This week’s show features the incredibly inspiring story of Dr. Terry Wahls, a clinical professor of medicine, author, and living testament to the power of healing your body with real food.
A few years ago, Terry was sentenced to a tilt-recline wheelchair with progressive Multiple Sclerosis.
Today, she bikes to work, speaks all over the country, and teaches others to reverse degenerative conditions through the Wahls Protocol.
On today’s show, we talk about:
- When you should question your doctor’s advice
- How to mentally adjust from a loss of athleticism
- How to reverse degenerative disease using the power of real food
- Changing your diet to combat “aging diseases”
- How body chemistry is like legos
- and much more!
Alright, let’s go hang out with Dr. Wahls.
Dr. Terry Wahls: Reversing the Life Sentence of Progressive Disability
Abel: Alright, folks. Today, I’m really excited to be here with Dr. Terry Wahls, an author, researcher, and living testament to the power of healing your body with real food.
How’s it going, Terry?
Abel: Awesome. You have a history of being a total rock star. I’m summarizing your book here, but you used to run marathons and climb mountains in Nepal.
You’ve competed in ski marathons while pregnant, earned a black belt in taekwondo, and won a bronze medal in full contact free sparring at the trials for the Pan American Games.
Then you were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Can you walk us through what you experienced from a physical and a mental perspective as you went from being on top of the world to basically someone who is sentenced to a life of not thriving and being in a wheelchair?
Yes, progressive disability. I was a big time athlete, got into medical school, still did my taekwondo, but things slowed down a bit. I had kids.
I was still getting up every day doing my NordicTrack, lifting weights, but I was having to slow down a bit.
And then, in the summer of 2000, I started stumbling.
And during the evaluation, I got MRIs of my spinal cord, of my brain, lots and lots of blood tests, nerve conduction velocities. I had a spinal tap, and they found lesions in my spinal cord in my neck, abnormal antibody levels in the spinal fluid, and so the diagnosis of MS was made.
Part of me was actually quite relieved, that I hadn’t been a slug, that the decline in my ability to do my NordicTrack and my cross-country ski was from my MS, not because of lack of training, etcetera.
Abel: Willpower or gumption.
That felt good. I wanted to get a second opinion, so I went to the best MS Center that I could find in the country, which is at the Cleveland Clinic.
They looked over my records, examined me, and said, “Yes, you have MS,” and urged me to begin a disease-modifying drug, which I did do.
And I, being a competitive doc, I started reading everything that I could about MS in the medical literature.
It was, frankly, very upsetting.
A third of people with MS, within 10 years have some level of gait disability. And half have such severe fatigue that they have to leave the workforce.
My family convinced me to stop reading the literature, because I was just getting more and more upset. So I did that. I let my docs take care of me. I just picked the best people I could find.
And I had just one episode, where my right arm got weak. So, over the next 3 years, that would be a success, because I wasn’t having a lot of acute attacks.
But the problem, Abel, was that I was steadily declining, and so within 3 years, fatigue was a very big problem. Sitting up was a problem, because my back muscles were weak.
My doc told me it was time to get a scooter and I’d said, “No.” I wanted to get a tilt-recline wheelchair, because of the back fatigue. And then my disease was reclassified as secondary progressive MS.
And as I have this transformation from athlete to no longer being able to jog, no longer being able to walk, there’s a lot of anger that came out at the wrong people.
And then, you finally come to terms with, “This is my life, as it is now. And I’m going to have to reinvent who I am.”
And I talk about this a lot in my book, how I coped with having to reinvent myself. Reinvent myself, who I was and what it was that was important to me.
And you finally get to a place of acceptance, that, “Okay, I am gonna get progressively more disabled, and I’m likely to become bedridden by my disease.”
And then the next thing, I was having more problems with brain fog, and so my cognitive skills were gonna decline.
And then another, even more disturbing problem was, I have occipital neuralgia as part of my MS pain.
