Dr. William Li & Ashley James


  • What holobiont is
  • Five defense systems: angiogenesis, stem cells, microbiome, DNA repair, and immunity
  • Akkermansia muciniphila
  • Soy can help to prevent cancer and can also help people fight cancer
  • Organic foods have more bio-actives



Can food really be used as medicine? In this episode, Dr. William Li, author of Eat to Beat Disease, shares some interesting research about how foods have helped to beat different diseases. The key is eating whole foods rather than processed and fast food and also eating in moderation. He also talks about the things he’s been eating and taking during this COVID-19 era to ensure that he mounts a healthy immune response to any viruses.



Hello, true health seeker, and welcome to another exciting episode of the Learn True Health podcast. I am so excited for you to hear today’s interview with Dr. Li. He has some wonderful information about healing the body with food from a medical standpoint. I know you’re going to love it. 

If you want to learn how to cook really healthy delicious healing foods, come join my membership. You’ll also be supporting the Learn True Health podcast and you’ll be learning from me and my friend Naomi. We’re all really great in the kitchen, focusing on using foods that heal the body and integrating them into your diet. Go to learntruehealth.com/homekitchen. That’s learntruehealth.com/homekitchen. Enjoy all the wonderful and delicious videos, recipes, and lessons there because we love to use the kitchen as our pharmacy to heal the body and prevent disease.

I know you’re going to love learning some great tips today on the foods that you can eat and drink to support your overall health with Dr. Li. Enjoy today’s interview.

Photo by Kimzy Nanney on Unsplash

[00:01:06] Ashley James: Welcome to the Learn True Health podcast. I’m your host, Ashley James. This is episode 432. I am so excited for today’s guest. We have Dr. William Li on the show, best-selling author of Eat to Beat Disease. He has an amazing TED Talk, Can We Eat to Starve Cancer? I love it. It has over 11 million views. You are a scientist first and a doctor. We’ve had a wonderful discussion before we hit record on COVID-19, so I’m interested in everything that all the science that you’ve been poring through, any advice that you can give to us on staving off disease, which is what your specialty is. Welcome to the show. This is going to be a really interesting discussion.


[00:02:03] Dr. William Li: Thank you, Ashley. It’s really a pleasure to be here, and certainly an interesting time in history. Generations from now, people will be referring back to 2020 at that time. The difference between now, that time, and the medieval ages where people were running from the plague and other deadly health scare is that we really have a lot of science to put wind in our sails. I think that’s really how we’re going to dig our way out of the mess we’re in right now, which is to use science to find the way.


[00:02:43] Ashley James: We need to find the science and look at that. I think what’s going on is we’re listening to the interpretations of the science and the predictions. We’re listening to a lot of predictions. I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s a lot of fear-mongering. I would love for people to be grounded in science instead of grounded in their fear. Because we want to empower people to take appropriate steps to remain healthy, but being in fear mode is actually harmful to the immune system. That’s the thing we have to avoid is staying in that fear mode.


[00:03:22] Dr. William Li: That’s right. I’m a physician—internal medicine, I’m a scientist, I study blood vessels, I’m a vascular biologist, and an author. I wrote a book called Eat to Beat Disease. One of the things that I started my career doing is, like every other medical researcher, studying disease, and trying to understand what makes diseases similar, different from one another. Then I started to realize that studying common denominators that united different diseases could be really a powerful way to really make advances because if we could pull the bow back and send a single arrow through the common denominators of disease and of health, we could actually make a lot more progress.

What you’re talking about which is that fear with which is a really primitive response, it’s hardwired in our brain. Whether it’s a spider, a rattlesnake, or a saber-toothed tiger our fear nerve endings allow us to actually react smartly to get out of the way of something that could be damaging. But the problem that we’re all having right now with COVID-19 is that there’s really no break from this right now.


[00:04:47] Ashley James: It’s constant.


[00:04:48] Dr. William Li: This virus came out of the blue, took everybody by surprise, and put an entire civilization down on its knees. Every country, more than 180 different countries, have been affected. Pretty much organized economies around the world. There might be some aboriginals and the jungles of Borneo or Brazil that are actually just going about their way, but I think every other organized modern society has had to pause. When you pause, you’re actually more heightened to your emotions. Emotions of fear really have to do with uncertainty, lack of knowledge, and the feeling of lack of control. That’s really where science helps us because the more we study something we don’t know the more confident we are that we can actually navigate our own position with that threat that we are just starting to understand. I think that’s coming through with COVID-19 as well.

