Truth About Supplements: Dr. Terry Wahls
Dr. Terry Wahls
Jonathan: Hey everybody, Jonathan Bailor back with another SANE show. So excited about today’s show that I’m getting tongue tied because we have a longtime friend of the show and just wonderful researcher, author and inspirational speaker who is changing lives all around the world, Dr. Terry Wahls, welcome back to the show.
Terry: Oh, thanks Jonathan, very glad to be here.
Jonathan: Well, Terry for folks that don’t know you, they definitely do a quick websearch and they’re going to be amazed because the woman they see before them on this webcast looks much different than some of the images they’re going to find on the web. So, just for folks that aren’t familiar with you right from the get-go can you give us the quick background?
Terry: A quick background – I have multiple sclerosis, diagnosed in 2000, I went to the best MS center I could find, the Cleveland Clinic, still progressed and transitioned to secondary progressive MS by 2003. I needed a tilt reclined wheelchair. I got chemotherapy and was told that functions once lost would be gone forever, that this is the progressive phase of the disease. There’s no more spontaneous improvement.
At that time, I began doing my own research, experimenting on myself and I started taking a variety of vitamins and supplements. I tried the Paleo diet and still declined. Then in 2007, I discovered the Institute for Functional Medicine. I had a longer list of supplements, which I added. I still declined. Then I took that long list of supplements, and figured out where they were in the food supply, reorganized my diet, still using Paleo principles and that’s really when the magic happened. Within three months, my fatigue and brain fog were gone, in 6 months I’m walking throughout the hospital without a cane, and in 12 months, I’m able to a 20 mile bicycle tour ride with my family.
Then of course this changed how I understood disease and health. It would change how I practiced medicine and it would change the research that I do. I shifted my area of research, so now I study dietary lifestyle interventions for progressive MS and for traumatic brain injury as well.
Jonathan: Dr. Wahls, it’s obviously an incredible story and I would encourage all of our listeners to check out our previous shows together for additional background. One thing I want to focus on though that I never realized from the story which I just heard you say was for a while you were doing the supplement route and you transitioned away from that and said how can I get those same active ingredients for lack of better terms from a whole foods. That’s really when you saw the transformation. Am I understanding that correctly?
Terry: That is absolutely correct. I think there are a couple of points people sometimes gloss over. The Paleo diet was not enough to cure me, so in 2002, I went Paleo, I took away all grain, all legumes, all dairy, declined, added some supplements, still declined, discovered functional medicine, added more supplements, still declined and when I reorganized my diet, taking that supplement list to say okay, where is this in the food supply, that’s when the magic began.
Jonathan: Dr. Wahls, we are such a pill, powder, and potion oriented culture. T. Collin Campbell, who I know folks in the Paleo community have very strong opinions about his most recent book is called, “Whole” and it’s about the fact that what we see in whole foods may never be replicable in synthetic products, but then if you search on the Internet further, you see these things like that goop that the guy invented, soylent. So what can you imagine being some of the reasons why that which supplements this reductionist approach couldn’t do, whole foods could do?
Terry: The supplements are extracted, particular nutrients, often synthetically manufactured using re-competent bacteria, and genetically modified bacteria. So, the compounds aren’t necessarily the same shape. They don’t have the family of related compounds, 36 nutrients they now track, even if I took those all in pill form, they’re going to be synthetic, even if I got them all extracted in natural form, they still would have all the related compounds, probably thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of other compounds yet to be identified and named that are very helpful to my cell biology. I can’t imagine that we’ll ever successfully replicate food in all of its rich complexity.
Jonathan: One of the ways I judge whether or not someone is a nutrition expert is how certain they seem about having figured everything out or not. It seems like the actual experts, when you start to ask them for example, what is the perfect diet or what about supplements? They’re going to tell you much like a quantum physicist will tell you, look, frankly we don’t really know what’s going on, but we do have sort of hints to go in this direction, whereas you get this other side of people which are just like, just drink soylent and you’ll be fine, clearly that’s the case. How do we filter out these so called experts who seem so certain from what actual scientists understand to be true?