So these are episodes of horrific, horrific pain, sort of like electrical jolts of pain that comes across my ear, my scalp, the back of my head, a little bit to my face. It feels like a cattle prod is zapping you. It lasts just for an instant and those episodes were coming more frequent.
They were more difficult to get stopped, and so after I’d sort of come to terms with, “Maybe I’m gonna be bedridden. Maybe I’m gonna be not as sharp mentally,” then I began to fear that my pain was going to turn on, and not be able to be turned off.
My biggest fear was being stuck in this horrific cycle of pain. Click To Tweet
Abel: Wow. And those jolts of pain that you described, that actually started a lot earlier, is that right?
That started during medical school.
It was during my third year, when you have long hours, very long hours. At that time, you could have 80, 100 hour work weeks, be up for 36 hours at a time, and certainly hadn’t seen vitamin D in a long time.
I could tell when I was under more stress, more pressure, I was more likely to have some of these flares of pain.
I didn’t know what it was. It would be years before I went to see a neurologist, trying to get it sorted out.
Abel: Yeah, and that’s something that progressively got worse, as everything else got worse.
As everything got worse. Probably, the first time I had that was in 1980. That’s how long ago all of this started.
Abel: Wow. And so did you realize what was going on?
I wasn’t sure what these episodes of pain were. I was busy. I ignored them.
I did figure out there was nothing I could do about them. No drugs were going to help. Narcotics didn’t help.
All I could do is just endure the pain, until that little cluster of jolts would subside on its own.
And then, when I had the episode of near blindness, I went to see my neurologist, got a big workup, and it wasn’t clear.
And I just said, “Well, don’t let yourself get your heart rate up so high again. Don’t train quite as vigorously.”
And so I ended up doing that, because I did figure out, if I went out, and trained, and raced, I couldn’t see very well. But mind you, I had seen a neurologist, I had seen colleagues that I respected, and they didn’t know what was going on either.
And then, as I became progressively less athletic, and couldn’t jog… Actually, I couldn’t jog since my 20s, because of hip pain, but I couldn’t bike as vigorously, I couldn’t ski as vigorously.
I was annoyed with myself, thinking, “Yeah, I’m just getting old. I’m not pushing myself hard enough.” And I was frustrated.
Although, mind you, I hadn’t missed a day of working out since before medical school.
I don’t know why I was thinking this… But anyway, these changes, they come on gradually, you accommodate it, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I was developing a progressive neurologic disorder.
Abel: This is something that must be extraordinarily difficult to accept for such a high achieving person.
How do you come to terms with something like that?
Well, that’s why I was pretty angry and crabby at first, because you certainly go through the traditional periods of grief, and denial, and coming to terms with death.
I think anyone who has to come to terms with a progressive chronic disease will go through a period of anger.
They will go through, probably, a period of bargaining, trying to make these stupid bargains that will somehow magically stop their illness.
And then, eventually, you realize this is how your life’s going to unfold, and you come to acceptance, and then, hopefully, you’re able to…
You look pretty deep within, and figure out what’s still important, and still find meaning in your new existence, whatever that’s going to be.
Abel: Right. And so when you were experiencing all of this pain, was it something that was somewhat easy to ignore?
I used to run marathons, I would imagine when you’re sparring as well, you get used to your threshold of pain, and what bothers you.
And what you can deal with, is kind of off, because you can ignore it. And you have to ignore so much pain when you’re running marathons, or skiing marathons, or all the other crazy stuff that we all do.
Was that something that you were just like, “Buzz off, pain. I can deal with this?“
Well, I’d have these jolts of pain, they’d be really uncomfortable, and I kept going to work, like, “Well, there’s no point in staying home. You can have the pain. You might as well keep working.”
It was easier to have that distraction.
Then the pain became so severe, that I had this involuntary grimace.
Well, it’s sort of hard to interview patients while you’re making a grimacing face.
Then I’d have to figure out, “I could work, but not see patients.”
Then it got so severe that… This is how severe the pain is, that the intensity of what’s going in my brain makes me lose muscle tone, so I can’t stand.