What started as this mystery illness from bat to wet market to human to air passenger and around the world, we’re beginning to really throw down the tools of biotechnology and medical research to understand, not only what is the virus like, but what does it do in our body. As we’re beginning to understand that we started to realize some interesting things. First of all, COVID-19 is a coronavirus, and coronavirus is the same kind of virus that causes the common cold. It’s very different from the influenza virus, which causes the flu. Lots of misconceptions out there that this is just like a bad flu. In fact, this is not even related to the flu. It’s more related to the common cold. Imagine if a common cold were potentially lethal, that’s really what we’re dealing with.

Again, even that piece of understanding allows us to actually put pieces into their place as we start getting deeper and deeper. One of the things that I am doing as a COVID-19 researcher is trying to get to the bottom of what do we know, what are the facts about this disease, and what possible ways do we have to protect ourselves to fort the damage it can cause. For people that are actually sick and maybe have recovered, how do we actually repair and heal ourselves more quickly?


[00:07:35] Ashley James: I’m really looking forward to you diving into that and sharing with us how we can prevent it, what we can do to support the body in mounting a healthy response, if we do come in contact with it, and how to then recover quickly. What I’ve seen in the last week is interesting information coming out of Italy. A pathologist was doing autopsies on over 20 people who passed away in the hospital—of COVID. They saw that there was a similarity that they all had blood clots in the lungs. He says that it’s not pneumonia that is causing blood clots in the lungs, and so our approach to treating it is all wrong. That we should be treating it with blood thinners, antiviral, and anti-inflammatories. Have you seen this? Have you seen any science to support this? What are your thoughts on that?


[00:08:35] Dr. William Li: Yeah. I actually know a lot about this because that’s exactly in my wheelhouse. My background is in vascular biology. I study blood vessels, which allow blood to flow or—when they’re damaged—blood to clot, which clotting is a good thing. If you’re wounded, you want the bleeding to stop. It’s a bad thing if you are not wounded and blood clots in your body and then you can’t get oxygen or nutrients to the rest of your cells in your body and then you wind up having big problems. That’s something that I have studied a lot. Here’s the picture of what we’re putting together. It’s not black or white, either-or, one person’s right, and one person’s wrong.

What I would tell you is that COVID-19 is a coronavirus. Like the cold virus, it’s a respiratory virus. We become infected by breathing it in. If you think about breathing in a virus and how easy it is to catch a cold, you can see how infectious this COVID-19 can be, which is one of the reasons of trying to wear masks is because if everybody wore a mask, then we would be cutting down the likelihood that the droplets—the water droplets that the virus hangs out in—would actually leave our mouths, and that would be yours and mine if we were in the same place at the same time, so we would be less likely to infect each other.

Mask-wearing actually, which was really confusing for a while, is now becoming so obvious how important it actually is. Most of the countries like Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, or Hong Kong are now beginning to demonstrate with real scientific evidence that wearing masks is not lip service, so to speak. It’s actually cutting down the risk of transmission. This airborne virus we breathe in can block with a mask, but if you breathe it in where does the virus go? Like a cold virus, it actually goes into the mucus in your nose. That mucus is what you blow into a handkerchief or a Kleenex. Our mucus in our nose is full of antibodies. We actually—what we call IgA—it’s like the nonspecific defense antibody line of first defense.

If it probably weren’t for COVID, a lot of the battle is fought and won right there in your nose just like the regular cold virus, but this thing is sneaky and it’s pretty aggressive. If it manages to get through your mucus and into your mucous membranes, the cells in your nose, it starts to be able to track into your body. We do know that it goes down to your lungs. When it’s in your lungs, let me be very clear, we do know that it causes pneumonia. Although it’s not the classic pneumonia you would get with a bacteria, it’s a viral pneumonia. That basically means an organism is causing massive inflammation and response and causing an interruption of your airflow. There’s no question this thing actually causes pneumonia. When it actually causes pneumonia, most people get over it but some people actually succumb or their breathing gets worse and worse.

For the people that are unable to make it back home make it at home, they have to be admitted as a hospital. Some percentage of those people actually wind up really crashing and they need to go on a ventilator to have artificial support or their breathing hopefully until their body actually is able to overcome the attack of the virus. This is an epic battle between the virus and our bodies. When our bodies start to win, we can get off the ventilator, we can leave the hospital, and we can go back home. Hopefully, if we win early enough meaning the security in our host is really, really solid, we won’t even go to the hospital at all. We might have something even as mild as a cold or a little bit of a viral syndrome and not downright crash.

