Dr. Chris Hardy is emerging as a leader in public health, merging his expertise in nutrition, strength and conditioning, and in clinical and preventive medicine into a comprehensive approach to treat chronic disease.
Chris has a diverse background including:
• 13 years active military service in both the U.S. Army and Navy, serving as a
military deep sea diver and much more.
• Bachelor degree in biochemistry.
• Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.
• Chief Resident at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health
• He has formal training in medical acupuncture
• Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
• And much more but I think you get the point.
I had the pleasure of meeting Chris Hardy at the recent Dragondoor Health and Strength Conference where we were both speakers, and I was very impressed with what he covered so I decided to ask him on The Vital Way. On this episode you’ll discover:
• What is Allostatic Load?
• How Broccoli stresses Your Antioxidant Defense System
• How Mindfulness Works…And Mindful Eating!
• How Adaptogens Operate on the HPA Axis…Plus How Some People Use Adaptogens Wrong
• The Culture Wide Phenomenon of Abdicating Health
• Different Effects of Different Saturated Fats
• Why You Shouldn’t Think In Terms of Macronutrients
• Fermented Food vs. Fermentable Fiber
• How the Gut-Brain Connection Goes Both Ways
• And much more
Click the link below to access the complete transcript.
Logan: Welcome, everyone. This is Logan Christopher with the Vital Way podcast. We have another exciting interview lined up for you here today. On the call is Dr. Chris Hardy. He is emerging as a leader in public health, merging his expertise in nutrition, strength & conditioning and in clinical and preventive medicine into a comprehensive approach to treat chronic disease. He has a diverse background, including 13 years active military service in both the US Army and Navy, serving as a military deep sea driver and much more, Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, Chief Resident at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, formal training in medical acupuncture, certified strength and conditioning specialist and really much more but I think you get the point. I had the pleasure of meeting Chris at the recent Dragon Door Health & Strength Conference where we were both speakers. I was very impressed with what he covered so I decided to ask him here on the call. Thanks for joining us, Chris.
Chris: Yeah. It’s my pleasure, Logan. I appreciate it.
Logan: All right. Well, definitely over the course of this call I think we’re going to dive into some nitty-gritty details but I’d like to start with a bit of the bigger picture. If you could sum it up, what would you say is your overall health philosophy?
Chris: Yeah. Wow, that’s not an easy question to answer. In general, I think there’s so much more we could do really do with prevention. Really, we only give lip service to it but I don’t think it’s really followed. I think we rely way too much on pharmaceuticals and quick fixes. And it’s not just the industry. It’s the consumer, too, and the patient. I think we’ve become very passive patients. So my philosophy is really to get people active in their own health care as true partners. Otherwise, you’re going to be just almost a victim of it. That’s the underlying full philosophy. And to become an active partner, you really have to educate yourself. That was the whole reason I wrote the book.
Logan: Absolutely. I’ve definitely thought about that myself. It’s really kind of in our culture. Like you were saying, it’s not just sort of the establishment’s fault that we’ve been sort of led to believe that our health is up to the doctor. It’s abdicated responsibility that we don’t have for ourselves but yeah, there’s definitely a flaw in that. I very much agree with your philosophy there. I’m curious, what led you on this path of health? You’ve covered all these different grounds. What really got you started and how did you get to where you are today?
Chris: You mean in medicine?
Chris: Wow, you’ll be sorry you asked this question. Actually, I had no plans at all to go into medicine. I was really happy as a military diver. It’s kind of what I wanted to do for a while. I actually got injured about three years into it as a young guy and kind of had to start looking at other options. Actually, part of my job as a diver was running hyperbaric chambers. We treat diving injuries, decompression sickness and stuff like that but we also treat local hospital patients like burn patients and people getting skin grafts and stuff like that so I had a chance to interface with a couple of doctors while I was running the chamber. One of them encouraged me like hey man, you seem to have a scientific aptitude; have you ever considered going into medicine? I said no, I haven’t.
So I ended up getting out of the military in the first time after four years in starting school relatively late, 25, for my undergrad. As soon as I got into Biochem curriculum, I was kind of fascinated. But science is what really drove me into it and then it just kind of snowballed from there. Along the way, like many of us, through med school I changed my mind a billion times about what to do. I kind of landed in public health, not that I don’t do clinical medicine but because I think the biggest impact is what we can have in the public health arena, instead of just in the trenches doing primary care medicine, for me anyway.
