Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review: The Wahls Protocol (Hint: It's for more than just M.S.)

"I got my life back. I wrote this book so that you can get yours back too."

Dr. Terry Wahls is one of those secret superstars of the paleo movement. She may not have the instant name in recognition in Paleoland of a Wolf, a Wolfe or a Sisson, but if you say, "You know... the doc who did the Ted X talk! The one that cured herself of MS!" everyone knows who she is.

In 2000, after increasing indications that she was having neurological troubles -- vision issues, facial tingling and, then, a "foot drop" -- Wahls received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. For someone who had previously been a marathoner and mountain climber, the problems that followed -- significant physical deterioration to the point that, after a few years, she could no longer even sit in an ordinary chair and, instead, needed a tilt/recline wheelchair to get around -- were a 180-degree shift from her previously active life.

After not very long, the standard MS medications were not even holding the progress of the disease at bay, let alone improving her condition, and Wahls decided in 2007 to take matters into her own hands. Driven by the burning desire not only to get better, but also to make sure not to burden her partner and kids with her disability, Wahls experimented on herself -- primarily with food.

She designed a dietary protocol intended, first and foremost, to properly fuel the mitochondria in her cells.

A digression: you may recall that I was a biology major in college. You may also recall that I wasn't a very accomplished one. You might even recall that I am a lawyer now (even though we don't ever talk about that here). The career change is not a coincidence. I totally "get" the Fourth Amendment and all of its permutations. Biology? I'm still catching up. So if you can't remember from high-school bio class what mitochondria are/do, join the club. I couldn't either. Fortunately, The Wahls Protocol brings you up to speed, with just enough detail to make you understand the basics of those "cellular engines," without leading to that glass-eyed/drooling stare that I had on my face throughout most of college biochemistry.

If this book has one overarching motto, it is this: food is cellular fuel. Or, as Dr. Wahls puts it: "What your cells use to fuel the chemistry of life comes directly from what you feed yourself." Put sugar in the gas tanks of your cellular engines and disastrous consequences are possible. Conversely, feed yourself well, and good health is more likely. Some of us have genetic susceptibilities to chronic diseases that others do not, but whether that genetic predisposition becomes fully realized in the form of an actively debilitating chronic disease has a lot to do with the quality and type of food a person eats. Food also has more than anything else to do with potentially bouncing back from a chronic disease to overcome the disabilities that it inflicts.

Terry Wahls is all about bouncing back. Compare this:

to this:

The overused adjectives of our time -- those would be, in this order, "awesome," "amazing" and "epic (dude)," if you are keeping score at home -- seem flimsy and worthless when applied to this situation.

I'll cut to the chase of the story: Terry Wahls beat MS with food choices -- really specific food choices involving eliminating the bad stuff, piling in the good stuff and then adding some more good stuff after that. She went, in nine months, from that awful tilt/recline wheelchair to commuting to work on a bicycle. Like this:

I don't even think the next most overused expression of our day -- that would be "amazeballs," if you are still keeping score -- is satisfactory for this situation. In fact, I am pretty sure that even my usual liberal sprinkling of my posts with F-bombs wouldn't convey the necessary awe that I feel when I see those pics or read this book. Dr. Terry Wahls got punched in the face, and responded by taking names, kicking ass and giving you a manual to do the same.

And here's the thing -- because I hear you, you contrarian bastard, saying, "But I don't have MS!" -- this dietary protocol, in its three-level/hierarchy form, works to help you achieve the momentous mitochondrial milestones (I did that on purpose, because, apparently, it's Alliteration April) necessary to allow you to send almost any autoimmune condition running for cover. At the cellular level, most autoimmune diseases have far more in common than they have to distinguish them from one another. So the protocol, by addressing mitochondrial health across the board, can be used to improve the life of anyone suffering from any autoimmune issue.

The Wahls Protocol also helps keep still-healthy people healthy.

It can be successfully employed by anyone to achieve good mitochondrial health -- a prerequisite to good overall health because, to quote Dr. Wahls: "Cellular nutrition is everything. It is the very basis of health. It all comes down to the cell, because when cells malfunction, eventually organs malfunction. When organs malfunction, eventually you malfunction."

So what is it, this protocol?

At its most basic level, dubbed the "Wahls Diet," the protocol is all about clean, unprocessed foods and an elimination of common allergens along with an emphasis on ingesting a broad spectrum of micronutrients. On the "no" list are gluten, dairy (other than ghee), eggs and any more than just occasional legumes. On the "yes" list are at least nine cups of fruits and vegetables per day, consisting of three cups of leafy greens, three cups of deeply-colored items like beets, berries, carrots and squash, and three cups of sulfur-rich vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, asparagus, turnips and garlic.

