Terry Wahls ignored the strange symptoms alerting her to something terribly wrong for a very long time. She called the stabbing nerve pain that would momentarily sear her face ‘zingers’—they shot out of the blue and, more often she noticed, during her 36-hour marathon shifts as a young medical intern.
Though the zingers grew more frequent and intense over the years—“like a 10,000-volt cattle prod sticking me in the face,” she says—and as new symptoms, such as visual dimming, appeared, Wahls dismissed them as insignificant annoyances. “I was too busy with my own patients to dedicate too much diagnostic thought to myself,” says Wahls, by then a specialist in internal medicine.
Eventually, though, in 2000, the symptoms demanded Wahls’ full attention. She’d run marathons and climbed mountains in Nepal, had a black belt in Taekwondo and had once taken a bronze medal in women’s full-contact free sparring, but at age 45, during a three-mile walk to the ice-cream shop, she found herself dragging her left leg behind her “like a sandbag” all the way home. “I was exhausted, nauseated and scared,” she recalls.
A battery of tests, including a spinal tap, confirmed Wahls’ worst fears: she had multiple sclerosis. MS is a serious progressive autoimmune disorder that attacks the central nervous system, causing a wide array of symptoms—from fatigue and bladder problems to paralysis and organ failure.
A 21st-century plague
The NHS does not count autoimmune diseases collectively, but MS alone affects 100,000 Britons and more than 2.5 million people globally. Taken together, autoimmune diseases are estimated to affect as many as one in five people globally, and they’re now the third leading cause of morbidity and mortality around the world.
The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association estimates that 50 million Americans suffer from one of 88 autoimmune diseases, and they are now among the top 10 killers of young American women.
At least 40 more diseases are suspected to have an autoimmune component, and the number is increasing at an astonishing pace.
The NHS offers no explanations for this soaring epidemic of chronic and devastating disease. It is certain that the autoimmune explosion is not simply due to ‘bad genes’, because changes in gene expression simply can’t happen so rapidly. The NHS says “unknown” environmental factors are at play.
In the world of immunology, autoimmunity is understood to be caused by a ‘mosaic’ of factors, ranging from genetics and infections to toxic exposures. Yehuda Shoenfeld, founder of the Center for Autoimmune Diseases at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel-HaShomer, Israel, coined the term with the title of his textbook, The Mosaic of Autoimmunity (Elsevier Science, 1989), and he has since published 25 more texts on autoimmune disease.
Shoenfeld points to infections as a leading factor in autoimmunity. But he also says toxins from smoking, silicone in breast and surgical implants, heavy-metal mercury in dental amalgam fillings and aluminium from a host of environmental sources, especially vaccines, are leading causes of what he first described in the medical literature in 2011 as ‘autoimmune/inflammatory syndrome induced by adjuvants’ (ASIA).
In a paper published this year, he and two other immunologists noted that “many reports that describe post-vaccination autoimmunity strongly suggest that vaccines can indeed trigger autoimmunity. Defined autoimmune diseases that may occur following vaccinations include arthritis, lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE), diabetes mellitus, thrombocytopenia, vasculitis, dermatomyositis, Guillain–Barré syndrome and demyelinating disorders”. Almost all types of vaccines have been reported to be associated with the onset of ASIA.
In his latest medical textbook, Vaccines and Autoimmunity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), Shoenfeld has collected papers by 75 immunologists and researchers that overview the “various autoimmune risks associated with different vaccines”.
Drugs treat symptoms, not causes
Whatever the different underlying causes of autoimmune diseases, conventional doctors use primarily just two classes of drug to treat them all: anti-inflammatory steroids and immune-suppressing drugs. Some are the same drugs used in chemotherapy against cancer.
These hammer the immune system to damp down symptoms and suppress attacks, but they don’t address the root causes of the disorders, and they have side-effects ranging from fatigue and depression to serious liver damage and increased risk of infection.
“Symptoms of the autoimmune disease may improve, but people on immune-suppression drugs may feel acutely worse in other ways,” says Wahls. “Many stay on the treatment no matter how badly they feel because of the looming probability of becoming progressively more disabled.”
In desperation to halt her own rapidly progressing disease, Wahls looked to the medical literature and found study after study implicating toxic exposures, diet and activity levels as comprising 70 to 95 per cent of the risk for autoimmune disease.
