Palmer Kippola was a happy, healthy, well-adjusted 19-year-old girl living in Santa Monica, California. She had just returned home from college and was working a summer job as a hostess at a local restaurant. One morning she woke up, and the soles of her feet were tingling, similar to the feeling you get when you sleep wrong on an arm or leg and the blood flow gets reduced.
She didn't think anything of it and figured it would go away. But the tingling sensation crept up her legs, and by lunchtime it had reached her knees. That's when she knew something was wrong and called her parents.
The family doctor recommended a neurologist at UCLA, and by the time Palmer got to the office the tingling had crept up to her stomach. "The neurologist had me walk across the floor heel to toe, then touch my fingers to my nose to test my reflexes," says Palmer.
"It was literally a five-minute meeting, at the end of which she announced, 'I'm 99 percent certain you have multiple sclerosis. There's nothing you can do except take medication and prepare for a life in a wheelchair.'"
This was back in 1984. Neither Palmer nor her parents had ever heard of multiple sclerosis, or MS. She remembers by the time she went to bed that night after returning home from the neurologist, the tingling had reached her neck and was rapidly turning to numbness. "I remember getting into bed and my mom held me close," she says. "But I couldn't feel her holding me."
The total body numbness lasted for six weeks, during which time Palmer shuffled awkwardly from her bedroom to the living room, holding onto furniture because she couldn't feel where her body was in space. There she would lie on the sofa all day watching the 1984 Summer Olympics, crying.
In those days, there was no internet and very few information resources. But the thing that kicked Palmer into gear was a friend who stopped by and asked her a very direct question: "Why do you think you got the MS?"
"I was floored," says Palmer. "I asked her, 'What do you mean?' and all she could do was repeat the question. But I couldn't let it go. Eventually I wondered if maybe I'd brought this on myself somehow. And I thought about that a lot."
One day as Palmer was lying on the couch, it occurred to her that chronic stress was the underlying reason for her MS. There were no studies to prove it, no books, no doctors' explanations, just a flash of personal insight.
"As supportive as my dad was, he was also an ex-fighter pilot, and it was his way or the highway. He was very judgmental, and he yelled a lot, oftentimes at my mom, who struggled with her weight. I remember my mom going into her bedroom and crying behind a closed door while my dad would stand in the hallway and yell at her.
"My earliest memory is me standing up to my dad with my little dukes up at age three or four saying, 'If you call my mom names, I'll sock your lights out!'"
She also recalled that her father was an alcoholic and that she had developed chronic insomnia as a child that lasted for a very long time. "I lived in a state of hypervigilance," she says.
"Even after I left home I was like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, thinking there was something to fight about, even though there was nothing there to fight. Without a doubt my nervous system just didn't know how to relax and let go."
Unbeknownst to Palmer, her insight would precede clinical studies proving a definite relationship between childhood abuse and family dysfunction, and multiple health risk factors later in life.
A major study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was published in May 1998 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine linking childhood abuse and dysfunction with an increased risk for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and suicide, as well as the presence of adult-onset diseases including heart, lung and liver disease and cancer.1
Both physical and psychological stress have since been clinically proven to be related to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases—including multiple sclerosis.2 Currently, it is believed that hormones produced in response to stress trigger increased production of chemicals called cytokines by the immune system, which can negatively impact other cells in the body and ultimately lead to an autoimmune disease.3
"I figured if chronic stress is the problem, then I need to learn how to relax," she says. "That's when I first started doing yoga in 1987. I remember lying in corpse pose, generally considered the easiest pose, where you just lie flat on your back, but I couldn't let my back relax down to the floor. It was the hardest pose for me because I couldn't let go."
She persisted, and learning yoga and meditation paid off. Her MS symptoms were numbness and tingling that came and went, either full-body or localized to a particular area; Lhermitte's sign, where every time she would bend her neck forward she was zapped by bolt of electricity down her spine; and optic neuritis, where inflammation and demyelination of the optic nerve would cause temporary blindness. Suddenly she noticed that all these symptoms decreased in proportion to the amount of yoga and meditation she was doing.
The sensation of walking under water with legs that felt like lead, as well as the sensation of having a thousand rubber bands around her torso like a girdle, also decreased. Whenever she cut back on her stress reduction exercises or her stress levels rose, all these MS symptoms would increase.
Encouraged by having some control over her condition, Palmer began to experiment with her diet. She went on a low-fat vegetarian diet that included tubs of margarine and other vegetable oils. Then she tried Paleo, eating grass-fed meats, and then the Swank diet (often used by MS patients), eliminating red meat, decreasing saturated and unsaturated fats, and increasing whole grains, rice and pasta.
But none of these dietary approaches worked. In fact, what she called her usual "tummy troubles"— pain and indigestion after meals—increased, and so did some of her MS symptoms.
She resisted medication. The only drugs available were the ABC drugs—Avonex, Betaseron and Copaxone. The first two are interferons—a type of protein released by cells in response to a threat, and the third mimics a protein called myelin that insulates nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. All must be administered by injection and come with a range of possible debilitating side-effects such as vomiting, depression and jaundice.
