best disease-modifying drugs available. Nothing they tried had a meaningful impact. Even worse, the doctors were clear that her debilitation would never be reversible. Their goal in treatment was to slow down or stave off the disease’s inevitable progression, not to help her regain lost function. Dr. Wahls decided it was time to take matters into her own hands.
The mouse (study) that roared
No stranger to medical research, Dr. Wahls started to look into animal studies on MS and other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and Huntington’s chorea, which, like MS, cause the brain to shrink. By 2005, she was accessing every mouse study on neurodegenerative diseases she could find. “I started noticing that in all of these studies, mitochondria weren’t working very well, and were telling brain cells to die off too early. No one in science was talking much about mitochondria’s role in MS, but I decided it might be a factor,” she explains. Dr. Wahl’s research led her to create a cocktail of vitamins, and supplements, chosen for their ability to provide better support for mitochondrial function. Her supplements include creatine, carnitine, fish oil, and co-enzyme Q 10. “After six months, I’m not getting better, I’m cranky, pissed off, can’t function at all, and I say, ‘phooey on this,’ so I stop taking the supplements. Three days later, I start up my supplements, and I can go to work again. I kept repeating this pattern and getting the same results. I realized that clearly, the vitamins were doing something. They might not have been helping me recover, but they were slowing down the speed of my decline,” she explains. Feeling hopeful, Dr. Wahls was very excited to be the one discovering this breakthrough. “I’m starting to feel like part of the solution,” she says. But that was just the beginning.
A new way of eating
In addition to her regimen of supplements, Dr. Wahls’ research led her to the Paleo Diet, an eating plan designed Loren Cordain, PhD. The Paleo Diet consists of foods high in the types of nutrients that are important for brain health. “After 20 years of being a vegetarian, I went back to eating meat,” explains Dr. Wahls, who gave up all grains, legumes, and dairy in the process. Going Paleo turned out to be pivotal. A radically different type of eating plan, the Paleo Diet is designed to mimic foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate prior to the advent of agriculture. Meat, fish, and other animal products are its mainstay, along with fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. There are no processed foods and no sugar. Here are some snacks you can eat on the Paleo Diet.
The road to recovery is paved with trial, error, and green leafy vegetables
At around this time, Dr. Wahls discovered The Institute for Functional Medicine, and was attracted by their patient-centric, not-one-size-fits-all concept of care. Functional Medicine focuses on the whole person and on the multiple underlying causes of disease, rather than its symptoms. Her doctors at the Institute recommended additional, mitochondria-protecting vitamins. As the list of supplements grew, so did Dr. Wahls’ intuition that real food might be a more impactful option. She started seeking out the highest quality nutrition she could find in a continued quest to boost her mitochondria. This pivotal understanding of food’s influence on brain and mitochondrial health became her biggest ah-ha moment. As a result, she invented the Wahls Protocol, an auto-immune disease-fighting regimen, which includes a new way of eating, based on the Paleo Diet. It includes the principles of removing three, big food groups—dairy proteins, egg proteins, and gluten, because these are the most common food sensitivities that rev up inflammation in people with a disposition for that.
The winning diet
The foods that her eating plan stresses are ones that provide nutrients the mitochondria need, such as green, leafy vegetables and deeply pigmented vegetables that have color all the way through, such as beets, peaches, plums, peppers, and carrots. Foods like apples, which only have color in the skin, are not included. Other important foods are those that are sulfur rich, such as cabbage, broccoli, radishes, cauliflower, onion, garlic, and mushrooms, which help improve the efficiency of the processes which eliminate pollution in the body, such as mercury and other toxins. (Here’s how to eat more vegetables without even trying.) Dr. Wahls changed the foods feeding the bacteria living in her gut. “There is more and more evidence that the bacteria, and viruses in our bowels, affect how the brain works, and the chemistry of life,” she explains. Can changing your gut bacteria also improve anxiety disorders? You can read about the protocol in detail and get tons of recipe ideas in her books, The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles, and The Wahls Protocol Cooking for Life: The Revolutionary Modern Paleo Plan to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions, co-authored by Eve Adamson.
An end to pain, and a glimmer of progress
Chronic pain and brain fog used to be among Dr. Wahl’s main MS symptoms. She also had horrible bouts of occipital neuralgia, a type of migraine. “The electrical zaps of pain came on randomly, and viciously. They would become frequent, intense, horrific, and then fade. Over time, the severity of pain, brain fog, and resistance to treatment, was growing. Every sensory input, including sound, light, and talking, became transmuted into horrible pain.” Around the time that Dr. Wahls started to pursue Functional Medicine, she made an important discovery while reviewing a study about electrical stimulation of muscles (e stim) in people who were paralyzed. She realized this protocol might help people with MS. “I made an appointment with a physical therapist, and convinced him to give me neuromuscular electrical stimulation.” This protocol works by voluntarily contracting the muscles during therapy, which helps maintain muscle mass and function. Dr. Wahls’ physical therapist was leery about this treatment, thinking it might not work, due to the damage she had already incurred. There was even concern that the treatment might make the damage worse. Even so, she decided to try it. E stim was extremely painful for her, but it had a silver lining. “It boosts endorphins, so it was great for my mood, the way exercise had been,” she explains. Dr. Wahls got an at-home machine, and started to see results. She continued her eating plan, e-stim treatments, and Functional Medicine routine, which included pain management and meditation. Her pain and brain fog started to lift, and her muscles began to strengthen. (These are the pain signals to never ignore.)
First steps and next steps
Seven years after first being diagnosed, Dr. Wahls started a new phase of her job that she had once feared would be too physically grueling for her to handle. To her surprise, she was able to continue with her case load, seeing patients and continuing research into brain disease. It began to dawn on her that she would not have to go out on disability, a dreaded prospect which seemed inevitable just a year before. She is now able to sit up straight at the dinner table for the first time in years and realizes she is getting better. “I had believed what I’d been told by my doctors, that functions once lost are gone forever, but here I was walking with a cane instead of my sticks. Everyone was stunned,” she says. And then, something amazing happened. “I had a meeting scheduled with my Chief of Medicine that I couldn’t miss. It was up a hill, so I thought I’d better take my scooter. I’m driving it over, and it runs out of juice, and I just can’t be late, so I leave my scooter and walk slowly up the hill, and I make it! This is so important. This never happens! Three months later, I rode my bike around the block, with my partner and our kids. We were all crying,” she says. “Once I pedaled around the block, I knew in my heart that my doctors and I had no idea how to explain this. And yet, she was living proof that she had created something completely new, ground-breaking, and transformative.
Bringing her breakthrough to the world
Today, Dr. Wahls, at age 62, is vastly better than she was 17 years ago. She admits to not having normal strength for a woman her age, but she no longer has uncontrolled pain or brain fog. She also knows that the second she lapses in her protocol, her symptoms start to come back. “Nobody knows what is possible. Who knows how well I can do?” She has recently completed a slow, 20-mile bike ride with her family, and is still working. Her work continues to include clinical trials on the Wahls Protocol, with a strong emphasis on mitochondria-boosting foods. “This way of life gives people hope. I am so grateful that I can have an athletic life again. I can take my dogs on walks again. I am incredibly blessed.” These are the signs that you could have multiple sclerosis.