Then parallel to that, I’ve always been a trainer. Since I was a diver, we had to have tough physical fitness basically just to do our job. I mean underwater construction is basically what we did and you have to be in really good shape to drag around heavy hydraulic tools and all the stuff we used and just lug around with the suits was hard. But I kind of got put in charge of training, the physical training of my fellow divers and that was really challenging. I’m like oh gosh, how do I learn to be a trainer? I actually did that, I started on that course about ten years before I even became an actual physician. So I’ve always been, both on the fitness side and on the health side, really just interested in the human body and how to better it. I hope that answered your question. There are so many tangents I can go off on.
Logan: Right. I’m curious because as I said on the intro, you’ve really done all these different things from going to with Biochemistry to acupuncture. How do you sort of bring all these together because there’s definitely a time and a place for a specialist in like a single area but also with that, you kind of lose that bigger picture. Often times, that’s what I’d see. So how do these things go together for you?
Chris: For me, that’s an awesome question because I thought stuff that we don’t learn well in medical school, nutrition and exercise, can tend to have the largest impact on our health, which doesn’t make sense any at all. Why wouldn’t we get any education on that? I could go off on all these conspiracy theories on why I might think that but anyway, that’s what I chose to focus. From the clinical side, the musculoskeletal medicine, really we do a poor job of it in the United States. People have surgeries all the time but how many physicians are adept at doing good, non-surgical musculoskeletal care? That’s what drove me into the osteopathic profession. I got a little more training in that.
But the acupuncture, my manual medicine stuff I do and my exercise all go together and is very cohesive in helping people get through injuries and not have to resort to surgery. On the other aspect of it, the nutrition and exercise also go into preventing chronic disease in the first place. I think that they all go into attacking the problems head on instead of throwing pharmaceuticals at them. Everything I’ve pursued really goes along that line. And how can we empower the patient? How can we really keep them out of our offices and not be reliant on us? So every little thing I’ve picked up, whether it’s acupuncture which is a great adjunct to musculoskeletal stuff, nutrition, training, all that is to that end. It’s to really help us stay away from the specialist. We need them every once in a while. We need emergency medicine. We need that stuff and it does wonderful things. But as far as chronic diseases and general musculoskeletal care, we can do a much better job. That’s kind of what I try to tackle and why I do what I do.
Logan: Yeah, I definitely agree there. Western medicine is really great in cases of acute trauma. Surgery is life-saving. It definitely has its place and pharmaceuticals as well but the whole chronic disease thing, it’s really kind of pitiful in a lot of places and you realize that it’s really missing so many components. I was just at an herbalism class this past weekend, talking about how you can deal with pain, the whole pharmaceutical is just throw drugs at it, kill the pain but really with the sort of vitalist, herbalist approach, looking at what’s behind that pain, you have all these different ways you can work with it besides just pain-killers.
Chris: That’s so true.
Logan: So you along with Marty Gallagher, you wrote book—well, more like a large tome—called Strong Medicine. It’s almost 600 pages. I’m about 200 pages into it and I just think it’s fantastic. I really admire that you’re able to cover a lot of the detail without making it overly scientific and your use of metaphors, basically stories, getting people to understand how you do, I really admire how you’ve done that in that book and like the lot of detail as well as not being overly technical. What led you specifically to writing this book?
Chris: Again, I didn’t set out to write a book. It was funny. Actually, it’s out of necessity. When I was in the military seeing patients, even in the military in our modern medical establishment, basically we had maybe 15, maybe if you’re lucky 30 minutes to see a patient. A lot of them will say hey doc, what can I do to get healthy? I’m like wow, there’s so much but what can I impart in that small time I see you? So I started developing patient handouts on different topics like sleep, nutrition, exercise and those handouts started becoming huge. I started diving into the literature again and sensing what does the science actually show. Let’s get a scientific foundation instead of taking what is out there in conventionalism and critically examine some of these things. Wow, I went down that rabbit hole basically and I think I generated like 20 of these handouts. I was like wow, I should put these all together. But now I need a way to tie it together.
I started talking with Marty who is an amazing writer if you guys have ever read anything that he’s put out. He kind of said hell yeah, let’s work on this together. He really helped a lot with what we were trying to say, how we could do this in a cohesive manner and obviously he added an amount of expertise to the weight training. But he’s much more than that. He really, really helped me get those message across. I like to use a lot of pictures as you probably imagined in the book so that was really important for both of us. He acted as a sounding board and said okay, I see what you’re trying to say but how can we do this simpler but without losing the meaning of it and still have the detail but not overwhelm people? That’s a hard thing to do. That’s the most challenging thing of the book because some people were like, “It’s too basic” and others were like, “Wow, I don’t understand it.” It’s like finding that happy medium is really tough. So it wasn’t like wow, I want to write a book. I think it’s just kind of like an organic process, just from a need and it just kind of blew up there.