Terry: Well, I think the most important thing is the experiment you do on yourself. Pay close attention to your response to the choices you make related to your diet and the lifestyle. What really matters is my health fully realized and what am I doing to make sure of that? It’s true, my genetics and my microbiome maybe a little different than yours, Jonathan, and so the diet that leads to my perfect health might be slightly different than yours, but it’s still going to probably contain a lot of vegetables, some high quality protein, and high quality fats. The precise mix will depend on my culture, my locale and the season. If you get any more direct than that, you’re full of shit. You just don’t really understand. I don’t think we will ever be able to refine the precise chemicals, because we’re vastly more complex than that and our environment is changing. I need to be able to adapt to the seasons and to the locale. As soon as I say it’s precisely this A, B, C, and D, then it’s not going to be generalized, because you aren’t adapting to the season and the locale. And part of the person’s microbiome as well.
Jonathan: It is shocking how beautifully complex the field of human nutrition is. In my understanding that we’re all still developing our understanding, the fact that eating an orange by itself that was grown in Florida, could be very different from eating an orange that was grown in Spain along with another food because of all of the different soil elements and then these complimentary nutrients you’re taking in, non-competitive vitamins, and things going after the same receptor sights. So how do we make heads or tails of an area? You mentioned there might be some common denominators. What have you found those common denominators or true north principles to be?
Terry: Diversity. The more different species of plants and animals that you eat, the fresher and really it’s the most nutrient dense combination you can make for your locale. You’re going to have to have your protein and your fats and I really want to see a diverse set of plants because those plants will speak to my DNA and help set which genes are on and off to the most favorable mix. In addition, they’re going to provide vitamins and minerals and antioxidantsthat will help broaden the chemistry. I’m also very interested in how they’re going to affect which genes are read or not. So, diversity, diversity, diversity. Then I’m looking for groups, green leaves, sulfur rich vegetables and color, but it should be based on what grows in your locale that’s fresh and in season and should fluctuate throughout the year.
Jonathan: There’s so much attention paid to protein and fat, whether it’s discussing meat, whether or not it causes cancer, blah-blah-blah, whether it’s talking about the Paleo diet, whether it’s talking about Akins, but there are these things which seems everyone agrees are really important, but don’t really get a lot of air time and that’s vegetables.
Terry: Yes. Yes.
Jonathan: What is the magnitude of the quantity of vegetables you consumed to have this therapeutic effect and why don’t you think that gets more attention in the nutrition world?
Terry: So, for me I was probably consuming 9 to 15 cups of vegetables a day. Astounding. What I discovered is when I traveled and I couldn’t consume that amount of vegetables, my mental clarity went down, my fatigue went up and I would notice that about 48 hours. So, then I began traveling with heads of cabbage. They would sustain the travel, wouldn’t need to be refrigerated and that worked out pretty well.
Now, six years into my recovery, I don’t need 9 to 12, 15 cups of vegetables anymore. I can get by on six to nine and I’m much more ketogenic diet person. I think probably, Jonathan, that took me five years to replenish that vegetable deficiency. Why doesn’t it get more play time? We’re all addicted to sugar and white flour. That is one big reason. And then many of our Paleo friends heard the message of meat and didn’t hear the message of the 200 different species of plant that most traditional cultures will eat. The societies that do eat meat or a primarily meat only diet do it with fermented meats, and raw fresh meats, which are not readily available. Furthermore, many of my Paleo friends eating only meat can’t afford only organic meats so they’re eating only conventionally grown meat, very few vegetables so they don’t have their detox enzymes ramped up and so they’re accumulating the toxins from the meats, vegetables and meats and they have way too much mTor activity and increasing some accelerated aging and tumorous (Inaudible) 11:20 that way. I think it would be less of a problem if they were eating their meats in the traditional way, which would be raw and fermented. For public health reasons, that’s not something any of us can recommend at this time.
Jonathan: And Dr. Wahls, certainly there’s been a lot of talk about meat and cancer. There’s been a lot of talk about vegetables and cancer oftentimes in different ways where vegetables are preventive against cancer and some people suspect that meat is the opposite of preventative against cancer. When you combine a vegetable rich diet with a nutrient dense protein rich diet, I guess I can see how if all you ate was meat, I too would have these cancer concerns, but when you say where can I get the most nutrient dense foods, there’s no ambiguity that nutritious sources of protein are there and if you complement those with all of the vegetables you’re talking about here, it seems it would be a greatboon, [sp?] in terms of cancer or health.
