Episode 125: The Pursuit of Perfect Health with Dr. Terry Wahls

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What Does It Mean to Heal?

Most of you know Dr. Terry Wahls’ story. She is a physician who developed multiple sclerosis, and in spite of the best that conventional medicine had to offer, she ended up confined to a tilt-recline wheelchair. She started to research nutrition and lifestyle interventions, eventually creating The Wahls Protocol. She’s no longer in a wheelchair, and is now able to ride a bicycle to and from work. That said, she’s not cured, even though she’s often presented that way in the media. In this podcast we tackle the difficult conversation of what it means to heal, how not to compare your results to someone else’s, the difference between progress vs. perfection, and the role acceptance plays in this journey.

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Show Notes

  • Intro (0:00)
  • Thank You to our Podcast Sponsor – Paleo on the Go (2:14)
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    • Use the code PHOENIX for 10% off your first order.
  • Dr. Terry’s Rock Bottom with MS (3:27)
    • Dr. Terry Wahls has multiple sclerosis and at her worst, she was confined to a tilt-recline wheelchair at work and at home. She was also starting to experience brain fog, and her bouts of trigeminal neuralgia (electrical face pain) were becoming more frequent, more severe, and more difficult to turn off. Almost any sensory input could cause them, and she would be unable to speak or swallow, only drool. She was on daily high-doses of gabapentin for maintenance. During the bouts of trigeminal neuralgia, she was prescribed additional medication to try to turn them off,  including injections directly into her occipital and facial nerves at the pain clinic. Her expectation for the future was that she would likely become bedridden with uncontrolled, constant face pain, and possibly demented as well. It was a very grim time, but she tried to take each day as it unfolded, rather than living in fear of the future.
  •  Dr. Terry’s Improvements through the Wahls Protocol (6:58)
    • When medicine failed to improve her condition, she started doing the research that led to the Wahls Protocol. She had been a low-fat vegetarian for 20 years with steady decline. She went paleo and continued to decline. She added supplements and continued to decline. She added e-stim (neuromuscular electrical stimulation) and saw her first improvements – it slowed her decline. Then she started eating a nutrient-dense version of the paleo diet (the Wahls Protocol) and started to improve. Within 1 month, she noticed that both her energy levels and mental clarity were a little bit better.
    • At this point, she also started a new job at the hospital. In her prior job she supervised residents, but her new job would require direct patient care which was more physically demanding. When her boss suggested this transfer, it was a gentle way of allowing her to realize it was time for her to retire from medicine. She surprised both her boss and herself that she was able to do it. Prior to changing her diet, the job would have been physically impossible for her. There was also synchronicity with this job transfer. The improvements she was seeing with diet and lifestyle she then shared with her patients, and the clinic noticed that her patients improved more than those receiving standard medical care.
    • Her improvements continued from there. Within 3 months, she no longer needed the wheelchair. Within another 3 months, she no longer needed a cane. Her pain reduced as well. She credits the rapid pace of her recovery with the combination of dietary changes and physical therapy. Throughout the course of her MS, she had done daily physical therapy exercises, but her capability had decreased over the years. As she experienced health improvements through diet, she was able to increase her physical therapy until she was doing hours of e-stim and exercises each day.
  • Dr. Terry’s Healing Setback (13:20)
    • She has now been following a healing diet and lifestyle for over a decade, but she has experienced setbacks as well. Healing isn’t static or linear. She developed arthritis, stenosis, and scoliosis in her back. MS wasn’t the cause, but may have contributed through weak and unequal muscle tone. The result was intense pain that disabled her again. She didn’t end up in a wheelchair, but she could no longer take long walks or stand to give lectures. Facing disability again was devastating.
    • She didn’t want to have surgery so she tried physical therapy first. When her pain became so bad she could no longer sleep at night, she agreed to surgery with her wife’s encouragement. Surgery did help but not completely; it may have been less successful because she postponed it too long.
