Terry Wahls on Managing Autoimmune Disease with Lifestyle Interventions
by Noelle Citarella, MS, RDN, CDN, IFNCP
Terry Wahls, M.D., is a certified practitioner at the Institute for Functional Medicine, as well as clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, where she conducts clinical trials testing the effect of therapeutic diet and lifestyle to treat multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms. She is the author of The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles, as well as an accompanying cookbook, The Wahls Protocol Cooking for Life.
When Wahls was diagnosed with MS and later relegated to a tilt-recline wheelchair in the early 2000s, she decided to fight back. Drawing upon her medical background, she identified certain nutrients that were critical for brain health and started taking supplements. The disease’s progression slowed as a result, spurring her to dig deeper. Since then, through rigorous scientific study and numerous clinical trials, Wahls has developed groundbreaking dietary and lifestyle recommendations that alleviate autoimmune disease symptoms. No longer bound to a wheelchair, she bikes to work every day and stands as a living testament to the power of tenacity and strenuous scientific inquiry.
What are the key components of the Wahls Protocol?
The protocol is a lifestyle that supports the steadily improving health of everyone, not just MS patients. It focuses on eating more vegetables and fruits, and ensuring sufficient protein. It reduces or eliminates added sugars, ultra-processed foods, dairy and gluten-containing grains. While the diet may get more complex, a great place for anyone to start is including more non-starchy vegetables, less processed food and more meals cooked at home. The protocol also includes lifestyle interventions, such as time in nature, meditation, mindfulness and physical activity. Even for patients who are wheelchair-bound, going from chair to bed, exercise will improve their quality of life. It is a way of approaching living that creates a more healthy, nurturing environment.
What excites you most about your current MS study?
Seeing what happens with brain volume and quality of life. We hypothesize that lifestyle changes will get the rate of brain volume loss to match that of healthy aging. MS patients have brains that are shrinking three times faster than in healthy aging. This increases the risk for anxiety, depression and early cognitive decline. Our study will be the largest and longest dietary intervention study done in the setting of relapsing-remitting MS. We are recruiting people ages 18 to 70 diagnosed with MS. During the participants’ three visits, they will complete surveys, conduct functional tests, provide blood and saliva samples, and get an MRI. The participants will be divided into three groups. One will follow a modified paleo diet; the second an olive oil ketogenic, time-restricted diet; and the third will be the control group. We are optimistic that the first two groups will get to healthy aging, and the control arm will likely improve, as well.
What is metabolic flexibility, and how do you improve it?
Fasting improves metabolic flexibility—the ability to switch between protein, fat and glucose for fuel. Fasting for two days increases stem cells. While periodic fasting is beneficial for metabolism and regenerative processes, it is hard to sustain because of our strong biologic drive to eat and dislike for being hungry. An easier dietary pattern to sustain long term is time-restricted eating in a window of six to eight\hours. Our current clinical trial incorporates this eating pattern.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew when you were getting started?
How important managing stress is. When I was diagnosed with MS, I could tell that stress made my symptoms worse. I feel I would have done much better had I maintained my meditation. I am fond of hormetic stress, that “sweet spot” where stress could be beneficial. Without stress, our bones and muscles disappear. Without the stress of having to learn, our brain disappears. We just need an equal measure of relaxation and recovery.
What is your takeaway on lifestyle modifications and multiple sclerosis?
You can reverse symptoms of MS and restore function. You can have a great and meaningful life at your level of function. It is important to find joy, gratitude and purpose in life as it’s unfolding now, and doing so will help with the energy and commitment needed to do the work that can change the direction of your healing journey.
To learn more about Wahls’ studies, visit wahls.lab.uiowa.edu. To participate, visit wahls.lab.uiowa.edu/join-study or contact the study team at MSDietStudy@healthcare.uiowa.edu.
Noelle Citarella is a registered dietitian specializing in neurological nutrition and autoimmune disease in the Buffalo, N.Y., area.