When you were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, you might have been wise enough to ask your doctor about diet and what you could do yourself to reduce the symptoms and pain associated with MS. Unfortunately, most neurologists today would shrug off that question and tell you there is no evidence that diet makes any difference. Your physician probably told you that science doesn’t know why you developed MS. You and your physician probably just blamed your genes, and then moved on to talking about what immune-suppressing drugs you should take, in an effort to keep you as functional as possible for as long as possible.

The problem with relying only on immune suppression to treat MS is that our immune cells are vital to the proper functioning of our bodies and brains. All immune-suppressing drugs therefore also have a long list of side effects, ranging from mild to life-threatening. But more importantly, immune suppression does not address the reasons people develop MS or any other autoimmune condition. To effectively treat disease, we must confront the root cause of why the immune system has malfunctioned and begun attacking the brain.

 It is true that we do not yet know the precise cause of MS or other autoimmune conditions. We have, however, identified over a hundred genes that are associated with a slightly higher risk for developing an autoimmune problem. Each gene increases the risk ever so slightly, 1% or less. There are hundreds of studies that show that a complex interaction between genes and the environment leads to the development of MS and other autoimmune diseases as well as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental health problems, and cancer.

 Those environmental factors include:

·         the foods you eat and do not eat

·         whether you smoke

·         how much alcohol you drink

·         the level of toxins in your body (heavy metals like mercury and lead, plastics, solvents, pesticides, and other synthetic chemicals)

·         how much you exercise

·         the quality of your social and family networks

·         your level of stress hormones

·         exposure to food and molds you may be sensitive to

·         the balance of hormones in your body

·         and your history of infectious exposures. 


It is the interaction of your DNA with all of these exposures and factors that determines your phenotype, which is the appearance and performance of your body. The scientific term for the effect of these environmental factors is epigenetics.  

The good news is that for most chronic diseases, including autoimmune problems like MS, the cause is likely 5% genetic and 95% epigenetic. That means the environmental factors are huge. There are thousands of studies that have linked improving health behaviors with better health outcomes, a decline in symptoms of chronic disease, and reduced need for medication to treat diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental health problems, cancers, and autoimmunity.  

It is time we stop blaming our genes and begin addressing the 95% of things we can control. That means we must eat the most nutrient-dense diet, reduce intake of foods that put us at risk for food sensitivity and allergy (gluten and dairy), reduce our intake of toxins by eating as much organic food as our budgets allow, move our bodies, and adopt a stress-reducing practice such as meditation or mindfulness. I provide a roadmap for tackling these environmental factors in my book, The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine. In it, I describe my own story of going from dependence on a tilt-recline wheelchair for nearly four years to being able to do an 18-mile bicycle tour with my family after just one year of following the Wahls Protocol™.   



Dr. Terry Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa where she teaches internal medicine residents, sees patients in a traumatic brain injury clinic, and conducts clinical trials. She is also a patient with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which confined her to a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years. Dr. Wahls restored her health using diet and lifestyle changes and now pedals her bike to work each day. She is the author of The Wahls Protocol:  How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine and teaches the public and medical community about the healing power of intensive nutrition. You can find more information about her work at her website and follow her on twitter @TerryWahls and on Facebook at Terry Wahls MD.

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