Minding Your Mitochondria: Defeating Chronic Disease Without Drugs

How Dr. Terry Wahls Overcame Progressive Multiple Sclerosis With Nutrition

Dr. Terry Wahls was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis (“MS”) in 2000 and despite getting care from the one of the finest medical institutions in the US, the Cleveland Clinic, by 2003 she was unable to walk and eventually ended up in a tilt-recline wheelchair. Her condition progressed to secondary progressive multiple sclerosis and she had to endure chemotherapy and the drug Tysabri, yet still she faced a rapid decline so she turned to latest medical literature and research on pubmed.gov. After dramatically changing her diet in December 2007 to maximize nutrient intake, she not only slowed her disease progression but she reversed it. By 2008 she began walking unassisted and today she has resumed working as a doctor and engaging in sports and regular physical activity. Dr. Wahls’ research led her to conclude that cell mitochondria are a key player in MS. She researched the nutrients she could intake to better support her mitochondria and below is what she found.

Mitochondria and Myelin are Crucial to Brain Health

The first step in Dr. Wahls’ research was examining what cells in the body are affected by MS. She found that brains afflicted with MS shrink over time. Other diseases in which the brain shrinks include Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s and in all three of these conditions, the body’s mitochondria do not work well. She came across studies showing evidence that mouse brains are protected from cell damage by the intake of fish oil, creatine, and CoQ10, leading her to believe that changing her nutrient consumption could possibly improve the damaged state of her own brain cells. She then discovered the Institute for Functional Medicine and learned more about brain cell biology and neuroprotection. The key finding was that brain cells are insulated by myelin. MS damages myelin and the key to protection from the damage of MS is to protect the brain’s myelin.

Environmental Factors and Poor Diet Affect Genetic Activity and Cause Disease

A crucial aspect of treating illness is to understand the underlying cause. Dr. Wahls found that MS and many other diseases are due in large part to epigenetic activity, which is at the forefront of the latest research on disease frequency. Research has shown that the risk of developing disease is related to the activation of a gene’s behavior by environmental factors, as outlined in our April 4 article “How Environmental Toxins Affect Our Genetic Behavior.” Dr. Wahls focuses on how the standard American diet promotes micronutrient deficiency, which affects genetic behavior and can cause chronic illness – particularly diseases with an inflammatory component such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia, depression, and MS. According to Dr. Wahls, the standard American diet, which is high in carbohydrate and processed foods and grains, activates 65 genes that drive chronic disease.

Dr. Wahls concludes that the correction of micronutrient deficiencies will reverse many of our chronic ills. Wahls says that a diet rich in non-starchy vegetables, green leaves, whole fruits, and protein will turn on 72 genes that “down regulate” inflammation molecules. Below is an outline of the diet and nutrient intake that rapidly reversed her  progressive MS.

The Wahls Protocol*

Our cell mitochondria take the food we eat and use it as fuel for our bodily functions by converting glucose to ATP (energy). Mitochondria also metabolize drugs and toxins (we are exposed to hundreds of chemicals every day, even if we eat organic). By-products of this metabolism are free radicals – oxidative stress, which are neutralized by antioxidants (which we get from food). “We are not plants, we need to eat food for energy” says Dr. Wahls, who says to get as much nutrients as possible from food.

Food Guideline

Maximize nutrient intake with lean meats and 9 cups of greens and sulfur-rich vegetables daily

  • 3 cups green leaves – preferably kale, which has the most nutrient per calorie of any plant, collards, spinach * darker the green the better, the more chlorophyll
  • 3 cups bright colored fruits and vegetables which contain flavanoids and polyphenols to support the retina, mitochondria, brain cells and toxin removal – beets, carrots, peppers, cabbage, berries, and bright colored fruits such as peaches and oranges
  • 3 cups sulfur-rich non-starchy vegetables to support the brain, liver and kidneys – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, kale, onion, garlic, leeks, chives, mushrooms, asparagus
  • High quality protein rich in omega 3 fatty acids such as wild fish and grass fed beef
  • No sugar
  • Minimal potatoes and grains
  • If illness is severe, no dairy, soy, gluten
  • Seaweed or iodine once per week in the form of dulse, nori, kelp, iodized sea salt

Protein (amino acids) and sulfur are extremely important for the brain’s neurotransmitter function. People with MS, bipolar disorder, depression, ADD, OCD, migraine headaches, and chronic pain have been found to be low in GABA, the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. This is why prescription drugs that increase GABA levels such as Gabapentin and Lyrica are good at controlling neuropathic pain and stabilizing mood. Sulfur and amino acids with sulphur (Taurine, Theanine, Cystein) are required to make GABA.

Most Americans have a diet deficient in sulfur and our brains are not getting enough nutrients to work but we can make more GABA if we eat more organic sulfur (Dr. Wahls says “you can’t make stuff you don’t have the building blocks for”). Sulfur is found in seafood and green leaves. The best foods for manufacturing GABA are cabbage, onions, radishes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, leeks, garlic, kohlrabi, and mushrooms (white button or shitake). The minerals magnesium and selenium also help make GABA.

The brain also needs iodine to remove toxins and to manufacture myelin. Iodine deficiency is a problem in North America because we have no more iodine left in our soil and fluoride added to municipal water systems blocks iodine uptake in the body. Salt further decreases iodine absorption. Seaweed is a source of both iodine and selenium, and can easily be incorporated weekly by chopping and adding to salads or soups. Iodized sea salt is also an option.