I get the jolt pain that’s so horrific. I can’t talk, I can’t speak, I’m grimacing, and now I can’t stand.
I have on occasion fallen, because the pain is so horrific.
Now, the good news is, using the Wahls Protocol, those kinds of horrific episodes no longer occur.
But in 2007, before I got the protocol going, that was occurring. I clearly saw it as very clear progression of worsening intensity, more difficulty getting it stopped, and I began to have the conversations, like, “What happens if the pain gets stuck on permanently?”
Terry’s Diet History
Abel: How are you eating before all of this?
As this was all happening, over the course of your life, did you pay much attention to what you were eating?
We’ll talk a little bit about my diet history.
I grew up on a farm, Northeast Iowa, and it was not an organic farm, so there were plenty of conventional pesticides, herbicides, etcetera, but we did have an organic vegetable garden.
We had raw milk, plenty of fresh meat, plenty of fresh vegetables, wild fruits.
So I would say, great nutrition, as a kid growing up. Plenty of vitamin D, because I was out there on the farm working all the time.
And then, during college, I read “Diet for a Small Planet,” got inspired, and became a vegetarian.
My parents were completely horrified. They told me, time and time again, I was destroying my health, that I needed meat and animal protein.
But I was pretty stubborn, I stayed with being a vegetarian, and was a vegetarian probably for the next 15 years, maybe almost 20. I had plenty of legumes, rice, vegetables. I was having cheese, did still have eggs, but no meat, fish, poultry kinds of things.
Now, so in retrospect, I can see the vitamin, mineral, essential fat deficiency, and B vitamin deficiency that was accruing during that time period.
Abel: But more slowly than it would for someone like a vegan, who was avoiding all animal foods.
Yes. Correct, correct. It was accruing, but more slowly.
I had also gone to medical school, so I had a lot of vitamin D deficiency, and then I listened to what the dermatologists were telling us, that, “The sun is your enemy. It causes skin cancer, melanoma.”
And so I was putting on sunscreen, and staying pale year round. That, certainly, I’m sure it added to my health problems and my health challenges.
Abel: It was pretty consistent then, over the course of 15 years, you were eating the same thing, and it seemed like a non-factor in all of this?
Correct. What I certainly did observe is, stress made the zingers far more likely. And so the more stress I was under, the more likely I was to have facial pains.
Now, I would confess that I am sort of a driven person, a high achiever, so I’ve always pushed myself pretty hard.
I was into a position, leadership, and was in a number of administrative leadership roles, which were high stress. I had lots of fun, I enjoyed that, but of course, I also had to admit that that was, at times, triggering those facial pains.
Abel: Okay. It’s 2007, you’re in a tilt-recline wheelchair, presumably for the rest of your life, things are getting worse and worse, and you have debilitating zingers, as you affectionately refer to them. But you’re sitting here right now.
Bring us up to speed. What has happened since then and how have you been able to achieve this?
I think when I was first diagnosed, I did what many physicians did. I went to PubMed, started reading the medical literature about my disease, and I discovered that, within 10 years, a third of people with MS have severe gait disabilities, and half have such severe fatigue disability that they have to quit working.
My family convinced me that I needed to stop reading that literature, but when I hit the wheelchair in 2003, it was like, “Okay, I know how bad this is going to get. I might as well go back and start reading the literature.”
And during that time period, I eventually decided that, what I should really do, is read the mouse studies, because that would be where the cutting-edge stuff was going.
So I started reading mouse studies about MS, Parkinson’s, ALS, dementia, Huntington’s disease, and eventually, I decided that mitochondria were key, so I began looking for mouse studies that helped mitochondria, at first, using drugs.
Then it occurred to me that I should look for vitamins and supplements, because those were things I could access.
Over the years, I gradually added a few vitamins and supplements based on the mouse models, and then a year into this, I thought, “I’m wasting my money. I’m not getting better.” I was cranky, and I stopped everything, and I couldn’t get out of bed.
