Episode 92: Hacking your way to health
There has been a lot of buzz around “hacking” in health – bio hacking, neurohacking – so this week, we are excited to explore what it all means with Dr. Gregory Kelly.
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Welcome to Supplementing Health, a podcast presented by Advanced Orthomolecular Research. We are all about applying evidence based and effective dietary lifestyle and natural health product strategies for your optimal health. In each episode, we will feature very engaging clinicians and experts from the world of functional and naturopathic medicine to help achieve our mission to empower people to lead their best lives naturally.
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[01:10] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: Welcome everyone to a new week in an exciting new year. We have a very exciting guest today, Dr. Gregory Kelly. He is a naturopathic doctor and is the director of product development at the Neurohacker Collective as well as an author of Shape Shift. He is the editor of The Journal of Alternative Medicine Review and has been an instructor at the University of Bridgeport in the College of Naturopathic Medicine where he taught classes in advanced clinical nutrition, counselling skills, as well as doctor patient relationships, which are very important at this juncture we are facing. Dr. Kelly has published hundreds of articles on natural medicine and nutrition and contributed three chapters to the Textbook of Natural Medicine, which for all of you naturopathic doctors is a great tool and resource. I think it gets used a lot. He has 30 journaled articles indexed on PubMed. We are really excited to have you. Thank you so much for being here Dr. Kelly.
[02:20] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: My pleasure. Thanks for having me today.
[02:22] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: I was so intrigued and drawn to some of your work as I was going through it because you are really in a space where I think a lot of NDs are now starting to venture into and a lot of the wellness world is looking at but maybe not diving right into. That is this concept of hacking, neurohacking or biohacking. Can you expand and define that for our listeners?
[02:52] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: Sure. I am sure there will be other people who have their own definition but when I think of the idea of biohacking I really go to the idea of citizen science. It emerged from what was called the quantified self-movement about 20 years ago or so. The original ones were people that were starting to do what today would be easier to do which is measuring things with wearables and monitoring their results and then trying to change little things and measure how they did with that change. It was really a movement about taking responsibility for your own health and then making changes and seeing how you respond. We are both naturopathic doctors and one of the things that we would share in common is this idea that we try to empower people to be more responsible for their health and wellbeing. So the biohackers were a group that took that on on their own without having to be nudged in that direction.
[04:00] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: You’ve defined this quantitative self which I think is a really interesting concept because as we increase the technology around us and increase the wearable technology and these metrics, they are growing and changing. Are you finding that technology is helping advance or is the movement actually driving this technological advancement?
[04:29] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: I think both. I think the one thing that we always need to be careful about, I would use the analogy of signal and noise. For the people unaware it is like radio waves. When we dial in and tune into a station perfectly, there’d be a high degree of signal and low background noise. There will always be some noise but I think we always need to be careful about having this concept of what is actually signal and what is noise. Otherwise, we focus on the noise which is easy to do. I think going back to my early days in school of naturopathic medicine, a big part of what we learned was the Broda Barnes technique for hypothyroid, which I am sure you are familiar with. The idea was that it would measure your first thing in the morning waking body temperature and they would call it basal body temperature. If that was low then that was indicative, at least the theory went, of sub chronic hypothyroid. The solution was to put you on Unithroid or something to promote your thyroid function. I remember when I was in my naturopathic days, we all measured that ourselves and my basal body temperature was 96.8, like low, the NDs in charge of the clinic wanted to put me on Unithroid. At the time I couldn’t have weighed 150lbs soaking wet, was lean. I had no symptoms of hypothyroid. It caused me to question, is this legit? What I found out as I started to read about temperatures is that temperature has a really robust circadian rhythm. The low point of temperature is about one hour before you wake up in the morning and over the years, I have dug into the circadian changes in temperature. What you would find typically in your healthiest people is that they all have the lowest first thing in the morning but they will have a big swing between that and their temperature 12-14 hours later, right? That focus on the basal body temperature, they were confusing noise for signal. Does that make sense?
[06:45] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: Absolutely. I think it is easy nowadays to generalise in many ways. We are getting better at homing in on individuals’ propensities or some of those specifics with the individuals. A lot of that comes back to genetic predispositions and optimising functional NAT level. Are you finding that with access to more of these genetic tests that individuals are getting better or are we getting more lost in the noise? Is it easier to get lost in the noise?
