Purpose, Connection, The Limits Of Science, The Importance Of Humility And More with Dr. Bryan Walsh

Content By: Ari Whitten & Dr. Bryan Walsh

In this episode,  I am speaking with Dr. Bryan Walsh, a board-certified naturopathic doctor, an expert in biochemistry and physiology, and – in my opinion – one of the most brilliant minds in the whole natural health and functional medicine space.

We’re talking about purpose, connection, why we always think we are right (and we’re usually wrong), the importance of humility, imposter syndrome, and so much more.

In this episode, Dr. Walsh and I discuss:

  • Why practitioners must constantly question their own beliefs and challenge the status quo.
  • A critical mindset shift that all practitioners must embrace in order to stop confusing themselves and their patients.
  • Why there’s never been – and never will be – just one ‘magic bullet’ for optimal health. 
  • Where the natural health functional medicine community is wrong (and a better paradigm).
  • The shocking impact that loneliness and sadness have on your health.
  • The things you can’t measure in any lab test but are essential for optimal wellness.
  • Why community is so important…and the reasons why you shouldn’t always join one. 
  • One of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself (and how knowing the answer will help your long-term health more than any diet, supplement, or gadget.)

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Ari Whitten: Hey there. Welcome back to The Energy Blueprint podcast. I’m your host, Ari Whitten. With me now is my good friend, Dr. Bryan Walsh: , who is I believe on the podcast for the third time now. He is a biochemistry and physiology expert, he’s a board-certified naturopathic doctor and he’s also become a personal friend of mine over the last couple years. I have really through many personal conversations, as well as following his work, I’ve come to see him as really one of the most brilliant minds in the whole natural health and functional medicine space.

The best way I can describe it is there are some practitioners who, they go through their training, whatever school they go to, they go through that education, they go through whatever other training beyond that. Then they go into practice and they get in the groove of whatever their routines are and their specific protocols are and they just stay in that routine.

Then there are other practitioners who just have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and who are constantly spending hours and hours every single day, digging into the latest science and who are just constantly on the cutting edge of very, very deep knowledge of the ins and outs. They’re not just rehearsing memorized protocols that they’ve done a thousand times before, but they’re constantly trying to pioneer new things to think things through, to question the status quo and do it on a high level with really, really sophisticated levels of scientific knowledge. I really put Dr. Walsh in that category. It is my pleasure to have you on for the third time, my friend,

Bryan Walsh: Listen, I’m glad you’re keeping track. I really appreciate that intro. It’s great to see you again. The feelings are mutual. I will say though, as you were talking, if I may, I know that you’re supposed to be interviewing me, but it just struck me, as you were saying what you did about this endless pursuit of knowledge. As I was thinking about it, there’s a lot of practitioners that are in this constant pursuit of knowledge, but I think that what’s important– and I’m not saying, look at me in any particular way on this, but what’s underneath that?

Because I can tell you, there are people that rip me off all the time. There are people in pursuit of knowledge to make themselves look better, to make themselves look smarter, to be more, let’s just say, mentally bulletproof, so that if somebody came at them with some argument against whether vitamin D is good for you or not, that they had some really quick retort and were clearly intelligent and very articulate with the responses.

As you were saying that, I have to say though, I asked myself really quickly, “Yes, why the heck do I care so much about knowing all this darn stuff?” It truly is– I had this own little conversation in my head as you were introducing. I’m sorry. It’s to help other people though. It’s to find the truth quite honestly. It’s the truth as much as science will allow us to find so we as practitioners are not misleading people as to what health is and that we as patients, because we’re all patients and people as well, are not misguided as to, again, what health actually is. I can’t stop learning about this stuff. Whether I did what I’m doing right now or not, it’s fascinating.

It’s not the knowledge for the sake of knowledge, it’s the knowledge for the pursuit of truth. It’s the pursuit of truth, so that I have the ability to help people. Really help people, not just, follow this fab diet right now and take this fancy supplement, because it’s the one everybody’s talking about, but really deep down it’s actually not going to get you well. I think everybody knows that. Until the next big thing comes along.

Anyway, I had that insight as you were saying it. Sorry to cut you off at the very beginning of your own interview, but I think it’s an important piece.

Why we think we know everything and why we shouldn’t

Ari Whitten: No, that was great. There might be another element to it. I agree with everything you said, but I will also say from my own personal experience, and I would guess that you’re probably similar to me in the sense. From the time I was a young kid, 13 years old, I’ve been studying this stuff, nutrition, physiology, and I studied it for 10 years, 15 years before I ever made a dime on my knowledge. I spent hours and hours and hours every day studying it just because I was fascinated with it. I developed a passion and obsession with it. Then when I started using that knowledge to help people, then it became even more addicted and I became even more passionate and obsessed about it. I think from hearing your story, I think you had similar early upbringing to me in regard to your relationship- [crosstalk].

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Yes, I think we talked about that before. I was a boy scout. I got Boys’ Life magazine which came with boy scouts, I guess. They had those Charles Atlas comics where the kid gets sand in his face. I saved up cash, I sent cash through the mail, got this thing. I’m sitting here, I don’t know, 10 years old, 12 years old doing these isometric exercises in front of my mirror.

I got, believe it or not– I’m not that old, man. Apparently I am, I don’t know. One of those band things. Not the bands but with the springs. You know those things?

Ari Whitten: Yes.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Good Lord, and you do it around your back and then it’d pinch your skin on the way back. I got a pair of 10-pound dumbbells that was my big thing. I’m just sitting there exercising like crazy. I bought a nutrition book I think before I could drive. I was reading while my mom was driving around. Just fascinated with this human experience and whether it’s fitness or nutrition, that’s the gateway. That’s what gets the end of this and the next thing you know, you might read up on the more esoteric stuff. Whether it’s shockers and essential oils, or there’s the mind-body connection and the meditation.

It’s just this never-ending path before you’ve made a dime on it. Then you become a trainer and it’s like all this education you’ve amassed just out of interest. Then all of a sudden, you’re a trainer and you’re like, “Wow, I can actually apply this stuff and help people.” Then nutrition. For me, naturopath or massage therapist, or whatever it is. It’s a cool journey for sure.

