Dr. Terry Wahls: The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine

JONATHAN: Hey, everybody. Jonathan Bailor, back with another Calorie Myth show. Very excited to bring you a video broadcast with one of my favorite doctors in the world, someone whose work I’ve followed for a very long time and I’ve personally admired for a very, very, very long time. She’s a friend of the show.

She has been on this show before, but never via video. And just had such a great time chatting with her, the first time and given her epic new book, “The WahlsProtocol”, we had to have her back on. You’ve heard of her, you love her as much as I do.

She’s a clinical professor of medicine at the University Of Iowa Carver College Of Medicine in Iowa City, Dr. Terry Wahls. Welcome back to the show.

TERRY: Hey, thanks very much for having me, very glad to be here.

JONATHAN: Dr. Terry, I know a lot of our listeners and viewers are familiar with your stories, so let’s just do a quick recap of why so many people know who you are and have been touched by you and your story.

TERRY: Sure. So I have multiple sclerosis, secondary progressive. That’s the phase of the disease that you have steady decline, you don’t expect to recover. And I tried all sorts of conventional drugs from the best people, without benefit. Then, after my research, I created a nutrition Protocol and medication, electrical stimulation. And within a year, I was up, walking again, out without a cane, on my bike — even did an 18-mile bike ride.

It changed how I practice, it changed my research focus and I began teaching the public. Then, in 2011, I did a TEDx talk,“Minding Your Mitochondria”, in which I explained my story and the nutrition side of my Protocol, which I believe, last I checked,had 1.6 million views. So it certainly helped get the message out to the public.

JONATHAN: Dr. Terry, what I want to focus on in this show — because I know you’re going to be answering the same basic questions over and over again, for the next six weeks — is, I am amazed; you are as hard-core of a clinician, you don’t — anyone who knows you, you you’re not, like, a scammymarketer, a bright lights, flashy kind of person.

You’re about medicine, you’re about science. So what has this journey been like, in terms of going from the most hard-core clinical practice, to being debilitated in a wheelchair, to doing media and launching a national book? What’s that like?

TERRY: Well, it’s a huge readjustment that keeps redefining who you are,who you are. As I became disabled, the university redesigned my job several times so I was able to continue working. And then, as I began to find functional medicine, look for more integrative medicines — the nutrition, vitamins, supplements — learning about ancestral health, et cetera, and then experiencing what that meant to me, health wise, on a cellular level, it was phenomenal.

And I tell people that it is really, in some ways, like Paul, who was struck down on the way to Damascus. The person who was the conventional doc and relied entirely on the latest, newest drugs and procedures, gets struck down. And I realized that the money was in teaching people about diet and lifestyle, because people really are willing and very eager to use non-drug means to restore their health.

So it’s really changed my view of disease and health, it’s changed how I teach the residents and medical students. Yeah, I still talk about chemistry, but now we’re talking about chemistry, about food and how we can change our chemistry, our physiology, by food, meditation and exercise practices.

JONATHAN: How are your peers receiving this new message?

TERRY: Well, it has been interesting over a time. So I was really disabled, then I recovered and we ended up doing a medical grant rounds (?? 04:18) on my case. So, I presented my case, I explained the physiology of what I think happened, what I think the mechanisms were and the critical role of diet and electrical stimulation in the recovery.

My colleagues either loved that grant roundsor thought it was just crazy. And I got a lot of criticisms. But one of the things that it did do, it got me interested inwriting the grant, writing proposals to test this (inaudible — 04:47). And the dean of the medical school facilitated getting some senior scientists on my study team and, to everyone’s surprise, we secured our funding, we started the clinical trial. And that has been going on since 2010.

So every year, we have two meetings: the Internal Medicine Research Day, the Carver College Medical Research Day, where my research team has a couple of posters up talking about the size of our research. And because our research is showing this amazing level of compliance, great safety data and really,quite remarkable improvements on fatigue and now we are also showing the other changes and gains via some videos that we show, we are getting a lot of attention.

So I’m going around the university giving research seminars. I’m now going around the country talking about my work, as well, to clinicians. The clinicians want data and that’s what I have now: I have very exciting data.

JONATHAN: Dr. Terry, put me — help us understand the mind of the clinician who sees your personal example, which is undeniable, and sees the — again, I didn’t go to medical school; I might be missing something here — but my understanding of the Wahls Protocol is,eat the foods that provide you with most of the things that have been demonstrated as essential for life and —

TERRY: That’s essential for — yes, absolutely [crosstalk].