    • She hasn’t regained all her abilities but she is improving, using physical therapy alongside the diet and lifestyle she knows supports her body’s ability to heal. She can walk a mile now, sometimes more, and is able to stand for most of her lectures, using a stool intermittently as needed. She continues to enjoy riding her bike.
  • Dr. Terry’s Current MS Symptoms (18:37)
    • While some people in the media say she’s been cured, Terry herself has never made that claim. Her face pain still comes and goes. Travel is a trigger for her, so she limits her trips to twice a month. And while her back pain limits her abilities the most at the moment, MS symptoms do limit her abilities as well. She’s grateful for the recovery she has experienced, but it was never 100%. She didn’t regain the full athletic capability she had prior to developing MS.
  • Spectrum of Results on the Wahls Protocol (20:40)
    • In Dr. Terry’s clinical trials and medical practice, she’s seen a wide variety of results.
    • Some people didn’t improve at all. She’s not sure if that’s because they weren’t implementing the protocol fully, if the program needed to be more personalized, of if they simply had more obstacles to healing (genes, toxins, disease process, etc.)
    • One man experienced minimal results at home but then attended the Wahls Seminar and saw where he wasn’t implementing the protocol fully. Once he committed 100%, he saw dramatic improvements. He had been wheelchair-bound, unable to sit up, with decreasing hand function. Now, he can walk with walking sticks, and his mental clarity and hand function have both improved as well. He’s still disabled, but much less so, and is improving instead of experiencing further decline.
    • Dr. Terry has also seen other people experience dramatic improvements. One woman surpassed Dr. Terry’s own results. This woman went from using a walker to regaining her ability to jog (something Terry never regained herself.) Another woman has been on the protocol over 10 years and is now in her 70’s. She looks younger all the time. When she began the protocol, she was also using walking sticks, and now no longer needs them. Another woman with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia experienced resolution of pain, improved energy levels, and regained her ability to travel.
    • Most people, however, fall between these extremes. They have a slower healing process with starts and stops. Some people need to test going off the protocol and experience negative ramifications before realizing it’s a long-term lifestyle.
  • Motivation for Diet & Lifestyle Change (25:50)
    • It’s very difficult to make large diet and lifestyle changes for potential future benefit. The people who see their symptoms reduce clearly and quickly (ideally within 30 days) are much more likely to stick with a healing diet and lifestyle. Similarly, the people whose symptoms return clearly when they go off-diet, are more likely to succeed in committing to a healing diet long-term.
    • For people who experience slow improvements on the diet, and slow return of symptoms when they fall off the wagon, it’s much harder to stay motivated and clearly see the connection between their diet and lifestyle choices and their health.
    • Resource: Podcast Ep. 31 – Healthy Habits.
  • Measuring Progress – What Does It Mean to Reverse Autoimmune Disease? (29:24)
    • If you are able to slow the rate of decline, that is already a success.
    • If you can stop the decline, that is a phenomenal success.
    • Improving symptoms and regaining abilities is also a goal, but the speed and scope of recovery for each individual can’t be predicted. There are multiple factors involved, which is why it’s unhelpful to compare your progress to someone else’s.
  • Troubleshooting (30:53)
  • Thank You to Our Podcast Sponsor: ShopAIP (33:14)
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    • An online store, where everything sold is compliant with the elimination-phase of the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol. ShopAIP sells a wide variety of products, including protein bars, AIP-friendly spice blends, cooking and baking ingredients, snacks, non-toxic skincare, and more.
    • If you’re a first-time customer, use the code PHOENIX for 10% off your order. Purchase here.
  • Seek Progress Not Perfection (34:25)
    • Dr. Terry believes perfection as a health goal is foolhardy. It’s not achievable.
    • Her personal health goal: “To function for as well as I can, in as many spheres as I can, for as long as I can.”