Logan: Well, it’s a very excellent. Like I said, I’m only about a third of the way through but I do recommend it to people that are really interested in health. As we were saying before, everyone should have an interest in health because if you just rely on the doctors, you’re not going to get too far. I highly recommend that you check this book out. We’ll include links to it in the show notes. It’s called Strong Medicine.
With some of the things you’ve covered in that book I definitely want to talk about in more detail, I guess one of the first places to start, kind of where you start is the topic of stress and the analogy of the stress cup. Can you explain this to people listening and why they should think about stress in these terms?
Chris: The stress cup is really a way to simplify the concept called allostatic load. Really what that is is just a scientific term. If you think about it, your brain and your body have the ability at any one time to successfully adapt to stress because we need stress, right? That’s why we do exercise. That’s why some of the plants that we eat, they actually create little stress responses. They actually build up our bodies’ defense systems. So we need stress but there’s a limit of what we can take and stress from all sources like poor sleep, even socio-psychological stresses of a boss that’s a jerk, you drive in traffic every morning, you don’t eat well, that type of thing, you’re working out too little or even too much, it all goes into A) all that stress piles up together on any given and I came up with the concept of let’s just make it a cup and you think of stress as pouring it into a cup and calling it a stress cup.
Really, the idea is if you pile stress into the stress cup but you don’t overfill it, your body can successfully adapt to that and you don’t have any long-term problems. But when you start overfilling it, for instance, getting three hours of sleep and then still wanting to hit a heavy workout and not eating properly then your body goes into a stress response to try and protect itself. That’s fine from time to time. But when you do that constantly, if we’re constantly sleep-deprived, we constantly have a bad diet, we don’t exercise well, that creates something called allostatic overload or in simple terms, overfilling your stress cup all the time. That actually leads to an overactive stress response which leads to chronic disease, which we talk about in the book. There are some physiological processes there that are underlying how that actually happens. But it’s a way to look at chronic disease and managing your stress cup really can keep you from going down that path of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even cancer to an extent.
Logan: So what is the tie-in between inflammation, which is basically what’s said to be at the root of all these diseases you just mentioned, and stress?
Chris: Inflammation is needed. Just to back-track a little bit, we know that our immune system is the primary generator of it and it’s there to heal wounds if you’re injured and to prevent and fight off pathogens like viruses and bacteria. So we need inflammation but low levels of inflammation all the time are the things that lead to things like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc., and even helps speed some cancer along. Now chronic stress, what it does in overflowing the stress cup all the time it puts us in a low level fight-or-flight state which basically, for those of you who knows a little bit of neuroscience, the sympathetic nervous system, the flight-or-fight system, instead of being on just to run away from a predator or to exercise, instead on being on short periods of time in bursts, it’s on low levels all the time.
The sympathetic nervous system by itself produces an inflammatory response, which makes sense. If you’re injured, it’s basically the injury process and the inflammation helps rebuild. But you don’t want it on all the time. That’s what leads to all these chronic diseases. We’re just not wired to have our fight-or-flight system on all the time. That’s kind of how stress is directly linked to it. The brain and immune system are linked very, very closely together. You can’t really separate them.
Logan: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of stress is created in our minds. It’s not necessarily what we do but how we think about those things that we do so what are some tips you have on what people can do sort of shift their mindset to be more stress-free or lower that load of stress that goes into the cup?
Chris: You hit it right on the head. It’s not that the stress disappears. It’s how we perceive it and how we deal with it. If it’s perceived to be a threat, it’s going to put the stress response on. You have things like worry, worrying about the future and rumination which is gosh, going over and over the internal dialogue. It’s always running in our heads and we’re not in the moment.
So one of the things that we talk about in the book is very simple concept of mindfulness actually. Okay, let’s slow down. Let’s get rid of that internal dialogue for a while and let’s just be here experiencing where we’re at in the moment. A lot of people do it through different ways, through meditation, through breathing practices, yoga, tai chi—I wrote in the blog recently in Dragon Door about mind monkeys, right? They’re just chattering in their head—whatever you can do to quiet those down.
Usually, it’s paying attention to something in the present moment, your body, how your body is functioning, something where you’re not worrying or ruminating about things. That sounds really easy but it’s very, very difficult if you’ve never tried to even count ten breaths without letting some intrusive thought kind of take over. So yeah, it’s that mindfulness practice that we go over in the book. It’s just very, very simple. You can start with breathing practice. You do it like you work out. You start slowly and build with it because you’re really rebuilding your brain. A chronically stressed brain is structurally and functionally different than one that isn’t, which is kind of a new concept over the last 10 or 15 years. These brains have actually changed and you can actually change them back through neural plasticity—some of your listeners may have—I know that you are all about that. So the first tip is basically find some type of mindfulness practice. It’s amazing how much more resilient you become when those stresses do come up. It’s like yeah, they’re still there but you’re not reacting to them quite as much.