JONATHAN: Yeah. And the least of things which have been deemed quite toxic. How can’t that be helpful, from a medicinal perspective? How could anyone doubt that? I don’t understand — I mean…

TERRY: Well, we have spent — I was very careful in how I wrote the book, so that it’s very lay friendly, and yet, we have the science behind it. And then, we did a nutritional analysis of our menus and showed the 31 nutrients that science has said are critical to brain cells.

And we show how the Standard American Diet stacks up. Then we showed how my three diet plans stacked up. And of course, it’s incredibly nutrient-dense; we are flooding the cells with stuff all your brain cells need in, actually, very similar ratios to what the hunter-gatherers were still eating,and the wild foods are. So again,I found that very reassuring.

So the clinicians who take time to read the book end up having said, well, it certainly can’t hurt you. This looks probably safe, incredibly health-promoting. The clinicians who don’t take the time to read the book say, well, this doc got her health restored; there must have been a diagnostic mistake, because nobody with secondary progressive MS gets better.

So the usual criticism is, it surely must have been a mistake. To that end, we could say the MS Center — the internationally recognized Mellen Center at the Cleveland Clinic — made the mistake, as did some centers in Wisconsin and in Iowa. So I think this is alittle question, really, about the diagnosis, but it’s hard for people to give up their current paradigm.

I certainly am confident though, with 1.6 million people seeing that TED talk, that a lot of physicians had to answer the patient’s questions, saying, well, what about nutrition? Is it going to hurt me to eat all these vegetables? Is it going to hurt me to need grass-fed meat and organ meats and seaweed? Will that hurt me, doc? And the docs would have to say well, no, and it will probably be really, pretty good for you.

JONATHAN: Dr. Wahls, you have seen, obviously, individuals who have been in the medical field, in the clinical field, in the biochemical field for a long time, and then you are also training the up-and-coming generation. Do you see significant differences in the approach of, let’s say, the established generation of clinicians and MDs and the newer generation?

TERRY: No. When I lecture the first year students, the second year students, I would say most of those kids are incredibly thrilled and impassioned about the concepts that I talk about. A health-promoting diet and lifestyle is critical to their healthso they can get through medical school residency, in that, they need to be masters of those skills, so they will teach them to their patients.

And the senior physicians, I’d say, just six years ago, really didn’t know what to make of me, but my stature just continues to grow as our data improves. And I find that my senior clinicians, my colleagues,are getting much more interested. In fact, the Veterans’ Hospital that I work at asked me to create a lifestyle clinic that would be focusing entirely on treating autoimmune diseases, chronic diseases, through diet and lifestyle. It’s been a huge success and we’re figuring out how to grow those clinics.

JONATHAN: And have you — I’m sure you’ve heard — you mentioned the ancestral lifestyle; certainly, a lot of the people who are fans of your book are also fans of the ancestral lifestyle — what has been the feedback from the various, let’s call them sects, on the Internet: the vegetarian community, the lower-carb community and the Paleo-ancestral community? What are their thoughts about your approach?

TERRY: You know, the Paleo ancestral community is very excited about my work. They were thrilled when we talked. And they had advanced copies of the book, so they see the nutritional analysis, and see how ballpark we hit it. The vegetarian community had reached out to me, wanting to have a vegetarian version of the Wahls diet, which I did provide.

I provided a vegan version. I told them how to do the vegetarian/vegan diet in a much more safe way, reducing the anti-nutrients. Then I explained that if they enjoy great health, then that’s fine. They can stay vegetarian/vegan. But if they have health challenges that I discussed, then I invite them to consider adding animal proteins and why. We talked about sproutingthings, to reduce the anti-nutrients from their vegan foods.

The MS community comes in two groups. Certainly, I’m a hero to many, many, many people with MS. And then, there are folks who are very attached to their conventional way of thinking, find this quite threatening and accuse me of taking advantage of desperate people — which I think is very sad. I’m just trying to give desperate people the tools to take control of their lives.

JONATHAN: So help me to understand the psychology of the people who think you’re trying to take advantage, because if I understand,again, the WahlsProtocol is simply saying, eat the most — like, eat a lot of vegetables,eat the cleanest, most high-quality,nutrient-dense — it’s basically saying, eat the most nutrient-dense plant products and animal products. That’s it, it’s just saying —

TERRY: Yes. That’s the key message [crosstalk].