    • Her definition of health: The ability to fulfill meaningful roles and find joy in your life. This is her primary goal with her patients. She also focuses on improving function, but that’s secondary. Dr. Terry believes that no matter your physical state of health, the primary goal of finding meaning and joy in life is achievable. When Dr. Terry’s MS symptoms were at their worst, she was grateful that her wife made sure that Terry still made contributions to her family, even when she could no longer sit up.
  • How Dr. Terry Feels When People Say She’s Cured (37:03)
    • She tries to correct the cure claims whenever they happen in her presence. However, the internet is a very big place. She can’t keep up with the online claims. She herself doesn’t claim to be cured. She manages her MS very well, but as this podcast shows, she’s open about the fact that she still has MS.
  • Is Medication Failure? (38:22)
    • Short answer: No. There is a time and place for medication, and our goal is to live our healthiest life. Sometimes medication is a necessary and helpful part of treatment.
    • When Dr. Terry was first diagnosed, she took the recommended medications for MS. She tried many different types and unfortunately continue to decline. When she implemented the Wahls Protocol and saw improvements, she tapered off all disease-modifying medication with her doctor’s permission. She’s been off those since 2008. However, in spite of her dramatic reversal of MS symptoms, her spinal lesions remain. For that reason, she hasn’t been able to taper off gabapentin. Her dose is much lower now, but when she tries to go off it altogether, face pain returns.
    • Eileen avoided medication for the first few years she was on a healing diet, but while her symptoms improved dramatically, she never achieved remission. Eventually it became clear that joint damage was happening and medication was necessary to stop that damage. She’s now in remission through a combination of diet, lifestyle, mindset, and immunosuppressant medication. It’s no longer her goal to be medication-free.
    • Dr. Terry’s advice regarding medication and the Wahls Protocol
      • If you’re newly diagnosed and have never taken immunosuppressant medication, depending on the severity of symptoms and location of spinal lesions, you may be able to try the Wahls Protocol first. However, always consult with your doctor when making this decision. Try the protocol 100% for 100 days (perhaps in combination with Solu Medrol to tamp down the inflammation), and see what results you achieve in symptom reduction and any change to your MRIs. If at the end of that time, you’re doing well, you can re-evaluate every 3-6 months. If your health is declining, you’ll want to add something else: functional medicine, immunosuppressant medication, or both.
      • If you’re currently taking immunosuppressant medication, never stop it cold-turkey when starting the Wahls Protocol. A flare is almost guaranteed if you do that. Instead, keep taking your medication and do the Wahls Protocol in addition. When you start seeing improvements and are able to maintain those improvements, you can talk to your doctor about attempting to reduce or taper your medication.
      • All medication decisions should be done with close follow-up with your doctor, to monitor for any changes in disease activity.
      • Medication needs vary between individuals. Don’t compare your results to anyone else’s. The goal is to stop decline, and there is no shame in taking medication if it’s necessary and effective for you.
      • Resource Podcasts:
  • Managing the Emotional Journey of Autoimmune Disease (47:18)
    • Mindset techniques have always been part of the Wahls Protocol, and Dr. Terry has practiced many of them herself over the years, including meditation, mindfulness, prayer, time in nature, gratitude, free writing, etc.
    • The process of grief applies to autoimmune disease as well. Terry moved through anger, bargaining, denial and finally reached acceptance at her lowest point with MS. She learned to let go of expectations and enjoy the simple pleasures and meaningful relationships in her life. She feared possibilities of further decline but learned to take each day as it unfolded. When she started to get better, she kept that mindset of releasing expectations and taking it day by day. With her healing setback with back pain, she went through this process again. The mindset techniques mentioned above were very helpful.
    • If Dr. Terry would choose one factor, she believes loneliness and isolation are huge burdens that can dramatically accelerate the disease process. She recommends everyone find ways to connect with others, whether in person, through video chats, telephone, or even letters. And pets can be wonderful companions as well.
    • Resources:
  • Outro (52:04)

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