I did not see any of this coming. Not my recovery, not the change in my clinical practice, not the resistance from dietitians and medical colleagues. Nor did I anticipate becoming a banned speaker for creating false hope by the National MS Society. I didn’t expect the small pilot study or my TEDx talk would have such an impact. Fortunately, I was mostly oblivious to the criticism and outcry, focusing instead on the next task at hand.
While I was working hard, speaking around the globe, presenting my research and teaching the public and my colleagues about the power of focusing on health creation, things changed. I went from banned to brilliant. More researchers wanted to collaborate with us. More departments invited me to have a secondary appointment, including the Department of Neurology. I was honored by the organization that was critical to my healing journey, the Institute for Functional Medicine. The 2018 Linus Pauling Award was presented to me for my work as a physician, researcher, teacher, and patient advocate. I confess that I cried, thanking all who had contributed to my journey as I accepted the award. So much has happened in just seven years.
In the beginning my peers, though thrilled at my recovery, criticized me sharply, telling me that it was not good medicine to use the same treatment for every patient. My colleagues thought I was at best very eccentric and at worst completely unprofessional and dangerous. Still, I focused more and more on diet and lifestyle and less on drugs in my clinics. I felt compelled to teach the public about the protocol I used to recover from severe disability due to progressive multiple sclerosis (MS). I was severely criticized for doing so, but I felt morally compelled to tell the public what I had experienced. I spoke at the local organic grocer. Then the local MS chapter invited me to speak, and I was interviewed by the Clinical Advisory Group. But I was told that I was creating false hope in the multiple sclerosis community and was banned as a speaker.
I had to explain this to my chief of staff and the chair of medicine. I reviewed the science behind my protocol. My department chairman, a rheumatologist, was very impressed and gave me the job of writing up a case report about my intervention and my recovery. When that was published, the chairman called me back to his office and told me to conduct a small pilot study to test if others could implement my protocol, and if they did, what happened. I told him that was not my area of research. He gave me that assignment anyway, telling me that he would connect me with mentors to help me do the research.
It would take a year to get the protocol approved and find a philanthropist who would support a single arm safety and feasibility study. We were able to show that others with progressive MS could implement the protocol and that it was safe. We demonstrated that people with progressive MS experienced marked reduction in fatigue, improved quality of life, improved cognition, and improved mood. Our next study was randomized and continued to show favorable changes in fatigue, quality of life, and walking ability. I would go on to give a TEDx talk about my experience that would receive 3 million views. I wrote a bestseller, The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine.
The National MS Society recognized that social media had exploded with conversation about diet and lifestyle once my book had been published. They responded by making diet and lifestyle a research and programming priority. Two years later our lab received over a million dollars to conduct a major study focused on a dietary intervention to treat MS-related fatigue. I joined the Institute for Functional Medicine faculty, where I teach advanced practice modules on the contribution of diet and lifestyle in the management of neurodegeneration and neuroinflammation.
Having purpose is key to thriving.
My original purpose was teaching my children to not give up, regardless of how difficult life becomes. It all had to happen as it did. I needed to become profoundly disabled so that I was forced to search for a better way. I needed to be an eccentric individual, a bit socially awkward, oblivious to criticism and rejection. I needed to feel a moral duty to share my story so that others with disability could learn from my experience. I needed my children to be watching so I had to keep being a model of not giving up. I needed my wife to help me survive the darkest of times.
I am grateful for it all: my illness, my family, my colleagues, the National MS Society, the Institute for Functional Medicine, the Ancestral Health movement, the public with chronic health problems. I needed them all then and now, so I could identify my new purpose: creating an epidemic of health.