[07:31] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: I think that’s always a risk, that more information doesn’t always…So, what typically is the case, this is just human behaviour findings and research, is that more information doesn’t always make our decisions and predictions better. It gives us a lot more confidence in them though. We could be equally as wrong but more confident we are right with more information. I am not a big fan of information for information’s sake. I think we are still in the early innings of all of the wearables giving us a lot stronger predictive power. I have an Oura ring. I am sure that a lot of listeners are aware of it. It is a great gadget and a great sleep tracker. I would put it in the useful category. They do collect temperature but really to date, have largely reported on temperature to say is it above or below your baseline for how they calculate it. They have all of the data to do a circadian rhythm analysis and then similar to heartrate variability, where you are doing a powerwalk or that type of thing. There are so many other ways to look at that moment-to-moment data. My intuition is that those will be super valuable. The temperature data that they get at this point is more noise than any true signal. The one exception is if there is a big change suddenly in your temperature, that might be an early forewarning that you are coming down with some kind of infection. I think there is often a lot more to things than the simple story around them. I am a fan of Oura ring. I think they are doing great leading-edge things. If I had to put my money on it, they will at some point integrate in the circadian rhythms and other things into the data analysis. I think we are in an exciting time when it comes to biohacking and data wearables, but I don’t think we are quite there yet where we can make great predictions on all the data that we get.
[09:49] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: What I gathered from that is that a lot of patient or individual led advancements in this and the interpretation, it is best to do that alongside a healthcare practitioner such as yourself who is able to contextualise. Do you find that that piece is so important in helping individuals not pick up on the noise but to get the big picture? Is that your role?
[10:19] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: I think contextualising is always really important. My book, you mentioned, Shape Shift, one of the things that I try to explain in that book is that in a simple sense energy balance is what has ruled the roost, so to speak, when it comes to strategies for losing weight. Not all of the strategies but those are the ones that are dominant. Whenever you hear that weight loss is about calories and exercise and burning more than you can take in, that is basically thinking that you can control energy balance. The truth is that if that actually worked, we wouldn’t have problems with weight loss. Most people that struggle with weight do a much better job than I do monitoring calories in and trying to control the energy balance. But there are some things that our conscious mind can’t really control. Our body weight is one of them. That is decided for us. That is how I would make the case. The reason I bring weight up is that there are certain things that people can do to make it look like they are winning short term and maybe they are measuring their body composition or just their weight on the scale. But that data point out of context, they could really be losing long-term. One of the things is called dieting induced adipose. Basically, the gist of it is that one of the things that some scientists believe causes people to get fatter and fatter, is that they are really good at dieting and that the rebound from that is almost – to me it is about learning. Can I tell a quick story here?
[12:03] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: Yes please.
[12:05] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: One of my favourite long term dieting studies was when they put scientists in Biosphere 2 in the early 90s. The Biosphere 2 was a big dome in the desert outside of Tucson. They lived there for two years. They thought that they would be able to grow more food than they actually could grow. They had a sustained calorie deficit for the two years. It was not a huge calorie deficit, but I think they got somewhere between 1,700 and 1,800 a day. Not starvation but chronically less than what they would normally eat. Really quickly in the first few months they all lost weight which would seem to make it seem like the energy balance there is right. But by six months they had all plateaued. Even though they were all forced dieting in this case they didn’t continue to lose weight. Their hormones, it is fascinating to read from the papers what happened to the thyroid and insulin and lipids and all of these other things that we think are just causes but to see that these are basically effects of not being able to eat enough. Basically, they all went hypothyroid from that. I think cortisol was another thing that they measured and there was increase in that from stress. When they left Biosphere 2 after two years they still measured these people and monitored them. Really quickly when they could eat good again they regained all of the weight they lost. But they didn’t regain the muscle. They replaced all of it with body fat. My story about that is that whatever part of our brain or our whole system that would be in charge of how much body fat we need for the future, again the idea is that this is a prediction, to do well in our environment and an environment we may be exposed to in the future said “hey, I don’t know when I am going to be stuck in a desert dome and forced to diet for two years again, next time I will be more prepared.” More prepared equalled more body fat. Going back to your point, context is everything. All of these lab tests that they did which functional medicine doctors would do that whole suite, all moved dramatically. The big lever in this case was inadvertent dieting and then refeeding. Mistaking those individual tests as causes of something would have been a mistake in this case.
[14:39] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: That is fascinating. I think it also speaks to this idea that we don’t look at the clinical picture just as a static item right when we see a patient, the clinical history is so much more important as well. I love that you have brought up that they tracked people over time. What would the hacker’s approach then be to a situation like that where there has been erratic and fluctuating weight? How would you then start approaching that?