Based on these data, which she had not heard about before, Wahls took a radical new approach to her MS. Here’s what she and three other women did to not only halt their disease in its tracks, but to put it firmly in their past.
The Wahls protocol
After she was diagnosed with MS in 2000, Wahls says in her book, The Wahls Protocol (Penguin Group, 2014), that she put herself in the hands of her medical colleagues and began taking “horse doses” of powerful immune-suppressing drugs, including one that she stopped when it was pulled from the market because it was killing patients.
The next drug she took left her exhausted, with mouth ulcers, graying skin and an increasing sense of despair, as it failed to stop the slow, steady decline towards her nightmare of living in her bed.
Eventually she started using a tilt/recline wheelchair and then, when even just sitting at her desk became exhausting, she obtained two NASA-designed zero-gravity chairs for her home and office to help with the fatigue. But getting into that wheelchair triggered something, she recalls. “I realized that conventional medicine was not likely to stop what was happening to me.”
Wahls went back to the books, only this time she discovered the new field of functional medicine, which looks at the body holistically, and she began to understand the significance of gut health, food allergies and toxins to her brain and immune-system health.
She then drew up a long list of nutrients and vitamins she now understood her body needed, and looked for their food sources. Although she had been a vegetarian for many years before her diagnosis, she began to reintroduce animal protein and found that it helped, but now she was eating organ meats like liver and heart, which are concentrated sources of so many of the vitamins and minerals she realized she was lacking.
She cut out gluten and dairy, which she discovered can damage the gut lining, and started to make fermented foods like sauerkraut to reintroduce good bacteria. She ate seaweed for iodine, and nine cups—three dinner plates’ worth—of sulphur-rich and coloured vegetables, fruit and leafy greens each day.
Within three months of starting her new diet, Wahls began to notice changes: she could walk between exam rooms at the hospital with just one cane. Within six months, she was walking around the whole hospital without a cane. By 2007, a year later, she was cycling 18 miles in one go.
“The old me—the conventional internal medicine physician—had been struck down like Paul on the way to Damascus,” she says.
Now Wahls, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa in the US, is conducting clinical trials on the effects of her protocol in other patients, and she says her as yet unpublished findings are very encouraging.
“The future of medicine is food. It is lifestyle. It is movement,” Wahls told WDDTY. “But it won’t come fast enough.” Her mission now is to bring the future of medicine to people today, to let those suffering with diseases they’ve been told are incurable know that if she could do it, they can too, and that “there is always hope”.
Laughing at lupus
Gina Yashere might be a familiar face to fans of BBC Two’s old Mock the Week show; she was a frequent guest in the ’90s and a regular on many comedy line-ups. The London-born comedian now lives most of the year in New York and is in the midst of a live comedy tour, yet 10 years ago, Yashere was being crippled by a serious autoimmune condition.
At first she only noticed she was tired a lot and thought the pain she was getting in her joints was from arthritis. Then one day she woke up and found her hands had formed into claws that she couldn’t uncurl. It took half an hour for her fingers to relax.
Blood tests showed that Yashere was suffering from lupus (SLE), a disease that results when the immune system turns against the joints and connective tissues. Her aunt had died of it at the age of 58 when it caused her organs to shut down. Lupus is better managed today, but there is still no cure, and around 15,000 Britons have the disease, with about 90 per cent of them women.
After her diagnosis, Yashere started steroid injections and a powerful immunosuppressive drug called Plaquenil, but her condition was deteriorating fast. “My joints were super distorted and I was in constant agony. I could barely walk and I had to use a raised toilet seat because I couldn’t sit down,” she recalls. She had migraines as well, and the drugs and her inability to exercise caused her to gain five stone.
Then came a fortuitous celebrity inspiration: she saw a reality show called Celebrity Detox on television and booked herself into the same programme in Thailand, which included a seven-day fast with twice-daily coffee enemas. And she was introduced to a raw vegan diet.
“I started eating nuts and seeds and raw fruits and vegetables,” says Yashere. She replaced her Coca-Cola addiction with kombucha tea, a fermented drink that contains a little sugar and a great deal of live bacteria. “I started looking for recipes and making a lot of smoothies and juices.”
Within weeks, Yashere noticed big improvements in her joint pain and energy levels. What’s more, she noticed that when she started to eat processed and sugary junk food again, she relapsed. Sticking to the diet, she gradually weaned herself off her prescription drugs.
When she went for her checkup at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, she said her doctors were worried about her stopping the drugs. But she had been off them for four months and was “feeling the best I had in ages”.
At 41, Yashere is now no longer a strict vegan. She introduced fish into her diet a few years ago, and she’s tried lamb a few times and hasn’t had a relapse. “I’m not good at diets and regimens,” she says. “I’m not good at taking pills”—although she does take high-dose vitamin B12, 5,000 IU/day of vitamin D and a probiotic.
“If you met me today, you would never know I have lupus,” says Yashere. “I have minimal, if any, symptoms.
“I still have the antibodies, so the doctors try to tell me that it’s just a spontaneous remission,” she adds. But the comedian finds that laughable: “It’s funny that my spontaneous remission coincided exactly with changing my diet and lifestyle.”
Nutrition for Crohn’s
Meghan Telpner graduated from fashion school in 2003 and set off to backpack around Africa—because that’s the sort of thing 23-year-olds do. But her African expedition was blighted by “concerning digestive issues”. When she returned home to Toronto, Canada, Telpner started building a career in advertising and, at the same time, began a three-year tour of 19 doctors to figure out the symptoms that were taking over her life. Her skinny jeans were baggy and, as she recalls, “I couldn’t leave my bathroom, and my thick curly hair had lost its curl and was falling out in handfuls”.
In 2006, Telpner was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease—an autoimmune inflammatory condition of the intestines that causes bloody stools, diarrhoea and poor absorption, leading to malnutrition, weight loss, fatigue and a host of other symptoms. Like most people who receive the diagnosis, Telpner was told it’s an “incurable” lifelong condition she would simply have to “manage”.
But the feisty fashion adventurer was determined to cut her own cloth. To begin with, she quit eating processed foods, gluten and dairy. But, says Telpner, “The most impactful change I made was to my attitude”; she decided to cultivate gratitude—she calls it ‘vitamin G’—every day.
Whatever it was, it worked and, within one month, Telpner’s symptoms were gone. The revolution in her health inspired her to train as a holistic nutritionist and to write her bestselling book, UnDiet (McClelland & Stewart, 2013), followed by The UnDiet Cookbook (Penguin Random House, 2015), and to build a new school last year—The Academy of Culinary Nutrition.
Telpner doesn’t believe that a specific set of nutritional guidelines can heal, cure or reverse anything. “It’s not popping a pill, or having a procedure and carrying on with boozy indulgent weekends,” she says, but about creating lasting life changes.
Nine years on with no Crohn’s symptoms, she is certain the path she took healed her, and that a lot more people out there have done the same. Says Telpner, “There are millions of us.”
Alopecia and wellness
Molly Vazquez’s mother was blow-drying her daughter’s hair when she noticed a smooth round bald spot on the back of her head. They both it thought it “weird”, but when Molly noticed her hair falling out in clumps in the shower and on her pillowcase in the morning, she became “stressed out” and “scared”.
By the time she saw a dermatologist about six months later in 2006, only a few straggling strands of hair were left on Molly’s head and she had lost half an eyebrow. The doctor told her she had the autoimmune condition ‘alopecia totalis’, which was targeting her hair follicles so they couldn’t grow. “When it happens to people 12 and under, it’s usually not going to grow back,” he said flatly. Molly was 12.
“I didn’t cry until I got home,” says the author of Alopecia & Wellness (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015). It’s a story that includes many tear-stained pillows, huge disappointment with a hairpiece that made her look “like an Eighties beauty-pageant contestant” and the art of dealing with the mean reality of shallow peers—and also the disinterest of doctors. Vazquez knew that her disfiguring disease was not a medical priority. “I was fortunate not to have cancer, but that didn’t mean I was happy.”
It was a visit to a chiropractor nearly two years after her hair started falling out that started Vazquez down a different road. He was into organic food and had her take probiotics, fish oil and high-dose B vitamins.
She began to read about health and recalls discovering a website about factory-farmed animals that were pumped full of steroids. She showed it to her mother and the two of them were so “grossed out” that they couldn’t eat the chicken they had in the fridge for dinner that night.
“I was lazy,” says Molly. “I just wanted to eat pizza and subs. I was a typical teenager.” But she was also a teenager without hair and she knew she wasn’t going to get it back that way.
She eliminated the items she kept seeing vilified in health books and websites: gluten, dairy and red meat to begin with. Subway sandwiches and pizzas were out; quinoa salads, homemade chicken soup, and lots of vegetables and fruits were in.
