The Wahls Protocol: How a paleo based diet can improve chronic disease
BY RACHEL PETERSON
I live in the US, where the standard American diet (SAD) is commonplace. This includes any and all processed foods, high-carbohydrate, high-sugar foods that are severely lacking in nutrients. It’s a SAD state of affairs (all kidding aside), and is costing billions of dollars a year in healthcare premiums and doctor's’ visits, because this way of eating can lead to a host of chronic health issues like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and assorted autoimmune diseases.
I was recently given a book called, The Wahls Protocol, written by Dr. Terry Wahls, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. I’d been hearing of the book in the paleo community and knew it was a must read.
So, what separates this book from the hundreds of books on chronic disease? ...well keep reading and you’ll find out.
Dr Terry Wahls
Dr. Wahls went from being a successful conventional medical practitioner, marathon runner, mountain climber, black belt in karate, cross-country skier and bronze medalist in full-contact free sparring (1978 Pan American games trials) to being barely mobile. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2000, after years of strange, unexplained symptoms. This diagnosis turned her whole world upside down. This amazing, vibrant woman went from being a successful physician and accomplished athlete to being bound to a reclining wheelchair within the course of a few years.
Her MS treatment began with a prescription of Copaxone and a round of steroids to suppress her immune system. This is when she began to rapidly deteriorate, ultimately reaching a state of immobility. Being a trained medical doctor, Dr. Wahls began to question everything conventional medicine had to offer her in treating her disease. She began to ask her neurologist for help, which led her to Dr. Ashton Embry’s MS Charity website (Direct-MS)(www.direct-ms.org).
Dr. Embry’s son suffered from MS himself and found that his health vastly improved by changing what he ate. Direct-MS is a trusted informational website that includes several published scientific articles and peer-reviewed journals written by medical professionals who are experts in their field. The research was astounding. Dr. Wahls then began to dig in and start her own research, where she stumbled upon the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM).
The IFM looks at a person’s health from a whole body-based approach, a far cry from conventional medicine. IFM consider a person’s nutrition, hormones, genetics, toxic burden, infections and even their psyche when treating a patient.
So, Dr. Wahls began to immerse herself in functional medicine research while continuing to take her prescribed medications that she needed in order to be able to function. She also began to experiment with her diet. Her results were nothing short of astounding.
Take a read of my 5 key takeaways from her book.
Disease begins at the cellular level
Dr. Wahls explains that to get to the root of health, one must look at things that can either assist or harm our cells, while trying to get the body to a more balanced state for optimal health. She states that:
“cells need specific nutrients to thrive and these nutrients come from our food”
In my Primal Health training, I’ve been taught how disease manifests and how our cells are constantly damaged then repaired on a daily basis. We are taught how the mitochondria is the power plant for our cells, and how we must keep it fed so that our bodies can stay healthy and thrive. Certain foods (like grains) can alter healthy cells and cause oxidative damage. There’s good news though, since our cells are constantly replacing themselves, it’s very possible to go from a state of chronic disease by adopting a paleo-based lifestyle.
And just to debunk a common myth: paleo isn’t just a meat-laden diet. Most paleo-based diets include some protein like fish and lean meats, plenty of healthy fats like avocados and coconut oil, abundant amounts of vegetables and some fruit (“eat the rainbow, “says Dr. Wahls). Eggs, nuts, and seeds can also be included for those who can tolerate them.
That being said, there are different levels of paleo. Some people still incorporate dairy or certain grains into their diet, while some (like me) follow a stricter form of paleo: no grains, dairy, soy or nightshades. Either way, eating paleo can make a huge difference in energy levels, weight, gut health, disease state and overall health.
My training has taught me that it takes the body approximately 21 days (of clean eating) to begin repairing the damage from poor eating habits. For some, it may take months to repair the damage from a pattern of poor food choices.
Key takeaway #1
Consume nutrient dense, wholesome foods to enable your mitochondria and cells to thrive.
Genes are not your destiny
Dr. Wahls explains that genetics are only partly responsible for the state of our health. She says that our genes control how we make critical enzymes that our cells need in order to thrive. She also explains that our environment (nutrition, toxins, etc.) have a profound impact on which genes are turned on or off. According to the book, scientists believe that “70-95% of the risk of developing an autoimmune condition is determined by environment, including: food choices, water intake, toxins, movement, Vitamin D, and even how you interact with others.”
In Primal Health, I’ve been taught about gene expression, and how your familial DNA is only part of the equation. Genetic predispositions do exist for things like heart disease and obesity, but with lifestyle changes and clean eating, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a person’s fate.
Key takeaway #2
Don’t ignore your genetics, rather make sure you look at the whole picture including environmental factors.
Mitochondria and brain health
The mitochondria are the power plants for our cells and need nutrients in order to keep our bodies functioning properly. Many of the cells in our bodies depend on the mitochondria to help perform specific functions like: thinking, seeing, pumping blood and dealing with toxins. Dr. Wahls explains that cell health as well as nutrition for the brain is paramount and can affect our entire health.
