I am a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa, U.S.A., where I teach internal medicine residents in their primary care clinics. I also do clinical research and have published over 60 peer-reviewed scientific abstracts, posters, and papers.
In addition to being a doctor, I am also a patient with a chronic, progressive disease. I was diagnosed with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis in 2000, around the time I began working at the university. By 2003 I had transitioned to secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. I underwent chemotherapy in an attempt to slow the disease and began using a tilt-recline wheelchair because of weakness in my back muscles. It was clear: eventually I would become bedridden by my disease. I wanted to forestall that fate as long as possible.
Because of my academic medical training, I knew that research in animal models of disease is often 20 or 30 years ahead of clinical practice. Hoping to find something to arrest my descent into becoming bedridden, I used PubMed.gov to search scientific articles about the latest multiple sclerosis research. Night after night, I relearned biochemistry, cellular physiology, and neuroimmunology to understand the articles. Unfortunately, most of the studies were testing drugs that were years away from FDA approval. Then it occurred to me to search for vitamins and supplements that helped any kind of progressive brain disorder. Slowly I created a list of nutrients important to brain health and began taking them as supplements. The steepness of my decline slowed, for which I was grateful, but I still was declining.
In the summer of 2007, I discovered Functional Medicine, an organization devoted to helping clinicians use the latest scientific discoveries to take better care of those with complex chronic diseases. As a result I developed a longer list of vitamins and supplements that were good for my brain. Then I had an important epiphany. What if I redesigned my diet so that I was getting those important brain nutrients not from supplements but from the foods I ate? I used what I had learned from the medical literature, Functional Medicine, and my knowledge of the Hunter-Gatherer diet—the most nutritious of any diet—to create my new food plan, the Wahls Diet™. At that time, I also learned about neuromuscular electrical stimulation and convinced my physical therapist to give me a test session. It hurt a lot, but I also felt euphoric when it was finished, likely because of the endorphins my body released in response to the electrical stimulation. In December 2007, I began the Wahls Diet™ along with a program of progressive exercise, electrical stimulation, and daily meditation. The results stunned my physician, my family, and me: within a year, I was able to walk through the hospital without a cane and even complete an 18-mile bicycle tour.
Thomas Edison, over a hundred years ago, said, “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his [or her] patients in the care of the human frame, in a proper diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.” This became my new course, my passion, and my mission. I understood health and disease in an entirely new way. I became a new person, both physically and emotionally, both personally and professionally.
I began teaching residents and patients in our clinics how to care for themselves in a way I had only just discovered as optimal, using diet and health behaviors instead of drugs. Most patients were, in fact, very interested and willing to do what I suggested. The patients, as they adopted the diet and health behaviors, would steadily improve and need fewer and fewer drugs. The residents learned that diet and lifestyle are powerful treatments, often as effective of not more effective than drugs.
I joined a multidisciplinary team that was taking care of veterans with traumatic brain injuries and again, I found that patients were often very eager to learn what things they could do to speed the healing of their brains. In patient after patient, I watched symptoms and the need for drugs decrease as diet and lifestyles improved.
Then I shifted my research focus. I wrote up the protocol I discuss in my book, Minding My Mitochondria- How I overcame secondary progressive multiple sclerosis and got out of my wheelchair, then sought and secured over $100,000 of funding to conduct a pilot clinical trial testing my interventions in others with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. In our study, Nutrition, neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) and secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS), we follow twenty individuals for thirty-six months as they use the same treatments I developed for myself. The first nine have already completed the first twelve months of the intervention, with favorable preliminary data, (one of our subjects is moving from cane and walker dependence to beginning to jog again), which was presented at the 2011 Neuroscience Conference in Washington, D.C. November 13 as a “Hot Topic.”
Furthermore, we then secured additional funding to add MRI scans to the second wave of participants. That study is underway and in December 2013 all 11 subjects will have completed 12 months and we will once again be writing up results for publication.
I continue to study the impact of nutrition in our traumatic brain injury clinic. I teach medical students and resident physicians about food as medicine, and about therapeutic lifestyle interventions. I travel across the country, giving lectures to the medical community and to the public about the care of the human frame, the proper diet for the human being, and the causes of disease.
In short, I’ve become the physician of the future that Thomas Edison foretold, and I’ve made a commitment to spread this message of hope and healing to others. My public lecture. “Minding Your Mitochondria,” given at a TEDx conference, was posted to YouTube on November 30, 2011. This seventeen-minute video, which tells my story, explaining what I did and the science behind has received over one million views. People all around the globe are beginning to learn that food choices can restore health and vitality.
I have a dream for us all, not just those with MS – that all people, young and old will understand how their choices create health, that children, parents, grand parents, policy makers, employers and employees – will know that growing stronger, faster, smarter, younger, and falling health care costs – are not about taking drugs or having surgery, but instead about eating vegetables, berries, meat, fish, seaweed – and eliminating sugar and processed foods from our diets. Health care costs could actually plummet as our health soars if we choose to eat the way our DNA expects.