I have a chronic, progressive disease that severely disabled me and cannot be cured. Yet I consider being diagnosed and disabled by multiple sclerosis (MS) a gift that I treasure. Let me explain why being in a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years was valuable. It made me who I am today: someone who understands the root cause of disease and health and the power each of us has to revitalize our own lives.
I am an internal medicine physician, so when I was diagnosed with MS, I turned to the best MS center I could find: the Cleveland Clinic. I saw the best doctors, received the best care possible, and took the latest drugs. By 2003, my disease had transitioned to secondary progressive MS. I took the recommended chemotherapy and got my tilt-recline wheelchair. I took Tysabri and then Cellcept, but I continued to become more severely disabled. I was increasingly afraid, for both myself and my family, because I was moving toward becoming bedridden. Wanting to forestall that as long as I could, I began searching PubMed.gov for the latest research articles. I knew that brains afflicted with MS shrank over time. So I spent a few minutes each night reviewing animal models of three other disorders in which the brain shrinks: Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
In all three diseases, mitochondria do not work very well, which in turn causes the early death of brain cells and shrinking brains. With more searching, I identified studies in which mouse brains and their mitochondria had been protected using B vitamins, creatine, and coenzyme Q. I translated those mouse-sized doses to human-sized ones and began my first round of self-experimentation. The rapidity of my decline slowed and I was grateful, but I was still declining. I discovered the Institute for Functional Medicine, and through their continuing medical education course, Neuroprotection: A Functional Medicine Approach to Common and Uncommon Neurologic Syndromes, I learned more about brain cell biology and what I could do to improve mine.
As a result, I developed a much longer list of vitamins and supplements that my brain cells needed to thrive. Not much changed by adding those new pills. A few months later, I decided that I shouldn’t be relying just on pills; I should be getting the 31 nutrients I had learned were critical to my mitochondria and brain cells from my food instead, because in so doing, I’d likely pick up other important nutrients that science had yet to identify and name. Plus, I thought it likely that vitamins occurring in food were more powerful than the synthetic versions pills deliver.
With more research into what foods contain what vitamins, I designed a diet specifically for my brain cells and my mitochondria. It is a modified Paleo diet that I call the Wahls™ Diet. That is when the magic began to happen. Within three months, I was walking between exam rooms again, using a cane. And within six months, I could walk throughout the hospital without a cane. I rode my bike again for the first time in five years. After nine months, I was able to pedal an 18-mile bike tour with my family.
I had been transformed like Paul on the way to Damascus, and my understanding as a person and as a physician of the world of disease and health also transformed. I changed how I practiced medicine — now I spend my time teaching my patients and my many Wahls Warrior followers that they have the power within themselves to repair the broken biochemistry that is causing their disease, and that by repairing that biochemistry through diet and lifestyle changes, they can begin the journey back to health. Time and time again, symptoms are reduced, energy improved, joy returned, all through learning how to eat and live for the optimal health of our brain cells!
In addition to seeing patients, I do clinical research. To change clinical practice, we must publish clinical research in peer-reviewed journals; I am one of the few researchers doing clinical trials that test the impact of structured Paleo diets in the form of the various Wahls™ Diet plans on patients with secondary progressive MS. In another year, we anticipate completing our current clinical trial, Wahls Paleo Diet and Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, and knowing more about the nutrient density of these diets as well as their effect on disease progression, blood vessel health, and cellular health. It is exciting work. I also travel around the country and the world, spreading the message that food is medicine or the slowest form of poison, depending on our choices.