The Wahls Protocol: An Interview with Dr. Terry Wahls

We recently sat down with Dr. Terry Wahls to discuss diet and MS. Dr. Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa and a staff physician at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Hospital, where she teaches medical students and resident physicians, sees patients in traumatic brain injury and therapeutic lifestyle clinics with complex chronic health problems that often include multiple autoimmune disorders, and conducts clinical trials. She also lives with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, and has personally found great benefit in treating her MS through a specific program she calls the Wahls Protocol™

What is the Wahls Protocol? How did it come about?

The protocol is a diet and lifestyle program that was designed specifically to help support mitochondria in brain cells function more optimally. Mitochondria are ancient bacteria that got absorbed by larger cells a billion and a half years ago because they could utilize oxygen more effectively to generate energy for the cell. They’re like bean shaped power plants that generate the energy that every cell needs function. Our cells that need the most energy have the most mitochondria per cell – brain cells, retina (eye) cells, heart cells have tens of thousands of mitochondria per cell. And many scientists now believe that in many neurodegenerative diseases including MS, malfunctioning mitochondria are at the core of why damage to the brain becomes progressive.

The Wahls Protocol came about over the course of several years, because of my own personal journey with progressive MS. As my health continued to decline, I started reading basic science studies involving MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Huntington’s disease. I started taking vitamins and supplements that appeared to slow the speed of my decline. And eventually, I transformed my diet from a vegetarian diet to a Paleo diet.

I discovered the Institute for Functional Medicine, took their course on neuroprotection, and gained a deeper understanding of brain cell biology, of the impact of the microbiome, and of food sensitivities. They had a longer list of vitamins and supplements that I added. My decline slowed, and then I had the insight that I should reorganize my diet to get the same nutrients I had been taking in pill and supplement form from food. That diet is basically now what I call the Wahls diet.

I also resumed a daily meditative practice, and I worked with my physical therapist to add electrical stimulation of muscles to my physical therapy routine. Cumulatively, that really transformed my life from being in a tilt recline wheelchair – so weak that I could not sit up in a regular chair anymore – to no longer experiencing fatigue within three months. In a year I was walking without a cane and biking so much I could do an 18 mile bike ride with my family.

Do you have any tips for people who have trouble consistently following a strict diet?

We treat everyone in our clinic and in our clinical trials as if they have a food addiction. We ask people to get all of the foods excluded in the diet out of the house. We also ask families to make a commitment to follow the diet when they are in the presence of the patient or clinical trial participant, and to be respectful of the challenges of following the diet. For example, you don’t come home and say, “Wow, that pizza and beer was just so fabulous!”

What do you think is the role of this diet in relation to more traditional treatments like disease modifying therapies?

In our clinic and in my clinical trials, whenever I start people on diet and lifestyle regimens, I tell them to stay on their current treatment plans, whatever they may be. People sometimes arrive very excited that they’ve discovered my work, and they often say they want to drop their immune modulating medication and start my dietary protocol. My immediate response is “NO.” You do not stop your current treatment. You add in the diet and lifestyle changes. Down the road, if you experience remarkable reduction in fatigue and improvement in function, then in my opinion, it may be appropriate to have a conversation with the healthcare provider who is prescribing your immune modulating medication about whether or not you want to attempt a trial of tapering that treatment. I always want people to continue to work with their other healthcare providers and keep them informed about their work with me.

Can you explain what research you have done or are doing around diet and MS?

I have a therapeutic lifestyle clinic at the Veterans Administration hospital where I work. In our clinic we use diet and lifestyle approaches to treatment. It’s been running for 18 months, and we are just now getting ready to look at what we’ve learned so we can write the case studies from that experience. We treat a wide variety of autoimmune problems. In addition to MS, we treat lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, severe diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues. I have a new study comparing care in the therapeutic lifestyle clinic with more traditional care in the rheumatology clinic for people who have rheumatoid arthritis. We will be monitoring fatigue, quality of life and disease activity.  

We’re in the middle of the first study in which we follow people for three years – we have another year and a half until it will be complete. We’ve published one paper, reporting preliminary data on 12 months. A second paper was just accepted that reports on the whole cohort with 12 months of data. We also have plans for additional papers describing the gait changes and MRI changes.

We’re also finishing up a very small pilot study that compares my original Wahls diet with the ketogenic (high fat, adequate protein, low carbohydrate) version of my diet and includes a control group. There again, we are primarily looking at improvements in fatigue.