[15:13] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: I can’t speak for other biohackers, but I think again the key thing with biohacking is to make small changes and then make them long enough to see what that change results in. As opposed to wholescale changing or starting a whole bunch of new things and then not being sure which of those was the big lever, which was the tipping point behaviour. Weight is complicated. Going back to pre-naturopathic doctor times, I was an officer in the US Navy and compared to other officers I cared more about what I ate, I exercised a fair amount and went to the gym. I was tasked on both ships that I was on to help the people that were struggling to meet the Navy’s weight standards in the 80s to meet them. If they missed them for three cycles in a row, over a year and a half (because we test every six months), then they could potentially be forced out of the Navy. These are highly motivated people, but they struggled. In part they struggled because the Navy caused people to do rotating shift work which was a stress on our body clock. They were incredibly sleep deprived. When you are on a ship you don’t have enough people that you can luxuriously have people stand watch. I spent close to two years of my first time in the Navy doing rotating shift work, meaning six hours on and six hours off. During some of those six hours off I still had to do my actual job and exercise. That was another stress. Food quality in the 80s on a Navy ship left a lot to be desired. Those are just three things, let alone movement and toxicity, and we could go into a whole bunch of other things that all collectively put pressure on our body. It is all of those things in aggregate which would determine someone’s, I would call it shape intelligence, but what their body thinks will be an appropriate amount of body fat to defend. The key thing is to try and change that intelligence systems mind, not saying “no, we are just going to get you to eat less food” or “if you just eat keto it is going to magically solve everything.” Maybe diet wasn’t the issue for that person, maybe it was sleep deprivation?
[17:39] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: I think what you mentioned earlier when you first defined the quantitative self was the responsibility. I think tying back to what you just said is that responsibility is not just us shaming patients and saying “you must do better and do all of these things” but rather understanding, as you said, every aspect that goes into your health and how one thing is not going to be the same issue for every individual. You have also spoken a good amount about chronobiology or the circadian rhythm and how that impacts health. What are three to five things that someone can do right away to restore that circadian rhythm given how important it is and optimise physiology through optimising sleep?
[18:39] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: With circadian rhythm, those are our 24-hour biological rhythms, the two strongest which they would describe as time keeping cues, one would be light and darkness and the other would be meal timing. I guess we will just touch on light and darkness first. Our eyes and our brain collectively are the visual system. Most of what we would say is seeing happens in the brain. We have colour vision, we have night vision. That is what when people think of seeing those would be the key things. Those happen with photoreceptors which are light sensitive cells in the back of our eye, in the macula area in the retina. We also have this really ancient type of photoreceptor that its main job isn’t colour vision or night vision, it is detecting really slow changes in environmental lighting. What that photoreceptor does is it sends those signals to our brain. That predates colour vision and night vision. The most prehistoric eye, its first job was to figure out this light and darkness thing. One of the most powerful things we can do to make our body clock stronger to fortify our circadian rhythms is to get morning bright light. We were talking earlier, you are up in British Columbia and Vancouver, I am in San Diego. This time of year, while we are doing this interview, my weather allows me to be outside in the morning walking, yours maybe not so much. Then we could use a light box as an example of where a technology comes into replace or allow for a physiological response that maybe getting outside for a morning walk wouldn’t this time of year in Vancouver. There is another thing called a dawn simulator. Have you ever used any of those?
[20:51] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: Not the dawn simulator. With bright light therapy I know there was another study that came out with light therapy and seniors with dementia so now I am starting to get more into this concept of bright light therapy in the morning.
[21:07] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: Again, think of it as a time keeping cue. We need that signal to set the time for our body clock. More is not necessarily better. Light boxes are something that a person could put on their kitchen table to give them that information. A dawn simulator would be something that releases light as a timing cue but it is more something for when you would wake up. You would have it in your bedroom and you set the time for sunrise, so to speak, and it gradually brightens for that time. It mimics a dawn signal. The flip side of that is darkness. One of the things that many biohackers do are bio hacks around their sleep and sleep environment. Blue light in the morning – in a light box you would get a lot of blue light and you can even get ones that specialise on being blue light boxes. Blue is very alerting for our brain. It is a cue that tells our brain that it is the beginning of the day and I need to get all of my daytime physiology jobs scheduled and started. Blue light at night does the opposite. It can convince our brain that we should still be active. Darkness or strategies to block blue light at night become the important flip side in terms of a time keeping cue.
[22:42] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: That’s assuming that someone is having regular shifts. You mentioned shift work when you were in the Marines. How do we help people while they are going through it especially if it is not an option to change out? Also, with new mothers I find adjusting to sleep wake cycles of an infant, you can see that decline in that person.