And two days later, Jackie came in with my vitamins, and said, “Honey, I really think you oughta take these again.”
So I took them, and then the next morning, I could get up again, and go to work.
And I thought, “Wow, that is really cool.” And so was that just a coincidence?
So a couple weeks later, I did the same thing. I stopped my vitamins and supplements, and again, was exhausted, couldn’t really get out of bed.
Waited two days, and started them up, and could get back to work.
So now I was thrilled like, “Okay, my vitamins and supplements, they’re doing something.” They may not be making me better, but they are doing something.
And so that got me more fired up about reading the literature and thinking that I could do something about this. That I had a real contribution to make.
So I kept reading slowly, adding more things, tinkering a bit, the summer of 2007 a couple of very big things happened. One, as part of my work for the university, I’m on the institutional review board so I review research studies and our committee decides that they’re safe or not safe and makes whatever suggestions that we have to make.
And so I read this study by Rich Shields where he was studying biological stimulation of muscles in people who had spinal cord injuries. So I thought that was pretty exciting and I read all 212 articles that were on PubMed about neuromuscular electrical stim.
Yes, you could tell I’m a little driven.
And made an appointment with my physical therapist. And I brought a few of the articles, 212 would be a little too many, and I said “Can we try it?”
And he said “Well, it’s painful, it exhausts athletes, you have a lot of issues with MS pain, you’re exhausted all the time, we can grow muscles. I’m not sure your brain can talk to the muscles that we grow. We could make your legs heavier and make it harder for you to walk.”
So I thought he was going to say no, but in the end he said, “Well, but we’ll give you a test session.”
So we came back, gave me a test session, it hurt a lot, but I tolerated it.
In fact, we did about 24 minutes of electrical therapy and I could only workout 10 minutes before I was flat-out exhausted, so I got 14 more minutes of exercise time and this was the best I’ve felt in years.
I went back to the clinic for several weeks, doing my training in clinic, so that my therapist was comfortable I could tolerate this stuff and I knew how to do it.
At that same time that I discovered electrical therapy, I discovered the Institute for Functional Medicine and they had this course, Neuroprotection: A Functional Medicine Approach for Common and Uncommon Neurologic Syndromes. And I ordered it.
And I’m going through this, now mind you Abel, I’m still having a lot of brain fog so I’m going to the course, my kids are sitting at the table watching me listen to a slide, take notes, listen to the same slide over and over again.
My son sort of laughing at me and I went “Yes, biochemistry is hard.”
But I now had this longer list of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, essential fats that I knew my brain needed.
Now I had a deeper understanding of things that I could do, but to tell you, Abel, the real brilliance was when I said, “I should get these nutrients not just from synthetic forms and pills, but I should get them from my food.”
And I’m going to back up for a moment.
In 2002, while I was still walking around, I discovered Loren Cordain’s work and I actually had maybe at the time a very challenging emotional decision to go back to eating meat.
And so I quit grains, legumes, started eating meat in 2002, but had continued to decline.
And even though I was declining I had elected to continue the Paleo diet because Cordain’s work made a lot of sense to me and I felt like, “Well, at least it was something I could do that was proactive.”
So, what I did then in the summer of 2007 was I took the Paleo diet concepts, but now I structured that in a very specific way to get the nutrients that had been identified by the Functional Medicine people as critical to my brain.
And that’s how I came up with this very precise plan of… Here are the foodstuffs that I have to get in every week and what I want to try and get in every day.
And that’s when this amazing magic began to happen.
Abel: Yeah and so what happened?
I started all of this in November. So I’m doing electrical therapy in November. I’ve started the Functional Medicine, vitamins, and supplements in November and December.
And then, in December I think, “Well, we’re going to redesign my food to get the same vitamins, and supplements in food. So, I have to do some more research to figure out that food.”
By the end of December, I got my food plan worked out. So I think December 27th, we went out and started shopping, getting the food.
