Can dieting cause you to gain weight, instead of lose it?
It happens sometimes. As the doc says, we seem to be living in a world where each day seems to bring new science that cancels out all past assessments.
So how do we know if we’re eating the right foods for our particular body’s needs?
Well, returning to the show this week to help us figure it all out is Dr. Alan Christianson.
Dr. Christianson is a naturopathic endocrinologist who focuses on thyroid function, adrenal health and metabolism. He’s also a very talented off-road unicyclist. Really. And yes that’s a thing. I have proof.
On this who the show with Dr. Christianson, you’re about to learn:
- Why you can’t hack a garden
- The drawbacks of over-exercising
- Why the liver decides if you gain or lose fat
- How being healthy these days is a fluke, and why we should embrace that
- And tons more.
Let’s go hang out with the doc.
Dr. Alan Christianson: Liver Detox & How to Breathe Better Air
Abel: Alright folks, Dr. Alan Christianson is a naturopathic endocrinologist who focuses on thyroid function, adrenal health, and metabolism.
You may have seen Dr. Christianson on The Today Show, Dr. OZ, and many others.
Dr. Alan, you had my life in your hands on multiple occasions in your office and outside of the office on a mountain.
And you’re one of the first people ever to come on this show three times. So thanks, Doc, for coming back on the show.
Dude, that’s awesome. I’m always glad for a reason to hang out with you.
Abel: It is a blast. Actually, the last time we saw each other was before a health conference.
And the deal was, we had to wake up at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning if we wanted to go on a hike with you, which turned into a climb of the Praying Monk in Arizona.
It was just so much fun. You’re a great leader, and I think it’s important for people to know that you’re not just a very professional person who’s very good at what he does, but also, in the outdoors you’re like an outdoor gymnast in some ways.
And we can dig into that a little bit more.
But in the first interview, I think this was right after we talked for the first time. You sent me a text of you riding offroad unicycles with your son. There are no bounds for Dr. Christianson.
So anyway, thanks for coming on the show again. And why don’t we start right there.
How do you, in a day when it seems like a lot of people are letting physical activity and the outdoors kind of fall to the wayside as phones take over our lives, how are you able to stay balanced being so busy and productive?
Boy, I think for me it would be like, “How could I not?”
I think once you’ve really had experiences of how those things can center you and just enrich your life and create so much meaning and joy, I just couldn’t de-prioritize it enough to let that happen.
Abel: It’s hard to be stressed out in traffic if you’ve been dangling off a cliff that morning, right?
It totally is.
It puts things in perspective, like, “Hey, this is kind of a drag, but I’m not going to die if I goof up, so I can get through this.”
How Your Liver Affects Your Health
You have a new book that touches on an extremely important topic that has always been very important, but really doesn’t get talked about very much at all.
Which is, not just the liver itself, but how the liver affects our health.
So let’s start there.
It’s a funny thing, but the root word itself actually shares overlap with the word live. I stumbled across that.
Hepatos is one of the Greek word origins. But yeah, you can’t live without your liver.
And it’s funny, at one point we were just little specks of genetic material floating in the sea.
And our environment that we needed was the environment we were in.
But it was almost like, as we evolved, we put on spacesuits, we put on these skin bags, and we could maintain our environment internally. And we could keep the right conditions and adjust those.
And that always took calibration, because it would always change and break down, and lose what we needed, and lose some equilibrium. So we developed internal regulation.
And any given moment, there’s just a myriad of nutrients and food derivatives that we need to have circulating, hormones, messaging chemicals.
And it has to be kept spot on, that all comes down to the liver to regulate this whole spacesuit that we’re walking around in outside the ocean.
Abel: And most people don’t realize how taxed our livers are these days. And not just by alcohol.
Right, for sure. It’s a funny thing.
For a lot of people, liver means just that, “If I drink too much, I’ll hurt it.”
Or “If I smother it in onions and bacon I could eat some of that.”
Abel: It’s the only way to make it delicious.
Yeah. But the modern life, there’s all these waste products that are normal things for metabolism, and the liver is posited to take those and recycle and eliminate them.
But now we’ve got so many substances that get dumped in that same bucket, and it’s finite resources.
It’s got to use raw materials to process everything, and it’s got only so much to work with.
And then it’s also a big part of how we keep energy steady.
There’s this balance of energy and fuel, body weight and energy output, that the liver is just a huge dumping place.
Abel: So, in terms of the things that our bodies are having to deal with these days. In the modern world, when people walk into your office, what is their liver dealing with that they might not realize?
Over all the years, I’ve realized that the core complaints that I see are struggles with body weight.
And I think waste is a big facet of that, more so than even weight, but people think about it in terms of weight. And then energy production.
And so many things could be bucketed to one or the other of those, or some combination.
And when the liver’s working perfectly, those things sort themselves out.
We never get exactly the potential energy. I think about this as fuel. We never really get the exact fuel requirements for a given day.
If you were to fill your car up with five gallons, and then drive exactly five gallons. That’s why you’ve got reserve in your tank.
It’s never exactly those needs. And it’s the same way for the liver and your body’s fuel.
Today, I did a run this morning. I’ll do some stuff this afternoon. I’ll eat food more or less for hunger, but I won’t get exactly what I’m putting out.
And when you’re healthy, if you err a little for whatever reason, your liver has a couple of big areas of glycogen and triglycerides that it can use to convert that fuel into potential energy and store it. And it’s fine.