How can people learn more about the Wahls Protocol and find these papers as they come out?

I have a website, terrywahls.com, which has links to papers and abstracts. As additional research results are released, they’ll be added to the site. My book also outlines the protocols that I used for my own healing and that I use in my clinical practice as well as generalities about the protocols that we’re studying in our clinical trials.

Because so many people have asked for more support, we’ve created programs on the website using online content to provide more intensive support. You can also find information on the site about in-person seminars and video courses.

What makes you most excited about this area of research?

I see this protocol working across so many autoimmune and degenerative states. So, that is clinically extremely gratifying to see. Now as a researcher at the University of Iowa, I’ve given various research seminars presenting our data, showing the videos of before and after gait changes. I’ve saved frozen blood from my research, and I am inviting the basic science community here at Iowa to approach me with ideas about how we should analyze the blood to look for what has changed, pre- and during the course of the 12 months. We are just sitting down now to map out what kind of analyses we’re going to do, and I am excited to see the level of enthusiasm the University of Iowa – as well as the interest that the MS Society, and other universities and organizations – have in this work.

Understandably, when I first started doing this, many people questioned why I was talking to the public before I had randomized control trials supporting that this approach works. I feel morally compelled to do this. In 2007, after seven years of decline, it was apparent that I was headed toward becoming bedridden with significant cognitive issues.

I feel that this protocol dramatically improved my function. But I know it could have gone the other way. I hear stories of people with advanced MS and that easily could have been me. So I feel morally obligated to let the world know about this approach. If people want to wait for the randomized control trials, that is completely understandable. But if they want to begin eating a more nutrient dense diet, begin a meditative practice, and work with a physical therapist for an exercise program, I want as many people as possible to have that possibility. I am just so grateful. I’ve been blessed to find something that I feel stopped my disease.


Find information about Dr. Wahls' upcoming workshops, speaking engagements, lectures, webinars, and more here.


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    27 Comments

  • Lauralynn   Jan 7, 2015 10:30 AM
    Link for terrywahls.com came up - http://www.msconnection.org/Blog/January-2015/www.terrywahls.com
    "Page not found"
  • Avatar
    Maura  Jan 7, 2015 10:43 AM
    Thanks for letting us know, Lauralynn. The link should be fixed now.
  • Beth Schultz   Jan 7, 2015 10:57 AM
    I love seeing this on your page. I have followed the Dr. Wahls Paleo Diet since August 2013. I had my last flare of Optic Neuritis in November 2013. Before that I had constant symptoms for 8 years. None of the MS drugs touched my disease. I had no symptoms in 2014 that is amazing!!!!! Here is an update I typed yesterday from my appointment with my MS Specialist~ I saw my neurologist for my yearly checkup. She said I was stable from last year. I did have slight improvement in eyesight, walking speed and strength. Not enough for her to put improved. I am happy with stable but I can do better I said in my last post that I do not exercise enough. I had promised Dr. Wahls last year I would do more and I did not. My Neurologist could tell. Goal for this year is to get strong and correct my walking. The couple years I had no feeling in my legs and walking with a cane changed my walk. I want my old strut back.~

    I am a brand new person. i hike up mountains again and at age 38 I just walked away from a company I owned to go back to school to be a Nutrition Therapy Practitioner. I am going to help others get to where I am. I am truly inspired to let everyone know that~ You are what you eat, think, and feel. Be Kind and real!
    I have a Facebook page Real Food Inspired Me and a blog on word press. I will answer and help anyone who has questions about this lifestyle, just ask! This diet really works if you do it wholeheartedly!
  • franco v cinelli   Jan 7, 2015 12:04 PM
    hi, iv had MS 'official;ly' 4 about 3.5yers...think it ws comin 4 abot yrt prior,,,gtn btr!,, wht dom u think of---HYPERBARIC O2...ZMBAONI.....MEDSONIX.... QI GONG.....STEM CELLS.....ETC?
  • Linda   Jan 7, 2015 12:15 PM
    I have the book Practical Paleo . I notice that there are no grains listed. Are wild rice and Forbidden Rice acceptable? Not many fruits were listed on this diet. Why are they off the diet? Pineapple is listed but I have a reaction to this.
    Is your diet the Paleo or a modification to it?
  • Na Kolohe   Jan 7, 2015 12:17 PM
    I have had RR MS for over 30 years and have researched a lot of trendy therapies: Filling replacement, Bee stings, Hyperbaric oxygen, CCSVI, Plasmapheresis and they all make money for somebody else with no benefit for the MS patient, just like Wahl's diet. Dr Roy Swank tried the same thing 50 years ago with his MS diet. If any of these was really a break through don't you think you would see it in the nightly news? As for my personal diet, strictly healthy non GMO foods. And if trendy Snake Oil works for you, keep on pissing your money down the toilet, it's your money. I ask just do not deliberately perpetuate a known falisey, giving false hope to other patients, their families and friends. That is morally reprehensible.
  • Na Kolohe   Jan 7, 2015 12:26 PM
    Addendum:
    Both the Society of Neurology, last year in Boston, and the MS Society have issued statements to the effect that this diet has No impact on the course of MS.