Logan: Yeah, I remember hearing about sort of early on when I was studying the subject of stress that we seem to—and this happens in nature in different areas—at a certain point, we can kind of build up to a stress and then maybe break through to another level where stuff that used to bother us just no longer seems to have the same effect as it did before. Like you were saying, mindful practices are a variety of other ways that’s going to help us do that.
Lately, I’m writing an article, kind of a thought experiment about achieving ideal health, what that would actually look like if you had a person that was ideally healthy throughout his or her life and this idea of stress. A lot of people on the surface might think that oh, the person wouldn’t have any stress but we know that wouldn’t be allostatic. Not having any stress would probably be even worse than having too much stress. You wouldn’t even get up in the morning. You wouldn’t grow in any certain way so that wouldn’t be useful. But if you have a person that’s ideally healthy like has all the nutrition and is doing all the foundational basics, hydration, sleep and all that, this person could actually handle a whole lot of stress, in which case the resilience and adaptability would just continue to get better and better. Do you have any comments on that?
Chris: Yeah, you just said the key word. It’s resilience basically and you build this over time and it’s through experience. It’s basically a framing way of things and things that used to be stressful. It’s kind of like when my daughter started college. She had a tough major, Geophysics, very science-intensive, math-intensive and when her first final came in her freshman year, she’s freaking out about finals. On her second year of grad school, six years later she’s like yeah, it’s like okay, another final, I know what to do. That experience of success and adapting to something creates resilience and that is through experience. So yeah, we need those stresses in amounts to create that resilience you’re talking about and that ideally healthy person would have resilience, the ability to adapt which is basically their stress cup has gotten bigger.
Logan: Absolutely. You mentioned some of the plant compounds like bioflavonoids. They stress the body and the body becomes basically more adaptable, more resilient. This is something I meant to talk to you about at the conference but then didn’t have a chance to. What’s your feeling about adaptogenic herbs and how do these fit into the stress cup picture?
Chris: Interesting. A lot of the adaptogens, specifically Panax ginseng, holy basil, things that were traditional adaptogens—I’ve actually studied these—we’re really not sure on a molecular basis how they work. If you look at plant chemicals in general, the ones that are supposed to healthy for us, they’re supposed to be antioxidants. Just as a given example—I’m doing a roundabout on your question but I’m just using this as an example—when you have some of the compounds like sulforaphanes in broccoli and some of the other phytochemicals in green leafy vegetable s especially, they actually stress the body’s antioxidant system and our pathways to detoxify compounds. So they ramp those up. In a test tube, yes, some of them act as antioxidants but that’s not how they work in the body. They actually stress our system and ramp up our antioxidant defense system through a process called formesis which we discuss in Strong Medicine as well where these little amounts of things that could potentially be toxic at high levels actually are very beneficial for us.
For adaptogens, the thought is that they work through kind of calming or normalizing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and how they affect that stress response is still under a lot of research right now. But I found personally, I think they work great. I use holy basil myself, especially when I think my cortisol is flipped upside down. I think they work great. But again, they’re helpful but you have to do some of the interventions that are driving some of the problems, right? If you have chronically bad sleep and you’re stressed out of your mind, you can load yourself up on adaptogens all you want and they’re not going to be magic bullets, in other words.
Logan: Right. Actually, one of my herbalist teachers talks about the idea that some people are misusing adaptogens because you’d often feel energy with their use or something. So if that person that has really crappy sleep and they’re just loading up on adaptogens in order to continue doing that and still be able to go about their day, working too much and all that, it can drive them a bit further in the hole because they’re not addressing those foundational components.
Chris: That’s so true. I always use this analogy. When you have a diabetic and they’re at the point they’re on a medication now and now their blood sugar is better, they think oh well, I’m good to go now. No, you’re not because down the line you’re going to end up crashing and burning. You’re going to need more and more medications and eventually insulin. The same is true for the herbals. Not only do I have training in Integrative Medicine and some actual training in some stuff but my wife is going to be a naturopathic physician next year. She’s graduating so we talk about this stuff all the time and it’s kind of her philosophy as well, too. These should be adjuncts and supportive to your lifestyle interventions.
Logan: Yeah, I agree completely. You mentioned insulin there. Let’s move a bit into nutrition and how this affects stress and basically everything else in the body. On that topic, could you talk about how each macronutrient, fat, protein, carbohydrates, they trigger the release of different hormones, insulin and glucagon? Could you talk about that?
Chris: Sure, I can and I’ll tell you just off the bat, I try to get away as much as possible from discussing food in the context of macronutrients. We used to do that all the time and I think it can really lead us astray.
Logan: I agree.