Besides food for the brain, she also emphasises:
The importance of reducing toxins
Electric muscle stimulation (for her own personal MS recovery)
A few important supplements
A regular stress reduction regimen
Similarly, in Primal Health, importance is placed on brain health, and some of the Primal Blueprint lifestyle laws also stress the importance of:
Eating plants and animals
Avoiding poisonous things (refined grains, sugary foods)
Getting plenty of sleep
Moving frequently (low intensity)
Getting plenty of sunlight
Using your brain
Play (leisure time)
Key takeaway #3
Choosing to pay attention to stress and toxin reduction, regular movement and proper supplementation can be key to the health of our brain.
Grains may worsen chronic illness
With paleo, we should seek to stay close to the hunter-gatherer diet. According to Dr. Wahls, our ancestors (Homo sapiens) ate roots, leaves, meat, and fruit. Grains didn’t even enter the picture until about 10,000 years ago.
In my training, I have been taught that grains are unnecessary in the human diet. They have very little nutritional value and cause excess insulin production as well as the compromise of gut and immune health.
Grains were introduced as a staple food for our ancestors, because they were easy to cultivate and store. Over time, their introduction led to the beginning of modern chronic disease as we know it. Wheat is one of the main offenders. Modern wheat isn’t what it once was. It’s been genetically modified to be more pest-resistant for one. The gliadin in modern wheat causes increased appetite, and can also lead to digestive distress and chronic inflammation for people who are sensitive to its protein structure.
Key takeaway #4
Ditch the grains if you are suffering from any form of chronic illness.
The Wahls Protocol: 3 ways
There are 3 stages of the Wahls Protocol. It is recommended to start slow and work with your own body - everybody is individualistic, thus will have variations that work best for them.
#1: Removing gluten & dairy
The Wahls Diet Level One focuses on nutrition and elimination of certain foods like gluten and dairy, because of their propensity to raise inflammation and wreak havoc on the gut. This level also emphasizes the importance of consuming nine cups of fruits and vegetables, as well as the addition of organic, grass-fed and wild-caught proteins.
Level 2: Removing gluten, dairy & grains
Wahls paleo Level Two calls for a reduction of all non-gluten grains (and going gluten-free), limiting legumes and potatoes to two servings per week. She explains that this diet still allows for wiggle room with regard to social situations and family dinners, etc. She also recommends the addition of seaweed or algae and organ meats. To interject, seaweed may not be a good choice for someone with thyroid disease, for example. The iodine content of seaweed could possibly be too high for someone with autoimmune Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, where iodine intake is still considered a somewhat controversial topic. Organ meats are a great way to get in some extra iron, no objections there. Dr. Wahls also recommends fermented foods, soaked seeds, nuts and raw foods. For those with SIBO or autoimmune disease, some of these foods may be detrimental.
Level 3: Removing gluten, dairy, grains, legumes & potatoes
Wahls paleo Plus is Level Three, and the strictest. It calls for the elimination of all grains, dairy, legumes and potatoes. Dr. Wahls recommends six cups of veggies: specifically, greens, color, and those containing sulfur. She also says to reduce cooked starchy veggies and fruit to two servings per week. Next, she says to add coconut oil and full-fat coconut milk. This level most closely resembles that of the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet, minus the dairy. High-fat is highly-praised in the Primal Health community. Fats provide a steady stream of energy and fuel to the brain and keeps mitochondria happy! Lastly, she recommends that a person on this level only eat twice per day, then fast for twelve to sixteen hours per night. Primal Health is also in favor of intermittent fasting, as it can be beneficial to the body, helping to clear out damaged cells and give the body a clean reset.
Key takeaway #5
Start by removing gluten and dairy and then work your way up to also eliminating all grains, legumes & potatoes.
If you have a chronic disease, keep in mind these 5 key principles from Dr Wahl's protocol:
Fueling your mitochondria and cells with nutrition;
Environmental toxins and lifestyle may be more important than genes;
Protecting your mitochondria in other ways;
Ditch the grains;
Choose a version of the Wahls Protocol best suited to you:
Removing gluten and dairy;
Removing gluten, dairy and grains;
Removing gluten, dairy, grains, legumes & potatoes.
Although everyone is unique, and may require a diet tailored to their specific health needs, a paleo based type of diet has proven beneficial for many suffering from illness. Starting with an elimination diet can be a great way to assess your own personal nutritional needs and then add/takeaway foods from there. No matter what eating regimen you choose to follow, you should always listen to your body and fuel it with healthy, nutrient-dense foods. In doing so, you should begin to notice a remarkable difference in how you feel overall.
Rachel Peterson is a Paleo lifestyle blogger from Austin, TX. She's currently completing her training to become a Primal Health Coach. She enjoys reading about thyroid and autoimmune health, coming up with healthy recipes and going to barre/Pilates classes in her spare time. You can follow along with Rachel at Austin Paleo Grrl or on Instagram.