Ari Whitten: Absolutely. I want to come back to something you said in passing there that I think is important. You mentioned the pursuit of this knowledge for truth, for helping people, for wanting to be as close to the truth as possible so that you help people and don’t mislead people. I think there’s a point at which practitioners diverge in the sense that there’s a marketing pull towards positioning your brand, positioning yourself as, “Hey, I’ve got this unique diet, I’ve got the magic macronutrient ratio, and the magic foods of my diet that will help you lose 27 pounds in 13 days, or whatever.”

From a marketing perspective, there’s a pull in that direction towards misrepresenting things for the sake of selling and making money. On the other hand, there’s a pull, at least for some people, to high integrity, to honesty, to integrity, and to truth. To wanting to dig, dig and dig obsessively into the science to get as close to the truth, to question the status quo, to hopefully help people as best as possible and to not mislead them.

I was listening to one of your recent interviews recently and you said something like– What was it? “How can we be so confident that we are doing things right now that we know the truth that Keto and intermittent fasting and whatever else is that the right way when we’ve been wrong so much in the past?” Can you elaborate on that idea?

Dr. Bryan Walsh: I’d love to. I speak or I have spoken in front of large audiences of practitioners before. There are certain things inside of you that you feel are so true. You want to broadcast it out to the world. You’re like, “This is a truth. Let’s really think about this.”

I’ll say certain things in these in these presentations and I get all these nods and all these bits. When I talk about that part that you just said, which I’ll definitely go into because I feel strongly about this. I don’t get a lot of head nods. I don’t know why. I’m like, “Wait a minute.” If there’s one thing we must embrace, must acknowledge, must realize is that I personally think that we as the human race, we think that we’re so far evolved because we have opposable thumbs and can think and speak and communicate and all these things.

I think we’re mental idiots quite honestly. Think about how many times in your personal individual past where you’ve said, “Well, thought that was a good idea at the time.” or “Oops, I messed up.” I’ve been wrong way more times than I’ve been right in my life. I’ve been right before but man, I think I’m wrong far more off. It shows you how fallible our minds are.

I give that little preview to this because I wonder why more people don’t talk about this very thing. That is, is that you can go back– First of all in any industry, it doesn’t matter. Science is an easy one. Politics, you could go into any one of them. At the time, people were so certain of certain things. Just choose the time period, man. You can go to the 50s, you go to 1900s, you to 1700s, it doesn’t matter. Choose the time period and look at the narrative that they were telling about the body, how it worked or certain things. It wasn’t a hypothesis. It was like, “This is the truth.”

One of the classic examples was pellagra. Pellagra is a niacin deficiency we now know. I try to never say we now know because it’s a belief. All it is is we used to think this and now we think this. We don’t know this. In fact, there’s guru practitioners in the industry that say, “We used to think this but now we know.” I’m like, “You’re the dumbest [unintelligible 00:10:33]. We don’t know, I don’t think, much of anything. We think a lot of things, we believe a lot of things that will probably be disproven. If we’re not, then maybe we were right, but it doesn’t mean we know anything.

Pellagra back then was sure that it was a black fly bite. That the black fly caused pellagra and there was newspaper articles written on this and they said, “If we can eradicate the black fly, we will eradicate pellagra.” That was the narrative. Turns out it was a niacin deficiency. That’s all it was. Then I ask practitioners today without trying to offend anybody, are there any infections today that we call an infection, it might rhyme with lime, or rime or Lyme, that we say is due to something and I’m not picking on Lyme. There’s a thing that we are pegging on a bug, a bacteria or a parasite or a thing and we’re wrong and people are like, “No, no, we have the science now.” They had the science then.

If the same conversations that we have today, “We’re so much more advanced in the science.” They were more advanced in science back then too previous to that. I don’t like to say that history repeats itself, but if it’s the interview I’m thinking you are mentioning. We talked about the bellows along the Thames River and where the phrase blow smoke up one’s rectum came from, is because they actually believe that if somebody had a near-drowning experience, I think 1700s, that they would take one of those old bellows that you would stoke a fire with just with air, and they put smoke in it– Actually, they put embers in it, so that they would put it up someone’s rectum and do that and then that would revive them because it happened to one lady, but it was probably because the hot embers up your rectum you can imagine would awake almost anybody from unconsciousness like ammonia salts would do, right? That was what they believed.

We look at that now like, “Man, they’re stupid, but let’s go ahead and take 40,000 IUs of vitamin D every single day by itself.” “Look how stupid they were for using mercury therapeutically, but let’s go ahead and strap on this whatever electronic gadget around our head while we’re putting essential oils in our armpits.” Or whatever it might be. I’m not trying to rip on anything in particular, but how can we think we are so stinking right about this? “Oh, look how stupid we were in the 80s, low fat. That was a mess. Clearly bathing yourself in lard every morning in the bathtub that’s–

I’ll wrap this up to say, we are so certain that we are right now. We were certain that we were right then too. I don’t think there’s enough people that are questioning themselves and the whole everything like curcumin. Curcumin as a spice is really not bioavailable. Our body does not want to absorb much of that at all as a spice. Depending on your belief system, how long the world’s been around, and all these things. We’ve been evolving for a long time along with that Mother Nature, whoever made this whole thing. Maybe there’s a reason why it’s not very bioavailable.

Yet we’re practically injecting it into us by taking this nanoparticle micellized special liposomal delivery. Let’s load our bodies up with as much as it possibly can. It might turn out that that’s a brilliant idea. It might turn out that that’s stupid. You can’t make all these, “Oh, curcumin for everybody.” It’s a great question. We’re so certain about things now and we look back and think that we were stupid in the past. I guarantee you, people in the future will look back at what we’re doing now and think that we’re complete morons that we’re doing in the health industry.

Ari Whitten: I agree with you 100%. On the note of a personal anecdote, you talking about you being wrong so many times in the past, when I was younger, when I was in my teens and 20s, I was hardcore, ultra dogmatic, totally convinced that the truth of nutrition and why people get fat, oh, it’s carbs. Carbs cause a secretion of insulin and insulin controls how fat you get because it’s a fat-storing hormone. This made enormous amounts of sense to me and how could it not. Carbs boost insulin, insulin is a fat-storing hormone, of course, that’s what controls it.