Finally, a neurologist at Stanford wore her down, insisting the only way she wasn't going to wind up in a wheelchair facing an early death was to inject herself with one of these medications.
"My husband and I looked at each other in tears and said, 'Okay, we'll give it a go.' So I chose the medication that seemed to have the least amount of side-effects and injected myself every night for four years."
The medication didn't seem to do much, and when she began experiencing lipoatrophy (deterioration of the fat cells around injection sites), a wound that wouldn't heal and frightening heart attack symptoms—all 'normal' side-effects—she gave it up.
In 2011, she went to a functional nutritionist who ran tests to determine what foods agreed with her and which did not. "I figured maybe there was something I was eating that I shouldn't be," she says.
Again her intuition was correct. She tested positive for a gluten sensitivity that was causing her body's immune system to react to gluten proteins in grains as if they were a dangerous foreign substance. It had also triggered leaky gut, where the gut lining becomes permeable, allowing toxins and bacteria to enter the rest of the body through the intestinal wall.
"I'd been eating gluten at every meal ever since I was a child," Palmer says. "I had endless bowls of cereal for breakfast. I had endless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread for lunch. And then at dinner there was always pasta or pizza or something with bread on the side. I was getting a steady stream of gluten, and my gut was staying open and leaky, perpetuating autoimmune attack."
Within one week of removing gluten as well as dairy products from her diet, Palmer's digestive problems vanished. Within one month, after 26 years of suffering, feeling like her body was plugged into an electrical wall socket, she never had another MS symptom.
In February 2018, she went back to her physician for a new MRI to verify what she already knew: the scan showed no new brain lesions, and the old lesions had either disappeared or were fading. Blood tests revealed she was clear of all MS markers.
Despite her success beating MS, Palmer is clear that every human being's genetics and sensitivities are unique, and results may vary. "This is so multifactorial, you have to explore all of the triggers. You can't just assume that if you have a gluten sensitivity and you remove it, you'll be free.
"You might have a lot of other stuff going on. You might have mercury toxicity. You might have chronic Lyme disease, or you might have mold toxicity. You have to hunt down your exposures. My biggies happen to be gluten, dairy and chronic stress, which kept my gut leaking. As soon as I took out the bad stuff and healed my gut, I reversed the MS."
More and more research is showing that diet and lifestyle factors can be effective at slowing down the disease progression of MS. "The gut microbiome has deep connections to immune cell activity systemically," says Dr Terry Wahls, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa.
"It also turns out to affect the microglia, which are immune cells in the brain. The microbiome generates neurotransmitters that actually enter our bloodstream and diffuse intothe brain, and the microbiome can create these neurotransmitters that affect brain health. And the big determinant of the microbiome is the food we eat the first three years of life, and then after that the big driver is the food you're eating now."
A patient with secondary progressive MS herself, Wahls modified her diet, focusing on nutrients that were really important to healthy brain function. In one year she went from being in a wheelchair, unable to sit up, to riding her bike for 18 miles at a stretch.
"Our food is designed to be addictive and to make us obese," Wahls says. "Because of antibiotics and food additives, we're more likely to get leaky gut and then develop an immune response to gluten and dairy.
"Once that's developed you're really in trouble, because you have an excessive immune response and you're addicted to the food that's driving it. On top of that, you have all of these beautiful ads on TV that make it look like if you take that medication you'll be fine and you won't have to give up the food you're addicted to. On top of that, most conventional physicians say changing your diet, meditation and physical therapy won't help."
Dr Jacob Tietelbaum, a board-certified internist and expert in the fields of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, healed himself of both autoimmune diseases with a protocol of sleep, hormone-balancing therapy, infection mitigation, nutrition and exercise. "MS is a mismatch disease," he says.
"The human body is basically a mismatch for the current environment because our environment is changing rapidly. There are some 85,000 chemicals that are new to our system that have been added into the environment. So our immune system is having to deal with all those. We've had a rapid advance of antibiotics, and bacteria and viruses have become more involved in new infections. When you look at MS ... it's a common endpoint for a lot of different stresses on the body."
Palmer, who is now a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach, says MS and other autoimmune diseases are manageable, and healing is within our own power. "The CDC came out with a study that shows our genes represent up to 10 percent of our health outcomes. It's our lifestyle and the environment—what we eat, think, drink and do—that account for the other 90 percent of our health. We can't blame our parents anymore. We have to take personal responsibility. That's why when I found out about all this I thought, 'This should be front page news.'"
To help people with MS and other autoimmune disorders, Palmer uses a holistic approach to healing. One of the key principles of functional medicie is that no illness happens in isolation, and the approach is designed to empower patients to take ownership of their healing process.
Palmer takes into consideration the individual biochemical and genetic profile of each client, thoroughly assessing the client's psychological makeup, history of triggering events, physiology, nutritional regime, hydration, sleep and relaxation, stress factors and relationships.
Coaching may include more comprehensive testing than the standard medical workup, such as testing for adrenal function, digestive and gastrointestinal health, leaky gut, biochemical deficiencies and environmental toxicity load.