JONATHAN: How can anyone criticize you for that?

TERRY: Well, some don’t take the time to learn what the message is. And their feeling is, surely, if solving autoimmune problems was this simple, somebody else would have discovered ahead of time. The doctors wouldn’t be prescribing these incredibly expensive medicines that cost $30,000-$60,000 a year, with a huge list of side effects.

Physicians wouldn’t be relying on that, if it was as easy as Dr. Wahls says, to recover our health. And so it’s hard for them to open their mind. We call that pre-contemplative — they’re not ready.

JONATHAN: Yeah. (Inaudible — 12:28).

TERRY: Sad, but they’re not ready, and we just have to let go of that.

JONATHAN: In the — let’s call it the Internet community of nutrition discussion, it’s very easy to get — there’s a lot of detail, let’s say. There’s a lot of detail out there. What have you found, in your own personal experience and in your clinical practice, to be the things that give you the ninety — or, is there?

If you do these three things — like, is it eating more vegetables? What is this thing that you think — the three thingsthat really make that difference?

TERRY: So one, you have to take away the most troublesome anti-nutrients. And I talk about gluten, dairy and eggs as being the three that I identify as most troublesome. The next thing you need to do is pouring in the maximum nutrients. And that really is a lot green leaves and sulphur-rich vegetables and color, so that the enzymes that process (inaudible — 13:19) toxins are all operating at maximum capacity.

And then you want to be sure that you have organ meats and some higher quality animal proteins, again, because that really improves the efficiency of your mitochondria. And so you have more stuff that’s really good for you and you take away — make it easier for your body — to eliminate the stuff that’s bad for you. So that’s the key concept.

JONATHAN: And are you going to — would you figure — really, this has been my number one fascination over the past three years — is howit seems like, almost, people want to make it more complicated than it already is. It sounds like what you’re saying is, eat deep-colored vegetables en masse and eat the highest quality sources of protein and fat in the world. Andjust do that and focus on doing that. Like, don’t focus on this powder or this magic pill or all this other stuff.

TERRY: I could not agree more. You know, as soon as you start taking pills, supplements, that you have to worry about getting the ratios, putting the nutrients in correct, getting your minerals out of whack, getting your fat-soluble vitamins out of whack.

Food is much safer; if supervised supplements for specific issues can be done. But when we start taking protein powders and all these other supplements, you can accidentally create problems for yourself.

JONATHAN: When we talk about supplements, I found that there is this little — there is a supplement which is an engineered non-food — and then there are vegetables, clearly not a supplement. And then there are these things in the middle, like, let’s say, desiccated beef liver or spirulina powder or these types of — what do you think about that — or cod liver oil? What do you think about those?

TERRY: Okay. So in my book, I have a perfect chapter on supplements and we go through many of those: why to consider them, why not. Powdered kelp, dulce flakes, seaweed, strictly is for the protocol, for the mineral and chelated benefits. I talk about my favorite pond scum,(inaudible — 15:23) algae, and why I think that’s very helpful to use and how to safely incorporate that.

And for the people who cannot figure out how to make organ meats taste great, and they do taste great, if you know how to prepare them — you talked about desiccated liver and the liver capsules — so absolutely, I think there can be a role. And the roles are best if they are food-based, particularly if there has been a history, preferably thousands of years, of a culture using that food product.

So fermented cod liver oil, great product, I talk about that. Powdered algae, also has been used for thousands of years; great product. I talked about that. The powdered seaweed, or dulce flakes, just because they’re more convenient to cook with, I talk about those. But taking the magnesium, zinc capsules, I talk about why you might, when you’re carefully supervised, find those things helpful.

But if you take mag — for example, you’ve heard that zinc is great for your brain, so you take a bunch of zinc. And then, you will make yourself copper deficient and create problems with your iron metabolism. So I try to educate people on the potential risks of supplementing without some guidance.

JONATHAN: That’s one of the things that I love most about your work, because I have a bit of a confirmation bias, because it’s so essential to my work. And that’s the brilliant homeostatic nature of the body and how when we try to — like, when you overdo zinc, ah, copper falls off.

And somehow, before we even knew what zinc or copper was and we just take things found in nature, we happened to stay sufficient in these things. Maybe it’s because we are scientists, and we love to try to deconstruct things and outsmart the human body, but what do your peers say when you’re talking about, just eat food, the body will heal itself; you don’t need to deconstruct everything, what do they say?

