Diagnosed with a seemingly unconquerable disease — multiple sclerosis — Terry Wahls, a University of Iowa clinical professor, developed a nutrient-based diet to overcome her nearly bedridden state. After progressing from immobility in a wheelchair to having the ability to bike again, Wahls has now been streamlining research on MS in hopes of assisting others with the disease.
“This experience has totally changed how I view disease and health. I understand that health begins with healthy cells and mitochondria,” she said. “I [now] do education and get my patients on board with understanding that if they want to become well, you have to make your cells well, which means beginning the journey on lifestyle medicine.”
Wahls was diagnosed in 2000; three years following the diagnosis, her disease transitioned into secondary progressive MS. She was restricted to a wheelchair, experienced excruciating pain, episodes of facial pain that were electrical, and impairing weakness in her left leg.
“I finally realized that my reality is, I am going to get progressively more disabled [and] there is no return of functions once lost,” Wahls said. “I had to continually reinvent who I was, how I was contributing to my family life, and how I was contributing to my professional life in a way that would be meaningful.”
Wahls said she was on the verge of being bedridden, with no hope of recovery, when she decided to research a way to slow her decline. In 2007 she synthesized what she learned and created a protocol based on Paleo principles — a hunter-gatherer diet, vitamins and supplements, electro-stimulation of her muscles, and an exercise program. In a year’s time, Wahls transitioned from being wheelchair-bound to walking without a cane in the hospital to even eventually gaining the ability to bike again.
According to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, there is no known cause, and, as of yet, no cure for MS. Two hundred people are diagnosed with MS every week and more than 2.5 million people are living with the disease worldwide as of 2009.
“The most incredible aspect to me is that she came up with this program while she was the most sick … and even when she was in that terrible shape she was able to recover,” her son and UI graduate Zach Wahls (a DI contributor) said. “I watched it take my mom from a wheelchair to a bike, which is pretty cool. Determination is everything.”
After Terry Wahls hD success with her diet, she decided to test these interventions with other patients with progressive MS and proceeded to write a research protocol and get funding.
The study involves diet, physical therapy, and stress management. In the study, Wahls and her team research various MS cases and gave patients a combined treatment, including electrical stimulation of muscles, medication, self-massage, and diet.
Wahl’s doctor and research partner, UI Clinical Professor Ezzatollah Shivapour, said the study has been relatively successful so far.
“In our ongoing study I have seen only a few other patients who are dedicated to this approach show improvements, and no one has become worse,” Shivapour said in an email.
Health and Physiology PhD student Babita Bisht, who has been helping Wahls with her research, said Wahls not only inspires patients, she inspires the team.
“If you can balance a lot of things at once it speaks for your character that you are very driven,” Bisht said. “And I think being with her we all have modified our diet; it’s like a chain reaction she has started around her.”
Wahls said her best advice after overcoming her disease is for patients and others alike to seek motivation through what matters most in their lives.
“I think with every diagnosis, however terrible it is, there are gifts in your life. My advice to the medical students and to my patients is, you have to help people understand that we have to find meaning in our experiences, and [for me that was] I was still a role model … I realized I was being a role model by teaching resilience with this crippling disease, and that requires far more resolve and determination than the stuff I did [before].”