All of this is needed to paint an accurate picture of a client's unique physiological and environmental situation, uncovering what's really going on and addressing it on an individual basis. As Palmer succinctly puts it, "Detect, remove, repair!"
Palmer has also been mentored by a classically trained homeopath, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and functional nutritionist, and an organic chemist. Furthermore, she has extensively studied autoimmune dysfunction, mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, neurofeedback and energy-balancing techniques.
Her new book, Beat Autoimmune: The 6 Keys to Reverse Your Condition and Reclaim Your Health (Citadel, 2019), explores six critical lifestyle factors that are the root causes of autoimmune conditions, revealing how to heal your gut, clear infections, reduce toxic load, manage stress, balance your hormones and regain health.
"I help people access the information they need to make informed decisions on how to achieve and maintain wellbeing. I believe that everyone can find even a little more freedom, no matter where they are on their healing journey. Even if it's only a slight shift in perspective.
"People need to know when you're told there is nothing you can do, it's all in your head or all you can do is take medications—nothing could be further from the truth. Genetically, we don't have to express the genes. They'll always be there. But I don't have to express the genes for MS. That's a choice."
F.I.G.H.T.S. studies (Food, Infections, Gut, Hormones, Toxins, Stress)
According to the CDC, genetics accounts for about 10 percent of diseases, and the rest appear to be from environmental causes.1
Palmer recommends addressing MS and all other autoimmune diseases via diet, dealing with bacterial and viral infections such as Lyme, healing leaky gut and increasing the health and strength of the gut microbiome, balancing hormones and strengthening adrenal and thyroid function, mitigating the toxin onslaught from the environment (including mold toxins), and managing stress through meditation, yoga and exercise.
FOOD: Studies show people with mild to moderate MS experience better mobility, overall function and quality of life with increased fat intake, decreased carbohydrate intake and increased intake of the micronutrients cholesterol, folate, iron, and magnesium.2 Research also reveals that changes in gut junction permeability associated with food additives—leading to a so-called 'leaky gut'—are linked to increased risk of autoimmune diseases.3
INFECTIONS: Multiple sclerosis has been associated with the presence of Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which cause Lyme disease.4 Worldwide, MS rates parallel the distribution of B. burgdorferi.5
GUT: A recent study found that gut bacteria may drive the progression of multiple sclerosis.6 Clinical evidence also reveals that people with MS suffer microbial imbalances in the gut.7
HORMONES: Sex hormones are a determinant in the risk of developing MS.8 MS patients also have been found to have skewed thyroid hormone levels, with elevated T4 levels and low T3 and TSH levels.9
TOXINS: MS is considered to result from both genetic and environmental factors, with environmental factors figuring prominently.10
STRESS: Stress-related disorders are significantly associated with autoimmune diseases,11 and negative stress can trigger new MS activity.12
Palmer's 10 healthy eating habits
- For optimal blood sugar balance, compose your plate with two-thirds vegetables and one-third healthy protein, with liberal amounts of good fats.
- Read labels and stick with short, recognizable ingredient lists with little to no added sugar.
- Select a rainbow of colorful produce, in season and locally grown.
- Budget for organic food—a big investment in your health. Shop at local farmers' markets and consider joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for weekly deliveries of vegetables, meats and raw dairy.
- Cook at home and enlist the rest of the family to help.
- Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly.
- Replace white table salt with pink Himalayan or gray Celtic sea salt, which has higher mineral content.
- Use glass and stainless steel for food and water storage.
- Rotate different foods instead of eating the same things all the time.
- Try new foods like organ meats and homemade bone broth
Palmer's top 12 foods to avoid
- Gluten. A difficult-to-digest protein found in wheat, rye, barley and spelt.
- Sugars and sweeteners. Avoid white sugar and anything with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), agave and artificial sweeteners.
- Sweetened and grain-based beverages. Avoid fruit juice, beer (contains gluten), and regular and diet sodas. Diet soda contains aspartame, a known neurotoxin.
- Processed foods. Most packaged and fast foods spike blood sugar, promoting insulin resistance, obesity, cancer and autoimmunity. Avoid even 'gluten-free' packaged goods and processed flours.
- Processed fats. Eliminate all processed vegetable oils except olive oil. Eliminate margarine, shortening, canola, corn, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils and hydrogenated fats (AKA trans fats).
- GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Avoid GMO foods and products from animals that are fed GMO grains and corn.
- Commercially raised animal products. You are what your food ate. That includes GMO grains, hormones, antibiotics and the stress of confinement. Avoid CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) meats, eggs and dairy.
- Legumes. Avoid lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, soybeans and peanuts. (Peanuts often contain aflaxtoxins, liver-damaging chemicals from mold.)
- Unfermented soy. Avoid unfermented soy products and go with organic fermented soy options like natto, tempeh and miso.
- Dried and canned fruits. Eliminate all dried and canned fruits. (Excess sugar!)
- Food additives. Avoid anything with preservatives, artificial flavors and colorings.
- High-heat cooking. Marinate meats before grilling. Steam, sauté or bake food at lower temperatures.