In January, I was to start this new clinic, a traumatic brain injury, where I would not have residence, I was going to see the patients directly. And I had known that, that was probably something that I would not be able to do, given my disability.
So in the middle of January, I drive over to the clinic the first time. I take my cane to walk between exam rooms, I hadn’t done that in a long time. And I do the clinic, and at the end of the clinic, I was like, “You know, I’m not feeling too bad.” It’s stunning.
So by February, I am walking around with the cane.
And by the end of March, I’m walking around without a cane.
And then, in May, so we’re 6 months into this, that’s when I get on my bike, and I biked around the block for the first time probably in about six years. That’s with breathtaking speed.
Abel: For people who don’t know that much about MS, it’s probably worth outlining or explaining that that’s not something that normally happens, right?
Oh no, so a lot of people want to dismiss my story as having relapsing-remitting MS.
So let me backup a few sentences there.
So, relapsing-remitting, you have periods of worsening, and then followed by periods of improvement. If you go 2 years without any improvement, but you had steady worsening, you’ve transitioned to secondary progressive MS.
So my last period of transient improvement was 2001. So I’d gone 6 years with steady decline. I clearly had met the criteria for secondary progressive MS.
And when you get into that phase of the disease, there is no improvement.
You take treatment to try and stabilize, to slow down the rate of decline, but at present there’s no therapy that leads to dramatic improvement and function.
Nor are there case reports in the scientific literature, people with secondary progressive getting dramatically better.
Abel: So that’s a great point, as a scientist yourself, what does science have to say about what you experienced?
Well, I’ll tell you, a number of physicians have contacted my treating neurologist here at Iowa, to criticize him that he must have made a terrible mistake, that I didn’t have MS, and Dr. Shivapour laughs and says, “I’m so glad you went to the Cleveland Clinic, because they are one of the internationally recognized best MS centers.”
So I’ve had 3 different neurologists agree that I have MS. I certainly meet all the diagnostic criteria for that.
And the other question is, so it helped me, so what, that’s one case. And that’s why I am doing clinical studies, testing my protocol in others with progressive MS, so that if they improve, there is no question this was a relapse and a spontaneous remission or spontaneous improvement.
And I think it’s very important that we do scientific studies, clinical trials, to prove the safety, prove the effectiveness, and test this in MS and other disease states.
Having said that, there are thousands and thousands of studies that look at what are the factors that cause MS. And we agree that we don’t really know, we may have some genes, about 100 genes, that will increase the risk ever so slightly.
But there are all these environmental factors that really account for 70% to 95% of your particular risk for getting MS.
There are all these environmental factors that account for 70% – 90% of your risk for getting MS. Click To Tweet
Abel: Wow. What are those?
70% to 95%. So what are those environmental factors? The food you eat. Food you don’t eat.
Are you a smoker? The toxins that you’ve been exposed to over your lifetime, the infections you’ve had over the lifetime.
Your stress hormones, the balance of all the other hormones.
These are all lifestyle factors, and these are the factors that I optimized in the Wahls Protocol. And I think that’s why it’s such, such a powerful, powerful intervention.
Abel: Your intervention isn’t something like a crazy new drug that’s only been tested on beetles or something, I mean…
That’s right, and the side effects of my intervention are pretty mild.
If you compare this to the list of side effects from the disease modifying drugs that are used to treat MS, or any other chronic health problem.
Abel: One of the things that I love about your story is that it’s a dramatic example of what other people can do, even if they don’t have something that’s as extreme as MS.
It could be being slightly overweight, or having brain fog, or something that most of America, and increasingly the world at large is experiencing.
Basically, you go through this process of progressive decline, and even I can relate to that.
When I went into my doctor because my family has a history of high blood pressure, thyroid problems, yada, yada, yada, they basically said, “Well, what you need to do now is make sure that you’re not getting worse and getting all these diseases, so you have to go on a super low-fat diet and you have to take all of these drugs too for the rest of your life. But you’re probably just gonna get worse anyway.”