    So who are you going to believe a lone Snake oil selling doctor or 2 different groups of medical professionals subject to peer review?
  • Nahla   Jan 7, 2015 12:36 PM
    I'm glad to go through this! I do believe of diets as MS treatment.
    I'm proud to say it frankly and loud, I'm MS fighter.. With diets, I already following a uniqu dyet since ages! But recently I check Swank diet which is simpler to mine. .. And today I discover yours! So we can control MS with food... With zero drugs.
  • Laura   Jan 7, 2015 4:28 PM
    Thank you for this article, I love Dr Wahl's and I know many who have improved from following her diet. What we eat is so important to our health.
  • Sharon Baldwin RN   Jan 7, 2015 4:43 PM
    I was diagnosed 16 years ago, with MS. It was a tough few years following neurologist and their plans...when I decided to try my own plan. Avoid bad food. No margarine, no soda, no HFCS, no hydrogenated oil, and lastly... NO STRESS. I was unable to walk, talk or feed myself. I Had PT, OT.. And managed to get back on track. Today, I am doing well. I take turmeric and B vitamins every day. Try to get enough sleep. And pray I stay well!
  • Shannon Pulliam   Jan 7, 2015 5:26 PM
    I have known of Dr. Wahls work since 2/2014 and have changed my diet with great results! I am so glad to see the MS Society getting involved.
  • vincit  Jan 7, 2015 6:37 PM
    One month ago, I had a flare which left me fatigued and in pain when I walked. I have followed the Whals Paleo Plus for a month and now I have the energy to do cardio exercises for 40 minutes straight without any pain and Zumba for an hour without any pain. Energy begets success as movement becomes the medicine that expands your brain and helps your nerve connections. Nay sayers can hate. But what do I know. I'm out there enjoying life. Thank you Dr. Terry Wahl.
  • Toni   Jan 7, 2015 7:02 PM
    This is a wonderful article....as a person with MS, I have been following Dr. Wahls protocol, and feel I have benefited considerably. My MS is stable, and I have found more energy. I find it very empowering to eat a very nutritious diet,and attend to both exercise and meditative practices. I have learned so much, my life is changed for the better. and have even traveled to attend a Dr. Wahls medical seminar. Glad the MS Society is giving just attention to her and her important work.
  • Lyn Trindall   Jan 7, 2015 10:12 PM
    I have been eating a Paleo diet for just over 10 weeks.
    I have Type 1 diabetes & MS.
    My sugar levels have been between 3.6 and 8.4 ever since and the amount of insulin used has been aproximately 30% less.
    I fully intend to remain Paleo & will buy the Wahls Protocol book because I believe the M.S. will improve as well.
  • Najibey Ansari   Jan 8, 2015 3:15 AM
    I was diagnosed with MS since 1998 .
    At this point , the MS consultants in UK and Canada , told me It was too early in my MS , to take on any sort of Aggressive Medication , especially NOT Interferon....( widely believed at the time )
    This Theory had turned on it's head , later .
    My MS took it's COURCE... Besides the usual dis functions , that evolved , I am using A Walker .
    Few years back...When my MS specialist advised me to Take on Interferon Med...as my last window of opportunity ( as My MS was at 6/10 level. )
    After 1 yr of Betaferon , I stopped the med , as it was making my condition worse...
    Five yrs ago I was given TRILEPTAL and AMITRIPTYLINE , For my Severe Nerve Pain .
    This is the only med I take , connected with my MS.
    I also have Diabetes , so am taking GLUCOPHAGE & JANUMET daily. (Total 2000 mg )
    Of late I have started taking EXFORGE. ( 325 mg daily )

    Today I am in Hospital...with dangerously low levels of Sodium .
    Obviously to do with some kind of Med . That I am taking...
    ( I have been taking Omega Fish Oil , Evening Primrose , Vit D , Vit B and Calcium .)
    My 24 hrs Urine , has been sent for results ...

