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Doctor with MS suggests caveman diet

terry wahls

Terry Wahls is a doctor but was like anybody who learns they have a chronic disease. She went online for answers. The prognosis stunk: A third of those with multiple sclerosis require assistance walking and half can’t work after 10 years.

She was no different. The progressive disease worsened in the next five years, and by 2005 Wahls got around the University of Iowa campus with a motorized wheelchair and faced medical retirement. The woman who once competed nationally in tae kwon do was immobile and depressed.

“Life is not fair,” she often told her children. “Get over it.” They took it to heart — son Zach Wahls became a national figure while fighting for gay rights and writing a book about being raised by lesbian mothers.

Now she had to get over it. The medical doctor and University of Iowa professor returned to basic science, studying cellular functions to find answers, and began experimenting on herself.

What she learned was almost too simple. The answer, she said, was found in eating the right foods, a diet similar to what a caveman would eat — heaping mounds of vegetables and roots, supplemented with grass-fed meats and wild-caught fish.

It changed her life. Today she not only walks but rides a bicycle. She wrote one book about her story in 2010. Another is due next year called “The Wahls Protocol” that she hopes helps sufferers of MS, but also people who just want to feel better and maintain health.

Her TEDx talk on the subject was posted on YouTube and was viewed more than 1.2 million times.

“I’ve decided my mission,” Wahls said, leaning across her desk with almost blazing eyes, “is to do research to change the world.”

Brain health

First, she found the essential nutrients for brain health, especially for the mitochondria that supply energy to cells and for better health of myelin, the waxy sheath around nerves. She found that nutrients such as vitamins B and D, omega 3s and other minerals helped and began popping supplements like crazy. Her decline slowed.

Then Wahls, 57, had an epiphany in late 2007. What if food would do the same thing? She researched more and settled on what is often called a paleo diet, one that harkens back to cavemen days of hunter-gatherers.

She ate a dinner plate-sized portion every day of green leaves, such as kale and spinach, and another of sulfur-rich vegetables such as cabbage and mushrooms, and yet another of brightly-colored vegetables, fruits and berries. She added grass-fed meats and wild fish for omega-3 fat and seaweed for iodine. Within three months she began to walk again. In four months, she chucked her cane. In six months, she jumped on her bicycle, and by nine months was up to 18 miles.

She also eliminated grains and dairy products that she said may lead to a host of problems for many people, as well as potatoes and legumes. It made sense to her. Humans had been eating this way for 2.5 million years. Only in the last 10,000 have we been eating grains.

Her fellow physicians and medical researchers were astounded but wary. Wahls did more research, wrote a scientific paper, and is now in the midst of a promising study on how to slow progressive multiple sclerosis with food as the medicine.

Wahls pivoted her computer screen to show videos of research subjects who needed a cane to walk. Months later they could move briskly with a confident gait after using her protocol, which also involves exercise and electrical stimulation of muscles.

Wahls’ mission goes beyond those with MS. She is convinced many lives can be improved and health care costs decreased by following this dietary plan.

American diet

The average American diet today is full of sugar, trans fats and carbohydrates that lead to inflammation, elevated cholesterol and even chronic disease, she said. Gluten, a protein in grains, is another culprit when it isn’t digested and gets into the blood stream. For those genetically at risk, it can cause irritable bowels, headaches, chronic fatigue and arthritis.

The paleo diet central to her protocol has detractors. The American Dietetic Association has said the lack of variety and cost for fresh produce and organic meats on a paleo diet are barriers for many, and the diet can lead to nutrient inadequacies by eliminating food groups (grains) that are a key component in the government’s dietary recommendations.

“It’s an amazing story and positive message of inclusion of plant-based food in our diets, but it is not necessary to eliminate the foods she recommends,” said Kathy Mellen, a registered dietitian and lecturer with UI’s Department of Health and Human Physiology. “We have evidence that grains work in the diet. There is also other data that cavemen did eat grains. And a small percentage of people suffer from gluten intolerance.”

Wahls knows her nutritional plan runs coun­ter to the United States Department of Agriculture’s recommendations “and people are uncomfortable with that.”

But she is so convinced that the diet holds the key to preventing so many problems, or lessening the decline for those with chronic diseases, that she continues to teach and lecture.

It’s a mission that can’t wait for the final numbers to come in.

“What I’m advocating is so straight forward, and here is the science behind it,” she said.

She popped up from her office chair to scurry to another appointment, no cane in sight.

“MS was the most profound and wonderful gift I’ve ever been given,” she said, while walking out.

It taught her empathy for the disabled, she continued, and to move forward when life isn’t fair.

It also set her off to try to save the world.

Story from: Des Moines Register