The following is an interview with Dr. Terry Wahls, author of “The Wahls Protocol” and “The Wahls Protocol Cooking for Life”. Her TEDx talk, “Minding Your Mitochondria” has received over 2 million views on YouTube and she has been featured on national TV as well as websites like huffingtonpost.com. You can find out more about her books and work by visiting her website terrywahls.com
Team Natural Force: We’re excited to hear your Go Beyond story. To start, tell us a little bit about your early life and educational background, and the path that’s brought you to where you are today.
Dr. Terry Wahls: I grew up on a farm in northeast Iowa, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to milk cows before school, which I did again at 4 p.m. when school was over. In the summer there was even more farm work, including hay baling, and until I left for college, I resented all the labor. But after I left, I missed the physical work on the farm and the time spent outside.
I have a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting, but I also studied science and decided to go to medical school. At first I thought I was going to do medical illustration, but I ended up enjoying the clinical world immensely. I completed an internal medicine residency and became an academic internal medicine physician. I saw the need for more physician leaders in the medical world and so obtained a master’s in business administration.
Then I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As an academic physician, I decided to treat my disease aggressively. At first I was very skeptical of complementary and alternative medicine. I thought that those interventions were a waste of money and not scientifically sound. I believed that taking the newest drugs and using the latest technology would be the best way to beat the disease.
I sought out the best MS center in the Midwest that stayed current with ever-evolving clinical research. I saw their best doctors, took the newest drugs—and declined anyway. Within three years of diagnosis, I was dependent upon a tilt-recline wheelchair.
The new biologic drug Tysabri was released, and I began taking that, thinking it would stop my decline. It did not. That was when I knew the best conventional medicine was unlikely to stop my decline into a bedridden, possibly demented state with uncontrollable MS-related pain. It was a grim future.
I went back to reading the science, trying to do everything that I could to slow my decline. I understood and had accepted that functions once lost would never return. But I also knew that hanging on to the functions I still had for as long as possible would help maintain some quality of my life and my family’s life.
I studied the basic science and experimented upon myself, first with diet, then with supplements, then combining ancestral health and functional medicine. Eventually I created a program that reversed my decline and restored my health and vigor. I can now bike 20 miles and walk easily through the hospital. My pain is gone. My brain fog is gone. I write scientific papers and books for the public. I travel the world, teaching others that it is possible to restore health and vitality, even in the setting of significant disability due to chronic disease.
Now that I have recovered in ways that were unimaginable at the time, my understanding of disease and health has been transformed. The way I treat patients in my clinical practice has been transformed. The research I do has been transformed. My goal now is to create an epidemic of health. If I can come back from my profound level of disability, I can give hope to others that they too have a possibility of recovery.
Nutrition has obviously been a key part of your continued recovery. Tell us about your approach to diet.
I have created a nutritional program that transforms health through the right food choices. The program includes four levels with slightly different interventions, allowing people to choose a plan that suits their personal situation.
At the first level, the Wahls™ diet, people eliminate sugar, gluten-containing grains, dairy (except for clarified butter), and eggs from their diet. They eat 6 to 9 cups of vegetables and berries each day, stressing dark green leafy vegetables, sulfur-rich vegetables in the cabbage, onion, and mushroom families, and deeply pigmented vegetables and berries, such as beets, carrots, and berries. For those who eat meat, the recommendation is 6 to 12 ounces of meat per day. There are also options for vegetarians and vegans.
In the second level, the Wahls Paleo™ diet, organ meats like liver and heart are introduced, along with fermented foods, seaweed, and the soaking and sprouting of nuts and seeds. The third level, Wahls Paleo Plus™, is a ketogenic diet based on medium-chain triglycerides found in coconut oil and coconut milk. The fourth level is the Wahls Elimination™ diet, which removes nightshades.
How do you eat each day? Do you have any favorite foods?
Currently, I eat once every 24 hours. Going longer between meals is a potent anti-aging strategy—it improves the efficiency and the number of mitochondria in each cell. Having more robust mitochondria is one of the most effective strategies to improve brain repair, organ repair, and “youthening” of the cells.