You’re not suddenly up four pounds from that and miserable and bloated. You just got more fuel in the tank.
And then some other day, if I did the same stuff, but got busy and missed a meal somewhere along the way, my liver could pull out some spare fuel and make up for that difference.
You wouldn’t have to just crash in energy and have your brain shut down and become the craving monster.
But everyone already does that. Everyone does that to some degree, but it’s how much?
When energy and weight and appetite don’t sync up, then the liver doesn’t have the flexibility to maintain metabolism.
Abel: Yes. And fatty liver. I think that one qualifier in front of the word liver makes it more tangible, maybe because I’ve eaten it and seen it before.
But the idea that that might be happening to us on the inside is startling in a way that just like, “Oh, alcohol damages the liver, whatever.”
It doesn’t connect those dots in the same way.
But fatty liver, can you explain what that is and why we should think about it?
It’s a big thing. There’s a whole spectrum, and the very worst part of that spectrum would be fatal cirrhosis and liver failure.
The earliest version can be just a few extra pounds that seem stubborn.
And what’s happening is—I talked about those two fuel depots, the triglycerides and the glycogen—fatty liver is just too much triglycerides.
That’s all it is, too much is there.
And when that approaches somewhere around 5% of the liver’s mass by weight, it becomes pathologic. And it’s just full of grease.
It’s just a filter that’s full of grease. It’s no more complex than that. And all these functions get compromised.
And the weird thing about it is that in medicine we think about our tests because a lot of what we know is based on what we can test. And some tests are good for identifying problems or for showing a problem is not there.
Think about a pregnancy test, for example.
If the gal peed on a stick and it said, “You’re pregnant,” well, we assume that’s correct.
But if it said she’s not pregnant, we’d also assume that was correct.
But if it said she was not pregnant and she was, we’d think about that as being a false negative.
And with fatty liver, we can look at that through blood tests or ultrasounds or imaging tests or biopsies, and all the tests that are commonly available have an astronomical rate of false negative.
So, you’ve got to be rather diseased before it shows up on anything.
No one does liver biopsies as screening tools. They’re invasive.
But one way that does happen is… I’m just going to make up something. Say I had a twin brother and my twin brother had a damaged liver, and I wanted to donate some liver tissue to him for that purpose.
I would have to undergo a lot of testing to assure that my liver was reasonably functional. I’d have to show blood tests of that. And also show that I was not diabetic, and get an ultrasound done.
And once I’d undergone all those steps, then I would need, as a final step, to do a liver biopsy.
And in circumstances just like that, when healthy people want to donate liver tissue to a loved one, after they pass every single hoop before the biopsy, 40% of them cannot give liver tissue because they’ve got fatty liver.
Abel: Wow, 40%.
Yeah, 40% of healthy adults, they’ve got advanced fatty liver disease.
So that’s the spectrum, and there’s versions that progress from there.
But honestly, the medical category, the term they use is… it’s derogatory. I don’t like it. But it’s overfat, and it means someone that’s carrying too much body fat.
And that includes three things, people who are overweight, or obese, or those who are healthy weight but under-muscled.
You’ve got too little muscle mass, they call it skinny-fat or things like that.
But if you put those groups together, almost all of them are somewhere in that continuum of fatty liver disease, and that’s what’s driving the illness.
Abel: That was something that I read in your book that really just struck me, because often you hear people who are overweight or struggle with type 2 diabetes have a liver that is struggling also.
What you don’t hear is that the liver may be a causal factor that happens first.
Well, and the thing is, in diabetes research they’re using the term leaky liver.
So if someone’s diabetic, we define that by their morning fasting blood sugar, and the line in the sand is 126.
If they wake up in the morning before they eat, their random sugar’s consistently 127 or greater, we would call them diabetic.
Now, let’s think this through.
Assuming that this wasn’t some unusual circumstance, they didn’t just eat. Your fasting blood sugar is a rather dynamic marker.
So what you’re really seeing in that case is all the glucose spilling out of the liver as they were sleeping. It didn’t come from a recent meal.
And now they’ve upped the bar in technology to where we can differentiate.
You can check your blood sugar, and now with better tech you can say, “Hey, did that come from that lunch that I just ate, or did that come from what my liver leached out?”
So you can distinguish that.
And of those who are diabetic, over 80% of their glucose is coming from their liver and not coming from a recent meal.
Abel: Wow, 80%.
Now, the liver though, and this is from an old Marathon textbook I read years ago, it was something like 400 calories of glucose. Is that about right?
How much fuel is in there?
So spot on in terms of the glucose.
The two fuels, the glucose in the form of glycogen, which is just densely packed glucose. Plants make starch and animals make glycogen.
And it’s just like a steel belted radial. You got all these strings that are strings around strings, and then braids of those around braided up again, and each string could be comprised of rows of dots.
So that’s glycogen. So you’ve got that.
And you’re right. There’s not a ton there, but then you’ve also got triglycerides.
And glycogen, you can’t pack it as densely, but you need some of that to do a good job breaking down fat in the liver, the triglycerides.
So you need some mixture there.
And the drawback is when triglycerides become so predominant, you lose the room for glycogen. And now you’ve just painted yourself into a corner, because you’ve got all this triglyceride and no glycogen to really get it out with.
Abel: Now the triglycerides didn’t come from ingesting dietary fat necessarily. Those triglycerides come from other things, right?
