Wahls Protocol for Multiple Sclerosis
Of the many natural treatment approaches to multiple sclerosis, the Wahls Protocol, which includes a diet and lifestyle program designed to support brain cell function, has attracted special attention in part because it was developed by a physician who has MS. Another reason is that many people who have tried it say it works, but not everyone agrees.
In this way, the Wahls diet and lifestyle plan is not unlike other treatment options for multiple sclerosis, or for other diseases. What works for one person does not always work at all or in different ways for someone else with the same condition.
Therefore, if you have heard about the Wahls Protocol and want to know more about it or if you’ve never heard of it and are curious, then read on for an overview of what the diet and lifestyle involve.
About Dr. Wahls
Dr. Terry L. Wahls is a staff physician at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Hospital and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000 and now lives with secondary progressive MS.
Dr. Wahls developed her protocol after years of research, trial and error, and determination. Some of her efforts were documented in a journal article published in 2009 in Cases Journal, entitled “Neuromuscular electrical stimulation and dietary interventions to reduce oxidative stress in a secondary progressive multiple sclerosis patient leads to marked gains in function: a case report.”
As noted in the report, Dr. Wahls went from being scooter- and cane-dependent to being able to discard both of these items and bike routinely up to 8 miles at a time. Her strategy at the time included the use of neuromuscular electrical stimulation along with dietary changes; basically eating 600 grams of cruciferous vegetables, 300 grams of brightly colored fruits or vegetables, and 60 to 100 grams of fish, meat, or poultry daily while avoiding all gluten-containing grains, milk, and eggs. Nutritional supplements included glutathione, N-acetyl-cysteine, taurine, and lithium orotate.
That was in 2009. Since then she refined her approach and focused on getting the majority of nutrients from food rather than from supplements, and the result is what is known as the Wahls diet.
Wahls diet and mitochondria
Dr. Wahls designed the diet and lifestyle program to help support the activities of mitochondria, the energy-generating organelles in cells. Of particular interest in the case of MS are brain cells. One idea about MS is that malfunctioning mitochondria are at the root of the reason for the progressive brain damage associated with the disease.
Mitochondria are critical because they produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the fuel that power your cells. To make ATP, the body needs glucose, ketone bodies from fat, oxygen, and a list of nutrients: B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacinamide, pantothenic acid), sulfur, zinc, iron, magnesium, manganese, antioxidants, L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, creatine, and ubiquinone (coenzyme Q10). Without sufficient amounts of these substances, your mitochondria starve and can deteriorate.
Basic Wahls diet
The basic Wahls diet consists of the following:
- 3 cups of greens daily, such as spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, red leaf lettuce. These are rich in vitamins A, B, C, and K and minerals
- 3 cups of vegetables rich in sulfur daily, such as the cruciferous veggies (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) as well as onions, mushrooms, and asparagus. These help detoxify the cells and produce neurotransmitters in the brain
- 3 cups of colorful fruits, berries, and vegetables daily, which are excellent sources of antioxidants, such as flavonoids, to fight disease-causing free radicals
- Grass-fed meat and organ meats (hormone-free), which provide minerals, vitamins, and CoQ10. The organ meats provide CoQ10
- Wild-caught fish for their omega-3 fatty acid content. Suggestions include sardines, salmon, mackerel, and herring
- Seaweed, which is an excellent source of iodine, iron, calcium, fiber, and selenium, for cognitive function and strengthening of the eyes, bones, and skin
In addition to the diet, lifestyle activities include meditative practice and working with a physical therapist to develop an exercise plan that works for you. Dr. Wahls emphasizes that people who try the Wahls approach should not stop their current treatment; the idea is to add the diet and lifestyle changes to what they are doing now. The time to consider changes to your other treatment program is when you experience significant improvement in your functioning, and that should be done via a conversation with your doctor.
For now, published information about Dr. Wahls’ approach is scant. In addition to the study already mentioned, there was a small pilot study reported in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2014 in which her diet, along with stretching, strengthening exercises with electrical stimulation, meditation and massage were evaluated in during a 12-month period. Eight of the 10 participants completed the study, and six full adhered to the study program.
Admittedly the study was small, but the investigators saw a decline in the Fatigue Severity Scale from 5.7 to 3.32 at 12 months. This was considered significant, but further evaluation of the approach is needed.
In an interview published in January 2015, Dr. Wahls revealed that she was completing a pilot study that compares her original Wahls diet with a high-fat version and a control group. She also noted that “if people want to wait for the randomized control trials, that is completely understandable.”
However, if people want to start now by adopting “a more nutrient dense diet, begin a meditative practice, and work with a physical therapist for an exercise program,” she would like other people to have the chance to experience this protocol which she believes “dramatically improved my function.”
Is the Wahls Protocol for you? It’s an option you may want to consider. If anyone out there has tried it, please share your experiences with it. You can learn more about the Wahls Protocol in the doctor’s book, The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles.
Also read about alternative treatments for multiple sclerosis
Anti-inflammatory diet for multiple sclerosis
Bisht B et al. A multimodel intervention for patients with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis: feasibility and effect on fatigue. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2014 May; 20(5): 347-55
Reese D et al. “Neuromuscular electrical stimulation and dietary interventions to reduce oxidative stress in a secondary progressive multiple sclerosis patient leads to marked gains in function: a case report.” Cases Journal 2009; 2:7601