…Change the curriculum for all health professionals so that they are all required to take and demonstrate proficiency in each of the following categories: therapeutic diet, medical culinary, stress reduction, movement
Ihad the pleasure to interview Dr. Terry Wahls, M.D.. Dr. Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa where she conducts clinical trials. She is the creator of The Wahls Protocol, a diet and lifestyle program that over thousands have utilized to restore their autoimmune diseases. Her Ted Talk shares her personal remarkable recovery and has over 3 million views.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I am a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa. At first, I was very skeptical of complementary and alternative medicine, but God works in mysterious ways. In 2000, I developed problems frequently stumbling, and after a handful of tests, I eventually was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). The research told me that 50% of those with MS are unable to work due to severe fatigue and that a 1/3 develop gait disability needing a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair.
I decided to treat my disease with the latest drug therapy and sought out the best MS clinics in the Midwest (The Cleveland Clinic). Despite seeing their best people and taking the best drugs, my health continued to decline. My disease converted to secondary progressive multiple sclerosis — I took Mitoxantrone, and then Tysabri and my health continued to decline. It was clear that the best drugs from the best people at the best MS clinic were unlikely to stop my decline into a life where I was potentially bedridden, demented, and in uncontrolable pain.
I began reading the latest science about the animal models of multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons, and Alzheimers, and began experimenting with myself — eventually creating a therapeutic diet and lifestyle that stopped the trigeminal neuralgia pain (electrical zingers from face pain), fatigue, and brain fog, while restoring my physical functions (walking, hiking, and biking 20 miles within 1 year of this new therapeutic diet/ lifestyle).
This changed how I think about disease and health. It changed the focus of my research. First, I wrote up a case report and after that, I wrote up a case series using therapeutic diet/ lifestyle to treat MS. Then I conducted a pilot feasibility study — testing whether patients could implement the therapeutic diet and lifestyle, whether it was safe, and what the impact of mt therapeutic diet and lifestyle was on others.
We demonstrated that people with progressive MS decreased their severity of fatigue, anxiety, and depression while improving their thinking and overall quality of life. Plus, those that were overweight or obese ended up losing weight without being hungry. Now I am conducting a larger study that looks at the impact diet has on MS-related fatigue, funded by the National MS Society.
I created a company to educate the public and health professionals on these concepts and have conducted in person seminars (launched in 2014) to teach the public and health clinicians. We have been growing year after year and anticipate 300+ attendees at The Wahls Protocol Seminar & Retreat this summer this year.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It is so humbling to witness the ripple-effect The Wahls Protocol® has had on people all over the world. When I travel, I get the opportunity to hear from the audience how their lives have been transformed from following The Wahls Protocol®. It is so amazing to hear how countless individuals have been able to reverse their own health. Some have even been so inspired by their personal change that they themselves became health/nutrition professionals.
Can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the healthcare field?
I have a unique perspective because I have a personal transformational story of my own. I reversed 4 years of dependence on a tilt/recline wheelchair, severe fatigue, brain fog, and intense electrical zingers of face pain due to trigeminal neuralgia.
I was able to create a therapeutic diet and lifestyle program based on science that led to a dramatic recovery for me. Then, I tested my protocol in pilot clinical trials and now have the opportunity to conduct a much larger clinical trial. I teach about dietary and lifestyle approaches for neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration for the Institute for Functional Medicine and other integrative medicine organizations across the United States and the world. I have more invitations than I can accept.
What makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes my company stand out is the fact that it focuses on educating the public and health professionals using an in-person event, The Wahls Protocol® Seminar & Retreat.
At the event, myself alongside other health professionals teach attendees:
-How a lifetime of food and environmental exposures led to the poor health you have
-How the health of your cells determines the health of your body and that you cannot become well until your cells are well
-The root cause of why your cells started to malfunction
-What specific steps you can take to address the root causes of your poor health
-How to properly feed and nourish your cells so that they can repair and rebuild a healthier you
-How to grow your inner motivation so that you are willing to make the needed diet and lifestyle changes to get your cells healthy once again
Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to and/or see in the healthcare industry? How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo? Which “pain point” is this trying to address?
I am teaching patients and health professional how to attack the root causes of poor health. The reality of it is that we’re addicted to sugar and processed foods and that changing our diet and lifestyle improves our quality of life, overall health, and our cellular physiology.
The fact that I have had an amazing recovery and have conducted research (with amazing before and after photos of the gait changes) is empowering patients and their health professionals to pay more attention to diet/ lifestyle interventions.
We have steadily grown our tribe mainly through education via social media and live events.
My TEDx talk has over 3 million views — telling my story — and a basic recommendation for the next steps a person can take to improve their health.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
- We are growing the Wahls Protocol® Health Professional Certificationto include a virtual program
- We are expanding the Wahls Protocol® Seminar for the public and changing the format to increase the number of people who can attend
- I am working on a new research program comparing therapeutic diet and lifestyle to conventional drug treatment in newly diagnosed multiple sclerosis. This research program looks at the impact these treatments have on: quality of life, fatigue, motor function, visual function, and brain structure (using MRI). I am one of the few people who is teaching the public, health professionals, doing clinical research (large studies) and seeing patients.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Patients are willing to make major diet and lifestyle changes. When I become a physician at a university, teaching resident physicians and medical students, I thought it was best to diagnose patients quickly and get patients on the newest, best drugs.
- Motivational interviewing and self-determination are the keys to successful patient interaction. Help patients understand their ‘why.’ What is their personal mission? What do they want their health for? Once that’s figured out, the patients are much more willing to begin working on improving their health behaviors.
- Cooking classes and food demonstrations are vital for our patients. Many patients have either never learned or have forgotten how to cook. People are so busy that they are eating fast foods and packaged foods with lots of salt and trans fats. Teaching patients how to plan meals, make shopping lists, and prepare foods using ingredients that can be found in rural Iowa made a huge difference for our clinic population.
- When introducing a new clinical concept, take on the most challenging patients. I went to the pain clinic and primary care clinic and offered to take the patients who are struggling with pain and steadily declining despite current treatment (with the caveat telling the patient that we are only using diet and lifestyle.) The VA was reducing narcotic use — and so many patients had more and more pain but could no longer get their narcotics. We saw those patients — and taught them about diet and lifestyle and put them on the Wahls Diet.™ These patients experienced reduced pain, more energy, better blood pressure, and better blood sugar. The types of problems patients had included: rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, fibromyalgia, systemic lupus, neuropathy, obesity, diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury.
- The best treatment for chronic disease is to focus on creating health. The research shows we can create more health through health behaviors.
Let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this studycited by Newsweek, the US healthcare system is ranked as the worst among high income nations. This seems shocking. Can you share with us 3–5 reasons why you think the US is ranked so poorly?
This is in part due to the development of the drug industry — and the financial incentive to pay hospitals, physicians, drug companies to treat disease.
- If the model had to pay for the creation of health, we would have a different orientation.
- The food industry is rewarded for designing food products that are addictive and drive overconsumption.
- The beverage industry is rewarded for designing products that utilize sugars (liquid sugar calories increase the risk and severity of obesity).
- The political system in the US has evolved to encourage special interest groups within the health care sector to use donations to political action committees and candidates, which protects profits over health.
You are a “healthcare insider”. If you had the power to make a change, can you share 5 changes that need to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system? Please share a story or example for each.
In my opinion, 5 changes that need to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system include:
- Change the curriculum for all health professionals so that they are all required to take and demonstrate proficiency in each of the following categories: therapeutic diet, medical culinary, stress reduction, movement
- Plant more trees at schools. Each school could have a garden, which would serve as a space for the children to learn how to cook using ingredients (not packaged foods) beginning in elementary school and continuing through high school.
- Teach students meditation/ mindfulness and practice this skill in every class every day from kindergarten through high school.
- Rehabilitate blighted, impoverished communities with community gardening, agriculture, and cooking classes to get more vegetables into their diet.
- Increase the utilization of health coaches to help patients more successfully adopt health behaviours, like eating more vegetables.
Thank you! It’s great to suggest changes, but what specific steps would need to be taken to implement your ideas? What can individuals, corporations, communities and leaders do to help?
- Join the local food policy councils for your county to make locally grown foods more accessible
- Support adding school gardens and cooking classes to youth groups
- Create your own community lecture series to support education about therapeutic diet and lifestyle and culinary medicine programs
- Become part of a Blue Zone community
- Support the Wahls Therapeutic Lifestyle fund at the University of Iowa
- Help the homeless — give the homeless jobs to pick up trash, clean up the community, and tend the community gardens
What are your favourite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better healthcare leader? Can you explain why you like them?
I love these two organizations:
Both of these organizations are teaching clinicians how the environment interacts with our genetics to create the health we have (or diseases we have) and how to optimize the environment to improve health outcomes. These organizations educate the public about issues related to the microbiome, unrecognized food sensitivities, mitochondria dysfunction, toxin exposure, hormone imbalances, issues with digestion and gut health — and how to help patients optimize their health behaviors and optimize the cellular environment. I teach for both of these organizations.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
One page handout that outlines the diet I have used in my recovery and study
Our multiple sclerosis related research papers