We think about proteins, fats, carbs, there’s also exogenous ketones. And there’s also alcohol to cover all the bases.
And I would pull protein out. There’s a few things different about it.
But the others, at a molecular level they’ve all got distinct properties.
We’ve got essential fats, we’ve got fibers from some carbs. They’re all different in various ways.
But when they go in the furnace, down at that level of liver converting Krebs cycle to energy, they’re all oxaloacetate.
They’re all the same thing when they’re finally broken down.
For a few others, they look the same, they’re not chemically distinct from one to the other.
So the liver, it’s not even a matter of it working wrong, it’s a matter of it working right when it’s too full.
So I think about an airport where there’s no room for planes, and they say, “Hey, stay up there in the pattern.”
So if you got all these fuel derivatives like glucose and triglycerides that you’d love to do something with, but when there’s no room, you’ve got to leave them just floating around.
You’ve got to leave them in the bloodstream.
Abel: Now when it’s overflowing like that or leaky, how did these 40%-ish of people get to that point?
What happened before then for the liver to reach that state?
Yeah, that’s the million dollar question.
So there’s three scenarios that can exist in various combinations, one of which is you have just got too much fuel coming in.
And any person, any animal could be force-fed or overfed, and it could be carbs, fats, ketones, alcohol, any mixture of those things can achieve that.
Abel: That’s how you get goose liver pâté, right? By literally overfeeding.
It’s kind of a harsh thing, but I was actually visualizing that as I was talking about it. I think we’re psychically linked here.
But yeah, you force enough fuel in and the liver finally gets overloaded with that. So that’s one.
The other one is the body is just not burning a lot of fuel for various reasons, and that can be one’s activity, that can be shortcomings of one’s burning capacity.
And then the other one is more so just molecular issues that make the body not burn fuel effectively.
And big things there would be micronutrients that are not present, or back to what you mentioned about the environmental toxicants.
These little monkey wrenches that get in the cogs and prevent the reactions from occurring as well as they should.
Abel: And is that environmental? Pharmaceutical? What do you typically see?
Yep, both of those.
They can work in different ways. It’s odd, because I think about a lot of micronutrients are co-factors.
You’ve got a key and you have to get the key in the lock to open it up. And that key is like a co-factor. An enzyme can do that, too.
And there’s many things that are kind of like that key that fit in that lock, but they don’t really work right.
So you get a spare key for your house from the locksmith and you bring it home and, “Ah, it doesn’t fit like the old one does.”
And maybe you try hard enough and it breaks off, and now you can’t do anything.
So that’s what toxicants do at a molecular level.
They fit in a receptor in some way, but they don’t really turn the switch. And they might even leave the switch stuck, or they might block the switch.
The stuff in the environment, the plastic compounds, lead and mercury, and many prescription medications will act in those ways.
Abel: Well, I remember when, and this was a few years ago, Alyson and I both came into your office to screen for heavy metals and do a detox. And both of us were very high in lead.
Even if you try to live as clean as you possibly can, for a lot of us it’s just not really in the cards in today’s world, is it?
I saw something recently that was like a ton of bricks on the head.
So you can go to Antarctica and you can do ice core samples half a mile deep, and you can pull out DDT at measurable multiple parts per million.
Abel: Half a mile deep.
Abel: Oh my god.
Yeah, so for sure we want to do our best, but we can’t do it perfectly.
Abel: So what are the toxins that most of us are dealing with then?
You mentioned lead is a big one.
And the tricky thing is that there’s many that are there, but there’s few that are very measurable.
There’s many. Main categories would be solvents and pesticides and metals, and then also plastic compounds.
And there used to be labs that would measure for all this stuff.
It was hard because you could see it, but they had a catalog of 20,000 chemicals you could check off, and you could only get about 50 per blood vial.
So you can’t measure everyone for everything, and a lot of those things get trapped deep into the fat tissue, the liver, the brain, the thyroid.
So, they’re not always apparent.
But when they are trapped, your body tries to break them down. And it gets stuck at that point of metals.
So barring a particle accelerator, you can’t degrade something past that point of an element. So that’s one of the better ways to just say what’s that total burden there.
Abel: Do you have an idea of, historically, what the toxic level would be?
Were they measuring it back in the day?
They weren’t measuring it so much in people back in the day, but we’ve measured it in the environment, and there’s good ways we can track how it was in the environment in the past.
Lead, actually, more than many others, because lead and calcium, they go together quite a bit in chemical ways.
Lead ends up in the bones, so you can look at bone samples from archaeology and get a sense of what the ambient lead levels were in the past.
You know, Rome and the Roman Empire, one of their big advancements was plumbing.
So the word plumbing is from plumbum, that’s the Latin word for lead. That’s why lead is Pb in the periodic table.
So plumbers were lead workers, and in areas around ancient Rome the ambient lead levels increased dramatically, about a thousandfold from where they were in the past.
And past that point, they increased another 2000-3000-fold.
From then, and they really escalated in the early 1900s, 1920s, 1930s on automobiles, ’30s and the ’40s when automobiles became prevalent and lead was added to the gas, and lead was also added to indoor paints.
So those things made another big dramatic spike in ambient background levels of lead.
Abel: Yikes. And we’re still dealing with it. There’s still a ton of it around.
We are. We’ve come down a bit because we’re not adding those things in, but it’s still there.
So the ambient levels keep recirculating, sadly.