In my late-ish 20s, there was a bunch of research that came out and has since come out and confirmed this over and over dozens of times that carbs and insulin are not what regulate body fatness, and that you can put people on equivalent calorie diets that are either high or low carb and see the exact same amounts of fat loss or fat gain, depending on whether you’re underfeeding or overfeeding. This has been replicated over and over again. I realized that I had just spent so much time lecturing people about this, telling everyone that this is the truth, this is what the science says, and I was absolutely wrong.

I was willing to accept that I was wrong, but there’s a certain– as you are wrong multiple times like that and you realize that you’ve misled people, hopefully, you acquire some– I think two things. You acquire some humility, and you acquire an obsession to want to dig deep, deep, deep and always question the fads in the status quo to make sure you’re not being misled and washed along with the flow of whatever’s popular in the moment.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Totally. Humility is everything. You nailed it with humility. I think that the problem that I see with a lot of practitioners today is– Listen, other examples are, you’re supposed to eat multiple small frequent meals throughout the day to balance insulin and glucose. Now, I don’t want to say clearly, because it’s not clear, but the latest research suggests that meal frequency is related to glucose dysregulation and metabolic issues. With good intentions were we wrong when we were speaking that narrative back then? No, we were doing the best we could based on the science, but that doesn’t mean we’re right now. I believe that what we should be saying is, is we think this is how things work, although that might change. It might change.

There’s been some funny studies that came out. The fifth quadricep was identified. It’s another quad. It’s quintcep, I suppose. It’s a little one. The example that I’ve used in front of audiences with this is, if we’re identifying new body parts, we’ve been dissecting the body for a very long time. We have probably dissected millions of bodies, I’m guessing. I use the example, let’s say, you go into your glove box, your glove compartment in your car, and you find something in there, you’re like, “Well, how long’s that been in there? Years, maybe? How long has that razor been in there? I have no idea.”

That’s like us going into the body be like, “Wow, there’s a ligament in the knee.” Wait, how’s that? If we’ve been going into the body as often as we have, again, in how many times? To find or identify new body parts that have been there the whole time, how solid are we on hormones? How solid are we on, even worse, the nervous system or the immune system? For people to make these bold claims about, “Here’s how the nervous system works.” No, here’s how we think it works to the best of our knowledge, based on the best of the science that we have right now, but please don’t make claims about this.

Please don’t make this dogmatic because you are misleading patients into thinking what health actually is, “Oh, well, then I need to gargle while I meditate, pray, hum and chew gum all at the same time to stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system, which does that work? Sure. But anyhow, that’s my problem with the industry right now, is there’s not enough people like what you just said, with humility. I used to say this, boy, was I wrong? This is now the narrative that I’m speaking about. I may be wrong about this too. There’s a really good chance that I am. If I am, you’ll be the first to know because I don’t want to mislead people. I just feel like that that doesn’t exist.

Listen, it’s, “I’m right, you’re wrong. Iodine in high doses is good and I’ll show you all the research behind that.” Someone else is like, “Are you kidding me? Iodine and even one drop will kill you and I have all the references to prove it too.” Then what does that lead to? You know this more than anybody is patients that are just more confused than ever. “well, do I take iodine? Do I not? This person says it’ll kill me. This person says I need to swim in it. Does that mean I should eat kelp? Because kelp I thought was healthy but it has Iodine.”

No wonder people are confused. I’ll even add, it leads to, and nobody wants to admit this, crazy confused practitioners. We’re not supposed to admit that we’re confused however. Patients will be like, “I don’t know what to eat anymore because this podcast says to eat this, this podcast says to avoid that. I’m trying to follow paleo, so and so says beans are paleo. Someone else says beans aren’t paleo. Am I supposed to eat beans or not?” We aren’t supposed to say we’re confused about things. We’re not supposed to say that we’re ignorant or unsure. It leads to this very confused industry.

Ari Whitten: If you’re a practitioner and somebody is coming to pay you hundreds, thousands of dollars-

Dr. Bryan Walsh: You need to know what you’re talking about.

Ari Whitten: -there’s a huge pressure on you, I think for most people to pretend like they have it all figured out. Even if they don’t know whether, “Hey, I don’t know whether grains are bad or good or beans are bad or good”, or whatever food or whatever diet or keto, if it’s going to cause heart disease or if it’s the cure for cancer and everything. There’s so much of this that isn’t known and yet there’s a pressure on people to pretend like they know.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: It sucks for practitioners. There’s a lot of unhappy imposter syndrome, confused practitioners who want to be to be able to tell the truth but can’t for the reason that you said. You’re getting paid lots of money for someone to come and help you, and then there’s also pressure to help them.

Ari Whitten: If you’ve been teaching somebody something for a long time, there’s a psychological pressure on you to defend whatever thing that you’ve committed to for the last several years that you’ve been teaching people, even if the science comes out showing that you’re wrong, it’s like, “Well, I still think it’s right because I’ve helped this many people by prescribing this kind of diet. I’m still committed to this being the truth, even though the science does not agree with me.”

Dr. Bryan Walsh: That’d be like someone coming out and saying like, “By the way, mitochondria is not responsible for energy.” You’d be like, “Crap, there goes my whole business.”

Ari Whitten: Pretty much.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: “Let’s say the Golgi apparatus, maybe that’s the Golgi apparatus blueprint. That could be my next thing.” Absolutely.

Ari Whitten: A couple of examples I thought of as you were talking, one was the appendix, several years ago– I forget how many years ago this came out, maybe 5, 10. For decades, doctors were taking out people’s appendix and they were like, “Oh, it’s just a remnant of evolution. It serves no purpose. It has no function.” Then a few years ago they discovered it actually is really important and it does something and it’s not just a nonfunctional remnant of evolution.

What it does is it’s like a storehouse for the microbiome. If you get poisoned by something or in modern terms, antibiotics and things like that, the appendix helps repopulate the microbiome. Another example is recently, maybe a year, six months, a year ago, there was a new discovery of– I forget the compound, calcitonin or some compound from bones that regulate the stress response. Do you remember seeing that?