Vazquez started to enjoy making her smoothies, juices and soups. She drank lots of water and started yoga. She also started listening to the popular Christian preacher Joel Osteen’s message of hope and healing, and began visualizing herself with a full head of hair.
Vazquez’s book doesn’t mention the colonic therapy she underwent because, she says, “people freak out”, but she noticed that while soft downy patches were returning after changes to her diet, her hair grew more rapidly after coffee enemas and colonic sessions.
“There was one bald spot that just wouldn’t grow and I would just get so frustrated with it,” recalls Vazquez. So she decided to “chill out” in the sun in her driveway for 20 minutes each day and, within a few weeks, she noticed hair growth there too. “Sunshine was definitely part of my healing.”
When my hair started growing back, I didn’t feel the way I had expected,” says Vazquez. “I thought I would jump for joy or be so wide-eyed that I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I felt humbled.” At times, she was afraid of having the disappointment of losing her hair again and she says, “I was really obsessed, like counting the hairs that came out in the shower.” But, says the confident 21-year-old who seems a lot wiser than her years: “I’m not afraid now.”
When your body thinks you’re the enemy
Autoimmune disease results when the body’s immune system, designed to attack foreign invaders, mistakenly turns instead to attack parts of the body it belongs to (‘auto’ is Greek for ‘self’). If the immune system is like a national defence system, then antibodies are like drones programmed to recognize foreign invaders like bacteria and destroy them.
Autoantibodies are like drones that have gone haywire, and are misidentifying a component of the human body as foreign and launching a sort of sustained ‘friendly fire’.
If autoantibodies target a component of the conductive sheaths that surround neurons, then lesions can develop on nerve fibres, nerve impulses stop conducting information properly and fire chaotically, and muscles go into spasm—the result is multiple sclerosis. If autoantibodies erroneously focus on gut tissue, then Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the result; if joint tissue is targeted, then rheumatoid arthritis or lupus strike.
Scientists are also pointing to the microbiome—the vast microscopic ecology of bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit our bodies from gut to toenails. This is currently being catalogued and investigated by laboratories all over the world. It turns out these microbes outnumber our own cells by a factor of 10 to one, and we need them. They play crucial roles in digesting our food, manufacturing vitamins, regulating gene expression and orchestrating the immune system.
Martin Blaser, director of the Human Microbiome Program at New York University, argues in his book, Missing Microbes (Oneworld Publications, 2015), that decades of cavalier use of antibiotics, antiseptics and caesarean-section deliveries are the main factors underlying our modern plagues of chronic disease, including autoimmunity. Unwittingly, in their efforts to combat disease, doctors are wiping out entire populations of these critical microorganisms that regulate immune function and prevent disease.
The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ of chronic disease explains why farm kids and people with pets, who are regularly exposed to a wide variety of microbes and even parasites, have lower incidences of autoimmune disease. And it might explain why diet can influence disease progression. The food we eat is the food our microbes eat. If we make a point to feed certain kinds of beneficial microbes, we can restore their decimated populations and reverse disease.
Common denominators in healing autoimmunity
Wahls, Yashere, Telpner and Vazquez were each diagnosed with different autoimmune disorders, and mainstream medicine directed them to doctors in entirely different specialties: neurology, rheumatology, gastroenterology and dermatology. But the approaches these women each took to heal themselves shared some basic common denominators, which you could also try if you suffer from any sort of autoimmune condition.
1. Eliminate gluten and dairy, which contain proteins known to impair gut-wall function, which is so critical for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. Avoid any foods that you are certain or suspect cause a reaction. Wahls removed eggs, for example, because she was allergic to them.
2. Ditch all processed foods that are loaded with refined sugar and salt, preservatives and other hidden chemicals that give your body extra work to detox.
3. Eat a whole-food, plant-based, anti-inflammatory diet. A diet that is 70–80 per cent vegetables and low-sugar fruit (such as citrus fruit like grapefruit, berries like blueberries and strawberries, cantaloupe melon, plums, tomatoes, avocado and guava) starves yeasts, while feeding ‘good’ gut microbes. All four women were unrestricted in their vegetable choices, including the starchy tubers or those among nightshade family. Such a diet is also rich in vitamins, minerals and thousands of phytochemicals that are powerful detoxifiers, and restore and regenerate cells and tissues. The rest of the diet should include a healthy dose of seafood or clean organic grass-fed lean meat like chicken or lamb.
