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How A Wheelchair-Bound Doctor Reversed Her Multiple Sclerosis And Now Bikes to Work

More than 400,000 Americans suffer from multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune inflammatory disease that inflicts disabilities on its victims through impaired neurological functioning that worsens over time. Physician Terry Wahls was diagnosed with it in 2000, and was soon confined to a wheelchair. The story of how she beat the odds and reclaimed her health is truly inspiring.

Image of Terry Wahls with vegetables

Dr. Terry Wahls’ Life

Dr. Terry Wahls had a very full and satisfying life. A fifth-generation Iowan who grew up on a farm in the northeastern part of the state, she went to medical school at the University of Iowa, where she became a clinical professor of medicine as well as a staff physician at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Hospital. She has two children, Zebby and Zach, and a loving spouse, Jackie. What she wasn’t expecting was a chronic progressive disease.

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Getting the News

When Terry started experiencing ever-increasing weakness in her left leg, recurring numbness and tingling in her joints, spasms and pain, weakness, and fatigue, she thought she was probably just overly tired. When these symptoms wouldn’t go away, she decided to get to the bottom of it. It was the year 2000 when she received the devastating news— the diagnosis was relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (MS). She began seeing the best MS specialists in the nation and taking the latest drug treatments available.

Multiple Sclerosis

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

MS is an autoimmune inflammatory disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks the fatty myelin sheaths around the axons (nerve fibers) of the brain and spinal cord. The damage that occurs leaves the myelin sheaths with scarring that reduces the ability of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to communicate with each other the way they should, leading to impaired neurological function.

Multiple Sclerosis symptoms

Secondary Progressive MS Symptoms

By 2003, Terry’s MS had progressed and was reclassified as secondary progressive multiple sclerosis— meaning a continual worsening of neurological functions resulting in an accumulation of disability, such as weakness, fatigue, lack of coordination, balance issues, stiffness, tight muscles, and even difficulty thinking clearly.

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Deep-Diving into MS Research

Not willing to accept defeat, Terry kicked her own research efforts into high gear, poring over as many related medical journal articles as she could find. She knew that disease research on animals is often 20-30 years ahead of medical practice, so she put many hours of effort into learning everything she could about MS. She came up with seven factors that seem to link strongly to the development of MS.

Image of Terry Wahls with healthy cocktail

Dr. Wahls’ 7 Factors Linked to the Development of MS

Of the seven factors she came up with, the only one that can’t be changed is the genetic inheritance you receive through your DNA. While MS isn’t hereditary per se, it’s possible some people have genetic predispositions to react to environmental agents in ways that trigger the disease. The other factors include exposure to viral and bacterial infections, exposure to toxins (eaten, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin), insufficient micronutrient intake, hormonal imbalances, food allergies or sensitivities, and stress (physical, psychological, and spiritual).

Image of Terry Wahls in a wheelchair

The Effects of Being Wheelchair-Bound for Four Years

After chemotherapy to try and slow it down, Terry still ended up wheelchair-bound, using a tilt-recline wheelchair due to her weakening back muscles. Spending that much time in a wheelchair has serious effects on the body, including reduced bone density, muscle atrophy, skin breakdown (pressure sores), spasticity/spasms, changes in blood pressure and blood flow, cardiovascular conditions, and joint problems. MS has no known cure available, and Terry’s greatest fear was becoming entirely bedridden.

Image of Terry Wahls with green leaves

Changing Her Diet

It was time to start putting her copious research to work for her. What she realized is that most of the factors she’d identified could be addressed by overhauling what she ate. Everyone has heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” and if your diet is dysfunctional, your health will be dysfunctional as well. It began with eliminating the modern diet of refined foods, trans fats, and sugar.

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The Wahls Paleo Diet

Terry had a list of 31 nutrients that she knew were key to healing and optimizing her brain, and she’d been taking supplements for most of them. When she realized she was still declining (although at a reduced rate), she had a true light bulb moment. What if she got all those key nutrients from real food rather than supplements? She adopted a Paleo diet (lean proteins, fruits and veggies, and healthy fats from nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, fish oil, and grass-fed meat) modified to focus in on the 31 nutrients.

Image of Terry Wahls in her garden

Real Food, Not Supplements

Why would the source of the nutrients make a difference? There’s so much more to food than any given specific nutrient. A synthetic compound simply doesn’t deliver the complexity of real food. The difference is getting the whole package— all the “extra stuff” woven into wholesome food, such as other biologically active compounds. Taking an isolated nutrient as a supplement is taking it out of its context, and context appears to matter a lot.

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Leafy Greens

The Wahls diet requires three cups of leafy greens each and every day. The leafy greens serve as your primary source of four key vitamins (A, C, K, B) and minerals that protect brain cells, reduce the risk of cataracts, and even lower the risk of macular degeneration. Go-to leafy greens for this part of the diet include kale and parsley.

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Seaweed is another important part of the Wahls diet. It has tons of iron, calcium, and fiber that helps boost mental clarity and increase alertness, which is an especially important concern for MS patients. Seaweed also has a ton of selenium in it that strengthens bones, eyes, and skin while also doing a great job of cleaning up toxins to keep your brain sharp.

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Sulfur-Rich Vegetables

Next up in the Wahls diet are three cups of sulfur-rich vegetables. Why sulfur? Sulfur compounds are your secret weapon against any kind of degenerative disease because of how good they are at detoxifying your cells as well as boosting the creation of neurotransmitters. The veggies you need to eat for plenty of sulfur include asparagus, mushrooms, onions, and cabbage.

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Omega-3 Fatty Acids

By now, anyone concerned with healthy eating knows that omega-3 fatty acids are super important. MS patients who get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids from animals (and more specifically fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines) experience reduced disability progression and fewer relapses.

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Colorful Fruits and Vegetables

Another three-cups-a-day component of the Wahls diet are colorful fruits and vegetables. What qualifies? Foods such as berries, oranges, beets, and carrots. They’re loaded with antioxidants that help fight the oxidative aspect of MS damage and polyphenols in the form of flavonoids that are great at removing toxins from your brain and body.

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Grass-Fed Meat and Organ Meats

Vegetarians and vegans are going to have a problem with this component of the Wahls diet because it includes getting plenty of grass-fed meat, including organ meat. You’ve got to get lean animal-based proteins to be fully aligned with a Paleo diet, and the organ meats have very special nutrients you just can’t get outside of their specific organ meat context.

Image of Terry Wahls working out

Her Life Now

When Terry had her epiphany about getting the right nutrients from real food, she’d been in a wheelchair for four years and could only walk very short distances with two canes. She started her modified Paleo diet keyed in on specific nutrients, and within three months, she could walk substantial distances with two canes. After six months she was walking with no cane at all. At the end of the year, she was riding a bicycle to work. Anyone can take charge of their health by eating right.