• Left: Dr Terry Walhs with MS in 2007. Right: Dr Terry Walhs, who still has MS, one year later in 2008. (Supplied to SBS)
US medical academic, Dr Terry Wahls, was diagnosed with MS at age 45. Determined to restore her quality of life, the researcher started experimenting evidence-based diet changes on her own body. #WorldMSDay
By
Dr Terry Wahls, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

2 May 2018 - 3:48 PM  UPDATED 3 May 2018 - 2:06 PM

I’m a medical academic at the University of Iowa in the USA. In the year 2000, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). I was 45 years old.

When I was diagnosed, my [main] problems were weakness in my left leg and I was stumbling. I also had a history of diminished vision, abnormal spinal fluid and spinal chord lesions.

Over the next three years after my diagnosis, my health continued to decline and eventually I was refined to a wheelchair.

I couldn’t even sit in a regular chair for more than 10 minutes because I was so weak. I had brain fog, severe fatigue and it was very hard to walk even a very short distance.

I wanted to treat my disease with drug therapy. Despite taking the newest drug therapies available, by 2007 I was at my worst. I couldn’t even sit in a regular chair for more than 10 minutes because I was so weak. I had brain fog, severe fatigue and it was very hard to walk even a very short distance.

It was around that same time, over 10 years ago, that I stared reading the basic science about nutrition and MS, and I began experimenting [with methods of MS management] on myself.

I knew that MS is this complicated interaction of genes from your parents and a lifetime of diet and physical activity choices (environmental choices). I also knew that your health is also a reflection of the types of microbes growing in our gut, and that your gut microbiome helped to determine if you got an autoimmune problem (and how severe it would be).

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So I looked at the science available and asked ‘what does the science say about vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins and antioxidants my brain needs to properly function?’

[I learned that] when we eat more sugar, processed foods and white flour-based foods, we are more likely to have a mix of bacteria associated with worse health. Where as a diet with nine serves of vegetables a day is more likely to have a mix of microbes associated with better health outcomes.

I then created a diet for my brain, based on research, to provide what my brain needed and looked at implementing stress-reducing activities. The idea was to create a healthy environment for my brain and optimise the environmental factors that might work to help me achieve my greatest health.

Since I’ve made changes to my diet and lifestyle, I have radically improved my quality of life and health, and I’m no longer incapacitated by pain.

I am currently off all disease-modifying drugs with the blessing of my treating neurologist. I was off them in six months of the new program, as I was doing so well.

Now, I can walk easily and I biked for four hours two days ago. I am in very good health. I love being physically active again. Making a change to my diet and lifestyle was a very easy choice.

Diet details

In the US, the average serving of vegetables per day is 1.5. My eating plan includes nine serves of vegetables a day, [animal-based omega 3 fatty acids, seaweed]. It’s really about getting a nutrient-dense diet.

Vegetables include green and leafy vegetables and sulphur-rich vegetables like those from the cabbage and onion families. Deeply coloured vegetables are also important – for example, carrots, beets and berries.

I have a sufficient but not excessive amount of grass-fed meat and fish, and non-meat protein in my diet, eating two protein serves about equal to the palm of my hand every day. I also have the correct proportion of fats, so my brain can make myelin, the insulation on the wiring between my brain cells.

I also swapped out sugar and processed foods, and I gave up grains and pastas.

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There is more and more research out there now that is clear, telling us we rely on the microbes in our gut to digest our food and make vitamins, and run the chemistry of our life.

So one of the reasons why this diet plan may lead to an improved quality of life [for myself and others with MS] could well be because we are changing the microbes that are limiting our health in our gut. We are testing this theory in clinical studies now and will publish the results of clinical trials.

We are also doing clinical studies to understand the mechanisms behind the changes in health and to understand how effective it really is.

So this is not a way to cure disease. It’s just one way [that you can work together with your medical professional towards] controlling your quality of life and the symptoms of disease like MS.

I’m very careful in saying that this approach does or does not cure disease. In our clinics [where the diet is scientifically tested and being used], we see reduced symptoms and people who are progressively lowering their dose of prescription medications [with the help of their doctor].

Sometimes, they are going off disease modifying therapies as long as they stay on the diet and lifestyle program. When they stop following the diet and lifestyle program, their symptoms quickly reoccur.

Don’t do this yourself. Work with your doctor from start to finish to ensure they are overseeing your diet changes.

So this is not a way to cure disease. It’s just one way [that you can work together with your medical professional towards] controlling your quality of life and the symptoms of disease like MS.

I encourage people with similar health issues to implement what makes sense to them. Educate yourself on good nutrition and realise how much you control what you eat and do.

While changing your diet and lifestyle, if your blood pressure or other symptoms improve, it’s likely you will need to have adjustments to your medication. Don’t do this yourself. Work with your doctor from start to finish to ensure they are overseeing your diet changes.

But if your primary care team [or medical professional] is not excited about you eating more vegetables…find another one. We should all be telling all our patients to eat more vegetables. Vegetables rock.

Always consult a medical professional before starting a diet or making any major lifestyle change. If you have symptoms that are worrying you, seek advice from your doctor. 

The US health expert and author, Dr Terry Wahls, spoke on MS, the role of your gut and nutrition, at the 6th BioCeuticals Research Symposium in Melbourne last week.

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