Crucial Nutrients and Supplements

  • Magnesium – when we are under stress and not eating enough greens we can easily become magnesium deficient. We like this magnesium citrate made by Metagenics
  • CoQ10 and vitamins B1, B6, B9 (folate) and B12 – these protect myelin and can be obtained from nutritional yeast, mushrooms, dark greens, animal liver, heart, and tongue
  • Omega 3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA – protect myelin and not made by the body so we need to supplement. Take molecularly distilled pure fish oil capsules, krill oil, hemp oil, hemp seeds, hemp milk, flax oil
  • Vitamin D – necessary to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin and the majority of us are deficient. Spend 30 minutes in the sun each day without sunscreen in order to maintain a tan and take 2,000 i.u. in the winter
  • Green tea – has a substance called theanine which lowers norepinephrine in the brain, helping to keep calm and focus (norepinephrine is high when under stress, anxiety, PTSD, ADD). Try matcha powder or supplement with Theanine 100 by Jarrow Formulas
  • Healthy Fats – can be obtained from olive oil, avocado, omega 3’s. Increase these if low caloric consumption is a concern
  • Probiotics – we like Metagenics Ultra Flora Plus dairy-free capsules

Keep in mind that while supplements can help re-colonize the gut, it is the dietary shift away from grains that will successfully rebuild gut flora. Dr. Wahls says the rational for eliminating grains is independent of having a gluten sensitivity because our species did not evolve eating grains. The gut bacteria that result from eating grain are different from the bacteria that lived in human intestinal tracts hundreds of years ago. Sugar and processed foods are relatively foreign to the human species and toxic to our DNA.

Lifestyle Factors

The following are said to help lower inflammation molecules

  • Meditation
  • Learning
  • Physical activity which also increases serotonin in the brain
  • Massage
  • Vitamin D from the sun
  • Minimizing exposure to toxins in food, consumer products and household cleaning chemicals and avoiding mercury fillings

Minimize toxins by choosing organic fruits, vegetables, and meat (see the Top Foods to Purchase Organic) and avoiding toxins in consumer products (see our Resources page for some suggestions). Help mitigate the damage caused by toxin exposure by ensuring sufficient iodine intake via seaweed and iodized sea salt. Learning stimulates brain growth factors. There is ongoing repair to brain cells and if we are not learning, we are just maintaining, not forming new connections. We always want to be creating nerve growth factors and to do so we need to learn new things mentally and physically which will tell brain to make new myelin. Learning is very effective at stimulating nerve growth factors: learning a new skill such as knitting, juggling, dancing, suduko puzzles, or doing something physical such as building something.

Final Word

Dr. Wahls is a huge inspiration for the Urban Clinic. Her story is living proof that the choices we make every day have an impact on our health. The Wahls protocol is supported by well documented scientific findings and studies in animals and will hopefully help inspire physicians to focus on diet and macronutrient intake when treating illness. This is more important than ever as we continue to get bombarded with environmental toxins, oxidative stress, over exposure to stimuli such as electronics and pressure to multi-task, all putting brain health at risk.  While adopting the Wahls Protocol might take considerable time, money and effort, we think it could potentially benefit all of us not only in treating but preventing chronic illness and improving cognitive function. We gave it a try for a couple of weeks and definitely saw an immediate positive impact on energy and digestion. Try it today to see how you might benefit (and as always consult your doctor first)!

About Dr. Wahls

Dr. Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa where she teaches internal medicine residents in their primary care clinics.  She also performs clinical research and has published over 60 peer-reviewed scientific abstracts, posters and papers. For more information about Dr. Wahls and the Wahls Protocol visit www.terrywahls.com.

*All statements about the Wahls Protocol are paraphrased based on video footage of lectures by Dr. Terry Wahls including but not limited to the sources listed below. This article contains the basic components outlined in the publicly available information but by no means does this article envelope the Wahls Protocol in its entirety.

Image Credit: http://www.terrywahls.com
Sources: terrywahls.com; thewahlsfoundation; wikipedia; youtube – Minding Your Mitochondria by Dr. Terry Wahls at TedX Iowa City
Disclaimer: The information in this article and on this website is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. None of the products mentioned in this article or on this website are intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to provide personal medical advice, which should be obtained from a medical professional. This information is made available with the understanding that the author and publisher are not providing medical, psychological, or nutritional counseling services on this site. The information on this Web site does not cover all possible uses, actions, precautions, side effects, and interactions. Liability for individual actions, opinions, or omissions based upon the contents of this site is expressly disclaimed. This information has not been evaluated or approved by the U.S. FDA.

2 responses to “Minding Your Mitochondria: Defeating Chronic Disease Without Drugs

  1. Pingback: Urban Clinic Inspirations « THE URBAN CLINIC·

  2. Compared to fish, krill provides superior ends in improving cardio health, boosting cognitive function, improving premenstrual signs and symptoms, relieving swelling from osteoarthritis, easing back as well as joint pains and giving the skin that balanced youthful gleam. Krill can effectively lower bad cholesterol by simply about 34% and boost high quality ones by concerning 45% when compared with fish oil only cutting down bad cholesterols by 6% and boosting good ones by only 2% making krill oil significantly superior to fish oil. When you consume most of these supplements it is important that additionally you understand the unwanted side effects. If you have a new constitution that may be allergic to sea food, then this oil is not available for you. You may react with swelling, ab pain, cities, diarrhea and so on. since it is an ocean food source, and it also causes foul breath and has some sort of fishy preference too. :

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