Terry: It’s absolutely the best of both worlds. If you have sufficient protein, so that’s 6 to 12 ounces of meat, according to your size and gender and then 6 to 12 cups of vegetables according to your size and gender. Now, you’ve got the best of both worlds. Preferably organic if your budget will allow that. But even if you can’t, eating all of those vegetables will up-regulate your enzymes so you’re far better equipped to excrete properly all of those synthetic compounds.
Jonathan: So, Dr. Wahls, you mentioned more of a ketogenic diet. We’re talking about protein. Alot of people when they think about protein, will think of things like beans as a good source of protein and certainly we can talk about that, but eating things like beans is going to be mutually exclusive with eating a ketogenic diet. So can you talk with us a little bit about your approach to a nutrient dense ketogenic diet and your treatment of protein fat in that type of a lifestyle?
Terry: So, I worked very hard to design a diet that would get those 36 key nutrients we identified for your brain. To do that, I used a medium change triglyceride fats, we tried coconut oil, full fat coconut milk, that let’s you eat about 60 to 80 grams of carbs, still being ketosis. So, those 60 to 80 grams of carbs I focus on greens, non-starchy examples of color, and a lot of sulfur vegetables. Then you have to have protein and the protein is going to come from animal sources.
I know some authors have said that you could be in ketosis following a vegetarian diet. I was not able to construct one. There may be others who can, but when you make a complete protein using grain and legumes that gives you so many carbs, now you don’t have any carbs available for your green, sulfur and color.
So, my team was unable to construct a nutrient dense vegetarian or vegan ketogenic diet. We can do a nutrient dense vegetarian diet at my first level, the Wahls Level Diet, but I can’t do it at the ketogenic level.
Jonathan: Why would someone want to be at the ketogenic level? Is it useful for everybody? Is it useful as a therapeutic protocol? Why the focus on ketosis?
Terry: So, when you’re in ketosis and your body has adapted, your brain is going to generate more nerve growth factors, so that’s more recurring, more synap [sp?] to connections so it’s very good for mental health problems, neurological problems. It’s also been studied — excellent for brain cancer. Here at the University of Iowa it’s being studied for other cancers like lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, head and neck cancer, however, having said that I do want to make the observation it’s very hard to keep your diet sufficiently nutrient dense in ketosis. So there’s certainly a risk of nutrient depletion and if I look at traditional societies, all of our traditional societies will spend large parts of the year in ketosis and large parts of the year out of ketosis when there is more carbohydrate available in their locale.
Even the Artic Inuits, two months of the year have more carbs in their diet and are not in ketosis. So, it maybe that long term ketosis is not as good for you as somewhat long term ketosis. Ketosis for several months and then you get to have summer, you have a few more carbs, still low glycemic index carbs, so you just barely out of ketosis, then winter comes back and you’re back in ketosis. That may be the more typical traditional society way, however, I’ve got a bad brain, so I prefer to be in ketosis and I can tell when I’m in ketosis I feel a little more alert, but I’ve also learned to not stress out my friends who are hosting me. So, if they serve me a Wahls Paleo diet, I’m happy to eat it and I’ll eat their gluten free dessert that they made for me, a small piece, because I want to have social contacts. When I travel, I’ll take my coconut milk, I try to stay in ketosis, but if I can’t, I no longer worry about it. It’s like okay. So, going in and out of ketosis for me is okay as well.
Jonathan: I think it’s also really important to highlight to our listeners that a lot of times we talked earlier in the show about the complexity of nutrition how multifactorial it is when also when we’re talking about the lifestyle you’re living in a ketogenic diet and how, for example, drinking full fat coconut milk is done in the context of a very low carbohydrate count. The reason why I make that explicit is because sometimes when people read stuff on the Internet and they’re like, oh, I should drink full fat coconut milk, so they take their existing diet, which contains about 200 grams of carbohydrate and just start pounding full fat coconut milk and they don’t understand why they don’t get positive results. So, we’ve got to look at not only adding fat, but if you’re going to add fat, you then proportionately drop carbohydrate and regardless of the approach there, you have to have nutrient dense vegetables. Is that fair?
Terry: You have to have nutrient dense vegetables and I’ve also observed that some people have gone on my diet, they’ve heard the fat story, they’re pounding the fat in, and they’re putting on weight and they’re how could I be putting on weight? You still can if you are pounding fat so hard that you didn’t take everything else down you’re going to get into trouble and you may still have to back off in your fat somewhat because if you overshoot your caloric requirement by 1,000 calories, you’re probably going to be putting on weight.
Jonathan: The reason why I am really a fan of your work Terry is not only because of the rigorous scientific approach, but like you state very clearly, “WahlsProtocol,” you have to follow this like this — it’s very specific, it has these very specific goals in mind for it, but if for example, someone goes on a diet which is very high in concentrated sources of fat, and doesn’t eat vegetables, the volume of food you’re going to need to consume to fill you up will cause you to eat – if all you ate was coconut milk, you would have to eat a lot of coconut milk to feel satisfied and probably take in way, way, way too many calories and that’s coming from the Calorie Myth guy, but sometimes I just people give these higher fat lifestyles, they give them a bad name because they don’t do them correctly, right? You have to increase fat while dropping carbohydrate.
Terry: You have to still pay attention to nutrient density. If you aren’t getting in your organ meats if you’re not getting in your nutrient dense vegetables, your greens, your sulfur rich vegetables, your health will decline.
As soon as I start missing key vitamins and minerals I can use what my body supplies for a few months and then things start going wrong. So people can initially feel great on a ketogenic diet, oh, my god, I have much better mental clarity, but if it’s not nutrient dense, in three years, you’re going to be having serious mental health problems. You’ll be having serious medical problems because you’re depriving your physiology of needed building blocks.
Jonathan: Speaking of making sure that we take a holistic approach, not only getting a diversity of vegetables, getting a diversity of plants, diversity of animals, but ensuring that the changes we make to our lifestyle aren’t piecemeal, they’re part of a cohesive whole, possible part of a cohesive protocol, I know the paperback of your “WahlsProtocol” book is coming out.
Terry: Yes, yes. I’m very excited it will be out December 30th, and in it it’s the same information with a few updates from the hardback and this should be the bible of how to do a nutrient dense diet from someone who’s taken the time to scientifically analyze the menus, the recipes and validate that it has the 36 nutrients that science says your brain and my brain need to thrive.
Jonathan: Dr. Wahls, I personally can attest to this. I’m a huge fan of the work, I think it’s a wonderful complement to the paperback of the “Calorie Myth” which will also be coming out about the same time –
Terry: Oh, excellent.
Jonathan: Really focusing on that nutrient density and focusing on look, you are going to be doing this specifically, there’s all these different elements that need to work in concert, it’s not this one size fits all, I think is very important and what’s next for you in terms of just research and where are you headed personally?
Terry: Well, very excellent. We have a new protocol that just went off to the Institutional Review Board that’s being reviewed so we’ll be starting a diet only study this time for relapsing, remitting MS. We will observe them for the initial 12 weeks, and then we’ll intervene with our dietary approach for 12 weeks and see the change on fatigue and the ability to walk for 6 months. We’re very excited about that. I met with my research team and we’re developing another protocol that will be randomized, controlled, again using a dietary intervention for fatigue and I’m also pleased to say that the word is getting out and we’re having some donations come in because people know that I have a whole slew of frozen blood and I’m getting some directed donations so we can pay for the basic science analysis of what the changes are in that frozen blood that we’ve seen as people have followed my protocol for three years. So, wonderful, very exciting stuff is happening.
Jonathan: Well, that’s incredible Dr. Wahls. I’m excited to back on the show in the coming months to give us an update on that. Listeners and viewers if you haven’t checked out “The WahlsProtocol,” definitely now is the time to grab a paperback copy of it and while you’re in the bookstore, grab a paperback copy of the “Calorie Myth” as well. They’ll probably be in the same section of the bookstore. So again, Dr. Wahls’ book is “The Wahls Protocol” if you haven’t watched her talk, be sure to do so. Be sure to type her name into Google because you’ll find a bunch of interesting information on here. Dr. Wahls, it’s always a pleasure, thank you so much for joining us.
Terry: Great. Thank you very much.
Jonathan: Viewers and listeners, I hope you enjoyed this chat as much as I did. Again, our guest today is the brilliant Dr. Terry Wahls. Her brand new paperback book is “The Wahls Protocol.” Be sure to check it out and remember stay SANE. See you later.