Dr. Terry Wahls: Nutrient Density Diet
Jonathan Bailor- Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor here. I’m starting this podcast off in a little bit different tone, you can probably tell. This is a tone of a little bit more of respectful wonderment of the guest that we have on today. We have joining us, a woman whose TED talk I watched years ago and was hallway conversation for weeks. This woman, Dr. Terry Wahls over at the University of Iowa, was actually able to defeat progressive Multiple Sclerosis (which has affected many people near and dear to me) without the usage of any drugs. Purely through smarter eating was able to defeat this horrible, horrible condition. We have Dr. Wahls joining us today and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have her on the show. Welcome Dr. Wahls.
Dr. Terry Wahls- Hey, thanks for having me.
Jonathan- Dr. Wahls, let’s get straight in to it here. Tell us your story and go in to as much detail as you’re willing because, truly, it is an incredible story.
Dr. Wahls- I have secondary progressive Multiple Sclerosis. I was diagnosed in 2000 with relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis – that was on the basis of a history of visual dimming that occurred in 1987, and then appeared to improve. In 2000, I began to have trouble stumbling and falling, had a big evaluation (including MRIs of my brain and spinal cord, a slew of blood tests, nerve conduction velocities, and a spinal tap) and the physicians told me that I had Multiple Sclerosis. I asked for a second opinion and I went to one of the best MS centers in the country, the Cleveland Clinic. They looked over my records, had me repeat the story, did an exam, and they too agreed that I had Multiple Sclerosis. At that point it was called relapsing remitting MS. That’s the phase that 80% of people with MS are diagnosed in. I have periods where things get worse (that’s called the relapse) and symptoms slowly improve (that’s called the remission). The assumption was that when I had that bought of visual dimming in the early 1980’s, that that was a relapse. I was advised to take medication. I took Copaxone, with the intent that that would reduce the likelihood that I would have more worsening episodes (or relapses). Over the next three years, I had just one episode – a weakness in my right arm, which improved with steroids. So, you might thing that was a huge success. But, the problem was – I had gotten progressively weaker. It was more difficult to walk or even sit in a regular chair. In 2003, my physicians told me that I had transitioned to secondary progressive Multiple Sclerosis and suggested I take a medication known as mitozantrone or novantrone (a form of chemotherapy to suppress my immune cells so they could not attack my brain as vigorously). That’s when I reached the conclusion that despite seeing the very best people in the country, taking the latest, newest drugs; I had gotten steadily worse. It was time for me to begin (if I was going to do everything I could) to start reading the medical literature myself. So, evenings I would log on to pubmed.gov and began searching and reading. I read about other conditions with shrinking brains. That was things like Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis. I saw in all of those studies, (that it appeared to me) that the mitochondria were not working very well and they were sending messages to the brain cells to die too early. That was why the brain cells were dying, brains were shrinking, and spinal cords were shrinking. I found more articles that showed using some vitamins and supplements, you protect those mouse mitochondria, the brains healed better, and the mice did better. I began experimenting with some supplements. That began the journey which would culminate several years later with the discovery of functional medicine, embracing the Paleo and Ancestral health movement, into creating this very nutrient-dense diet that was designed specifically for my brain and my mitochondria, an exercise program, and electrical stimulation of the muscles program (that in a period of a year – took me from being unable to sit up in a regular chair, walking short distances (two canes), otherwise living in a recliner – to being able to walk through the hospital without a cane, even an 18 mile bicycle ride with my family). The following year, I did a trail ride with my family. The year after that, I was able to secure funding to conduct a clinical trial testing the Wahls Protocol in others with progressive MS. That study is under way – as a matter of fact, have a study patient today. We’re very pleased to be working hard at answering that question.
Jonathan- Dr. Wahls, that’s just such an amazing, inspirational story. You mentioned insuring maximum nutrient density and getting back to a little bit more of an ancestral, or whole foods type, of diet. I also noticed that you have a wonderful picture and link to the Vitamix website on your website.
Dr. Wahls- Yes.
Jonathan- Anyone who listens to this podcast knows we are fans of the Vitamix and of the veggie smoothies; so I’d love to hear more about that as well.