Abel: Ok, so with the Romans, how did that play out for them?
This is funny. I’ve actually gone deep in this, and there have been some historians that have also understood the effects that lead has on behavior, impulsivity, and aggression.
And the people that had the most exposure had the most resources. They had lead pottery and vases and utensils and the indoor plumbing and all that.
And some have argued that were it not for the use of lead, Rome may not have fallen.
Toxic Air & Water: How to Drink and Breathe Better
Abel: I’ve heard the same thing. What’s interesting about that, though, is that we still have plumbing.
We still have pipes, it might not necessarily have lead in it, but it certainly has a lot of other things in it.
Now we’re talking about plastics, the byproducts, the breakdown.
I remember, this is actually many years ago, when I was living in New Hampshire.
I think we had copper pipes at the time, and I came back from a run, which I just loved to do, especially around that part of the country.
And I just drank straight out of the tap, well water, really good well water from the middle of nowhere in New Hampshire.
I drank it, and I could just taste the copper. I threw up in five or 10 seconds.
It was just like, ugh! It happened immediately.
I don’t think most people experience that, maybe not that aggressively. Yet we all drink out of pipes that are not made out of pure water.
So, can you talk a little bit about how we could actually be getting some of these undesirable byproducts in the very water that we’re drinking?
That’s a huge one. I would highly advocate anyone to use purified water and reverse osmosis is simple.
There’s dispenser units that do more above and beyond that. But, yeah, totally mandatory.
So that’s a big thing. This is something that surprised me to learn a while back, but our biggest single source is the air that we breathe in terms of the measured mass of toxicants that come into our body.
And we’ve worked hard to make our indoor environments energy-efficient, and the drawback is all the stuff that gets released from our paints, our fake woods, our carpets, that just stays in here and it concentrates.
Abel: I got this air quality device that measures it, I think just over Bluetooth with your phone. It was like $70 bucks or something like that.
I got that a few months ago, and it’s startling.
We live up at 8000 feet in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and depending on which way the air is blowing, depending on if it’s coming from Denver or if there are wildfires or what have you, most of the time the air quality is pretty good.
It’s below 50 which is considered pretty good. But I have seen numbers up to 400-something, just when the air’s going that way or there’s a wildfire, or what have you.
But if you go inside on days like that, then you’re talking off the charts. Most people don’t realize how bad that stagnant indoor air is.
And that’s where most people spend almost all of their time, with off-gassing from the paints, the carpets, the lacquers… it never ends.
And also, there’s almost nowhere for the air to go.
We assume that if it’s air-conditioned, it’s cleaning everything out, but that’s not really how it works, is it?
No. And this is bizarre, but with the liver, we think about blood sugar and energy regulation, and diseases like diabetes. There’s a lot of papers now showing that air quality is linked to those.
The research is done first in places where it’s more dramatic, like in Mexico City.
But air quality is a stronger predictor of diabetes now than body weight or diet is.
Abel: Wow. And air quality is not something that’s, for the most part, getting that much better.
There’s a lot of marketing that says that it is from time to time, but especially in recent years.
When we’ve been in Arizona out by Phoenix, sometimes the air there is just horrific. What do you do in that case?
Yeah, that’s tough
Abel: Do you limit outside activity, like personally, I’m curious?
Yeah, some days I will.
Or go more out of my way to be higher up or a little further away from it. Or use the air purifiers and do some more indoor things.
But yeah, it’s a tough, tough thing.
Abel: It is. One of the things we’ve been trying to do is we travel all around the world trying to find a place to settle down and looking for a place that does have clean air. And it is surprisingly hard to find.
It’s easy to rip on cities like Phoenix, or Denver, or Boston, or New York, or what have you, especially a lot of the Californian cities for all of that, but it’s really not that simple either.
Because when we’re going to certain places, like Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, is considered in most people’s minds to be a pristine place of beauty, which it is.
Sometimes though, because of industry and the way that the wind is blowing and because there are almost no regulations in the west in terms of how much crap you can put into the atmosphere, sometimes that’ll have air that is worse than the worst polluted days in Denver or in Phoenix, or what have you.
Just because that’s the way it is. So, it’s something that you definitely need to keep track of.
And probably, the easiest win for most people would be getting an air purifier in their bedroom, right?
Oh, for sure, yeah. I couldn’t agree more. And for many reasons, including that’s when we’re sedentary for the longest period of time.
When we’re sleeping, there’s a lot of ways in which we’re even more vulnerable to those effects.
So yeah, just dumping any extra fabric in the bedroom, getting a good purifier, it’s probably one of your number one priorities.
You always think about organic food and whatnot, and that’s also important, but if you had to pick and choose, we breathe a lot more volume than we ever eat.
What Do We Actually Know About Health?
Abel: And it’s so easy to have blind spots like that, isn’t it?
It’s like, “Oh, I’m all organic, I eat the best food ever,” and you’re just drinking bottled water the whole time. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Obviously, we all need water, but what’s the issue with bottled water?
Well, just the plastic byproducts.
It’s being produced in plastic and shipping and storing in that.
And it’s weird, because there’s two ways you can think about your decision-making, and one is, how you would do that in a legal system.
We’ve got innocent till proven guilty, right?
And I think that makes sense because people can make mistakes in line-ups or whatnot, so that’s valid.
But then, there’s also the precautionary principle, which is like, “Well, if we’re not sure, let’s be careful.”
