Dr. Terry Wahls: A Tale of Medicine, Motherhood, Multiple Sclerosis, and Mitochondria
As a young woman, Dr. Terry Wahls ran marathons and competed in martial arts competitions. Like many young professionals, she led a full and busy life, balancing her education, her career, her family. She had one degree in fine arts and another in medicine, and then she reached even farther, earning an MBA. She was a high achiever and there was no stopping her. Someday, she expected to climb mountains with her grandchildren. What she didn’t expect, even though there were early signs and troubling symptoms—and, once, even a cautious prediction from a well-meaning colleague—was to face a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and find herself confined to a wheelchair at the age of 52.
In her upcoming book, The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine (Avery, 2014), Dr. Wahls relates the compelling story of her illness from her unique perspective as both doctor and patient:
“Everyone with multiple sclerosis has a story—the years of clues and strange symptom that finally, in retrospect, make sense. It is in the nature of most neurological and autoimmune diseases that symptoms accumulate slowly, bit by bit, over the course of decades. This is what happened to me. As a doctor, I was compelled to find answers: a diagnosis and a cure. As a patient, I was compelled to save my own life.”
When I first had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Wahls at an educational event a number of years ago, she was in a wheelchair. But she was—at that time—also engaged in a battle to regain her mobility, her strength, her health, her active lifestyle. Flash forward to the present, and a recent conversation I had with Dr. Wahls that is featured in the December 2013 issue of Functional Medicine Update. I’m pleased to report that not only did Dr. Wahls win that battle, she is now also sharing her story with others and leading clinical trials that test the effectiveness of her approaches, thereby making it possible for other clinicians and patients to learn from her experiences and recognize improvements in their own treatment programs. Dr. Wahls has established a remarkable website, www.terrywahls.com, where free resources and research links are available, as well as information about the trials being organized through her foundation, and—perhaps most inspiring—you can read stories sent to Dr. Wahls by fellow MS patients who are successfully managing their symptoms and living their lives more optimally.
What is behind the successful results Dr. Wahls has recognized? Her book is the best resource for the comprehensive details. But the core of her approach—and what she and I discuss in great detail in our FMU interview—is mitochondrial health, and more specifically, the concept of mitochondrial resuscitation. I have been discussing the role of mitochondria in human health since the earliest days of Functional Medicine Update, and this concept is also discussed at length in my own forthcoming book, The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life. It’s in the mitochondria that food molecules—glucose, amino acids, fatty acids—combine with oxygen to be broken down into energy and the waste products carbon dioxide, water, and urea. The process of mitochondrial bioenergetics captures the energy liberated during metabolism and stores it in the form of three specific chemical compounds—adenosine triphosphate, or ATP; nicotinamide dinucleotide, NADH; and flavin adenine dinucleotide, or FADH. These storage chemicals then allow the energy to be transferred to other sites within the tissue where the energy powers up the cells to do the work that cells do—contracting muscles, transporting signals, keeping the brain moving, repairing tissue, and everything else that supports the body’s core physiological processes.
Contracting muscles, transporting signals, keeping the brain moving, repairing tissues. Can you see how mitochondrial health connects to a disease like multiple sclerosis? After studying the research, Dr. Wahls saw the connection, and she acted on it by changing her diet (following Paleo principles), making lifestyle changes (such as adding meditation to her routine), and using functional medicine approaches she learned from the Institute for Functional Medicine. Here is how she describes her metamorphosis in her book:
“The old me—the conventional internal medicine physician—had been struck down like Paul on the way to Damascus. The old me, who had relied on drugs and procedures to make my patients well, who had been made progressively more feeble by my illness, had been replaced with someone who understood intellectually and physically that disease begins at the cellular level, when cells are starved of the building blocks they need to conduct the chemistry of life properly, and that the root of optimal health begins with taking away the things that harm and confuse our cells while providing the body with the right environment in which to thrive. I finally understood what I had to do to provide my cells with all of the building blocks of life they needed to heal. I was doing it, and it was working. This completely altered how I practiced medicine.”
Whether you are a physician or a patient, whether MS is present in your life or not, this book by Dr. Wahls is recommended reading. It is truly the story of personalized lifestyle medicine—of taking control of your environment and changing how it is influencing the manifestation of disease or wellness in your everyday life. There are many miles yet to go, but this is a journey that demonstrates the extraordinary power of this model in providing solutions to complex chronic illness.
For background information and my thoughts about Paleo diet principles, view my video here.
My interview with Dr. Terry Wahls is available through an all-access Functional Medicine Update subscription. She is the latest in a long line of clinicians and researchers I have had the good fortune to talk with. Learn more about subscribing to FMU here. All revenue from Functional Medicine Update is donated to support the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute, a nonprofit organization.