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Yes, I saw that.

Ari Whitten: To your point of discovering new body parts, it’s like, wow, we’re discovering that the bones are a major factor in regulating our response to stress. Crazy stuff.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: That’s an area I will say I dig deeply into. In those obscure ideas, really just to prove that we don’t know as much as we think we do. “The stress response is the HPA axis and all these things. It’s your perception, it’s all these things.” Then you’re like, “The bone does it too.” We’re like, “Oh, crap.” I just did a workshop. You’d actually probably like it. It was just a one hour workshop. It was how to identify– and I called it adrenal fatigue but you know how I feel about that. Adrenal fatigue on blood chemistry.

I went through and the first thing I did was basically say, “It’s not adrenal fatigue. Here’s all the things that it probably is.” The very first part of that presentation, however, it’s a workshop. It’s available. It’s one hour, it’s super short. I basically tried to show that we know a lot less than we think we do when it comes to this idea of stress in the first place. You may or may not know some of these things, but cortisol is made outside of the adrenal glands. It’s made in a ton of tissues.

There’s one study that is a really intelligently designed study. It was really cool when they did this. They found that extra-adrenal, which means outside the adrenals cortisol production is actually significant because that’s what a lot of people will say, “Yes, it’s made in the brain and the skin and in the thymus”, and all these other things, but it’s not in appreciable amounts.

This paper showed that in one group of people and I won’t get into the details of the study, it was about 50% of the total circulating cortisol in the body was not from the adrenal glands. That’s a head-scratcher. You might like this one too, that we have an HPA axis in our skin. What research has found is– There’s a few papers on this that we literally– Follow this. I’ll slow down for this because this one’s like, “Wait a minute, what?”

That we make CRH, ACTEH, cortisol, and the receptors for all those all in the skin all by itself, no hypothalamus needed, no pituitary needed, no adrenal gland needed. You make the whole darn thing. The whole cascade from the HPA axis, all those analogs are made in the skin by itself.

Ari Whitten: Makes me wonder if it might be in other tissues as well.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: That’s exactly my point. Because I’m here to tell you people say, “What do you do with that?” I have no idea except to say that we don’t know as much as we think we do. To get Mr. and Mrs. Patient Smith in to say, “We have the HPA axis and it’s restraint”, we don’t know these things. What I wish we would do as an industry is just with humility to say, “I will do my darndest to help you in every which way that I possibly can. I’ve been doing this for a while, I have some decent success, I also have some epic failures. I will try to help you”, but not to have this, “It’s all about the thyroid, it’s all about the brain.” Or “Your brain runs everything in the body.” Really?

In fact, here’s a frustration for practitioners on this note, and this encapsulates everything we’re talking about, is you can go to a seminar on the brain and after that weekend it’s just brain, brain, brain and more brain, and papers to show, to back up everything they’re saying. The brain runs everything. If you don’t have a healthy brain, your gut won’t work, your liver doesn’t work, you can’t detoxify, you’re not happy, you have an altered stress response, and all these things. As a practitioner or even as a patient, you listen to one of these people, you leave and you’re like, “Wow, I need to focus on my brain. I need to take those serotonin supplements and dopamine supplements to support my brain and take a dozen brain supplements.”

A, that doesn’t usually help most people. I know this. I see patients that are on 30 supplements, self-prescribed supplements because they listen to all these different podcasts. Then the next weekend, either go to another seminar, or you listen to their podcast and they talk about how the gut runs everything. They show paper after paper after paper of how your gut dictates your brain response, dictates your brain function, dictates your liver detoxification pathways, dictates your stress response all because of your gut. You’re like, “Son of a gun, I need to work on my gut.”

Then you go to the thyroid seminar, and they paint the exact same picture. “No, every cell of the body has a thyroid receptor on it so if your thyroid sucks, then so does the rest of you. Guess what? Your guts not going to work if your thyroid doesn’t work. You can’t detoxify and your brain’s not going to work.” At some point, that’s when you just throw up your hands, you’re like, “Forget it, I’m just going to be a farmer in Montana, I’m not even going to practice medicine anymore because it’s–” You wonder why patients are more confused than ever and practitioners are more confused than ever.

Because if you’ve heard this, you have to fix the adrenals before you fix the thyroid or you have to fix the gut before you fix the thyroid, or the microbiome, which is everybody’s golden cow right now. Let’s fix the microbiome. 10 years ago, it was the genome. Going back to the pellagra thing, you can go in any point and I’d say in a span of about 5 to 10 years, there was a conversation that was happening at the time. It was revolutionary and it was a novel and it was new, and we thought we knew what we’re doing but boy vitamin D is the savior. Before that it was heavy metals, whatever it is. We’ve been wrong every single time. It’s never been the chalice, it’s never been the gauntlet. It’s never been the magic bullets. It’s never been those things. You want to know something? I don’t think it ever is going to be.

Ari Whitten: I agree with you 100%. I’m curious if you agree with me–

Dr. Bryan Walsh: I’m sorry to be so depressing too. I know this is incredibly depressing. People are looking to people like us for answers but this is the honest truth. If we get-

Ari Whitten: I think people need to hear the honest truth about– For people who are not like us who have been studying physiology for 20 years, who are not delving into the science for hours every day, there’s a perception of, “Oh my gosh everything is known by science.” I think for people to hear the limitations of what’s known and get a sense of how much practitioners know and the boundaries of their knowledge. I think it’s critical for people to understand that and this historical context that you’re presenting of, “Hey, we’ve been wrong about pretty much all of these fads in the past and all of the latest groundbreaking truth”, as you were just outlining, and we still are almost certainly.

It’s pretty much a guarantee. What I think is the bigger truth is the best paradigm is systems biology.

The shift to systems biology

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Yes, systems biology.

Ari Whitten: Looking at all of these different players because they’re all important. The brain is important, the gut is important, the hormones, neurotransmitters are important. The microbiome is important. Mitochondria are important. The immune system is important. Inflammation is important and when people reduce things down, as you’re just saying, “Oh, it’s the thyroid. Oh, it’s the adrenals. Oh, it’s the gut. It’s the microbiome. It’s the toxins. It’s whatever.” This is pretty much guaranteed to be overly myopic and reductionist and therefore wrong because the body is fundamentally a spider web of interconnection of all these different systems.

