Tech + Health

04.23.14

How to Make Doctors Irrelevant

After a simple, modified Paleo diet reversed her multiple sclerosis, one doctor is exposing health care and big pharma’s dirty secret: Prescriptions don’t make you well.

When Dr. Terry Wahls accepted her new job as Chief of Primary Care at the Iowa VA Medical Center, she never could have guessed that her multiple sclerosis (MS) would be so bad within a few years that she would be spending most of her time in a tilt-recline wheelchair. And as a conventional physician, she also never would’ve guessed that optimal nutrition—not medicines— would be the key to getting up from that chair and getting her life back.

Dr. Wahls’ experience, which she recounts in her new book, The Wahls’ Protocol, is a story of grit and determination worthy of a major motion picture deal—one that also happens to instruct us on why our health care system is failing so many patients. 

As we expand our current system, policymakers seem to have taken it as an article of faith that American health care—when you can get it—is the best in the world. That may be true for surgery or emergency care. But with a focus on managing—not curing—chronic disease, many thoughtful physicians know that chronically ill patients don’t get better—they get medicated.

Indeed, by conventional standards, Dr. Wahls received great medical care. She had sympathetic doctors who prescribed cutting-edge drugs. Those drugs cost around $5,000 a week but are only marginally effective. “Studies show these medicines reduce acute relapses, but they don’t affect time-to-wheelchair,” Dr. Wahls told me. “And some medicines can have very serious side effects. But patients will take something that makes them feel worse today because they’re terrified they’ll be bedridden and demented tomorrow.”

Despite her excellent care, Dr. Wahls grew progressively disabled. With no other medicines left to try, her doctor recommended she look into alternative treatments that centered on diet. That’s when Dr. Wahls discovered that vitamins and other supplements could slow neurologic decline in lab animals. Soon she realized something that seems patently obvious in retrospect. “All disease begins on a cellular level,” she says. “When cells are starved of building blocks they need—disease begins.”’

This has broad implications for the American health care system, which many critics have quite rightly dubbed a  “sick care” system. “We’re not telling patients the truth—that medicines won’t make you well,” Dr. Wahls says. Patients with multiple medical problems who have found themselves standing in the kitchen choking down pill after pill probably have an idea of what she is taking about. “Life is self-correcting chemistry,” says Dr. Wahls. “If we fix the nutrition, this is the real way to address the root cause of most disease.”

So Dr. Wahls developed a diet that would provide the building blocks her broken cells needed. It’s a modified Paleo diet that entails eating 9 cups of vegetables a day—with plenty of meats, fish, organ meats, nuts, seeds, berries and adequate quantities of good fats—and it provides far more than the RDA for the 31 key nutrients for the brain. With that diet and physical therapy, she soon began to improve. And after six months, she was able to ride her bike—something she hadn’t been able to do for a decade.  

Now she is conducting clinical trials in MS patients to prove this wasn’t a fluke, and the studies are going very well. In addition, she uses a nutritional approach at the VA with her traumatic brain injury patients, as well as those in her therapeutic lifestyle clinic. She finds that all kinds of people get better—even those with difficult-to-treat conditions like Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia, obesity and other autoimmune conditions. “The first thing that happens [to patients in my clinic] is they have decreased pain, better mental clarity, and more energy,” Dr. Wahls said. “The women say the weight is falling off and the men say that their love lives are better.”   

“But with a focus on managing—not curing—chronic disease, many thoughtful physicians know that chronically ill patients don’t get better—they get medicated.”

Yet consider our conventional treatment for these conditions. Our only meaningful solution for obesity has been invasive bariatric surgery; and for conditions like impotence—to provide expensive penis pumps and testosterone. No one who has put serious thought into this situation can honestly contend that expanding the current model is going to save money or improve the nation’s health.  

But it’s going to be hard to change our medical paradigm. Dr. Wahls herself was almost totally disabled before she could accept that the conventional approach wasn’t the answer. She was researching the most cutting-edge, experimental, and possibly toxic drugs before she considered going back to basics. It seems a metaphor for much that is wrong with our outlook in medicine today: believing there’s a top-down technological—even futuristic—fix to our problems—for both individual diseases and the whole of the American health care system itself.

Although frequently maligned in the media as obstructing medical reform, many physicians are clamoring for change. They’re working hard and not seeing people get better, and they’re not happy prescribing medicines that may do more harm than good. There’s a grassroots movement of physicians leaving conventional practice and going into Lifestyle, Alternative, or Functional medicine—specialties that search for the underlying cause of chronic illness—and much of their work begins with restoring good nutrition.

Dr. Wahls believes that some day prescribing diet therapy will be part of our medical protocols. But until the rest of the medical community catches up, she still has hope. “I see the public being early adopters of this—and they will make doctors irrelevant.” In the end, Dr. Wahls says, “Creating health comes down to the food we eat and how we choose to live our lives.”