But instead of accepting that, you basically said, “Well, I’m going to figure this out on my own.”
And you took it upon yourself to not just outsource your life and all hope to someone who gave you none.
Helping Other People Heal: From Fibromyalgia to Parkinson’s Disease
Abel: You took it upon yourself to really learn what was going on and see if there was any hope for fixing it, and then there was.
And now what you do is basically affect as many other people as you possibly can and help them who are going through the same thing that you went through, and you’ve had just incredible results, not just with MS or people suffering from MS but also other conditions as well.
Can you talk about that a little bit?
Oh, sure. Since the TED talk went viral, we had one and a half million people who’ve seen it (almost 3 million since we aired this show).
We have the Facebook page and my website and so, on my Facebook page, we have hundreds, thousands of people who all post their story and talk about, “I have problem X. I have adopted the Wahls Diet, Wahls Protocol and it’s changed my life this way.”
So some of the disease states that I’ve heard about recently, a lot of people are talking about Parkinson’s disease and there are four million people with Parkinson’s. It’s coming on at younger and younger ages.
There’s this one lady, Kelly, would had such severe Parkinson’s that she was experiencing severe tremors. She wasn’t working anymore. She said that she really couldn’t get up off the couch and she was taking more and more drugs and that she was totally disabled.
She found my work, adopted the Wahls diet, and posted up a picture of her and her dog hiking out somewhere in the wild and then talking about how grateful she was to have her life back. And that she’s been telling all of her friends and the people that she’s met in the Parkinson’s community that they need to be investigating my work and trying these diet and lifestyle interventions.
And there are many people with fibromyalgia. I think there are like 4 million people in the US with fibromyalgia, which is a diffuse pain, a lot of fatigue, some mental fog as well. This is very tough to treat. Drugs, and even narcotics, don’t really seem to blunt the pain. People are given some antidepressants in low dose to see if that will help, but people have really quite extensive disability because of their fibromyalgia.
Again, we have many people who have posted telling that they have been disabled, in near constant pain from their fibromyalgia, but when they discovered my work, adopted the Wahls diet and the lifestyle changes that I talk about, their pain steadily diminished, their energy level improved, their mental clarity improved, and they’re thanking me for giving them their lives back.
If people go to my website and go to the resources pages, they’ll see the testimonials where they can see the stories from so many people who’ve written in to say, “I have condition X, I discovered your work, adopted your diet, and here’s the very positive result that has happened.”
Abel: And one of the coolest things about all these to me is that if you can see that these specific dietary protocols and interventions reverse something as extreme as MS and these other conditions that you talked about. It has massive implications for the rest of us as well.
I mean, avoiding degenerative disease is not really a sexy idea to the people who think they don’t have it, right?
But what it shows is that if you went from basically barely getting out of bed to being able to do your job because you took some vitamins, that means that those vitamins are doing something.
Where if someone who’s maybe a little bit overweight and not in the best of health, that they take some vitamins… I think we’re all used to this–you take something that’s supposed to do something but you don’t feel it, you don’t see it.
I think those testimonials, whether you have degenerative disease or not, if you look at those, you see that this stuff works and it can really help you improve even if it is something that kind of happens in the background.
There’s a fellow named Chris who was a football coach. He contacted me because he adopted the diet and saw all these tremendous changes in his health and vitality, and he went back to college to play and try and be on his college football team. So, he’s pretty fired up about the change in his athletic ability in terms of his physical fitness and athletic performance when he did the Wahls Diet.
What is the Wahls Diet and Why Does it Work?
Abel: Wow. That’s so cool. So can we talk about what the diet is specifically? And then we can talk about why it works.
The diet in the broadest strokes, we create three levels in the Wahls Diet to give people a chance to enter in at the easiest level.
Entry Level: Nine cups of fruits and vegetables, in a very specific fashion.
So we’ve got a plateful of green leaves, that’s three cups. A plateful of sulfur-rich vegetables, so that’s the cabbage family, onion family, mushroom family. And a plateful of bright color such as beets, carrots, berries.