The problem with this paradigm because I’ve been trying to present it as I think you have as well. The problem with it is it’s way more difficult and less sexy for people, the average person to wrap their head around and it’s way more sexy for someone to just say, “Hey, oh, it’s your gut. It’s your thyroid. It’s your adrenals and whatever, you just do this thing for your adrenals and boom that’s the big thing.” That is a much simpler idea for people to wrap their head around

Dr. Bryan Walsh: 1000%. There’s that phrase, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Every single patient that comes through your door is a food sensitivity. I’ll put everybody on an elimination diet and then it’d be good. Or I’m the adrenal specialist. Listen, I say, I love this. I don’t love this, but the number of people that I’ve talked with that, a patient, they’ll have a test run on them and they’ll come back negative and it all looks good, “But my doctor still thinks that it’s–” Here they’re running a lab to prove that somebody had a thing, it comes back negative.

Lyme is a classic example. I’m not ripping on Lyme. Lyme seems to be legit. There’s a lot of people that are very much suffering from that. The number of people that I’ve seen that have a multiple negative Lyme tests, and I know this is going to offend somebody somewhere, “But my doctor still thinks I have it and that it’s hidden.” Okay, maybe, and I am open to anything. This is a crazy universe of multiple possibilities of things. That’s certainly possible.

At some point, if you’re that specialist with that hammer and all you see is a nail, maybe it’s not the thyroid, maybe it’s not some hidden thyroid thing that the body just doesn’t want to reveal and maybe it is at the same time. Who knows?

The role of loneliness in health

Ari Whitten: You’ve mentioned a few in passing here, but what do you think are some of the most egregious examples of where the natural health functional medicine community currently has something wrong, and what do you think is a better paradigm?

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Oh, that’s a good question. I’ll just go ahead and summarize. I am afraid of myself doing the very thing that we’ve been talking about and looking for that one single solitary answer. Because it’s sexy because it’s easy and because you don’t have to apply much thought to anything anymore. Something that I grapple with a whole lot is how is that the power of one’s– and I don’t want to say the mind, because then all of a sudden that puts certain labels on this, but it’s our call it mind or call it– Again, we love boxes, don’t we? Like, “Oh, he just said spiritual self. That means this.” No, it doesn’t. Is our perception of the world, our perception of our place in this world. What our perception of the world, even in the first place. Our definition of this world that we exist in. Our definition of our place in this thing that we exist in.

I’m not trying to get esoteric or existential. Our sense of purpose, are we lonely? I don’t like to get into the happiness conversation, but do we have a sense of peace and contentment and joy in our life, in ourselves and all those? Do we feel like we have a purpose? I say that because first of all, I have my own personal experiences with these things, but there’s some very compelling studies out there even in this area that I’ve done some stuff with and there’s some lectures and stuff around these things.

I’ll give you an example. Well, vaccinations, that’s a popular one right now, right? There was a paper done on college-aged men. What they did was they gave them a vaccination for the flu or whatever it was. They did a subjective– There are what are called validated, which what that means, validated questionnaires available in the scientific literature that can identify the personality traits, things that you can’t necessarily measure. They gave them subjective questionnaires for this idea of loneliness or social isolation or connectedness.

What they found was fascinating. Those that scored lower on that, that felt more isolated, less connected, more lonely, made less antibodies to this same vaccine that everybody else got. The people that had more connectedness, less loneliness, more social circles, if you want to call it that, made more antibodies. Now, these were same gender, roughly the same age, the same amount of the vaccine that was injected and they made different amount of antibodies potentially based on their how they viewed themselves in the world that they live in.

There was another really awesome one. You’re familiar with lipopolysaccharides. It’s super highly inflammatory and if researchers want to give you inflammation, they just give you a little shot of lipopolysaccharides. It does the trick. Same deal. They had subjective questionnaires to identify how lonely somebody was– and this is a trip. See, this is where you stand back, like, “What do you make of that?” “I don’t know. It’s a bigger world.”

We hear that lipopolysaccharides are inflammatory. Where they come from, the gut. When you have leaky gut and has holes in it and Gram negative bacteria, that whole story, and they’re inflammatory. I can buy that. However, there was a study that looked at people look at their subjective loneliness score, and they injected them with lipopolysaccharides and it turns out. The more lonely somebody was, when they had an injection of lipopolysaccharides, had more TNF alpha, more interleukin 6, more of an inflammatory response to lipopolysaccharides than did people that were less lonely?

That to me then, to get to come back to your question, is huge. Huge. Because then the question is, you have an inflammatory condition right now. Let’s say two people. Two people with rheumatoid arthritis, highly inflammatory autoimmune condition. If one of them has the faith, has purpose, has love in their life, loves themselves, forgives themselves for everything, forgives other people, have peace and contentment in their heart, and they have a strong social network of maybe three people, the size doesn’t matter and feel connected. I would argue that they might not even know that they have RA, quite honestly.

There’s studies on these things in relationship to food. Our hormones change in what we think that we just ate. Diabetics, glucose is changed in what time they thought it was. I preface this by saying, I’m afraid that I’m going to jump into that, “Well, it’s all mind, it’s all perspective, it’s all purpose, it’s all connectedness, loneliness, happiness, and then we’d be good.” What about somebody when they get an H pylori infection? One could also make an argument that somebody who’s lonely is more prone to an H pylori connection.

I think that is to me– To answer your question, is we are not spending enough time on those areas and what we’re doing is we’re slapping things on our wrist that tells us how we sleep and how many steps that we take, and the app that tells us if our macros are on track, because clearly, that’s important and if we’re off on our macros then all Hell’s going to break loose and we’re probably going to die right there on the spot. All these, it’s gadgets and gizmos and apps and I believe that practitioners– You said this earlier on, I was going to comment on this. Practitioners, we’re all at fault. I’m not blaming a soul for any of this stuff. You made a comment earlier on about the two different people, the integrity, humility type practitioners, and the other ones that were the sleazy and murky.