Dr. Wahls- In my research, I was looking at what is the nutrition that we know brain cells need to thrive. Slowly over the years, I built a longer and longer list of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential fats. I also had been well aware of the ancestral health movement, I became aware of Dr. Cordain’s work in 2003. What I did (that I think was so brilliant) was in 2007, I took my long list of brain nutrients and said – If I create a diet (a food plan) so that I know that I’m getting these nutrients in my food supply, I go find foods I can get here in the mid-west, I do things that were pre-agricultural (like staying away from grain and dairy) – that’s how I created what I affectionately call the: greens, sulfur-rich vegetables, bright colors, grass-fed meat, wild game, wild fish, organ meat, and seaweed concept. If those are the foods that you eat, you don’t have to worry about how hungry you are. If you just eat from those food groups, you have a very high probability of having a nutrient-dense diet that will take great care of your mitochondria and great care of your brain.
Jonathan- What a compelling example. Oftentimes we’re told that we should eat a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet because it will keep us well. But what you demonstrate, in such a profound fashion, is that if you’re not well – this lifestyle may actually be able to do things for you that are literally not possible via any other mechanism.
Dr. Wahls- Absolutely. You see, Jonathan, you and I are alive because of self-correcting chemistry. It keeps the concentration of various salts in our bloodstream (and in ourselves) in that very narrow range that’s compatible with life. For all that self-correcting system to work – we have to keep providing it vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and fats. The best way to treat disease, is to provide the nutrients that that self-correcting system will need. That’s why that nutrient-dense diet (from my perspective and what I see in my clinics) that that is the most effective treatment for chronic illness of any type.
Jonathan- Listeners, I would encourage you to (literally) rewind that last sixty seconds and listen to it a couple of times. What Dr. Wahls just described is so seminal and it’s a point that we talk about all the time. We use slightly different words. We’ll talk about how a healthy body will automatically do things that become more difficult if the body is broken down. Our job is to heal the body first. For example – a natural, healthy body will pursue a healthy weight, naturally. We’ll talk about a homeostatic regulatory system (a bit like a set-point) where your body is designed for health. If you can insure that your body (or the system) functions properly, you will achieve results. Really, you can never take a broken system and patch it up; it’s still broken. But, when you maintain the system itself – that is so key. As you show, can be life changing and life saving, Dr. Wahls.
Dr. Wahls- Jonathan, we are so interconnected with all the building blocks that we need to run our chemistry. I think that’s why a number of studies that have the people take a pill form for various vitamins and supplements never do very well as compared to the studies that look at how many servings of fruits, vegetables and berries did you have every day. Those studies always show dramatic, favorable impact on health. The more vegetables and berries that you have, the healthier you’d be. If you’re taking Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Vitamin C by themselves, that may or may not benefit you. If you just take a pill on top of a crappy diet, you’re still going to have crappy health.
Jonathan- Exactly. In fact, your story and your research – again, please go visit terrywahls.com, check out her books, check out her videos, and check out the Wahls Foundation. Make a tax-deductible donation because of what we’re talking about here and Dr. Wahls is describing. Dr. Wahls, people often ask me (because the research I did and the lifestyle that came out of it recommends double-digit servings of nutrient-dense vegetables per day), “Why in the heck would I ever eat twelve servings of non-starchy vegetables in a day?” I describe it (and I’m curious to your thoughts- but really your story demonstrates this) as a therapeutic dose of natural nutrition.
Dr. Wahls- Oh absolutely.Absolutely. I find it interesting when I re-ordered my diet (what’s fascinating is I became a Paleo diet in 2003), my health had still declined – despite being Paleo. It was in 2007, when I understood the nutritional needs of my brain and I provided structure to that Paleo diet. Came up with the plate full of greens, plate full of sulfur-rich vegetables, plate full of bright colors (actually I was having two to three plate fulls of greens) – that my health made this dramatic turn around. I think, particularly for people who have any kind of health problems, they probably do benefit greatly from that additional structure that I provide- that tells them how to design their food plan every day, to maximize those critical nutrients.
Jonathan- Dr. Wahls, I’m curious, when we talk about maximizing critical nutrients and these therapeutic doses of nutrition….I’ve heard some people characterize fruits as vegetables with more sugar. What say you?
Dr. Wahls- Well, I classify the food groups that I want people to eat: green leaves – that’s pretty easy, should be a leaf that’s green and not poisonous; a sulfur-rich vegetable – that’s really the cabbage, onion and mushroom families; the third group is colored (and to be colored, you have to be colored all the way through) – beets, tomatoes, peppers, peaches, plums and berries are colored. An apple and pear are colored on the outside, but you slice them and they’re white on the inside – so they happen to have a lot of starch and not as many anti-oxidants and flavonoids. Bananas have a lot of starch and not so many flavonoids, so those aren’t in the colored group. In my study protocol, you can have those vegetables or fruits after you’ve had nine cups of other vegetables and fruits. That would probably be six cups of greens (because we expect three servings of greens. So, you have to eat a boat load of fruits and vegetables before you get any of the starchy fruits.