And the sad thing is in terms of our environmental health, we use innocent until proven guilty, rather than the precautionary principle.
And not only that, we use innocent until proven completely guilty beyond any possible rational doubt.
So with plastic, you’ll hear about various compounds like BPA, that, “Oh, that’s awful.”
Well, now we use BPFs, and that’s still there. And a lot of evidence suggests that’s just as bad.
So, a smarter thing is just taking the precautionary principle and saying, “Hey, look, let’s just minimize our plastic exposure and call it good for now.”
Abel: In your book you said, and this really struck me, “Every new day seems to bring new science that cancels out all past assessments.”
You’re so right. What is that about?
It’s a funny thing. There’s this whole thing, It’s been called the hierarchy of evidence.
People use pyramids to describe this. And you’ve got different kinds of data.
And a lot of kinds of data are really more so ideas or speculations or interesting observations, and they’re good things to then research and then do good solid outcome studies on.
But sadly, they’re often very counter-intuitive. There’s two main types of systems. There’s simple systems and complex systems.
And it doesn’t even mean complicated, it just means that complex systems in some way are internally regulated.
So as big as our galaxy is, as many moving parts as there are, that’s a simple system. The stars don’t care where they go, nor do the planets.
You can find a formula like gravity is a constant, and you can pretty much predict where things are going to go.
But complex systems, they have internal regulatory mechanisms.
So the ecosystem or a living thing, you can’t just say that five parts of this in will mean five parts of that out, where you could say that with gravity.
And we always want to have this simple formula: This is good, this is bad, this is the one principle that matters.
But there’s over 10,000 known biochemical pathways that affect how our bodies work, and we can only say X will do Y when we’ve watched X do Y in large numbers of people for large numbers of years.
We always want to have a simple prediction.
And when we look down at that level of animal studies, test tube studies, hypothesis, it’s the Wild West. You could find tons of contradictory stuff.
And the contradictory stuff is mediagenic, it’s exciting and it’s counter-intuitive. So that’s where the flip-flopping comes from. That’s where all the different ideas come from.
Abel: Do you think that’s gotten worse recently in the age of the internet?
Yeah. Better and worse.
When I first got into this as a kid, any random book I could find in the library about food, that was a bonus or a gold mine, there was so little information at all.
And so at that stage, it was just finding out information, not even qualified. So people just spouted off their own quantifications and that was awesome, that was a treasure.
Now we’ve got this abundance of data, and the trick is, how do we make sense out of that and what do we do when there’s conflicting experts, and when there’s new contradictory studies?
So that’s the real art now. And how do we really refine it?
And you can’t just say everyone’s different, everyone has to find things out for themselves because, for one, that’s not helpful.
And the second, it’s not completely true. We’re different in some ways, but you don’t photosynthesize. There’s some basic ways in which we’re about the same there.
Abel: Yeah, there are patterns and pillars of health that don’t change to some degree, right?
Abel: “At what point do we know enough?” is a question that we might want to ask ourselves, as well.
Because it might be debatable if our grandparents or great-grandparents knew enough to be generally healthy enough to live a lifespan that was healthy into the later stages, right?
Well, and this is a funny thing. This is a thing I think about a lot, too.
There’s a thing constant called the Malthusian equation, which argues that a population of animals in a stable environment will reach a maximal upper limit that the environment can withstand.
I grew up in Northern Minnesota, and we had deer in our woods, and so you’ve got 40 acres and you can have—I’m going to make up a number—a herd of 100 deer living in there.
And if one year, there’s a lot of growth and a lot of tree buds, maybe now that population goes to 120.
Well, they eat up all those buds, so now they’re down to 80, but they’re always at that threshold.
And for us, up until the last several decades, pretty much all humans lived in that equation. So whether they were bright or not, they weren’t overfed.
And almost everything that goes wrong with health, people talk about the belly fat or the subcutaneous fat, but honestly the organ fat, the stuff that builds up in the liver and the pancreas…
This is a top of a pen. That’s probably a couple grams, I’m guessing.
The mass of that much fat, which would be a lot smaller in the pancreas, that’s diabetic, to plug in that much fat to your pancreas, you’re now a diabetic.
Or to plug in that much fat, distributed evenly throughout the liver, now you’re close to liver failure.
Yeah. And we never had that potential before. Maybe not, because we were smart enough to choose broadly. We had no other choices.
And also, we were at that limit of our food availability. If we ever had more food, we had more kids and ate up the extra food.
Abel: Well, it’s so crazy to think about this, but my dad is 1 of 7, and the biggest reason that he was one of seven is because he grew up on a farm and my grandparents needed extra hands to help them on the farm.
And you think about even my generation, not to mention the one that’s after us, but how much has that changed in that period of time? Just a complete reversal.
And I think you may have mentioned this in your book, that back in the 1950s, 10% of people were overweight, somewhere around there, and these days it’s more like 70%.
By 2030, I read, it’s going to be 85%.
As a physician, and as a person, and as a father, what do you think about that?
It’s the biggest problem we face.
And that’s just too heavy. If we throw in the under-muscled to where there’s too much atrophy to the muscle, that’s right now, per gender and per region, 80%-90% of the population.
So it’s a fluke not to be there.
It’s an odd thing, because I hear stats about how now there’s more death from obesity than from infectious disease.
So that can be a half empty or half full type of deal. That can be like, “Wow, great. We’ve got less infectious disease deaths,” but there’s something else we have to deal with here.