What you’re hearing from Italy is now being seen around the world and verified by the research I’m actually doing. I’ve also looked at autopsy tissue from people who have died of COVID-19 and gone way deep to take a look at what is actually going on. What we are seeing is something really amazing. When the virus gets into your lungs, in addition to causing pneumonia, one of the first things it does is it makes a beeline for the blood vessels in your lungs. When it gets into the blood vessel lining, it causes that lining to be damaged. It damages that lining. Anytime a blood vessel has damaged lining it becomes what we call prothrombotic or more likely to clot. Then the blood vessels kind of go into a tizzy trying to recover from the blood clot and they start to respond in ways that make the blood more sluggish, the immune response tries to clear out the virus and the blood vessels, and the blood vessels get damaged kind of a collateral response.

Think about the SWAT team trying to rescue some hostages in a bank. There’s a lot of bank robbers there and when you’re trying to rush the bank, some of the hostages wind up getting killed. This is the thing that also happens with our immune system. It’s not that we have an autoimmune response. It’s that we have the right immune response, it’s just that it takes out a lot of healthy tissue along the way. We think that that contributes to even further likelihood of blood clotting. When blood clots in your lungs in small blood vessels, which is what you’re seeing, it becomes a problem because even if you’re moving air in and out, you’re not getting that oxygen from the air into your blood vessels to deliver to the rest of your body.

We’re beginning to see how these clots are actually responsible for some of the problems of breathing and circulation that we’ve observed. Of course, now we’re seeing blood clots in the lung, the brain, and other parts of your body as well. This respiratory virus does cause respiratory infection, that’s for sure, but what we now know is that this respiratory infection—the virus goes further to cause a whole-body—a systemic illness. That’s really where we are right now. That takes the research to present-day where we’re now diving even deeper into understanding what’s actually happening in all these other different parts and organs of the body including the blood vessels.


[00:15:59] Ashley James: If a patient has the infection, should they be put on a blood clotting drug to prevent the clot? Should anticoagulants be used preventively as their body’s fighting this virus?


[00:16:21] Dr. William Li: An article came out in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology two weeks ago showing that people who were in the hospital who are on anticoagulants and in fact with COVID-19 definitely had a better outcome. Now, based on that observation, which makes sense with the research that we were just talking about how the virus causes blood clotting, now the studies are being done to actually put people proactively on blood thinners to protect them. An interesting question is if you’re infected at home, should you be taking a blood thinner like an aspirin? Obviously, that’s an over-the-counter medicine. Anybody can go to a drugstore to pick up an aspirin, but like anything, medicines can have effects and side effects.

One of the things that’s happening in this pandemic of the virus that’s leading to a pandemic of fear is leading people to actually just knee-jerk and try to go out to buy everything they can and try to self-minister. Again, this is where teaming up with your doctor, and having medical researchers work on this is really important. Even something as simple as aspirin, which may indeed be life-saving in this particular case with COVID, can cause stomach bleeding, can cause other side effects. I’m one of the doctors that basically I don’t discourage my patients, people that I know, from taking their health into their own hands with things that are as safe as food for example, or even dietary supplements. But when it comes to medicines, really, I think it’s important to track along, follow along with real medical researchers. Because it’s only through the data that we get from science that we can actually know if what we’re doing has more benefits than risks.


[00:18:15] Ashley James: The people that were in the hospital that the journal wrote about, were they already on blood thinners, or were they put on blood thinners because they were infected?


[00:18:27] Dr. William Li: Most of the first reports were basically for people that were already on blood thinners. There’s a lot of people that are already on blood thinners. For example, if you had a heart condition like atrial fibrillation or if you had a valve replaced where you need your blood to be thin, many of those people are walking around on blood thinners all the time. If you’ve ever had a stroke in the past you probably were put on a blood thinner. Lots of reasons that people actually are on blood thinners. Of course, there are some genetic conditions where people are extra clotty so they wind up on blood thinners as well. I think this is where the science of observation—even observation can be a science, but the science of observation is really picking up patterns.

I think that this is where being alert in a situation that is foreign to us—this is called a novel coronavirus because humans have been walking around for 200,000 years and we’ve never encountered something like this. There’s no way you can Google all the answers. There’s no Wikipedia page that tells us everything. We’re learning as we go along—making observations, doing the research, going to the deep dive, we’re much better now than we were a month ago, and definitely much better than we were four months ago when all this started to break. I think it’s a very, very important advance to understand the importance of making sure blood doesn’t clot in people who are infected with COVID-19.