Chris: We’re at more like food quality but sure, I’ll answer your question. Protein in general gives a glucagon response and a little bit of insulin. Fat is pretty neutral as far as our anabolic. It doesn’t really promote much of an insulin response at all or a glucagon response. It certainly promotes other digestive processes like cholecystokinin and things that help actually emulsify and digest fat but it’s fairly neutral as far as that goes, as far as the hormonal insulin or glucagon thing.
And obviously carbohydrates, it depends how much insulin is needed to store that as what type of carbohydrate because fiber is biochemically a carbohydrate but we don’t break it down. Our gut bacteria do so it’s basically insulin-neutral. It doesn’t really promote much of an insulin spike where processed grain-based carbohydrates which is just basically strung together glucose will promote pretty large insulin secretion. But again, it has to do with your sensitivity to all these things and how fast insulin goes up and then comes back down. I think we’ve become so focused thinking that insulin is an evil thing and it’s not. Insulin resistance certainly is. That’s such a complex subject. Are there any more specifics on those?
Logan: I think we should probably talk about what you raised as the point, that we shouldn’t really talk about macronutrients so much because it’s really not the whole picture. A fat is not a fat. I can remember looking at a study where they were basically comparing single macronutrient diets in rats, the carbohydrate group, the fat group and the mixed group and in the abstract this was all that was said. I was like that’s not enough detail because a fat is not a fat. Then I looked into detail in this study and the fat they were using is corn oil which is very different from let’s say fish oil or actually like a saturated fat from grass-fed, quality red meat versus olive oil. Everyone is different. In the book, you were talking about how a group of scientists got together and they were looking at this idea that saturated fat was evil and basically what was used in many of those studies was a specific type of saturated fat, the palmitic acid. Can you tell us what is wrong with this?
Chris: What’s wrong that that thought process?
Chris: Absolutely. For years, when they were doing studies and these were rat studies by the way and mice studies on saturated fat, they were using palmitic acid, which is a 16-carbon saturated fat for all of those studies and they were drawing conclusions saying that based on these results, saturated fat produces this insulin resistance or inflammatory response and just demonizing saturated fat in general. It’s like well, wow, that’s one saturated fat that’s used in isolation and that’s not how we eat things because the different saturated fats all the way down to the short chain, medium chain and long chain and then within those groups there are different ones and each one has a distinct function in the body. They’re different chemicals and the body handles them differently.
Butyrate, for instance, the 4-carbon one is very anti-inflammatory. Our colon uses it as a primary energy source. Lauric acid, the 12-carbon one in coconut oil actually helps with fat loss, is antiviral, has other anti-inflammatory properties against cancer. So we can go and name each one like that. The point I was trying to make in the book is that these are all different. Even palmitic acid, I think I went a little too far in demonizing palmitic acid in the book but I was just trying to make a point that that was all they were using. Yes, palmitic acid in high amounts is inflammatory in the body but it is one of the primary fats. Your body takes carbohydrate, glucose and will make it into palmitic acid and store it in fat cells. High levels of palmitic acid in fat cells are looked at as a threat so it makes sense that when you feed something straight palmitic acid, it’s going to produce an inflammatory response, right? Except that we would never eat that way. So I think that was the point I was trying to make.
That group of scientists got together and finally kind of said hey guys, look at what you guys are doing. You’re making these broad statements about saturated fat and first of all, you’re using an animal model and secondly you’re using one type of saturated fat in isolation. They kind of called them on that, which I thought was pretty cool.
Logan: Yeah, I’d have to say that within the scientific groups, they’re looking at all these negative things, the saturated fats but sort of in the consumer market, everyone just generalized that even further to say that all fat was bad. Then we got to the fat-free diets and all of that.
Chris: Oh gosh and those people are very sickly, whether they admit or not. Then we went to the other direction to say that the polyunsaturated fats are really good for you. There are big differences in those, too, and you only need a small amount of those things. The whole margarine thing, gosh.
Logan: It’s pretty amazing, how we got to some of the places we got in those times. I remember going over a study and they were basically comparing butter and other natural oils to partially hydrogenated oils and stuff in everything so they were having to make these weird foods that they had to like squeeze this in. It’s like how in your right mind could you even possibly begin to think that this would be a better option. It just kind of blows my mind that our scientists kind of got into that idea.