Abel: And is that progress? And what are we progressing toward? You might want to ask as well, right?
Well, the part that excites me about this is that given the liver’s core role of this and the liver’s radical resiliency, you can theoretically lose most of your liver and it can come back again.
So, what I argue is that it’s not a matter of trying harder to starve because that energy, appetite, and body size if you just starve however, sure, you can change the body size, but energy and appetite don’t go where you want.
And then if you try to eat well and eat intuitive and eat clean, you may do better in a lot of health ways in energy and appetite but for those with weight struggles, they may not see that resolve and some can even have that go up.
So it really excites me that you can get a clean slate on your liver, and clear out that extra burden of triglyceride and restore the glycogen and not have to live on with dieting, but actually get it to where those things sync up again.
Abel: I’m sure you’ve seen this so much more than I have, but when people come in, in a state of illness, let’s say the liver is an issue for them.
The ability of the body to bounce back and heal, especially when you’re talking about the liver, is extraordinary, isn’t it?
That’s the cool thing. I tell my doctors that it’s so much fun to be doctors and not mechanics, because the mechanic, you’ve got bald tires and a loose bumper, those are two problems.
With the doctor, you could have a dozen symptoms that come down to one problem and if you resolve that core issue, the body will sort out a lot of the rest.
The 2 Biggest Factors in Chronic Health Issues
Abel: Is there a core issue that you’re seeing more of recently that people might not be aware of?
You know, this is a high level discussion.
You really got yourself to talk about these things. I’m just going to throw this out with your audience and just go a little further off the plans, but I really think about two big factors that you could boil almost all chronic health down to.
We’ve got infectious disease, you’ve got accidental disease but almost all chronic disease, the cardiac, the cancers, the brain aging, even a lot of susceptibility of infectious disease, one of those would be a class of chemicals called adipokines.
And these are things that are made from that organ fat especially, and they drive the immune system, the detox pathways, the hormone regulation. So that’s one.
The other category I would talk about would be the HPA axis. Many think about this in terms of adrenals and that’s why I talked about that in a prior book.
But yeah, one’s state of stress adaptation and then one’s level of adipokines.
If you could boil down to two variables, I think those are the biggest single factors that predict long-term health outcomes.
Abel: And stress is something that seems to be getting worse. People are wound up pretty tight and technology seems to be to blame.
It’s a weird thing. In a lot of ways, like kids today, I’ve got a 15-year-old son, a 20-year-old daughter, and they’re socializing. They don’t feel driven to learn how to drive.
For us, we probably like on our 16th birthday, you get your license to get out of the house.
Abel: Oh, it was a way to see the world, wasn’t it? Even for my generation it felt like that.
Abel: Kids these days have already seen everything.
Well, and that’s the thing, is that they’ve scratched that impulse for social connection.
They feel like they have, but it’s almost like being filled up on junk food.
Now you’re full, and now you don’t want that broccoli, but you didn’t really get what you would have gotten from that broccoli.
So, you don’t really seem to get the benefits of the connection, but in a way you feel like you don’t need to go out of your way to acquire that anymore.
Abel: Are there other things like driving that might be getting lost right now? Because it’s not just driving, right?
There’s a whole thing, there’s a whole right of passage that goes around it. It’s an entry way or at least it was into adulthood, freedom, independence, responsibility, what have you.
What else are you seeing?
Well, I’m not an expert on this, I’ve seen a bit of data arguing that in some ways, some of the bad things that were common among teen years are decreasing, so there’s that.
But for general health, the concerns are that chronic disease has really been on the uptake, and it’s really driven by those two factors, more than anything.
Abel: How do you raise your kids to be flukes in a good way? A fluke like you.
Well, I’m doing my best and I don’t think I’ve got it totally down.
But our son, we do a lot of outdoor time with him and take him backpacking quite a bit. He and I love to boulder and climb.
He didn’t really get the bug for endurance activities, like I have, so I go out of my way to do more of what he likes to do. And we connect pretty deeply in those ways and I think that’s important.
We would do a lot of our little rides, short rides around the house at our last place and we would talk about these various story ideas and I kept encouraging him to take time, and turn off the electronics, and think, and just write down these ideas.
And so he wrote his first book when he was 13 and finished a second one, a couple weeks ago.
Abel: No way.
He’s writing Sci-fi novels and he’s passionate about that, and literature. And he enjoys going deep in those ideas.
So yeah, I think if you’re exposed to things that are not just junk food and junk experiences that you would get a taste for them, they’re preferable.
Abel: I would say writing a book at 13 is better than driving anyway.
He’s pretty eager to drive, too.
The Danger of Over-Exercising
Abel: Nice. Well, you have so many great things that I want to talk about here.
One that really stuck out to me was the people who attempted your reset program for the liver who didn’t get the full benefits, nearly all of them, you write, were over-exercising, not under exercising.
Why is that?
I’m glad that you brought this up. This is something that is a really important mindset.
I think we’ve been led to believe that if we take care of ourselves… Say we have more weight than we want and than is healthy for us, if we do the things that are good for maintenance then that should all reverse.
And it’s so often not true.
So It takes being in a mindset about losing, dropping some inches as being a special project.
And what would pull you out of that, but may not be what keeps you out of that.
The regimens that work best for maintenance may not be the best regimens for dropping the weight.
So in the program I argue for taking 28 days and just doing pretty minimal activity.
