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Restoring Nervous System Health: The Wahls Protocol

It is becoming clear that anti-inflammatory regimens benefit people with autoimmune diseases with the most successful ones, those that encompass life-style changes. One such multifaceted and holistic approach came from the personal experience of Dr. Terry Wahls.  As a physician, she was struck with progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that slowly advances towards a wheelchair. Her personal odyssey of how she happened upon an all-encompassing protocol through self-reflection and uncontrolled patient observational studies of similarly affected cases of MS was first published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2014. She employed an intervention of a modified paleolithic diet, supplements, stretching, strengthening exercises, electrical stimulation of trunk and lower limb muscles, meditation, and massage and monitored patient’s fatigue noting improvement in 10 of 13 participants when scored regularly for up to a year. Wahls’ approach to taking charge of an illness and modifying lifestyle to change the trajectory of the medical condition is inspirational, with appeal to individuals who feel let down by traditional medicine when told, “eat healthy, exercise, and see a psychotherapist”. 

To put it into perspective, Wahls’ odyssey started with seeing a citation in a 2002 Science article, entitled, Balancing life-style and genomics research for disease prevention that recognized that 70% to 90% of the risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmunity could be traced to environmental factors, and the rest to genetic predisposition. Wahls, who practiced dance and Tae Kwon Do, and suffered loss of stamina and strength, was put off by traditional medicine when her illness struck. Growing steadily weaker, and losing more and more function and activity tolerance, she became bedridden and was at a crossroads despite conventional medicine.  

She had two options: accept her disability despite optimal medical treatment for MS, or increased involvement in her healthcare.  She became aware of the power of energy producing organelles, the mitochondria, known as the driver of adenosine triphosphate or ATP, the body’s currency of energy, to slow neurodegeneration, something of relevance to MS and other central nervous system disorders.

Translating animal research of mouse doses to human ones, she first added B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, alpha lipoic acid, coenzyme Q, and L-carnitine, and saw a slowing of her own illness.  She added electrostimulation and started an aggressive program of physical therapy and daily exercise. She recognized the importance of micronutrients including sulfur amino acids, iodine, flavonoids, and vitamin D in her daily regimen for optimal brain health. Later she incorporated dietary foods that contained vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.

Her new diet translated into nine cups of vegetables and fruit each day, with grass-fed meat, and wild fish. Determined to optimize everything, she looked more deeply at the environmental factors associated with poorly explained neurological and psychological symptoms. Two stood out: food allergies and toxic load. Food allergies was a cause a number of neurological and psychological symptoms. She prophylactically eliminated the most common offenders of gastrointestinal intolerance namely, gluten, dairy, and eggs.

Wahls incorporated her insights into the body’s toxic load emphasizing the risk of mercury, herbicides, and pesticides, by improving the ability to excrete toxins in adding methylated folate, B12, sulfur amino acids, and fiber to her dietary regimen.  Two months after starting electrostimulation therapy, exercise, and intensive nutrition, she herself was able to sit in a standard desk chair without being exhausted and later reclaimed the ability to walk and then run and bicycle.

The 3-step Wahls Protocol starts with Level 1 of 9 cups daily each of raw or cooked leafy greens; deeply colored vegetables and fruits; and sulfur-rich vegetables. Level 2 attempts to reduce and eliminate gluten, dairy, eggs, and most legumes, and adds seaweed, algae, and organ meats. Level 3 eliminates all remaining legumes, and reduces the portion of vegetables and whole fruit to 6 cups daily, adding coconut oils and full-fat coconut milk. Adherents are told to eat twice daily and fast 12 to 16 hours every day and night.  

There is much to be learned about battling diseases that impair nervous system functioning, and the path to restoring and supporting brain health.