The people that are peddling the one size fits all diet or supplement for people can do it because people are looking for that. It’s not the practitioners fault. If people wouldn’t buy into that, if they didn’t want the shortcut, the silver bullet, then all those practitioners wouldn’t even have a business, if that makes sense. It’s not those practitioners fault. They’re just preying on the fact that people want that. They don’t want to– What would you rather do? Not you. I’m speaking to the wrong person.

What would most people rather do? Track your macros, or go deeply into who you are? If you’re lonely, have a purpose. If you hate yourself for certain things, or the deep dark recesses of your life that you avoid, because it hurts so stinking bad, you’ve practically repressed some of these feelings. What we do is we have our phone and be like, “Oh, my macros are good, and my sleep is good and let’s see my radon in the area is–” or whatever it might be.

Long winded, sorry, on your question, that those are all distractors. They’re distracting us and they’re keeping us away from the things that matter and what matters is that I matter in this world that matters. The people around me that matter and do I have a purpose? If all that makes sense. I don’t think that’s the answer. I think that if more people went along those ways, they wouldn’t have to follow the macros as well and actually– I think that we are running the completely wrong direction in the pursuit of health.

Community – when to join one and when not to

Ari Whitten: You just made me think of that. I think it’s an Einstein quote, he said something like, not everything that can be measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured. We have this obsession we can do all these advanced lab, blood chemistry, and measure our hormones and our saliva and our neurotransmitters in our urine and organic acids, and yada, yada, yada. But you don’t have any tests that can measure your purpose in life, or your self-love or your degree of community.

We have this obsession with looking at health purely from a biochemistry perspective of nutrition and exercise and sleep. I think there’s a compelling case from the research that if anything, the single most important factor in human health is actually community and social interactions and purpose might be up there as well. We don’t have any test that can measure it. You can’t quantify it, you can’t wear a little app or a device on your arm that measures that.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Yes, there are some subjective questionnaires that have been validated, that look at things like loneliness, connectedness, and even purpose, quite honestly, and I have included those on my intake form, when I see patients, and it’s actually on a form for a program that I have for practitioners so that they can look at that too, because I have two comments on this for you. One is, if somebody scores, I’ll say, poorly in those areas of happiness, loneliness, and purpose, then the rest of the questionnaire that looks at glucose symptoms, and serotonin symptoms and toxicity symptoms, and all these things. It’s like, all right, we’re not going to talk about all this stuff. Because your highest scores are in these areas of not feeling connected, and so that in those people I think, are driving their ill-health symptoms, largely.

On the other hand, if those scores are really, really good, somebody is happy and joyful and content, but man, they just feel sick or they’re tired or whatever hurts, then it’s biological, and it’s not so much psychological. The other thing I want to say, too, and this gets into splitting hairs, which I’m not really ever interested in doing that much. When you’re in a community, you have an innate purpose. Your purpose is that member of that community that serves a certain thing. That community would not be that community without you. I’m not disagreeing with you that community, is it? I think it’s one of the same.

On the other hand, here’s a question. These are thing that I like to talk about, can you have purpose but not being a community? Okay, let’s say two different things, somebody in a community that may or may not have a purpose, somebody with a purpose that doesn’t have a community, which one is going to be “healthier”? I don’t have the answer for it, but I think that that’s a rhetorical question to ponder. I will say that in a community– Here’s another thing. If it’s a legitimate community, Facebook’s a community, I don’t want to belong to that community. Because that’s a totally– I mean, I’m not going to comment on that. Here’s another one is-

Ari Whitten: I will just mention, I don’t know if you’ve seen The Social Dilemma that came out on Netflix.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Yes, with my wife. We did.

Ari Whitten: Yes, worth watching for everybody listening.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Totally. It is worth watching. I’ve seen some interesting commentaries on it too. Again, people can’t really agree with or be happy with anything about stuff. Listen, but this is another one, man. I’m sorry, I’m not articulate enough to get across the message that I continually try to get across. I wish that I could very succinctly. Okay, this is what people do and tell me I’m wrong. You hear that community is important, and you look at all the studies on community and health and longevity and cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s risk and all these things. Then what’s the next thing? “I need to join the community? I’m going to go join one.”

But you’re joining one potentially for the wrong reason. That’s a hedonic selfish reason to join a community. Communities are supposed to be about the community, not you. You just join that community for selfish, “I want to live longer and be healthier so I’m going to join this community.” That’s hedonic. That’s not eudaimonic. Eudaimonic is purpose. That’s doing something for a greater good. “I’m going to join this community, because I want to better the people in this community. I don’t want to get anything out of it.” That to me, is that subtle nuance where we as humans really screw this up. It’s like forcing yourself into community for the wrong reasons. Did we ever talk about the hedonic-eudaimonic thing? I forget.

Ari Whitten: I don’t think we did. No.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Okay.

Ari Whitten: I have some commentary on what you just said. I wont to interrupt if you want to complete the thought.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: This goes back to intent, which you said at the beginning pursuing knowledge and my whole point on that was what’s the intent of somebody pursuing knowledge passionately? Is it to write a book so that you’re famous and your pictures are on every billboard or is it to help people? That’s a very different intent. Why are you joining that community? Is it to live longer and feel healthier? That’s selfish. It’s the terms hedonic in the literature. There’s eudemonic, E-U-D, eudemonic is doing something for a greater good or greater purpose.

I would submit that it’s not belonging to a community because I can go out and join a meetup group right now, I’m going for hikes every weekend and that’s my community, but why am I doing that? It’s the intent behind it and I think that that’s where people screw this up. “I want to join a community for me.” Sorry, dude, that is not healthy to me. I’m going to join a community to participate in that community, to be a part, to help the other people of the community. If I get helped by it, great. If I don’t no big deal, I’m there to serve and that’s the big difference.

Ari Whitten: Yes. I’m going to push back very slightly. It’s not that I disagree. It’s that I think it’s not binary. This might be something we disagree on, but I don’t think humans are ever purely altruistic. There’s always a mix of altruistic factors and self-serving factors at play almost in any human decision. In the human condition, I don’t think we can escape that. May be in very rare circumstances someone takes a bullet for someone else or something like that.