I actually talk about some micro-workouts, so you’re still engaging your muscles.
But I want the body to be able to run on a really low fuel budget so it can pull out those stores more effectively.
And that’s one of the biggest pitfalls.
But after that, there’s mountains of data saying that those who maintain successful weight loss and health in a zillion ways are the ones who are active, but just not then.
Abel: Right. Isn’t that interesting?
Well, it actually reminds me of when I did that TV show with Kurt, who started out at 352 pounds.
Really morbidly obese, having a lot of trouble.
Despite what the TV shows us, at the beginning, especially, he was doing very little exercise, very little physical activity, for the same reason that you talk about.
When a lot of people are changing the way that they eat, if they also start exercising in a really intense, aggressive way, especially if they’re not used to it, those things really start to fight against each other.
Because it’s hard to not overeat when you’re over-exercising. It’s just the way it is.
And it’s very easy to overeat the budget that you just exercised off, especially if you’re relatively new to exercising.
It’s easy to pump up your stress hormones really quickly, too much, all of a sudden. It’s just too much.
Yet you’re totally right, once you reach that maintenance threshold or stage in your life, things completely change, sometimes flip on their head.
What you were doing to get there can do the opposite of serving you once you get to that maintenance side.
So, how do you help people make that transition, because they’ll have a new body, right?
If they’re following good nutrition anyway, over the course of the next few weeks, few months, their body will be changing and it might actually be more enjoyable and actually fun again to start exercising once you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, right?
For sure. And part of that’s just change from size, but a lot of it is change from chemistry.
Many people do not reach what their target is in 28 days, but then what I’ll encourage is being stable for a period of time, and I talked about certain frequencies that are safe to repeat.
But, yeah, for sure, when you got come to that place, exercise is a pleasure, you enjoy it.
Your body wants to move and feel vibrant and alive, and it’s a whole different experience.
Abel: And I think you’re such a great poster person for that, because unless there are videos, and I’m sure there are, but going hiking with you and your son, I had the pleasure of doing that.
You’re both jumping, climbing, balancing on almost everything the whole time.
How do you develop that and why would you?
I think that there’s a lot of our brain wrapped up into managing three-dimensional terrain that we don’t get to challenge enough.
And for sure movement of any type is better, more is better than none. But our brains were really not made to make us happy cogs in a corporate modern wheel.
They were made to help us navigate treacherous environments, and not get killed, and find food, and get a mate, and get a baby out every now and then.
So when we’re in situations that require us to use balance and agility and thought in those ways, that’s a huge thing for maintaining good brain function, alertness, cognitive capacity, also mood, offsetting negative mood states.
Abel: And that kinda requires doing unpredictable movements in unpredictable terrain, and challenging yourself to do it in a way that’s fluid, almost like a squirrel on a telephone wire, right?
You have to let go at some point.
Yeah, and anyone can do that at a level that’s appropriate for them.
Just hiking is a great start for that. Just being on some uneven terrain, or even just being around vegetation and geologic structures outdoors, it radically shifts how the body works.
Abel: And the vision and the brain, so many things about it are good for us. Hopefully there’s some fresh air in there, as well.
We have time for a couple more, but let me ask you, what am I missing here?
There’s one more thing that I definitely want to talk about, but I want to leave some space. Is there anything that you’d like to bring up?
We’ve covered a lot of good bases. Let’s dive in.
The Problem with Health Hacking
Abel: Let’s go right to this. You do a little bit of ripping on the word “hacks” especially health hacks.
These days, and you say something that’s, I think, brilliant, “You cannot hack a garden.”
Well you can, but you wouldn’t want to.
If I said you can’t that would be a misnomer, because you can hack a garden, just probably not what you want to do.
Abel: But I think it’s a really good point, especially in the age of the internet, when words can be used as weapons or as hype tools or what have you.
What’s the matter with the word and concept of health hacking?
Well, that’s funny, because there’s a lot of people who embrace that term, they’re saying a lot of fine things, so I don’t want to divide.
But I think there’s something behind that and I guess that goes back to the complex and the simple systems.
The complex systems, we have to nurture them and we have to understand that they have this internal wisdom.
I’m a naturopathic physician, we’ve got a two-century lineage, and they talk about this healing power of nature, this wisdom of the body.
And I guess I don’t think about there being some magical glow-in-the-dark force that floats around, but there’s just a powerful tendency towards moving this…
All the universe is driven by entropy, and then life reverses that.
Life has this capacity of taking things in disorder and making them into greater order.
So you can always find some chemical pathway and think, oh, this is the one that matters, and this pathway is sped up by this and slowed down for that, so if we just do more of this and less of that, we will then game the system.
Well, that pathway is also connected to this other pathway, which will slow down if this one speeds up. And that goes on just about forever.
So, you can’t really find one thing and one variable and say let’s just take that to the moon and call it all good. It has to be part of the big overall system of the body.
Abel: Well, it’s kind of like racing a car or something and just slamming down on the gas the whole way and being like, “I’m going faster. I’m red-lining. This is a good hack.”
But that obviously doesn’t turn out so well if that’s the way you think about it.
The other tricky part is that our self-judgement and our intuitions can be wildly misleading and wildly accurate.
We could do something that has no effects, but if we feel strong convictions about it or if it really makes sense with our understanding of how the body works, that itself can be powerful.
You can talk about SIBOs, and then the opposite, the no SIBOs.
