Terry Wahls came to London to give a four-hour lecture on how to reclaim your health from a debilitating disease.
For those of you who don’t know, 61-year old Professor of medicine from the University of Iowa Terry Wahls is a rock star of functional medicine and a revolutionary medical researcher.
A conventionally educated physician, she admits she once used to frown upon naturopaths and anything stinking of alternative approaches. “I used to think they were quacks,” she admits. “I am actually quite ashamed of that today.”
But then life happened and Terry found herself in a situation where her beloved scientifically proven pharmaceuticals-based medicine failed her.
She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000 and despite having had access to the best conventional treatments available, her condition quickly deteriorated from the relapse-remitting stage, where patients experience periods without symptoms, to the progressive stage, where things only get worse.
In a few years, she was confined to a wheel chair and suffered from fatigue and brain fog so severe she knew it wouldn’t take long for her to declare complete disability.
And that’s when she made a decision.
“We can’t choose our circumstances but we can choose how we respond to them and that’s where our freedom and growth lies,” she says quoting Viktor Frankl, the famous Austrian Jewish psychologists and Holocaust survivor.
“When people are diagnosed with a debilitating disease, they feel disempowered. They think there is nothing they can do but that’s not true.”
The journey and the results
Wahls packed the four-hour Health Unplugged workshop at St Paul’s Centre in Hammersmith, London, with a lot of wisdom. She covered everything from the importance of cultivating positive attitudes, to stress management, the connection between the gut microbiome and health, to newest research findings in epigenetics and her own clinical results.
Despite complaining about a sore throat and back pain, she sailed through the session with unwavering energy, keeping the audience entertained and in awe of her cerebral brilliance. We are talking about a woman that according to official medical statistics should be bed-ridden and demented by now. So how exactly did she do it?
Wahls described her journey in her Ted Talk Minding your Mitochondria and her book the Wahls Protocol.
In the heart of her healing plan is a scientifically researched diet, which excludes gluten, dairy, eggs and processed foods (these foods tend to trigger inflammation in the body). Wahls warriors, as she fondly calls those following in her footsteps, eat nine cups of vegetables and fruits a day – three cups of dark leafy greens, three cups of sulphur rich vegetables such as mushrooms, cabbage and onions and three cups of colourful fruits and vegetables.
“Especially if you are wider around your waste than around your hips, you need to eat mostly vegetables and only a little fruit,” she says.
The diet also contains three portions of protein a day, quite a lot of which has to be grass fed meat and wild fish. Instead of lean muscle meat, she prefers organ meat, which is richer in beneficial nutrients. Wahls herself used to be a vegetarian before her diagnosis, a fact to which she partially attributes her developing the disease.
Sugar and white flour are a big no for Wahls but she isn’t fond of other types of grains either.
“I don’t recommend gluten-free bread, eat more vegetables instead,” she brushes off a suggestion from the audience. “But you don’t need to trust me. Maybe I’m just full of crap.”
Her story, as well as the results she’s had with her patients, speak otherwise. In a series of jaw-dropping videos, Wahls showed her patients recovering the ability to climb the stairs, ditching their walking sticks, and being able to run and jump where previously they shuffled – all that after three to twelve months of strict Wahls diet.
“Most of the time when people don’t have results, it’s because they only have been following the diet 90 per cent instead of 100,” she says. “Most of my patients are on disability benefits, they don’t have money to spare, and yet we always manage to figure out how to make it work for them.”
Wahls knows that quality food costs money. She doesn’t want people to spend a fortune on food sensitivity testing and sessions with functional medicine practitioners on top of that. Just buy her book, do what she says for 100 days and see for yourself, she recommends.
“If you don’t feel better, then maybe you need a personalised plan.”
Find your meaning
One of the turning points in her battle with multiple sclerosis, Wahls said, was a lecture about her experience with MS she was invited to give to medical students at the University of Iowa. The idea was originally dismissed by the university officials but eventually, the lecture turned out to be a massive success.
“I found a meaning in my illness and saw how I can use this experience to help medical students to become better health professionals,” Wahls recollects.
“Everyone can find a meaning. Be a hero, choose how you face your challenges,” she says, demonstrating the breadth of her holistic approach by referring to a concept of mythologist Joseph Campbell.