Even then maybe there’s some secret wish of like, “I want to be remembered as a hero.” There’s always at least a shred of self-serving. My only disagreement with what you presented there is it’s a bit of a catch 22 for people for that reason that it’s hard for anybody to be purely altruistic. Especially you’re asking people to– Not you, but we’re asking people to forget about the fact that it is good for you and that it is healthy and will lead to greater happiness for you to join a community.

It’s like, “Yes, that’s true but forget that you know that.” Which I think is not really possible to do, but the bigger issue is this, from an evolutionary perspective, humans existed in tribes. For most of evolution, we existed in small bands of people, 100, 200 people, and in those societies, there was a shared culture, a shared narrative story about the story of creation, and what our collective purpose is and what our purpose is as individuals.

We share that culture, we share those traditions, we share those values, we share that common meaning and purpose, and you grow up in a society where everybody in that community knows you and you know them, and you are a member of that community where you serve a role and you are brought up in that context where all of those things are a given. Now we live in a context of modern world where we are separate from that.

Yet now we’re presented with this knowledge, “Hey, community is really important for you and for everybody else.” How do we come together to form some semblance of that community that used to be a given, but is no longer given and do it in hopefully a way where you actually form some real community, real bonds, real shared culture, shared meaning, shared purpose. I think it’s a big ask.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: It’s a huge ask. Listen, I love what you said but think about this. In times past you were born into the community, you didn’t have to seek one out. You were already in one and either had to get along or else– that was your only option. In those people, you said that we are not– it’s impossible to be inherently completely altruistic, except for very few cases, think about those people.

I would suggest that they being a part of that community, living for the community, having a purpose within that community was about as altruistic as you can get. It was probably not about themselves and being better Hudson Gardens magazine, because he built great huts for the community or whatever it was.

Ari Whitten: Certainly less materialism and narcissism. No doubt.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Right. If you use that as– If you were to do this in a vacuum, you say, “Well, okay, those were human beings that were existing in that way. That really cared very little–” They probably were a little bits of selfishness, of course, but that I would say is human beings being

altruistic in a community. Now, what we’re doing is we’re hearing that community is really good. Then we’re forcing community and thinking that I will be better off if I join a community. Again, I’m not disagreeing with you. What I’m saying is, I think that that’s the wrong motive. I think that if a community is going to form, it’s going to form some– I think we talked about this before. First of all, I have five kids and a wife and it’s kind of our own community of sorts and my in-laws are pretty close too. I suck with communities. I’m a social hermit, I’ve always been a social hermit.

I totally get along with other people, I want to. That’s why actually, you want to know something really funny is in the literature, loneliness kills, loneliness is on par with hypertension, alcoholism, smoking, obesity, and if you’re lonely, you have a risk of mortality as much as those things. I always tell people like, well, if that’s the case, I’d rather be smoking, drinking, obese, and having a good time and die rather than be lonely and die. If you have the same chances of dying, at least you’re having fun with some Ben and Jerry’s, instead of sitting by yourself lonely and apart.

With the literature that I’ve looked at, a sense of purpose trumps loneliness, so you could be lonely, but have a sense of purpose, and that the mortality risks of loneliness don’t exist if you have a purpose. I take it back and I say, I don’t want to sit there and say, “This is the one thing.” Because right now I think we can and I might be wrong, some of that someday, but purpose seems to be a very big component. Purpose, then when you look at it has to do with like, “Why are you here? What is it? What do you wake up for every day?” Those are hard questions.

This is what I was getting back to is, would you rather ponder why the heck you’re here? Why are you waking up in the morning? What motivates you during the day or would you rather track your sleep, your apps, and your steps and your macros? That doesn’t hurt to look at those things. It hurts when I’m like, “Oh, my carbs are too high for the day. Nuts, I’ll do better tomorrow.” Or like, “I woke up too many times last night,” whatever. It hurts to look at those. That is a hard question to seriously, seriously ponder and it hurts, even more to realize you don’t have an answer. “Crap, I don’t have a purpose. I must suck.” Anyways–

Ari Whitten: What’s coming to my head right now is, I think to some degree, those things are connected, purpose, and loneliness. There’s probably a point at which they can be separated out where someone can have strong purpose, but be lonely. I think, in general, maybe this is too broad of a brushstroke, but I think in general, a sense of purpose is very much intertwined with connectedness to the world around you. If it’s not, if it’s you in isolation, then your purpose might be, well, “I’m a hoarder, and I just want to acquire more stuff to fill my house with.

I can’t stop compulsively buying stuff, but I’m really passionate about that. I think that’s my purpose is just to hoard lots of stuff.” It’s possible to have a purpose, that’s a kind of purpose that doesn’t serve anyone [laughs] and maybe not even yourself to a strong degree. At least doesn’t serve you in a way that leads to better health or happiness, but it’s still some kind of semblance of a purpose.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: That’s another term as eudaimonic. That’s serving a higher good. You’re totally right. My purpose is to get up and murder baby sheep. That’s a horrible purpose. No, a purpose for a greater good. I think if we’re going to define it as a purpose for some greater good other than yourself. That is more of a giving and servant attitude. Listen, what is much of the health, nutrition, whatever you want to call it, industry, is it’s very selfish. Let me take a picture of the food that I’m eating and post it on Instagram, to make you all feel bad about the food that you’re eating or can’t eat because you’re too busy or you don’t know how to cook these meal.

That’s not self-serving? I should say, that’s not others service, it’s self-serving. It’s, “Look at me, look at my physique. Look at how healthy I am. Look at the food that I’m eating,” rather than like, “What can I do to serve other people?” Listen, I haven’t looked deeply into the literature as much as I can on this. I’ve interviewed some of the researchers that have done the original research on these things and it seems to me as far as I can tell, you asked what egregious errors the industry is making.

I don’t think this is the answer, but I think this is missing tremendously. I don’t think it is how much– and again, first of all, this is a very morose conversation I realized, and I’m aware of that, but I don’t know else to do it. I feel young, I will say that, I’m getting old and I feel like that’s just these are cranky conversations to have so maybe I’m older than I realized. I don’t know. I have glasses before and I’m talking about glasses.