If we fear harmless elements of food and we develop a lot of complex ideas around that fear, that can be as harmful to us as a knife in the stomach.
So that’s the difficulty about taking things too far based upon speculation is that you could create things that seem to work but take you in the wrong way long-term.
Or you could preclude yourself in things that could be helpful based upon these short-term errors.
Abel: And there’s always this tendency to look for that silver bullet, yet nature considers itself the whole. It’s an ecosystem and so is the body.
And I’ve used the word hack, I tried it and decided I don’t like the word. And I think the reason is because if you have this idea that you’re being hierarchical with the needs of your body and you’re going to control your body, you’re going to tell it what to do.
You’re going to get it to this weight and this body fat, and at some point your body’s not going to like that very much, and it might stop following every little whim that your brain has.
I’ve read studies in performance about changing fuel ratios to make the body burn more of this or burn less of that.
And in the big scheme of things, our bodies will burn what they need to burn, and they’ll tap into whatever they can tap into.
Our whole goal is to survive, and we don’t change that.
You can’t teach a car to run differently by pouring something different inside of it, it’s already set up to burn things the way it will.
And if it’s got multiple fuels, it’ll adjust however it best sees fit.
But, yeah, there’s so much wisdom there that we think we can just change some inputs, now the whole system will think, “Oh, okay, I guess I have to do that.”
No, it’s complicated. It’s self-regulated.
Abel: And in the Western world, we treat the body much more like a mechanic would a car, whereas there’s this one thing wrong, it’s this one pathway or what have you.
But it’s really through cooperation with your body, through listening to your own body and becoming your own self-reliant guru of ecology, at least of your own body.
That’s really hopefully the thing that people are trending towards, at least at the maintenance stage.
It’s a dance. You need to, like you were saying with the population of deer, you need to stay within… I don’t want to say the boundaries, but you need to dance with whatever is going on.
It’s a moving target.
Well, the other thing I think a lot about, too is that the situation we’re in is largely unprecedented.
And we can look to, there’s been large epidemiologic studies, and there’s data from our distant past. And we should be inspired from those things.
We should learn from those, but we have to realize that a lot of things took place in environments that are not the same as ours are now, in terms of chemical exposure and things like the phones.
So the real trick is figuring out how we can make sense of this given the facts on the ground.
Where to Find Dr. Alan Christianson
Abel: Well, I can’t believe it, but we’re just about out of time. Your work is so important, Dr. Christianson. It has been for a long time.
I’m glad that we’ve known each other for a while at this point.
For those who are listening and would like to know more, where can they find you, and what are you working on right now?
Your best source is DrChristianson.com. That’s the easiest place to find all that.
And I’m working on the next book. And I’ll share this with you. There’s two directions I’m playing with for my next book.
One of them might be the invisible illness, it might be about how there’s normal symptoms that our adipokines, our stress load, can cause to come and go.
And I think many have chased various bad diagnosis and got stuck in spirals of problems that weren’t that solid.
And so I won’t be able to really understand how you can really make sense of what is a real medical condition and what’s not.
And then when they know what’s not, it’s still real, but how do you address that? How do you go take care of many of these newest symptoms?
So that’s one.
The other one is that I think we’ve been on this arc of almost like a “gotcha game” of this food you thought was okay, that now really isn’t because it’s got this thing in there.
So I want to reverse that arc, I want to talk about how a variety of food categories can be an important thing.
And also, a lot of the science that we’re excited about in our clinic, about how to reverse the intolerances and sensitivities, how to get back to a full spectrum of healthy natural foods.
We’re not talking like Twinkies, but how to really have a good variety of good simple foods again, and do well from that.
They both will come out, I’m not sure about the order.
Abel: Well, right on. I’m sure it will create a whole new army of flukes around the world. And let’s hope it does.
Dr. Christianson, always a pleasure. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Likewise. Happy to see you, too.
Before You Go…
Here’s a review that came in from Eric. He says:
Hello Abel, I just want to write you a quick thanks.
I have been following you for a little over a year and appreciate all you do.
My 23 year old son came home to live with us earlier this year, overweight and out of shape.
He was always in great shape and a star athlete, but after a year of eating whatever and whenever, combined with no exercise, he needed a change.
So I put him on the “Wild Diet” with moderate weight training, and high intensity cardio once a week.
The results were shocking. My wife (who is a fitness trainer) and I were speechless.
He lost 45 pounds in just under 12 weeks. He is now healthy, happy and in great shape.
Thanks again Abel, you are the man.
Wow, jeez, I can’t take credit for any of that, but Eric, thank you for writing in and please give your son my best. That is incredible.
45 pounds, especially at a young age like that, is just… It changes the person who you feel like, right?
And one of the biggest problems that happens, and you see this over and over again, is that these great athletes, especially in high school and sometimes in college, don’t have practice anymore. They have to take that 9 to 5 sedentary job.
They don’t have the community that their team provided.
I went through some of this myself. Real life doesn’t build those workouts in for you. It doesn’t build that community in for you. You’ve really got to do it yourself.
You’ve got to take the responsibility to make sure that you’re practicing good health on your own and also practicing self-defense against some of the ridiculous food that’s out there.
But in any case, congratulations to you and your family. It’s no small feat. Especially when your family’s involved, it can be extremely difficult to try to change anyone’s habits.
So kudos to you guys. Keep in touch, and drop a line anytime.
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What did you think of this interview with Dr. Christianson? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts!