As a former Tae Kwan Doe national champion, Dr. Terry Wahls knew what it was like to be supremely fit. In 2000, though, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease without a cure, and her future looked bleak. Going to the best MS center in the country and taking the latest drugs provided no help. By 2003 she was in wheelchair and on chemotherapy and it looked she would, in not very distant future, be bedridden.
Facing a bleak future, she did what many people with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome do: she stopped relying solely on doctors and began researching the latest findings on PubMed, the big medical literature database. She didn’t just look at MS, though; she looked at diseases that feature neurodegeneration such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in which, like MS, the brain actually shrinks.
Time and time again the word ”mitochondria” popped up in her research. After finding that fish oil, CoQ10, and creatine protected mouse brains she started taking those supplements. Her rate of decline actually decreased, but she was still declining.
Neuroprotection for the Brain
Encouraged, she looked further and came upon protocols developed by the Institute for Functional Medicine to provide neuroprotection for the brain.
- Protect Myelin (the covering of the nerves) — Vitamins B1 (thiamine), B9 (folate), B12 (cobalamin), Iodine, Omega-3 fatty acids). (It’s not clear that myelin problems occur in ME/CFS. Baraniuk’s GWS findings suggested that they might, but his central finding did not include myelin disruption.)
- Help Out Neurotransmitters – sulfur, Vitamin B6
- Mitochondria – provide the energy for the brain with B vitamins, sulfur, antioxidants. (Several studies do suggest the mitochondria in the brain may be affected in chronic fatigue syndrome.)
Recognizing that science was probably missing many vital nutrients, Dr. Wahls focused next on foods to feed her brain. Using a pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer diet as a model she created a simple diet plan: three cups (a plateful) of green leaves, three cups of sulfur-rich vegetables, three cups of other colored vegetables, and three cups of grass feed beef, organ meat, and seaweed.
- Greens are rich in B-vitamins, and she noted that lowly kale has the most nutrition per calorie of any plant. Beside helping the brain, sulfur helps the liver and kidneys detoxify the body. Sulfur-rich vegetables include cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, turnips, rutabagas, onions, leeks, garlic, mushrooms, and chives.
- Colored Vegetables – Add three cups of other colored vegetables and fruits (beets, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, parsnips, berries, peaches, etc.) to increase antioxidants.
- High Quality Protein – Eat high quality protein to get omega-3 fatty acids (wild fish such as salmon), grass fed beef, and organ meats (liver, tongue, etc.)
- Seaweed – Eat seaweed at least once a week to provide iodine and selenium to help the myelin and remove toxins.
Dr. Wahls recognized that most Americans can’t imagine eating three plates of green vegetables and fruits every day given the grain-heavy diet they currently consume. But she noted that food allergies and sensitivities, which she believes run rampant in our population, often disappear on this diet. She made special notice of the problems that gluten can cause.
Minding Your Mitochondria by Terry Wahls
She believes a wide variety of disorders and problems can be reduced or eliminated by being on a hunter-gatherer type diet.
The Fight Against MS Continues
Despite the attempts of doctors at the best MS centers in the U.S., by 2007, Dr. Wahls, by that time too weak to sit up, was spending most of her time in a zero-gravity reclining chair. She was able to walk only short distances.
She began her hunter-gatherer diet. Four months later she could walk throughout the hospital without a cane. After five months, to her own and others’ amazement, she was back on her bike. At 12 months she pedaled 18 miles. The next year, hale and hearty, she did a trail ride in the Canadian Rockies.
It’s an amazing story of the dramatic effects that food can have on some people. We’ve seen some of these stories before. There was the young woman with several autoimmune disorders who’s health improved dramatically on a restrictive diet (but who’s not well.) We saw a young boy overcome crippling rheumatoid arthritis through a diet change. We know that everyone doesn’t respond so well to diet changes, but when diet changes work the results can be very dramatic.
In 2011, Dr. Wahls reported that a small three-month trial incorporating her diet, muscle stimulation, and supplements resulted in improvement in five MS patients, although two declined. Neither the Multiple Sclerosis Society or the NIH have approved grants to fund clinical trials, partially because they prefer to fund trials focusing on one medication or therapy (instead of a complex diet/supplement and muscle therapy trial). She has a book coming out next year with all proceeds go to research in this area, and she’s attempting to produce a bigger trial.
Could this very simple but different diet work or help in ME/CFS? It’s a question to grapple with. If anyone has tried it or something similar let us know.