TERRY: Well, you know, my nutrition colleagues are incredibly excited that they got a physician here who is so interested in nutrient-dense diets, as a method of healing. And now, I’m having other professors come and we’re writing collaborative studies. So we just submitted a study testing the Wahls diet in fibromyalgia — which affects, by the way, 4 million people — and I expect it to do extraordinarily well.

I am having conversations with colleagues who study Parkinson’s and obesity. So my colleagues are seeing my tremendous success with implementation and compliance and then, these really exciting outcomes that we are showing. So I anticipate that we will be studying the Wahls diet in more disease states.

JONATHAN: Fabulous. And do you see a world where — certainly, the book is called the Wahls diet; right now, it’s known as the Wahls diet — but in many ways, it’s almost the common sense diet.

I mean, certainly, there is some nuance to it, but a lot like what you’re saying, what I am saying, what some of the ancestral community is saying: the message of nutrient density seems self-evident. Do you see a day when it’s just like, that’show people eat? Or, that’s what healthy?

TERRY: You know, what — I think what we’re helping identify is where nutrient density is the key factor. So when people are making dietary claims that, my diet is X, Y or Z, what we really do is give you a menu, let’s do the nutritional analysis. So make a menu according to your rules and we do the nutritional analysis.And does it hit the 31 nutrients that we know brain cells need?

And if it does, okay, you’ve got a diet that works. If it doesn’t, you better change over a bit more, because your plan is going to lead to health problems for these people. And so we could test all these diets to figure out which ones — and there should be many — that would meet all of our nutrients so that people, when they follow a diet plan, they can feel confident that they’re going to have great health.

JONATHAN: I think you hit the nail on the head there, Dr. Terry, because so often, conversations about nutrition actually aren’t about nutrition. They may be about morality or reflecting — and that’s fine. If you’re saying, eat this way, because it’s more humane, you could be right. But don’t conflate a more humane diet with a more nutrient-dense diet; they have different goals and outcomes, right?

TERRY: Well, correct. And the American Heart Diet, the ADA diet, nobody has really created a menu plan and done a nutritional analysis of what those plans will deliver. And very few diets have done that. And it’s time that we have the rigor and demand that and expect that, so we know how to create the optimal diet.

JONATHAN: Brilliant. Well, speaking of rigorous academic endeavors: over the next month or six weeks, you’re certainly going to be doing some more mainstream and media endeavors with your new book coming out. So tell us a little bit about the new book and what’s next, for you.

TERRY: Okay. So the book is called “The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine”. You can get — go to my website, terrywahls.com and download the free materials we talk about in the book. You can get this, of course, at any of the bookstores.

In the book, I talk about my story of my decline, my discovery of (inaudible — 20:53) intervention and then my amazing recovery. We create the food plans. The first plan — which is the Wahls diet, which you could do as a vegetarian or vegan, if you wanted. The Wahls Paleo, which is clearly more animal protein, organ meats, seaweed. And then, the Wahls Paleo Plus, which is a ketogenic version of the diet. And we explain why you might want to go to the ketogenic version, or not.

Then we talk about the stress-reducing activities, we talk about exercise, electrical stimulation. A perfect chapter on supplements, another chapter on talking to your doc: what kind of lab tests would be useful to monitor, that your primary care doc could get and that they could feel very comfortable up in your file.

We talk about how to talk to your doc about these things and these concepts and that most primary care docs will, in fact, be thrilled to hear you’re going to eat more vegetables, organ meats, and add a little seaweed to your diet. They should feel very comfortable with that.

I’ve also talked about how to talk to your sub-specialist about your autoimmune or other chronic health problems, and we talk about functional medicine. And then, in the appendices, we have our menus, our recipes. And then, for the physicians and the nutrition experts,we have this wonderful research-quality nutritional analysis of those menus, so people will know the 31 nutrients that I said are critical for your brain and how we deliver that in the standard American diet and then, in the Wahls diet, theWahls Paleo and Wahls Paleo Plus.

You know, there are two more chapters I think are very important at really teaching people why they conventionally get autoimmune diseases. and then, the functional medicine lookat autoimmune diseases, how leaky gut, nutrition, mitochondriaefficiency, toxins, stress hormone balance, all create the environment where the autoimmunity happens, that 95% of the reason people develop a chronic illness or any autoimmune problem is based on diet and lifestyle choices.