4. Take daily probiotics as either capsules or, even better, in fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi (a traditional Korean dish of seasoned/spicy vegetables, usually cabbage, radish and scallions, and salt); a single serving can contain more healthful bacteria than a bottle of probiotics. Also, get plenty of sunshine (but without burning) or take a vitamin D supplement (suggested dosage: 1,000–5,000 mg/day).
5. Get fishy. Each of the four women supplemented with omega-3s as fish oil (suggested daily dosage: 3–6 g/day for inflammatory conditions) or ate fish like wild salmon, shrimp and sardines.
6. Exercise. Movement reduces stress, helps the body detox and is naturally anti-inflammatory. Aim for at least 30 min/day of exercise, whether with walking, yoga or something more energetic. Terry Wahls began her exercise regime by swimming everyday (in an indoor endless pool which has a current generator and acts like a swimmer’s treadmill), and carrying out weight training. Molly Vazquez, and Gina Yashere and Meghan Telpner all turned to yoga. Meghan also rides a bike.
7. Develop your spiritual resolve. Whether through prayer or a belief in their ability to heal themselves, these four women all decided not to dwell on their losses, but determined to improve their health and enjoy themselves in the process.
Toxins and autoimmunity
The role of environmental factors in the onset of autoimmune disease is well established. Called ‘xenobiotics’—agents foreign to the human body, including infectious bacteria and viruses, metals like mercury and aluminium, and silicone in breast implants—these are all implicated in triggering diseases like lupus (SLE) and multiple sclerosis (MS).
When used in vaccines, some of these toxins, like aluminium, are called ‘adjuvants’ because they stimulate the immune system, although their mechanisms of action are only beginning to be clarified. What’s known is that they can trigger a cascade of immune events that show initially as weakness, joint pain and chronic fatigue, and gradually and insidiously progress over years until they manifest as full-blown autoimmune disease.
Other ‘foreign’ ingredients in vaccines have been demonstrated to induce a “cross-reaction” wherein immune cells fire on friendly targets just as they would on foreign ‘invaders’ in a case of ‘mistaken identity’.
Meghan Telpner believes that her early Crohn’s disease had more to do with the vaccines she took to go to Africa and not from the effects of travel, such as picking up a parasite.
Besides these metals, we’re also exposed to pollution and pesticides, chemicals from paint, synthetic furniture, toiletries, household cleaners and detergents, Wi-Fi, and other environmental factors that the body must continually attempt to neutralize and unload.
“Some people seem to handle the toxic load without much problem,” says Terry Wahls, the doctor of internal medicine who reversed her multiple sclerosis. “But depending on your genetic susceptibility, you may be particularly sensitive to the toxins inherent in our environment.”
The increasing numbers of people with autoimmune disorders are very likely those who are most sensitive to environmental triggers. The goal, says Wahls, is to mimimize exposures to toxins while maximizing the body’s natural detoxification.
Terry Wahl’s recipe for homemade sauerkraut
This homemade sauerkraut packs more probiotic punch than a bowlful of yoghurt.
1 organic cabbage
Organic carrots, onion and/or garlic to taste
Ginger to taste
Hot peppers, whole or chopped, to taste
1 Tbsp iodized salt
1 probiotic capsule
1. Clean a wide-mouth canning jar and lid with hot, soapy water, then rinse. The goal here is to have the grated cabbage constitute 80 per cent or more of the mixture. Grate the cabbage and carrots, and the ginger if used.
2. Layer the cabbage mix into the jar along with the ginger, hot peppers and other root vegetables (to taste), sprinkling it all with salt as you go. Tightly pack the vegetables into the jar with a spoon.
3. Open the probiotic capsule and sprinkle it over the cabbage mix. Place another jar or weight with a smaller diameter than the canning jar’s opening on the cabbage to keep it submerged below the brine. Place the canning jar in another container to catch any brine that overflows during the fermentation process, and store it in a cool, dark place.
4. Check the jar periodically to remove any unsubmerged pieces of vegetables and any mould that may appear. If the level of brine is below the top of the vegetables, add more salted water until the vegetables are completely submerged (2 tsp salt to 1 cup filtered water). Note: Don’t use tap water, which has chlorine and will kill the friendly bacteria.
5. After a week, the fermentation should be sufficient, and the jar can be sealed and kept in the fridge. However, fermentation time can vary, and the vegetables can be fermented for longer until the desired taste and texture have been achieved.