[23:16] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: I think the exceptions are always the interesting cases. When I was doing shift work in the Navy, we call it the port and the starboard, that would be six hours on and six hours off so I knew every day that midnight to six in the morning I would be on watch and again from noon to 6pm. At least that was fixed, and it gave me something to work with. There was also rotating shift work. A different watch I had in the navy rotated around the clock so maybe one night I was on watch from midnight to 4am, the next night from 4am to 8am, the next day from 8am to noon and it just went around in a big loop. All of those require slightly different strategies. I think the key thing is if someone is getting off their shift and it is waking time for those of us that are synchronised to the sun schedule, if they are getting off around dawn or early in the morning then blue blocker strategies at that point become important for them so that they can get to sleep around the time they have away from the job. You asked about a new mum. I was just asked to write an article on sleep and some things that disrupt it for Healthline, I think it was last Friday I had to submit it. One of the things that they asked about it was a baby crying and what that does to sleep. I again, think this is a brilliant way of understanding the brain. Have you ever heard of something called the first night effect?
[25:05] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: I have not. No.
[25:07] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: I’m sure many of the listeners will have experienced this but the idea is that when we spend our first night in a brand-new environment, a hotel room would be the most normal thing for most of us, we typically don’t get as restful a night’s sleep as we would back in the confines of our own bedroom. If we were to look at brainwaves throughout the night what we would see is that instead of your brain activity being what it would be normally, half of your brain is staying a bit more vigilant all night. That half will go back and forth. The idea is that a huge aspect of sleep has to do with our brain being able to predict that the environment we are in is safe and secure, it doesn’t have to be as vigilant so deeper sleep can happen. A new parent, but the new mum especially, their brain knows that it needs to stay vigilant so it can detect any sound that their baby may require something. I would say that is a feature and not a bug. I know it is tough with new parents with sleep, but the brain is doing what evolutionarily it should be doing. Conversely if there are sounds that are waking us, like a dog barking, a dog barking could be a good thing. It could be an early warning that there is a potential threat coming into our sleep environment. It would make sense that evolutionary it would wake us up. If a neighbour’s dog is barking all night for no reason then that is not such a great thing. For me always separating out if there is a positive or a benefit to what is happening. Rather than treat it as a problem you can really help a person to understand why what is happening is both natural and likely, in the big picture of their current life, useful.
[27:23] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: That is fascinating. I feel like I could listen to you talk about everything for hours on end. I did want to close our discussion related to something that I know you have a lot of experience with and that is the research sector particularly with human physiology and health optimisation. There tends to be some gaps in research, what do you find are the biggest gaps and how are they being currently filled when it comes to health optimisation research?
[28:01] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: I think the biggest gap and I am not sure how to quite fill it, is when we do complicated things. Most research is designed almost like what I mentioned a biohacker would do, let’s just change one thing and measure how you respond to it. Sometimes what they are choosing to measure might be debatable, but that model might be something we can wrap our heads around. As a naturopathic doctor one of the things when I was in school, and I am guessing it was the same for you is that we would teach people how to change their diet and their exercise programs and put them on supplements and ask them to work on their sleep. We are asking them to change a lot of things. That would be a weak part in study. There are not studies that can say that if someone does the keto diet and does this thing and this thing as well then that combination rocks, as opposed to they cancel each other out. It becomes an experiment of one, that is what they would say in the biohacker world. It becomes really important to be working for that client or patient to be working with someone that can help them and guide them into understanding the most important things to start on and making sense of how their body might be responding to what are a whole bunch of different experiments that might be happening all at the same time.
[29:45] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: Right. I think perhaps as you described wearable technologies and all of these different metrics and markers that we are getting access to might help us, especially in observational studies, track multiple factors and the impact of these lifestyle changes. It does seem that these need to be these long-term studies, so I guess we need time in this field.
[30:18] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: I think what will happen is that a lot of the data companies, like the Ouras or the other ones that are collecting sleep data or are collecting 24-hour data and are asking people to tag things that will eventually probably have abilities to input what you ate, they already know activities because they already have that. It will come through probably AI at some point where we will see patterns that make sense. The late 90s, going back to when I was in practice, I can remember taking with naturopathic doctors, functional medicine MDs and in the late 90s sleep was nowhere on the health radar as it is today. I can remember talking to people about sleep and they almost looked at me like sleep is a weakness and sleeping less was a badge of honour. This was not one of my patients but this was a friend’s wife and at a 4th of July cookout she was almost in tears because she was already sleep deprived because of her job, she was a nurse, and had been doing something like the Atkins diet, those high protein and low carb diets were in vogue in the late 90’s, and was getting up at 4:30am or 5am to go to the gym because she had bought into the whole exercise thing. She looked lean and she was producing that result, but she felt like a train wreck. She was sacrificing sleep to do these other things that she had been convinced were really important and exercise being one of them.