Then Level Two, called "Wahls Paleo," kicks into gear, transitioning the reader into elimination of grains, legumes and white potatoes from all but two meals per week. Added to the protocol at this point -- which also happens to be the level that most people stick with over the long haul -- are sea vegetables, organ meats, daily animal protein, fermented foods, raw foods and soaked/sprouted nuts and seeds.

Finally, particularly for those who have an autoimmune condition and those who know of a predisposition to such an ailment, there is the Obi-Wan Kenobi level of the protocol (and I barely even like Star Wars, so I don't actually know why I just did that). It's called "Wahls Paleo Plus," and the intent of it is to help your mitochondria reach a just-ketogenic(fat-burning, rather than glucose-fueled)-enough state to reap the benefits of ketosis while you are still ingesting high-quality micronutrients in significant quantities that are often not present when hardcore levels of ketosis are reached.

(Indeed, there is even a detailed description of how to measure nutritional ketosis with inexpensive urine-ketone tests. Reader's Digest version: if your cells are still burning glucose, rather than ketones, a cheapo urine-ketone test will show zero ketones, and that's all you need to know -- i.e., am I, or am I not, in ketosis, not how far, how much, etc.)

Wahls Paleo Plus eliminates all grains, legumes and potatoes. It lowers the "nine cups a day" standard for fruits/veggies to six (because you won't be as hungry, and you want to maintain mild ketosis, which too many carbohydrates can wreck) but still emphasizes making sure to eat a varied mix of leafy greens, colors and sulfur-containing vegetables. Starchy vegetables are limited to twice a week, and fruits are limited to only low-glycemic/deeply-colored ones like berries and cherries. Additionally, coconut milk and oil are ingested in fairly large quantities -- good fat! MCTs! -- and an eating window of eight to twelve hours per day is urged, with fasting the rest of the day.

The level of detail provided for in every aspect of the Wahls Protocol is impressive. There are testimonials from happy fellow "Wahls Warriors," along with charts which not only answer yes/no questions on the propriety of any possible food item at any stage of the protocol, but which also explain why that food is deemed good or bad.

There is flexibility at work here as well, as opposed to rigid dogma. No, Terry Wahls is not going to tell you that it's cool to have a donut-and-beer bender, but she does freely admit that different folks are going to buy into the plan at different levels, and that such varied approaches are not only understandable but just fine, depending on your circumstance. Not only is her protocol about as far removed from the caveman/"meatitarian" caricature of paleo that gets played-up in the mainstream press (that's nine effing cups of veggies and fruits a day, haters; nine cups!), but she even provides a template for vegetarians to buy into the Wahls Diet portion of the plan. She also gently discusses the nutritional "dangers of vegetarianism" in a balanced way to try to convince the meat-squeamish to try at least the Wahls Paleo portion of the plan.

Another thing I love about this book -- and, yes, this is the biased view of a guy who was just on a Paleo FX panel called "Beyond Food": it's not all food. After the food plans (which, by the way, are full of menus and suggestions, in addition to explanations and reasons why to eat this way), The Wahls Protocol spends ample chapters on exercise (including independent areas of focus on strength, balance, movement, even electrical-stimulation, aka "E-stim," therapy), a detailed discussion of which dietary supplements might be needed/appropriate even with such an already nutrient-rich dietary regimen, and, maybe most critically of all, a whole chapter on stress reduction and its fundamental role in good health. Despite its importance, even the stress-reduction discussion is beautifully non-dogmatic, emphasizing the value of any and all stress-management techniques ranging from the simple (get outside! take a walk!) to the more intense, but more deeply rewarding (meditation!).

I love this book. You should get it, read it and start employing its dietary regimen to your life. Get rid of the junk. Eat the good stuff. Eat a lot of the good stuff. Fuel your cellular engines properly. Stay (or get) healthy.

"We're learning new things every day about the body and disease, but what I do know is this: When you align yourself with what nature intends for you, remove impediments to your biochemical functioning, and restore what your mitochondria and cells are missing, you can maximize your biochemical health at the cellular level to optimize your life, whatever your health challenge. The Wahls Protocol gave me my life back. Give it the chance to restore yours."

Hell yeah. Get this book. It can save your life.


  1. Best review of my Heros book I have read so far. Glad Dr Wahls pointed me in your direction. I think we will get along. You are funny.I am healing after 9 years of MS and Lyme Disease. Her book is truly life changing!

  2. My hero as well! She is an amazing women, I'm very grateful that she is sharing her gift with the world.

  3. You need a link to the book on Amazon. I kept waiting to find one as I read through your review so I could use your link and give you a little "kickback," but I don't see it. Of course I can go look it up, but you deserve some credit. ;-)