Jonathan- I think that ordering is so important because, truly, we’ve got to get those in and you can only eat so much food. There’s an opportunity cost to every time we eat, and to me, that was one of the most compelling arguments I had heard in my early days of research around grains – Are whole grains high in fiber? Whole grains are higher in fiber than a donut, certainly, but they are dramatically lower in fiber than non-starchy vegetables and lower-fructose fruits. If you’re eating grains, you’re not eating those other things.
Dr. Wahls- That’s right.
Jonathan- So there’s an opportunity cost.
Dr. Wahls- Exactly, they’re starving you. Plus, our grains now are particularly likely to have a lot of Round-Up in the grain, which acts as a chelator – binding up the minerals and creating nutritional deficiencies for us. Plus, the grains probably have phytates – which bind minerals as well, and leptins – which increase inflammation. There are a number of reasons that it’s probably a better health decision to take the grain out of the diet.
Jonathan- Absolutely. You mentioned one of the key reasons we want to eat these nutrient-dense vegetables and lower-fructose fruits, is flavonoids. I’m curious as to your research, or even to the Wahls Protocol, what (if any) role teas – specifically green teas, and cocoa (or cacao) may have.
Dr. Wahls- The green teas (yerba mate as well) and cocoa (cacao) do have a lot of flavonoids. They have EGCG and quercetin as well. What these particular antioxidants do is they help re-balance the enzymes that are involved in processing and eliminating toxins. We encourage the regular consumption of those compounds – either as teas, in smoothies, or in puddings. They’re terrific stuff.
Jonathan- You mentioned one of the ways you can consume green tea is as tea. But, there’s also some thinking around taking a little bit of green tea, putting it in the Vitamix along with a smoothie, and you’re consuming the whole tea leaf. What do you think about that?
Dr. Wahls- Yes, I think that’s a wonderful thing to do. I get that big stash of the Japanese green tea (matcha tea). Now since their nuclear problem, not quite sure what I’ll do when that stash is depleted, but I particularly liked having the green powdered tea that I would use to flavor smoothies and make a hot tea with. It was convenient and very nice. I agree with you, I like to use the whole leaf in the Vitamix – whether it be a yerba mate or a green tea leaf.
Jonathan- A lot of people (at least in my experience) – you either like the taste of green tea, or you don’t. There’s kind of no in between. If you don’t – just throwing a teaspoon or tablespoon of bulk, un-bagged green tea in (it’s incredibly affordable – you could buy a two pound bag of green tea, which would, in this context, last you a very long time) and you wouldn’t even know – especially if you’ve got the Vitamix. Neither one of us work for the Vitamixcorporation, it’s just very good at what it does.
Dr. Wahls- Yes, it’s very convenient. Green tea is also great to put on top of a roast you’re going to bake. It will soak in to the roast, you’ll bring in more antioxidants, and it’s a nice meat tenderizer.
Jonathan- That’s fascinating. Dr. Wahls, what are your thoughts on the exercise element? How much of your miraculous recovery do you attribute to things outside of the nutrient-dense diet, or would you say it was pretty much all the nutrient-dense diet?
Dr. Wahls- This is based on the observations we have from our clinical trial, my clinical practice, and five years of my own personal experience. For me, if I go off the diet, I’m likely to have (within 48 hours) severe and horrific levels of pain – which can take up to three weeks to get rid of. Needless to say, I have figured out how to be very, very careful on my diet. About one quarter of the people I interact with will have that level of sensitivity that a poor food choice will lead to an acute symptom worsening in 24 to 72 hours. Food sensitivities are common. Probably ninety percent of the American public have diets that have multiple, serious nutrient deficiencies – so that’s a big problem. You can certainly improve fatigue and slow down the disability by a nutrient-dense diet, but if you want to recover function, you are going to have to grow more muscles. You’re going to have to improve the strength and endurance of muscles that have become profoundly weak. That may slowly improve if all you do is work on the diet, but if you add in a focused exercise and electrical stimulation of the muscles – you can accelerate the speed of recovery. Before I went off to medical school, I was in to Taekwondo and competed nationally. In 1978, I was at the Pan-America trials for the women’s welterweight full contact free sparring and got a bronze medal. So, I was in to athletics and sports a great deal. I was very comfortable with a high level of training expectation and comfortable with doing e-stim – probably more comfortable than the average person off the street would be.