High quality protein. I’m a big fan of wild fish, grass-fed meat, wild game, organ meat, and seaweed.
And that’s how we get people started.
Then depending on the health circumstances, I may progress beyond that into a more specific diet to maximize the benefits.
Now so, why does this work? Okay, most of us can think of our kids who have put together Lego toys… you’ve got a lovely Lego kit, there’s a very nice blueprint of instructions, a bag of parts of variety of different shapes.
And the kids will sit there for a few hours and put together their beautiful toy, and end up with a very lovely intricate shape.
Now, if you go in there and you grab a handful of those Lego parts before they put together the toy, they can’t make the toy correctly.
They’ll just do the best they can, it won’t be shaped quite properly. And what people don’t seem to realize is that for you and I, it’s a very similar process.
We’re alive because of chemistry. And that chemistry depends on building blocks of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fats, and we have to get that from the food we eat.
We’re alive because of chemistry. #science Click To Tweet
And so if we eat a lot of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, white flour, we’re going to be missing the building blocks to have that chemistry happen properly.
And when the chemistry doesn’t happen properly, compounds don’t get made or get made with the wrong shape, they don’t function, and you develop a very rapid aging of your brain, of your heart, of your blood vessels.
It’s the broken chemistry that is the beginning of every single disease process.
So fixing every single disease process can begin with restoring the most nutrient-dense diet possible, so you’re more likely to have all the parts you need to run the chemistry of life properly.
The paleo diets are very superior to the standard American diet. No question about that.
But what many people don’t realize in our community is that we’re still eating agricultural foods. We are not going out, hunting, eating our insects, grubs, larvae, wild foods, which are much more nutrient-dense than the agricultural foods.
Today, agricultural foods have a lot more starch in them. They have a lot more volume. And there’s a lower vitamin, mineral, essential fatty acid content per calorie in agricultural foods than there is in wild foods.
Plus, all of us in the paleo community, we’ve lost our tie to our ancestors that would’ve told us which foods to avoid, which ones to eat according to what season.
What I’ve done that’s been so helpful is I’ve taken the scientific literature and said, “Here are the nutrients that I know my brain needs.” There are no doubt thousands more, but at least these are the 31 that I know about.
And I’ve taken our paleo concepts, used agricultural foods that I can get at least here in Midwest, Iowa, and designed a food plan that you can follow. And then on a day-to-day basis, usually get all those 31 nutrients.
To get my clinical trials going, Abel, we had to have a nutritional analysis of the diet, to show the Research Committee that this was safe, because it looked like a radical diet to people.
So we did a research level analysis of my diet, using 24-hour recalls, etcetera. And so the nutritionist who did this, and she’s been doing this kind of work for about 30 years, she said, “You know, this is the most nutrient-dense diet I have ever analyzed.”
You know that’s pretty cool.
Abel: Is that the bugs and larvae that you put in there, or is that something else?
Yeah. That was very impressive. I have since hired that person. She’s on my team. And she’s the nutritionist that was instrumental in helping continue to refine the diet, so that we could make sure that we’re getting the most nutrition possible into people.
Benefits of Sulfur-Rich Foods
Abel: Wow, that is so cool. So one thing that I haven’t heard much about, at least in the ancestral community, is sulfur-rich foods.
What is the main benefit there?
The reason I stress sulfur-rich foods are several. One is that these will induce the enzymes that increase the production of glutathione in the brain, and in our cells, which is a very potent antioxidant, a terrific protector for your cell, protector for your DNA, protector for your mitochondria, so that’s advantage number one.
Advantage number two, they’re also potent to add, helping your body make more gamma-aminobutyric acid, which is a neurotransmitter that helps keep the brain calm. It evens your mood, decreases pain.
Remember? Pain is a big part of my life, so I was very keen on trying to reduce my pain levels.
And then the third, which may be the most important, well, also as important as the glutathione, and that is sulfur is a very important part of detoxification.