[32:06] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: My advice to her at the time was that sleep should be the most important thing. My metaphor for sleep has to do with hibernation. If we are sleep deprived, it is almost like a part of our brain thinks that at some point this person is going to hibernate to pay back this big sleep debt and I better be prepared for that. Preparation for hibernation is obvious in nature, right? It is easily accruing body fat and all kinds of hormonal changes so that we struggle to be as active. Our body is preparing to go into a time period where we are less active. For me, sometimes it is staging things. I don’t want anyone to take away from this that I don’t think that exercise is important. I think it is crazy important with dieting or with eating a diet that is high quality foods but not at the expense of sleep. What I have seen over my career is that I would put sleep at the top. The circadian rhythm is probably right after it. If someone was struggling with weight or anything, that is the area to address because if those are improved almost everything gets better. If they are neglected, then almost everything is a bigger struggle.
[33:28] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: That is my inspiration even with myself to get my sleep in order. I think a lot of people in this weird two year almost hibernation hybrid period, we are staying at home more but are we not getting that quality rest and recovery, balance that with the stress of what is going on, so refocusing to those basics seems like the simplest and most effective thing we can do right now.
[34:04] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: One of the things that I love about the old school naturopaths that were still in practice when I went to school is that they were masters of the fundamentals.
[34:13] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: Yes. This concept of the hierarchy of needs and the treatment hierarchy, it does always come back to in school, starting with the basics and what you can start to change. Sometimes that can seem almost underwhelming when a lot of patients come to visit. I don’t know if you get this, but they are almost like “oh, that is it? That is what we are working on now?” You highlight the importance of that and a few weeks later they come back having resolved that and it all falls into place and suddenly everything seems so much better. We are often waiting for these big lifestyle changes and complex treatment plans, but it does seem to come back to these simple pillars.
[35:07] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: Yes. Absolutely. The other thing is that I am a big fan of always adding resources in rather than taking things away. My bias is that with more resources things tend to improve on their own, not to say there are some things that are important to limit or focus on, but I just found that putting things in is often both easier and more successful long term rather than trying to prevent something or a behaviour. For me I would tend to describe myself as more of an intuitive eater. There are very few things that are on the ‘I will never eat’ list. As an example, maybe two or three times a year I feel like having coffee ice cream and if my brain is saying “coffee ice cream” I am going to go with it. The way I would describe it is that I think it is super valuable to teach anyone that we are working with to be able to trust their body more and also to start to learn how it is communicating with them. One of my analogies for sleep and our head of marketing likes this analogy, it is called the sleep bus. The idea is that many people struggle to fall asleep when they want to fall asleep. Sleep onset insomnia is what it is called. I don’t know what percent but with a lot of those people it is not that there is anything wrong, but they just don’t understand this sleep bus idea. The way sleep seems to work is that it is a like a bus that pulls into a station maybe every 90 minutes or two hours. When it pulls in, we can either get on or it is going to leave without us and we have to wait until the next one. What happens with sleep is that they miss that bus because they were still binge watching something on Netflix or reading a book or some other thing that they were doing but it is between sleep buses, and they decide that “it is 11 o’clock now and I want to go to bed.” Then they lie in bed waiting for the next bus to come. For me a key thing I try to do with people is make that sleep bus signal stronger so that it would stand out from the background noise so they don’t miss the bus.
[37:49] Dr. Nirat Nibber, ND: That is a great note to end on. Don’t miss the bus. Thank you so much for your time and your insights. I think this is just invaluable information and your way of explaining it is just so insightful and relatable. I appreciate that. Patients can find you at neurohacker.com as well as pick up your book Shape Shift. Thank you again and we look forward to hearing more from you and looking into your book. We appreciate it.
[38:33] Dr. Gregory Kelly, ND: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me today.
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Thank you for listening to Supplementing Health. For more information about our guests, past shows, and future topics, please visit AOR.ca/podcasts or AOR.us/podcasts. Do you have a topic you want us to cover? We invite you to engage with us on social media to request a future topic or email us at [email protected] We hope you tune in again next week to learn more about supplementing your health.
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