Apparently, some things are starting to fail on me, which is totally cool. I love aging. Age is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. This is I’m having a grand old time right now. Anyways, but I believe that this one area of purposeful engagement, purposeful for a higher purpose, higher-good something other than yourself that’s what it comes down to. Going back to that pursuit of knowledge, is it a pursuit of knowledge for yourself or is it a pursuit of knowledge for others?

You said that loneliness and purpose are intertwined. I would slightly disagree in the sense that you can have somebody, let’s say somebody is trying to find the cure for cancer, and that is their purpose and their just lab rat scientists that go on every single day and that’s their purpose and they’re getting close and they’re going to do it. They don’t talk to anybody. They’re not married because nobody likes them because all they do is talk about this cancer research, that is purpose.

Ari Whitten: In this scenario, there’s a sense of connectedness to humanity, but not necessarily in one’s individual personal life, they may not have much human connection.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Totally. I know. This is why I don’t like definitions because when you say connectedness that you think conversation, but not necessarily if you’re stuffed in a lab somewhere really close to cracking the code, that will help humanity, whether you get by the way acknowledgment or awards for this or not like that is to me, truly altruistic.

The altruism, the sense, the selfishness, which you said earlier, comes from the self-satisfaction that you get, knowing that you helped all these people, whether or not you get the award or the Peace Prize or the Nobel Prize or whatever it is that sense of gratification of, “I just helped all these people.”

That is somewhat self-serving, but that’s really good selfservingness other than the selfish garbage that’s going on today in the industry. My little– [crosstalk] No. I’m trying to summarize to finally answer your question. That’s where I think this industry is wrong, we’re focusing on diet, we’re focusing on all these outside things. What supplements can I take? What food can I eat? What exercise can I perform? What was the best kind of exercise?

All these other things. I think what we really need to be doing is this idea of connectedness, not conversations, community which you don’t have to go out on a hike every weekend to have a community, like not to define community that way, but to have that set, like, “Why are you here?” If you’re, why are you here, do you love yourself, can you accept yourself for who you are? I would be willing to bet that people experiencing certain symptoms and I’ve seen this in patients actually, would just disappear.

Or they wouldn’t be as severe, or if you had them, they wouldn’t matter. “My knees hurt like the Dickens, but you know what, I’m happy, I’m joyful. I have a purpose and I don’t need to take whatever supplement for that.” Anyhow, I have it answered.

Ari Whitten: Yes. Just randomly pops into my head a personal story from 10 years ago or so. I was sitting in a restaurant on the beach with my mom and my aunt, her sister. Just a sudden we start hearing some screams from the water and we’re looking out and we see a guy out there. He just appears to be swimming, maybe struggling a little bit, and then screams every once in a while and go silent.

Then eventually– and it’s not just a sort of happy playful scream, but kind of a shriek of terror and so we’re looking out trying to see if we can identify where this is coming from and what’s going on. There’s a bunch of people on the beach between the restaurant and where we are and this person, nobody seems to really be panicking or doing much about it. Then the shrieks get louder and more severe and eventually, we realized this guy, basically can’t swim and he’s caught in some rip current he’s drowning and he’s screaming for help. There’s 200 people on the beach between me and the guy in the water.

My mom starts freaking out and like, “Oh my gosh, the guy’s drowning. Somebody do something.” And she starts crying. My mom starts crying as we were sitting in this restaurant and I’m sitting there thinking, “I’m not going out there. There’s like 200 people way closer to this guy than I am.” My mom starts crying and crying and crying and then she yells at me, “Ari, do something.” I climbed down this wall from this restaurant, I run down the beach Baywatch style. I’m like taking off my shirt as I’m running down the beach, slow motion, boobs bouncing everywhere.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: It’s never happened to me. You’re lucky.

Ari Whitten: I go in the water and I pull this guy out and I save him. It was such an interesting thing. It wasn’t a purely altruistic thing for me. If anything, I just didn’t want to sit there and watch my mom cry and deal with the fact that she was telling me to go do something and I wasn’t doing it. I would have felt bad about myself had I not gone. Just as an example of this weird sort of mix of something that maybe appears very altruistic on the surface, but was really about me just pleasing my mom and not feeling bad about myself that I didn’t do something when I could have.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Okay, but part of it, you just said it was pleasing your mom. That’s altruistic, dude. You made it sound like you were doing it to avoid the pain in yourself and that’s a huge motivator. We all know that. As you were saying that I was like, he did this for his mom.

Ari Whitten: That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I hadn’t really thought about it.

Dr. Bryan Walsh: Which again, getting back to the beginning of this conversation is it’s about our perspective of the world that we live in and our place in it. There’s different perspectives to the same story and my question to people are like, what’s your story? What’s the story you’re telling yourself about the world that you live in or your place in it or who you are and can you change that story? We can, even though we’re not willing to, or sometimes it’s hard and we don’t know how. Believe it, I’m not saying this is easy, I’ve never said this is easy, but it might be one of the hardest things anybody ever does, but it’s simple. Simple and easy are two different things.

Deadlifting is very simple, you’re disappearing on me. I saw that fly buzzing around you there. Deadlifting is a simple exercise. You just pick something off of the ground. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. This is also something that is simple in that we just have to change the conversation that we’re having, realize certain things, but it’s not easy. It’s really hard, but I will tell you, you name the supplement that somebody could take that will have that same impact on their body or what diet they could follow or what exercise program.

What I see are these patients that are chasing the next diet. I tried this diet, but I got to do this. Or I’m eating 50 carbs a day. What happens if I eat 40? Would that make a difference? No, at some point it’s not about the food that you’re putting in the mouth. It’s not the carbon exercise you’re doing. It’s not the supplements you’re taking or not taking. It’s none of those things. It’s not about the gadget. It’s not about the app. It’s not about the bite, or whatever garbage is out there nowadays. It’s not about that. You know it’s not about that because the next thing they try, they think it’s going to make them healthy and happy and it doesn’t. They’re going down the wrong path.

Show Notes

Why we think we know everything and why we shouldn’t (06:50)
The shift to systems biology (32:23)
The role of loneliness in health (34:54)
Community – when to join one and when not to (42:37)


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