Jonathan- Dr. Wahls, I love this story. I love the profound demonstration you’ve given us. You have “been the change we desire to see in the world,” as Gandhi puts it. The other thing I love about this story, your story, and your approach is… The tagline to my first book The Smarter Science of Slim, part of it is – eat more, but smarter. It’s in contrast to this concept that the reason we have health problems is because we’re eating too much. Implicit in that assertion is that it is possible to starve your way to health. As you’ve shown, starvation is not healthy. Eating the right types of foods is literally (this isn’t some marketing fund, like, eat more – but smarter) the most robust, scientific, biological, neurological approach you can take to live a happy and healthy life. By eating more (but of nutrient-dense foods) not only do they heal you, but they also make you too full for garbage.
Dr. Wahls- You know, I’ve encouraged people to go look at my website. If they go to the community pages and read the forum, one of the areas that people can post in is how their lives have been changed as a result of the Wahls diet. You’ll see entry after entry of people who have talked about changing and adapting some of the dietary concepts – and the many and diverse set of conditions that have been helped. It’s not just MS – there are mood problems, Parkinson’s Disease, other general health problems, some auto-immune, heart disease, and diabetes. That mirrors what I see in my clinics. When people adopt this diet, eat the nine cups of fruits and vegetables, and then they come back in three months – the most common thing I hear is, “I can’t stuff another fork full of food in to my mouth. I’m not hungry, and the weight is just falling off. I’ve not felt this good in years.”
Jonathan- It’s fascinating. I think the weight loss ensues because the body is healed and a healthy body does not want to be obese. I’m personifying the body, here – but it doesn’t. Just like it doesn’t want to be underweight, it also does not want to be overweight.
Dr. Wahls- That’s correct.
Jonathan- When you make those dietary changes that changes something. Personal example – my wife (I forget the name of this condition-a lot of people in her family have it) when she was born, the back of her upper arm wasn’t smooth-it had bumpy things on it. They weren’t visible, it just wasn’t smooth skin. She saw a bunch of dermatologists because she’s a younger woman who wants to wear a strapless dress and feel comfortable with her arms. There was nothing – they put cocoa butter on it (maybe) but it didn’t do anything. About two or three years ago, she started (essentially) my version of the Wahls Protocol (we all are saying very similar things – which is just eating the most nutrient-dense foods you possibly can) and it went away. It’s just gone. She just woke up one day and was like, “Jonathan, my arms are smooth. I don’t understand.” A healthy body does miraculous things and that’s what happens.
Dr. Wahls- If you get rid of the trash and put in all the building blocks, your cells will self-correct.
Jonathan- People sometimes hear (and that’s why I so appreciate you taking the time to chat) this basic truth that we’re talking about right now (which is this truth of self-correction) as this “woo-woo”. Like, “Oh the body just magically heals itself.” It’s not magic, it’s the furthest thing in the world from magic. Just like you said, everything about our biology is designed to propagate life
Dr. Wahls- That’s right. We have many complicated systems in our cells to maintain the salt levels in this very narrow range and we expend a lot of energy to do that. We expend a lot of energy to keep things in this optimal range as we can. As we get starved, our body gets more and more distorted. It wants to function properly. We have to make sure there is plenty of Vitamin K, A, C, E, flooded with anti-oxidants, and essential fats. That chemistry will happen more and more correctly. What I see in my patients, in our trial, and in the mirror is that people (when they adopt this) will youthen. Years will keep falling off, falling off, falling off. My kids and I laugh – we say at some point, I’m going to start aging again. So far my doctors all say (every time I come back in), “Wow, you look 6 months younger than you did last time.” But I’m sure I will start aging sometime soon.
Jonathan- I love it. Dr. Wahls, again, I want to thank you for joining us here. I want to encourage all listeners – first of all, search for “Terry Wahls” on the internet, go to terrywahls.com, watch her TED talk if you haven’t already. Viscerally take in her story because it is a perfect medical example of what we’re talking about here around the body “seemingly” dramatically being able to heal itself and “seemingly” automatically being able to achieve a healthy weight. It isn’t magic. It is the most hardcore metabolic science you can imagine. But, it manifests itself in such a beautiful, simple way if we can keep our body saturated with the nutrient-dense foods we were made to eat. Please, also, if you’re into charitable giving – I can’t think of a better foundation than The Wahls Foundation. You can get more about that on Dr. Wahls’ website, which again is terrywahls.com. Dr. Wahls, again, I just want to thank you for being who you are, doing what you do, and joining us today.
Dr. Wahls- Great, thank you very much.
Jonathan- Alright everyone, hopefully this has been as inspirational for you as it has been for me. Remember this week for sure, to eat more and exercise less – but do that smarter. Talk to you soon. Buh-bye.