Chris: The problem is, and I hit it real early in the book, we got government involved in food policy and we have these big, big food manufacturers just jumping right onboard, too. And it’s not just them. Not just the American public but we all want convenience and we don’t want to prepare food anymore. So we jumped onboard with all these products. But anytime you get the government involved with making food policy and then the things that fund scientists, Natural Science Foundation, NIH and things like that are government organizations while they’re all funded. What happens over time is that there’s a group think involved where when you jump onboard and say hey guys, the emperor has no clothes, they get ostracized and marginalized as scientists. They don’t get funded and things like that. So when someone jumps up and says hey, all the saturated fat isn’t bad for you, they could just basically get laughed out of a conference. That’s kind of how that happens. It’s this peer pressure, kind of group thing that happens. Then when the evidence becomes overwhelming and beats them in the head, finally they’re like okay, maybe it’s safe to start raising contrary points of view.
Logan: Right. Do you feel like there’s anything currently these days that is sort of in that same area where fat was 30 or 50 years ago?
Chris: Yeah, carbs. Another fact. Big surprise, right? I totally do. I do. I think people like these low-carb crusaders which I can tell you it depends on the context. Someone that has advanced diabetes would do really, really well on a very, very kind of low carb—and when I say low carb, low starch and sugar, not low fiber because fiber is a carbohydrate.
Logan: A carb is not a carb just like a fat is not a fat.
Chris: Exactly. I think that’s the new fad right now. We’ve gotten so far away from food quality that we’re going after macronutrients.
Logan: Yeah, when really we should be looking at the quality. That’s something that’s sort of comes up from time to time. It’s not that carbohydrates are bad. It’s not that fats are bad. But really what seems to be the worst culprit in obesity and kind of leading to weight gain, this inflammation and chronic diseases is the combination of a lot of refined carbohydrates and a lot of rancid fats.
Chris: Industrial fats, yeah.
Logan: Large amounts in a single meal like as found in fast food, junk food, dessert of most types and that’s what is really going to cause fat to build up in people. Could you just say a little bit about why it’s the combination of these two that really sort of drives that?
Chris: Basically, I don’t think you’re there in the book yet if you haven’t gotten to the gut chapter yet. With what we call acellular carbohydrates, basically the carbohydrates have been processed so much that they’ve blown the cell walls out and they’re basically just collections of glucose, it promotes overgrowth of different types of bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract that aren’t so good. We need a balance of both but it promotes these things called opportunistic pathogens that are more pro-inflammatory microbes and it creates a condition called dysbiosis which basically means an imbalance of these gut bacteria. That type of food is the perfect food source for these to promote this type of balance and overgrowth.
That itself drives inflammation from the gut, not to mention your body needs to do something to take care of that because glucose left in the bloodstream is toxic. It promotes these things called advanced glycation end-products. Basically, the glucose starts being stuck onto proteins which then the immune system recognizes through various ways as threatening and it creates an inflammatory response. So your body tries to shuttle that stuff out of the bloodstream as best it can. The idea would be is you work out really vigorously, empty the glucose from your muscle and now you have this big reservoir to deposit some of the glucose. But if you’re not working out and you eat these highly processed foods, your body needs to do something with it so they convert it into fat and try to store it away so that it’s not as toxic.
The problem is over time as the fat cells increase, alarm system start to go off like hey, these fat cells have swollen too much and there’s actually something that happens within the fat cell, some of the immune system that lives in there starts to turn inflammatory. It’s like an alarm signal is raised. Really it’s these overstuffed fat cells that many times are from eating too much of the processed carbohydrates when you don’t have anywhere to put it that is driving inflammation. So the fat cell themselves are not just something that looks unattractive on you; it is actually a driver of inflammation when they’re packed with fat, which is kind of a new concept as well, too, especially the fat around the internal organs, the people that look like apples versus pears. That central obesity really drives inflammation in chronic disease, too. That’s kind of how a processed carbohydrate is.
Now these oils, a lot of these polyunsaturated oils that are processed and separated at high heat, the reason that I went into some chemistry in the book is to show you how all double bonds are susceptible to oxidation and they become free radicals themselves. So they contribute to oxidative stress, in other words more free radical formation than the body can actually handle. That drives inflammation as well. Fast food is kind of a perfect storm for that.
Logan: Yeah. So you brought up the gut health which is such a fascinating area. It’s great to see just more and more science come out about that. Yeah, I have gotten to that section of your book and you talked about some very cool things like children on antibiotics have significantly higher risks for bowel problems later on in life, the lactobacillus bacteria induces the formation of the T regulatory cells that you talked about with the immune system that help kind of balance out the more aggressive parts of our immune system, just all kinds of fascinating stuff. Just as sort of a broad question, what are some of the critical things people need to know about this area?
Chris: I think this is going to be the biggest area of medicine in the 21st century, gut health. We’re seeing some just amazing things. Even in animal models where you have an obese mouse and you replace it with—and it sounds kind of gross—you basically replace their colon contents from a lean mouse and doing nothing else, these mice lose weight. So what it shows us is that the balance in the gut bacteria is crucial for actually our own metabolisms and our own health.