We live in a very toxic world. Click To Tweet
Since World War II, we’ve been pouring out chemicals to make life easier to, for a variety of reasons.
And so, I think there are now about 90,000 chemicals registered with the Environmental Protection Agency as toxic to human health. And these are in the environment.
They’re in our food supply, in the air, in the water.
And in many studies, we find that babies are born with these chemicals already in their bodies at birth.
In order to process those chemicals, put them in the vial and get them out of the body, sulfur is a very important compound.
And many of us, because if you eat sulfur, you might pass gas, that has a little bit of a hydrogen sulfur smell, and so it smells bad, and we tend to diminish our sulfur intake, which compromises our ability to process and eliminate toxins.
So I wanted to ramp up my detoxification pathways and the sulfur-rich vegetables will do that.
Abel: That’s very interesting. There’s always this ongoing debate amongst people, who are trying to diagnose why everyone has it so bad now, why we’re all getting fat and sick.
And there’s one camp that says, “Well, it’s because we’re eating too much junk.”
And there’s the other side, that’s saying, “We’re not eating enough good stuff.”
So I think your perspective would be really interesting to hear about this. Is it a lack of the essential building blocks that we need, or is it eating too many Oreos, and Doritos, and pizza, and the rest of the junk?
Obviously, it’s a combination, but I’d love to hear you kind of rant on that.
For many of us, we have developed a problem with food sensitivity and food allergies.
And so, if we eat gluten-containing compounds or if we have casein, or egg, or other foods to which we have been sensitized, that will rev up the inflammation, rev up your cortisol levels, and create all sorts of bad health outcomes, so that’s problem number one.
Now, of course, problem number two, is that if you’re missing the building blocks, your chemistry’s not going to happen properly, and so you’ll deteriorate on that basis.
Now, how important each of these two components are, is individual. For some individuals, the food allergies are the biggest driver.
For others, the lack of the proper building blocks are the big drivers, and they don’t have food allergies.
But more and more of us because of leaky gut issues are having problems with food allergies.
Abel: That’s a really interesting perspective on all that.
We’re coming up on time, but I would love to have you also cover, for the people who are really familiar with the ancestral approach to eating, what are the things that the person who might be just getting started with Paleo or not really taking it to that next level, what are they missing?
What are the few essential things that they still need to do to take it to the next level?
The Caltons did a nutritional analysis of a week’s worth of Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint diet, and a week’s of Diane Sanfilippo’s Practical Paleo diet. What they saw is, they still did not meet the RDAs for all the vitamins and minerals.
Those diets were vastly better than the standard American diet, but because there wasn’t enough structure, enough guidance, it’s still quite possible to miss your mineral content, your antioxidant content, your essential fat content, and vitamin content.
What I do is I tell people more specifically, “Here’s what you’re going to need to eat to make sure you’re getting there.”
People don’t eat enough organ meat. They’re not eating seaweed, and as I said earlier, it’s greens, sulfur-rich, and color.
If they attend to those factors, that’s going to ramp up their nutrition considerably.
Where to Find Dr. Terry Wahls
Abel: That’s terrific. We’re out of time, Terry. But I would love for you to tell folks where they can find you.
It’s terrywahls.com. The Wahls Protocol is a wonderful book. Even if you are really familiar with the Paleo approach, the ancestral approach, there is so much more complexity and so much more to learn that you offer, Terry.
And also I’d love for you to talk a bit about your foundation as well.
I have a non-profit, Wahls Foundation, which raises money for the Wahls Research Fund, and we’ve used the money that’s come in from that research fund to fund the PhD student that I have working in my lab, to fund a full time research assistant.
And then more importantly, it adds the biochemical studies, the nutrigenomics, and the proteogenomics, and the proteomics that allows us to much more precisely explain the biochemistry that we change from the beginning to the end so we can have a good mechanism that explains why we’re seeing this study.
Seeing the very exciting results that we’re seeing and that we are reporting in our publications.
Before You Go…
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