Clinical professor developed nutrient-rich diet, which in part helped her overcome debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis.
Terry Wahls chuckles when she describes people’s reactions to her remarkable recovery.
A nurse overlooked Wahls in the waiting room because she was searching for someone in a wheelchair. The dean of the medical college was shocked when Wahls said her scooter had died on the way to a meeting, and that she had pushed it up the hill.
But who wouldn’t be amazed? In 2004, the clinical professor of internal medicine in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and the Iowa City VA Medical Center relied on a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis. Now she bikes five miles a day.
Wahls attributes her progress to two treatments: the nutrient-rich diet she developed, and neuromuscular electrical stimulation, which uses an electrical current to promote muscle growth. Today she’s educating others about “food as medicine” and planning a study to see if her treatment could work for others with MS or Parkinson’s disease.
“I had accepted that I was never going to walk again. I had accepted that there was no recovery—that the best I could hope for was to hold steady,” Wahls says. “Even when I was getting better, I didn’t let myself believe it would continue. It took six months of steady recovery to begin to think that maybe in a few years I might be close to normal.”
Looking back, Wahls recognizes that her symptoms started in 1987, when she was a medical student at The University of Iowa and occasionally felt twinges of discomfort over her ears. A few years later, she had an episode of blindness in one eye while Rollerblading on a hot day. Wahls was athletic—a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a competitive marathon runner—but she scaled back her workouts and did fine, for a while.
Then she noticed her gait becoming uneven. After a leisurely three-mile walk for ice cream with her family, it was clear something was wrong. She could hardly move her leg.
Wahls suspected a brain tumor, or possibly cancer. In 2000, she was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, which eventually transitioned to secondary progressive MS. In both diseases, immune cells damage the wiring that connects brain cells and its insulation, myelin. Nerves have trouble transmitting information, and the lost signals can lead to vision and hearing loss, weakness, numbness, and poor balance.
Over the next three years, Wahls gradually became weaker. Even sitting in a standard chair was exhausting because her back muscles could no longer support her.
“Once I got into the wheelchair, I couldn’t have been more depressed about the future,” Wahls says. “My kids were 12 and 9, and I knew I would at some point be bedridden.”
Fortunately Wahls’s disease didn’t affect her mind. She started to read about illnesses that cause the brain to shrink, and she noticed a common denominator: in each case, cell subunits called mitochondria were sending a “time-to-die” signal to cells too soon.
In 2007, Wahls began eating greater amounts of foods known to support mitochondria. Her energy increased, and the progression of the disease slowed. At the same time, she read 212 research papers about electrical stimulation, which was being used to help athletes’ muscles heal and to improve quality of life for people with paralysis. She convinced her physical therapist to give it a shot, though he cautioned that it would be painful and may not help.
“I dialed it up to as much pain as I could take, because if I was going to fail, I didn’t want to look back and think I hadn’t gone as hard as I could,” Wahls says. “He was right. It hurt, a lot. But it also released a lot of endorphins, and at the end I felt better than I had in years.”
Wahls continued e-stim using a portable device at home and work, and began to exercise in small time increments. She also revamped her diet to see that every calorie would contribute to maximizing the brain’s building blocks. The “Wahls Diet” calls for nine cups of fruits and veggies per day: three of green leaves, three of sulfur-containing food, and three of bright colors.
Within a few months, she was walking between exam rooms at the hospital. She stopped taking her medications and continued to improve.
“I was impressed and somewhat surprised with her drastic recovery,” says E.T. Shivapour, Wahls’s neurologist at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “We know about the positive effects of good nutrition on many illnesses, including MS. The benefit of physical therapy and regular exercises is also established, and there are data to support the positive effects of the multichannel neuromuscular stimulator. But so far, no one has combined all of these together to this extent. That’s why this case is so unique.”
Now Wahls, Shivapour, and a team of colleagues plan to see if they can replicate the results. With approval from the University’s human subjects office, they plan to enroll 40 patients in the study. Wahls received a $60,000 grant from Direct MS Charity from Canada and has applied for $2.5 million in National Institutes of Health funding.
In the meantime, she is sharing information about food as medicine. While eating more fruits and veggies is generally a good idea, she cautions that the “Wahls Diet” has not been evaluated by the FDA, and that people considering her diet should talk with their physician.
Wahls published two health cookbooks, the first and second edition of Minding My Mitochondria, and through periodic surveys, she’s tracking whether 150 followers of her diet notice changes in their health. She speaks at least once a week to groups at the University and throughout the community.
Hundreds have attended Wahls’ presentations through the New Pioneer Food Co-op. The Co-op is even establishing a Terry Wahls garden so people can see her favorite foods grow.
“We’d all like to have donuts and coffee for breakfast and take a vitamin, but she’ll say, ‘Let’s not go to pills. Let’s go to food itself,’” says Theresa Carbrey, education and member services coordinator at the Co-op. “It’s very empowering. People facing a medical crisis are deeply motivated to change their diet to improve their health, and Terry Wahls helps them achieve that.”
For more information, visit www.terrywahls.com or www.mindingmymitochondria.com.
story by Nicole Riehl; photo by Tim Schoon
June 14, 2010