Which means if you address those, you should be able to dramatically reduce your symptoms, likely need fewer drugs and quite possibly, do very well off drugs, given enough time and enough healing.

JONATHAN: Brilliant. Well, Dr. Terry. I so appreciate, as always, speaking with you. The example you provide in the clinical — and research rigor you provide to this critical, critical topic, so thank you. And best of luck with what I know will be an epic launch.

TERRY: Great. Thank you, so very much.

JONATHAN: Listeners and viewers, I hope you enjoyed this wonderful chat as much as I did. Again, our guest today is the delightful and brilliant Dr. Terry Wahls. Be sure to check her out online, just search your favorite search engine for Terry Wahls.

And be sure to check out her new book — I know I will — “The Wahls Protocol.” And remember, this week and every week after:eat smarter, exercise smarter and live better. Chat with you, soon.

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Dr Terry Wahls. In her own words:

The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine

“I am a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa, U.S.A., where I teach internal medicine residents in their primary care clinics. I also do clinical research and have published over 60 peer-reviewed scientific abstracts, posters, and papers. In addition to being a doctor, I am also a patient with a chronic, progressive disease. I was diagnosed with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis in 2000, around the time I began working at the university. By 2003 I had transitioned to secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. I underwent chemotherapy in an attempt to slow the disease and began using a tilt-recline wheelchair because of weakness in my back muscles. It was clear: eventually I would become bedridden by my disease. I wanted to forestall that fate as long as possible.

Because of my academic medical training, I knew that research in animal models of disease is often 20 or 30 years ahead of clinical practice. Hoping to find something to arrest my descent into becoming bedridden, I used PubMed.gov to search scientific articles about the latest multiple sclerosis research. Night after night, I relearned biochemistry, cellular physiology, and neuroimmunology to understand the articles. Unfortunately, most of the studies were testing drugs that were years away from FDA approval. Then it occurred to me to search for vitamins and supplements that helped any kind of progressive brain disorder. Slowly I created a list of nutrients important to brain health and began taking them as supplements. The steepness of my decline slowed, for which I was grateful, but I still was declining.

In the summer of 2007, I discovered Functional Medicine, an organization devoted to helping clinicians use the latest scientific discoveries to take better care of those with complex chronic diseases. As a result I developed a longer list of vitamins and supplements that were good for my brain. Then I had an important epiphany. What if I redesigned my diet so that I was getting those important brain nutrients not from supplements but from the foods I ate? I used what I had learned from the medical literature, Functional Medicine, and my knowledge of the Hunter-Gatherer diet—the most nutritious of any diet—to create my new food plan. At that same time, I also learned about neuromuscular electrical stimulation and convinced my physical therapist to give me a test session. It hurt a lot, but I also felt euphoric when it was finished, likely because of the endorphins my body released in response to the electrical stimulation. In December 2007, I began the Wahls Protocol™. The results stunned my physician, my family, and me: within a year, I was able to walk through the hospital without a cane and even complete an 18-mile bicycle tour.


Dr. Terry Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa where she teaches internal medicine residents, sees patients in a traumatic brain injury clinic, and conducts clinical trials. She is also a patient with a chronic progressive neurological disorder, secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which confined her to a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years. But thanks to the power of the Wahls Protocol™, which is based on functional medicine and the Wahls Paleo™ diet, Dr. Wahls restored her health and now pedals her bike five miles to work each day.

Personal Connection to lowa

I am fifth generation Iowan who grew up on a farm in Northeast Iowa and have raised a son and daughter here as well. I have a bachelor’s degree of Fine Arts from Drake University in Studio Art – Painting and a Medical Doctorate from the University of Iowa. I completed an Internal Medicine Residency at the University of Iowa and have been on faculty at Iowa since 2000.

I live in Iowa City with my spouse, Jackie and our teenage daughter, Zebby. My son, Zach Wahls, is an engineering student at the University of Iowa; recently, he became well-known for his testimony at the Iowa State House opposing the proposed amendment to ban gay marriage, which went viral in February 2011, receiving nearly twenty million views. His book, My Two Moms, was published April 2012.

Published Articles

Read published works, scientific articles, and medical humanities essays written by Dr. Terry Wahls.

Read articles by Dr. Terry Wahls”