When multiple sclerosis (MS) landed me in a wheelchair, my children were still in elementary school. Over the next few years, I became profoundly disabled. Yet, I consider having MS and becoming severely disabled a most remarkable gift. It has made me a better physician and clarified my mission: to teach others with severe health challenges that they too can regain mobility, well-being, and vitality, just as I did.
After 7 years of steadily worsening disability, I reclaimed my health. I now bike 5 miles to and from work each day. This health transformation was not due to drugs, surgery, or stem cell transplants. It came from simple changes that you can do yourself. You too could transform your health.
When I was diagnosed with MS, I knew that half of newly diagnosed MS patients become unable to work within 10 years due to severe fatigue. As an academic physician, I decided to treat my disease aggressively. I did not want to become disabled. I saw the best doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, an internationally recognized MS center, but still, I declined steadily. I took the latest, greatest drugs but within three years, I needed a tilt-recline wheelchair and was battling severe fatigue.
It was difficult to sit up in a regular chair. My disease transitioned to secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. At that point, there are usually no spontaneous improvements. My doctors told me that functions once lost were gone forever. There was no cure.
That is when I began studying the research and using what I learned to experiment on myself. I learned about the Paleolithic diet, and, after 20 years as a vegetarian, I went back to eating meat, but I continued to decline. I read about basic science studies of animal models for multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative disorders and then added various vitamins and supplements to my regimen. My decline slowed somewhat, and I was grateful. But I was still declining.
I continued to read and experiment. After 7 years of steady decline, I discovered the Institute for Functional Medicine and took their course, A Functional Medicine Approach to Neuroprotection and Neurodegeneration. The list of vitamins I took got longer, but I didn’t change much.
A few months later, I had an ‘a-ha’ moment! Instead of taking vitamins and supplements, I decided to reorganize my diet to get those nutrients from the food I ate. I did more research to find the food sources of all those nutrients. I added meditation back to my daily routine. I had been an athlete before the MS diagnosis and used to work out daily. Now, I asked my physical therapist to use a technique that athletes use to recover after surgery or injury, that is, electrical stimulation of muscles. In short, I was doing everything that I could to improve my health.
I adjusted my diet to consume the nutrients science said my brain cells needed to thrive. I meditated and exercised daily, though I was so weak that whenever I did more than an easy 10-minute workout, I got bedridden for the next day or two. I knew that progressive MS could not be reversed. So, I made all those changes in an effort to slow the decline.
The results of my intensive diet and lifestyle program stunned my family, my physicians, and me. My fatigue and brain fog melted away within weeks. Within months, I was walking, at first with a cane, and then without it. At the end of the year, after six years of being unable to do so, I was biking again. In fact, I completed an 18-mile bike ride with my family.
The knowledge about the disease, health, and how I practiced medicine were transformed. Instead of focusing on the newest drugs, I focused on teaching people how diet choices, lifestyle choices, and environmental exposures create the health we have or do not have.
Then, I taught people how to eat for the optimal health of their cells, especially their brain cells. I taught them why and how to make changes to their stress management and physical activity levels. Time and again, I saw people with major health challenges, people with chronic pain, fatigue, and low mood, people with autoimmune issues, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and/or mental health issues, turn around their health.
Blood pressure and blood sugar normalized, pain reduced, brain fog disappeared, and mood stabilized. If I can come back from such profound disability, there is a good chance that you could turn your health around too.
For most of us, drugs will not create health and vitality. They may help control symptoms for a time, but they cannot create health in a person whose diet is deficient in the building blocks our cells need to correctly conduct the biology of life.
The main reason for so many Americans not getting the necessary vitamins and minerals they need, is they eat less than two servings of vegetables a day, depriving their cells of the proper mix of vitamins, minerals, fats, and antioxidants they need to function correctly. And this poor American diet is becoming universal, taking hold in many developed and developing nations. We are all eating more and more sugar and white flour, and fewer and fewer vegetables and berries. The result? Our cells are missing the building blocks they need to thrive, and we are getting sick. The rates of obesity and chronic disease steadily climb.
When our cells conduct the chemistry of life without the proper building blocks, molecules get made with the wrong shapes or not at all. Brain cells are unable to make the proper mix of neurotransmitters and myelin, the fatty insulation around nerve cells, that is not repaired as efficiently. The membranes that wrap each cell are more rigid and less effective at activating or quieting the cell as needed. In short, the chemistry of all our cells begins to falter, which diminishes our health and encourages disease. The solution is to make sure our cells have all the micronutrients they need.
Unfortunately, you can’t just take vitamins while continuing to eat junk food. Most vitamins are synthetic and not as biologically active as the nutrients found in food. Vegetables and berries contain nutrients in their natural form and shape as well as the whole family of related compounds that contribute to the biologic activity of the various nutrients. Taking synthetic vitamins and supplements is not the solution. Food, particularly vegetables and berries, contains thousands of compounds that our cells use to support the chemistry of life, helping it run smoothly in a health-promoting way instead of a garbled, confused, disease-promoting way.
The “secret” to optimal health is simple: a diet rich in greens, sulfur-rich vegetables, brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and high-quality protein. The goal is 9 cups of vegetables and berries per day (for a 170-pound male). Once you start filling your plate with the foods your body needs, there’ll be very less room for poor dietary choices that will lead to ill health.
Learning how to prepare home-cooked meals is a key step to restoring health. That is why I wrote a cookbook. I wanted people to feel comfortable cooking and to learn how to prepare a delicious, healthful meal in under 30 minutes. By learning how to cook at home, you can reduce food waste and save money at the same time as you restore your health.
I have discovered that once my patients understand why and how diet and lifestyle choices can improve the health of their cells, a vast majority are willing to start eating vegetables. Furthermore, by changing their diets, my patients discover that their pain steadily diminishes, their energy improves, and excess body weight melts away.
Here is a secret: There is no drug that can create health in the absence of food that provides all the vitamins, minerals, and essential fats that your cells need to thrive. If you starve your cells, your biochemistry will become broken, and you will develop chronic disease.
In addition to teaching patients how to use food to create health, I conduct clinical research on patients with secondary progressive MS. It is exciting to work. In addition to my research, I travel around the country and the world, spreading the message that food is medicine or the slowest form of poison, depending on our choices.