We talk a lot about the gut-brain connection. There’s a direct connection between those and the gut has as many nerve cells as the spinal cord does. It’s called the second brain so things that happen down there are really important to the body and this natural ecosystem that we have, this zoo, so to speak if you want to use that analogy, has to maintain in proper balance. Just like anything else, like any other ecosystem if you kill off too many of one thing, you get an overabundance of the other that’s not as good. We have these checks and balances.
A proper balance of bacteria in our intestinal tract really sets the stage for our immune system since 70% to 80% of our immune system actually lives in the gut. It just makes sense that that’s the first place that you should be looking at if you have out-of-control inflammation. Are you doing something that is producing inflammation starting in the gut since that’s the first place we really have contact between the inside of our body and the outside world? So our immune system is there. If we get any bacteria in through our food, it’s there to take care of that. But also if it’s unhealthy, we’re not regulating that inflammatory response well and it can get out of control. That’s what we were talking about. When you have an overgrowth of one type of bacteria, you trigger more of the militant arm of the immune system and not so much those I used the analogy that the red cells were hippies, right?
Logan: Right. I love that.
Chris: The more peace-loving, hey, let’s settle down. We need a balance of both and when we don’t have that, I think the gut is a primary place to look and we really have to look at that. But any person with chronic disease, we’ve got to start there. Guess what fixes it? The same stuff that fixes everything, stress reduction and nutrition especially.
Logan: I’m a big fan of fermented foods. A lot of people go for the probiotics. Can you talk about I guess some of the differences between just taking a pill versus eating a food that natural people have eaten since the beginning of time?
Chris: Exactly. This is an interesting thing. The science isn’t quite all these yet but what we’re seeing in the literature is probiotics people think are repopulating the gut and it doesn’t appear that they’re really doing that. They are having effects on the way through in other words so they’re stimulating the immune system in ways on the way through that can be beneficial but really the way you repopulate the gut is you encourage the growth of the so-called beneficial bacteria and the way to do that is through fermentable fibers. When I say we have to distinguish fermented food from fermentable fibers, what I mean by a fermentation process is like any fiber like a vegetable fiber you eat can’t be broken down by your digestive system normally and we can’t use it for glucose. So the bacteria in our gut will break it down. That process is called fermentation. Out of that, those bacteria’s waste products produce beneficial products for us like butyrate and things like that.
Now fermented food like kimchi or sauerkraut, basically you have the lactobacillus and you’re actually fermenting it outside of the body first. What that does is it kills off any bacteria in that culture that would cause that food to rot so right away you have a way to store this for a long period of time without this food spoiling because the lactobacillus basically overpower and create an environment where the bad stuff can’t grow. So now you already have the lactobacillus which is in probiotics as a pill and now you also have a fiber that is fermentable that can be used also by the bacteria that are already in your gut. So you have the beneficial effects of the probiotic lactobacillus as it passes through but you’re also giving fuel to those beneficial bacteria that like fiber to help rebalance the gut at the same time. So instead of taking just a pill, the fermented foods give you both benefits, what’s called the prebiotic, the concept of the prebiotic which helps grow the stuff in the first place, and the probiotic which gives beneficial effects as it passes through. Does that make sense?
Logan: Yeah, absolutely. I was actually just really thinking about the idea because as you were saying, you have the best of both worlds. There was one study I was looking at how many bacteria cells, because that’s how they sell these probiotics, this one has one million, this one has five billion different things but they looked at like a serving or an ounce of sauerkraut—I forgot what it was—it was something like ten trillion bacteria cells, ridiculously more than what you get in those pills.
Chris: Yeah, and a little bit of fermented food goes a long way.
Logan: Would you recommend that every single day someone should eat a little bit of fermented food? They used to use it more as sort of a condiment that went with other meals traditionally.
Chris: Yeah. That’s how I use it honestly. I always have a jar of kimchi. I love it personally. I’m not like oh, it’s healthy for me. I just actually think it’s fantastic. I eat it probably three or four times a week. I think it depends on your situation. And you’ve got to be careful. If you’re new to it, I wouldn’t eat a whole jar of kimchi. That’s ridiculous. Your body is going to freak out and maybe tell us a little bit of gastrointestinal distress. But yeah, I think a little bit used as a condiment especially, a little bit goes a long way. And sure, there’s no harm in eating it daily. I love the stuff.
Logan: Yeah, excellent. You mentioned butyrate where bacteria turn the fiber into butyrate which is the short-chained fatty acid which is also commonly found in butter. I think you said it was like 3% of butter is just butyrate. Is butter a good food for your gut and your bacteria?