My family’s favorite dish is bacon and greens, ideally picked fresh from the garden. We have dandelion greens, mustard greens, several varieties of kale, spinach, and oriental greens, plus the tops of radishes, turnips, and beets, so there are always fresh greens to enjoy. My daughter notes that food fresh from the garden has much more flavor than the food even from the best local restaurants. The fresher the food, the more nutrient dense it is.
What’s your favorite piece of advice for others looking to eat better?
My best advice to improve your health and vitality is to replace flour-based products with vegetables. If you can, grow your own, or buy directly from a farmer you know.
Let’s talk about movement. What’s your approach and daily routine?
Our bodies are meant to move. Inactivity increases inflammation. Begin to move more, in whatever way you can. Include stretching, balance, and strength training in a way that you enjoy. Challenge yourself to move every day, but do not overtrain, which depletes mitochondria and disrupts hormonal balance.
I enjoy doing strength training on my vibrating platform so I have more gravitational forces acting on my skeleton, which increases the effectiveness of the strength training on my bones, muscles, and ligaments. This activity gradually increases my bone density, which is important as I am 61 years old and have taken steroids often because of the multiple sclerosis. I also enjoy yoga, biking, tae kwon do, hiking with my dog, and kayaking.
What’s your single best piece of advice when it comes to moving better?
The key is to move in many different ways. Diversity of movement is better for our bodies and brains than doing single-focused exercise programs that may be more effective for winning a gold medal. I am no longer seeking gold medals (which I did seek when I competed nationally in tae kwon do free fighting in the 1970s). Now I am seeking a body and brain that works well to the age of 100, when I want to be playing with my great grandchildren and continuing to spread the epidemic of health to the public and medical establishment.
Do you have a particular philosophy when it comes to mindset or spirituality?
I control my destiny. No matter what happens to me, I get to choose how I respond. My children watch how I live my life. I want the choices I make to be ones that I would want them to emulate. I had expected that I would teach my children resilience through being an athlete or wilderness travel, but life had other plans. As I became progressively more disabled, I had to rapidly reimagine my life.
As I declined, I chose to be resilient. I taught my children that it’s true: life is not fair. We face uneven circumstances, sometimes huge difficulties, but there are always options. When I experience an unexpected challenge, I stop to remind myself that there are always other opportunities. It may take work to find them, but they will always be there. My task is to uncover possibilities and create my next opportunity.
If you were to recommend one thing to others who are trying to establish the right mindset, what would that be?
I recommend that people write out their personal mission statement to identify their guiding principle(s) in life. Then I ask them to understand what they want their health for. Is it to see their daughter or son graduate from college or get married, volunteer at the children’s theater program, or have a spectacular garden? We talk about how they could give back to the greater community. This is one of the favorite exercises we take our patients through in the therapeutic lifestyle classes. This exercise in reflection allows people to create a more meaningful life and gives them more resilience to endure challenges and pursue their goals.
Currently, my favorite stress-reducing practice is enhancing my gratitude. Every day I write what and whom I am grateful for in my gratitude journal. I like to visualize my gratitude for my family, starting with my parents. I see my mom cuddling me as a baby, my dad reading to my brothers and me as we snuggled with him and my mom. I go through the many things my parents did to support me growing up and as a young adult, and I thank them again and again for their hard work. As we visualize our gratitude to others, our cortisol and stress hormones decline. Our inflammation molecules decline and our health outcomes improve. And our joy increases.
What else would you like to share about establishing a great mindset that helps you Go Beyond?
There are many ways to create more resilience in our lives. We have control over what we eat, what we do, and what we tell ourselves each day. We create the context for our experiences. We create our sorrow and our joy. I choose to work on creating more joy in my life and in the world.
I am blessed. It all had to happen as it did. I needed those years of decline, those years of relentless, poorly controlled pain. I needed to fear becoming bedridden and demented. I needed it all to become the person I am today.
We all have a Hero’s journey to claim. We all face setbacks and struggles, but we can triumph. My advice is to claim your Hero’s journey, learn from your struggles, and keep going forward in your life.
Also published on Medium.