    I write in frustration...
    Have been so consciously taken care of my Diet etc...YET ???
  • Avatar
    maria1  Jan 8, 2015 3:49 AM
    " I feel morally obligated to let the world know..." Yet there is nothing in this communication that lets us know what has worked.
  • Marti Ethridge   Jan 9, 2015 10:18 AM
    When you began your trial I was contacted by one of your staff! They asked me several questions but unfortunately, because of my weight at that time, I did not qualify because I was underweight. I'm currently at a healthy weight and I'm still interested in trying to get onto your trial if it's possible! Please advise thank you!!
  • Rania Tarazi   Jan 10, 2015 9:52 AM
    Dear Dr Wallis,
    Greetings, I am an Architect who has MS since 2002. I developed progressive multiple seclerosis and kept declining. I own Design Ideas Studio, a design firm and I work daily. I read your book and I love it. I am a fighter, I started your protocol, I am on the diet since 3 month, my fatigue fainted, I have more energy,looking forward to improve and walk again. I will keep you posted. I live in Amman Jordan, I am 45 years old. I believe in your protocol.
    Architećt Rania Tarazi
  • Debbie   Mar 12, 2015 2:06 PM
    I've beeb experiencing nervousness shakes in morning after 10good years with ms I have the ms hug annoying I am taking an anti anxiety pill to help going off antidepressesnt lee april taking coax one daily any ideas what's csusing this new feeling ?
  • Debbie   Mar 12, 2015 2:06 PM
    I've beeb experiencing nervousness shakes in morning after 10good years with ms I have the ms hug annoying I am taking an anti anxiety pill to help going off antidepressesnt lee april taking coax one daily any ideas what's csusing this new feeling ?
  • Tracy DeJoie   Jun 13, 2015 2:14 PM
    I have MS and have followed Dr Wahls protocol for six months, I have had great success so far and will continue this for life!!
  • matt   Jul 19, 2015 7:43 AM
    Really good stuff!, love it...

    http://www.arc4life.com
  • Melita C. Evans   Sep 23, 2015 7:53 PM
    Thank you so much for all the information's and comments I gathers from this blog. The Wahls protocol and diet is interesting. I have changed my diet and got away with meat, but more of vegetables and fruits. I was just recently diagnosed with MS ( 8 months now). I am trying to connect with people that I can relate with in order for me to manage and live well with this MS.
  • Helen   Sep 30, 2015 11:30 PM
    I have been an MS patient since 1989.with neurologist at three leading MS centers as my family moved through the years. I am still walking,at age 71, with a walker and active. Along with other medications as they became available, my neurologist's each emphatically emphasized the importance of diet and exercise. Most were somewhat close to this one. However, I feel sad for the newly diagnosed patient who follows this diet faithfully for a year or more only to have a serious exerbation and feel that if a doctor could be " cured"....what did I do wrong. I have no problem with this diet for anyone who checks it out with a neurologist. I just disagree that it is a cure for MS.
  • Dalia   May 20, 2016 5:58 PM
    Had the blessing of finding her book in 2011-or-2012.
    Was working Phys Labor & was forgetting job details, even came to such Brain Fog that pressumed the lable of "being a liability" & sent home (perhaps boss thought my movments resembled being DRUNK!
    Not a drinker! But thankful for her book because although did not have the $ to buy good/better food Never Went Into a state where feet & hands shrink or become terribly weak.
    Was wonderful to see her book get acknowlidged!
    Yet have to see if current Neurologist respects this!
    Was put on Tysabry infusions every 4-6 wks (? Behold the power of.. Brain Fog!)
  • Harvey Cohen   Oct 15, 2016 10:42 AM
    My 34 year old son has been diagnosed with a lesion on his brain. He is now on your diet. We are in Myrtle Beach SC . Is there a facility near us that teaches or adheres to the wall Protacol?
  • Christine lemons   Oct 28, 2016 1:02 AM
    I needed help ms hug ptoblems please if u have any advice or help with matter i would be interested, thanks