Chris: Not really, honestly, because the amount that’s in butter—the point was that our external sources of butyrate are very, very low. Really, we get most of it from eating fiber. That was the point I was trying to make in that.
Logan: Okay, very cool. So anything else? You mentioned the gut is a second brain. I think that might be brain-centric way of looking at things. Why don’t we call our brain as the second gut? Could you talk about this whole neurotransmitter action that the bacteria is producing this? I believe you quoted some studies looking at how increasing the supply of the good bacteria was able to reduce anxiety in people. What are some of the different things that we’ve been seeing there?
Chris: We really have a very strong connection from the gut to the brain through the vagus nerve especially and there’s a very strong sense of enteroception. I believe you and I talked about that before. Basically the state of our body, many of us when we’re nervous, that whole butterflies in the belly or people can actually have gastrointestinal distress when they’re going up to give a presentation or something they’re really, really nervous about.
It goes both ways though. The state of our gut can actually influence our brain and more and more we’re finding how this happens. Just think about it all as a threat response and it makes sense. If there’s dysbiosis and some bad stuff going on in the gut, that will be communicated up through the vagus nerve to the brain like hey, all is not well down here. In any type of threat, what is our general response to threat? Flight-or-fight response, right, even if it’s a low level. We know that people that are under chronic stress have anxiety. All anxiety is—and I’m trying to simplify it too much—is a protective response. So there’s something in our environment that is threatening. We may not be able to pick it up but we want to be in a heightened state of alert basically to protect us from a perceived state of threat in our environment. It’s not so fun for us though with people who used to suffer from chronic anxiety and one of the things that is thought now to contribute to that is dysbiosis and problems in the gut. Like I said, it’s easy for us. All of us have experienced that upset stomach due to a stressful situation or nervous stomach so to speak so with the amount of neurons and the connections between the gut and the brain, we now know that goes the other way as well so it shouldn’t be surprising if you think about it that way.
Logan: Absolutely. Yeah, I can remember one time early on when I started to look at the quality of food I was eating and whatnot, I was just really rushed and ate this pork chop super quickly. I was thinking about something else and then my stomach just felt horrible after that. That kind of speaks to this idea that contrary to our fast-paced culture and all this stuff we have to do, really to sit down and relax as we’re eating our meals is just going to aid in digestion, probably help out the bacteria, lower anxiety levels and do a whole bunch of other things we’re not even aware of rather than just thinking we’re downing some fuel and we’re on the move all the time.
Chris: Well, that’s the whole mindful thing. You look on the web and people talk about mindful eating now. It’s like what we all should be doing and not thinking about a billion other things going on.
Logan: Right. Well, we’re coming up upon an hour. Is there anything else in everything we talked about here you felt is kind of a missing piece for people?
Chris: We would have to do like a three-hour podcast. I think the sleep issue and the circadian disruption from our modern environment is huge and I have a whole chapter on that. I think that’s the missing piece for a lot of people. I think just to reiterate, stop thinking so much about macronutrients and just eat real food. Learn to cook food. Try to get locally sourced stuff. It tasted better and it reconnects you with the process of eating, actually making your food and making time to do that. We need to prioritize that kind of stuff. But gosh, there’s so much that we can go into. If you want to have me back on at any time to talk about any other topic, I’d be happy. There’s a ton more to cover.
Logan: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I highly recommend that everyone pick up the book, Strong Medicine. Like I said, I’ll have links to that in the show notes and everything or you can probably just search for it if you want to find it. As I said, as a writer myself it kind of makes me jealous that you were able to take complex subjects and make them very readable. As I said, it does have a lot of details but gives you the big picture so it’s a very great read and I’m only a third of a way through it. Where can people go to find out more from you, Chris?
Chris: Right now I’m doing a blog on Dragon Door called the Strong Medicine Blog. It’s kind of a mixture of strength stuff that Marty is getting out and topics related to the Strong Medicine book that I think are interesting from a variety of different writers. That’s on the Dragon Door website and really that’s kind of my internet stuff because I have too many things going on. Obviously, the book through Dragon Door and on Amazon.
Logan: Excellent. Once again, I highly recommend people check that out and yeah, the Strong Medicine Blog, a lot of great articles there. I’ll have links to that on the show notes as well.
Chris: Yeah, I think we’re missing a really good writer that I want to have on that blog, this guy named Logan.
Logan: All right, I’ll have to write an article for you.
Chris: That’d be great.
Logan: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Chris.
Chris: You’re welcome, Logan. It’s a pleasure.
Logan: All right, and thanks everyone for listening. Be sure to tune in for our next episode. We’ll have another exciting interview. As always, if you could be so kind, leave us a review on iTunes. It just helps other people find out about us and help spread about this solid health information, all these great people we’re learning from. So thanks, everyone.
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