The truth about the genes
In the past, the medical profession believed that once the human genome would be decoded, everything would fall into place and correcting disease would be just a matter of a little bit of engineering. However, the reality proved to be much more complex.
“People place a lot of hope into stem cells, for example,” says Wahls. “But the truth is that naturally, even as adults, we do have enough stem cells. The problem is that our lifestyle essentially silences those stem cells.”
In experiments with laboratory mice, researchers found that animals with identical genome could actually develop in completely different ways based on the environment they have been exposed to. Out of two mice with a gene for obesity and heart disease, only the chronically stressed one developed the symptoms. The one living in a harmonic environment stayed perfectly healthy and slim.
“The environment speaks to our genes,” says Wahls. “Gene expression changes based on what you are telling yourself, what your family is telling you, what you are doing, what you are eating, all that is speaking to your genes and can turn your genes off and on – our choices decide which genes will be expressed, whether it will be the good genes or the bad genes.”
The science behind gene expression and how the environment is affecting it is called epigenetics.
There are many steps everyone can take to fine-tune their epigenetics to express the good genes: Having a regular daily stress management routine such as meditation, sleeping seven to nine hours a day, eating dark leafy greens which contribute to a process of DNA repair known as methylation.
It may take years to correct the damage that may have been in the making since your earliest childhood. There are countless factors that can tip the epigenetic balance towards the self-destructive side – taking antibiotics, undergoing IVF, living in a stressful environment in childhood, poor diet, food sensitivities, exposure to toxins and pollution. Even stressful events a mother experienced while pregnant could contribute to a weakened stress resilience of her child.
“Stress as such is not a problem. If everything is perfect, if you have no challenges, no stress to deal with, your brain shrinks,” says Wahls.
“The problem is that you need to have periods of rest between the stress periods when you give your body time to repair. When I am stressed, my adrenals are preparing me for a flight or fight and my cells are not doing any maintenance. Imagine you quit doing maintenance work in your house – what would happen?”
Tend your gut garden
One of the most important factors influencing our genes is our gut microbiome – that is the collection of millions of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that live in our intestines and help us digest food. We have evolved in close symbiosis with them and need them to be healthy. In fact there are many more bacterial cells and viruses living peacefully in our body than there are human cells.
An out of whack gut microbiome has been linked to higher incidence of schizophrenia, depression but also Wahls’s multiple sclerosis. Interestingly enough, regions with higher consumption of gluten and dairy have higher incidence of all of these diseases.
“The human genome has about 20 thousand genes,” explains Wahls. “And there are 9 million genes of bacteria and viruses living in our gut. These bacteria and viruses can make your life chemistry work better or worse. Better means health, worse means disease.”
Propping the gut microbiome towards better health is no rocket science.
“If you want to fertilise your gut garden, you have to eat more vegetables and you have to avoid things like sugar and white flour,” says Wahls. “If you want your children to have an unhealthy gut microbiome then feed them ice cream, cakes and fruit juices. But mind that if their gut microbiome is unhealthy, their brains will likely suffer.”
Wahls doesn’t even recommend juicing vegetables. “You’d better eat that fibre and throw away that juice,” she says.
Claim that power
Scientists are making massive strides to better understand the workings of epigenetics. And the message seems to be clear. You do have more power than you think (or than you are willing to accept).
Where conventional medicine offers only slowing down of the deterioration, holistic epigenetics inspired approaches offer not only to stop the deterioration but also to slowly reverse the damage.
“If you don’t claim your power over your diet and lifestyle, your disease will progress, if you claim power, you can stop it and reverse it to a certain extent,” says Wahls.
“I see dementia reversed, it shouldn’t be reversed. We have many folks with Parkinson’s that are reversed, we even have some folks with ALS that see a reversal of their symptoms.”
Terry Wahls herself is the best example that feeding your body the right stuff works. Although delivering the lecture sitting in a chair, she happily participated in exercise activities during breaks and made her way around without any supportive gear. Yes, we are talking about a woman that was in a wheel chair ten years ago.
Wahls admits that being ahead of time is tough. Today, she frequently faces her peers frowning upon her research with the same distrust she once used to feel about all those quack naturopaths. But she has a mission and a passion for educating the world. Her disease has clearly been a blessing – for all those people around the world who can now reap the benefits of her rigorous research and self-experimenting.
And here is also a bit more about what exactly I eat.