Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis – Diet
How a Diet Created for Multiple Sclerosis Helped One Woman’s Rheumatoid Arthritis
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Rosa Martinez never expected a diet to transform her health, and certainly not one created to help people with multiple sclerosis (MS) rather than the rheumatoid arthritis (RA) she has. But a strict eating plan has done just that.
The plan, known as the Wahls Protocol, was created by Terry Wahls, MD a doctor of internal medicine at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City. Dr. Wahls claims the plan helped her improve her own secondary-progressive MS. And research published in April 2019 in theJournal of the American College of Nutritionshowed that the Wahls Protocol helped improved mood and brain function in people with MS.
Wahls says that her online community of followers includes people with a variety of autoimmune diseases, among them RA — and Martinez is now one of them.
Problems With RA Medications
It took seven years before Martinez’s RA was officially diagnosed. At first, doctors suggested that her fatigue as well as her joint pain and swelling were signs of stress after suffering two miscarriages. When she was finally diagnosed, in 2007, at the age of 31, she was so stiff she could barely get out of bed.
Eager for anything that might help, Martinez tried the cortisone shots and painkillers prescribed by her doctor, but they caused serious weight gain and severe dizziness. Next, she tried two different disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), but both negatively affected her kidney and liver function, so she was not able to stay on them for long.
As a result, Martinez, who lives outside Boise, Idaho, continued to suffer. At the time, she did little besides go to her government job and come home exhausted because of her RA symptoms. She was desperate to return to the life she loved, which included playing sports with her husband and dancing to rockabilly at local clubs.
Open to New Ideas
When a friend suggested that Martinez see a naturopathic doctor, she was skeptical. But she went anyway because she had just found out that she was pregnant again. She was pleasantly surprised that the naturopathic doctor’s herbs and supplements helped her feel better, and she went on to deliver her first baby, a healthy boy. (A second baby boy followed four years later.)
This experience opened her eyes to the possibility that nondrug treatments might help improve her RA. When a friend suggested eliminating gluten from her diet, Martinez and her husband used a nine-day camping trip as an opportunity to try it.
A few days into the trip, Martinez was able to ride a bicycle for the first time in a decade. By the time she returned home, she had dropped 25 pounds — weight that was mostly related to RA inflammation.
“My friends were amazed,” Martinez says. “They said, ‘What happened to you?’ I told them I broke up with gluten!”
Discovering the Wahls Diet
After that success, Martinez was eager to find out whether changing other parts of her diet might help her feel even better, since she was still experiencing RA-related soreness and swelling. Someone told her about the book The Wahls Protocol, so she bought a copy.
The Wahls Protocol is a strict diet based on a modified Paleo plan, where gluten as well as dairy are off-limits. Martinez was willing to try it.
“I won’t lie — it was hard at first not to eat these things,” says Martinez. “I used to drink several cups of milk a day and put cheese on everything. Plus, having grown up in Europe as a military brat, I didn’t think I could live without French breads.”
But the results she saw right away helped her stay on the plan: She dropped another 25 pounds of swelling.
What She Can Eat
In addition to chicken, fish, and red meats, the Wahls Protocol puts a major emphasis on vegetables and fruits, dividing them into three groups: colorful ones (purple cabbage, raspberries, carrots), leafy greens (spinach, lettuce, chard), and those that are rich in sulfur (cauliflower, onions, mushrooms).
Martinez incorporates all of these into her day by eating plenty of salads, smoothies, and stir-fry meals, as well as dishes like zucchini noodles topped with a variety of veggies. Her favorite meals are meatloaf packed with spinach, cauliflower, squash, and garlic, and bison burgers topped with bacon and avocado wrapped in lettuce leaves. Even better, her husband and her kids also love these meals.
“I don’t think of what I can eat as limited anymore,” says Martinez. “I’ve found so many ways to make great meals.” And while cost is a factor — because quality meats and vegetables are more expensive than bread and pasta — her total food bill hasn’t actually risen. That’s because she no longer spends money on processed foods and baked desserts; berries now satisfy her sweet tooth.
Personalizing the Plan
Early on, as Wahls recommends in her book, Martinez kept a detailed log of everything she ate so she could identify any food triggers. And as it turned out, some of the foods that cause trouble for her, like chicken,areallowed on the Wahls program.
Martinez’s food log also helped her discover that some foods that are typically touted as healthy, like kale and Brussels sprouts, trigger her symptoms. “Many people can eat them and thrive,” she says, “but I can’t. Each person is individual.”
Loving Her Life Again
Since she started this diet seven years ago, Martinez hasn’t had a single RA flare. With no pain or inflammation, she is able to do all the things she loves: playing soccer with her sons, now 8 and 4; practicing yoga and meditation; and dancing regularly with her husband.
Her primary care doctor — who had cautioned her not to expect the diet to be helpful — now says her blood work is perfect.
“The Wahls Protocol has shown me that food indeed can be medicine,” Martinez says. “Because of this eating plan, there’s nothing I can’t do now.
Video: Advances in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Treatment Video - Brigham and Women's Hospital
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