[00:20:16] Ashley James: My friend’s father is in the hospital currently. He’s had four brain surgeries because unfortunately, his doctor had him on aspirin and a blood thinner after a heart surgery he had for a valve a year ago. He had massive headaches a few months ago, went into the ER, and the ER doctor said, “You’re having a brain bleed. We have to get you into the emergency surgery right now.” That doctor said, “I can’t believe your cardiologist has you on this amount of blood there and an aspirin. This is what caused your brain bleed.” They took him off of the aspirin, they reduced his blood thinners after retesting his clotting factors, and he is still having brain bleeds, so they’re chasing with several procedures. That’s an example of if you’re on too much of a blood thinner, you can have a major problem.

We wouldn’t want to just arbitrarily get on a blood thinner like you said. You definitely want to work closely with a doctor. I’m wondering though if someone who has COVID could then be given a blood thinner if that would be fast enough to kick in, and if there’s any evidence to show that as of yet?


[00:21:35] Dr. William Li: I think that’s what’s going on right now. We don’t know yet. I would tell you that if you were concerned about it to talk to your doctor. I imagine that this is going to be one of the recommendations in the future. If you can document that you’ve got the infection and you have risks that might set up for a blood clot that the medical community will recommend that you go on a blood thinner. That’s probably right around the corner. What’s interesting when it comes to diet and lifestyle, there’s a school of thought that foods that contain vitamin K like spinach, kale, and many other greens that can thin the blood might not be good for all people to take. But here’s a situation where it might be actually beneficial to eat more foods, more whole green plant-based foods that actually contain vitamin K to keep you, not only healthier from all the other good stuff—the bio-actives that plants have, but also as an additional benefit that they might be able to keep our blood a little bit thinner.


[00:22:46] Ashley James: This is the funny part is he eats a whole food plant-based diet. He eats tons of vegetables, tons of leafy greens, and they brought this up to his cardiologist and his neurosurgeon or vascular surgeon. I’m not sure what the classification is for the person who’s working on closing up the vessels that are bleeding in his brain. They brought this up to his doctors and they said listen, he eats a whole food plant-based diet. They had never heard of that. They didn’t know what that was. They had to explain how he ate and they said that just sounds like eating healthy. His family said this is a diet that thins the blood naturally. His doctors said diet has nothing to do with this. You can’t affect the body with food. You can’t affect blood vessels with food. I was just floored, but so many doctors think this way that you can’t affect blood clotting or even the health of the brain or the blood vessels with eating.


[00:23:48] Dr. William Li: To some extent, you can’t blame doctors who haven’t been educated. Nutrition has really, until recently, not been a part of medical education or not adequately part of it. One of the reasons that I got into food as medicine, and I’m one of the people that are actually doing the research to study foods just the same way that we would study medicine with a lot of rigor and using the same type of testing systems is because—look, I was taking care of patients at a Veterans Hospital. Some of my favorite patients were people that used to serve the country in the Armed Services. They would receive these really terrible diagnoses from me. They were in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Many of them were overweight, had cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. All kinds of problems.

After I gave them the diagnosis, wrote the prescriptions, and gave them referrals to the other specialists, a lot of these guys would put on their jacket and walk out the door. I would turn around to do my notes. They would turn back and come and pop their head in the door and say, hey doc, one more thing. What should I eat? Is there something I can do for myself? At that moment, I started realizing that I didn’t have the answer to that because I was never taught that. That just seemed wrong to me and that sent me really on this journey to understand how does diet actually works and what answers could we be giving people when they need to know.

The other thing that was interesting I thought from my experience that the Veterans Administration is some of these people that were in terrible shape—out of shape and in terrible shape—they might be morbidly obese, and really their bodies were a wreck let’s say in their 60s or 70s. I realized when they were in their 20s, they were the cut, fit buffs, perfect specimens that they couldn’t even get into armed services in the military unless they were in perfect shape. What the heck happened between the time of 18, 20, and the age 60 really are diet and lifestyle.

That really only underscored for me the importance to really dig deeper and try to answer that. Not surprisingly, this is not the typical experience of most medical doctors. I really believe that food as medicine is a concept whose time has come. I think more and more, the medical community realizes how important it is. The older doctors who’ve been out there longer who definitely weren’t taught this in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s, they’re struggling with the idea even though each of them do know, on a personal level, how important diet could be. They just don’t have the intellectual framework to know what to do with their own instincts. This is getting back to basics in some ways, but now applying science to it, we ought to be able to make people more confident in understanding how food can be medicine.


[00:27:02] Ashley James: I love it. How have you changed your lifestyle? How have you changed your diet after diving into all the research?


[00:27:13] Dr. William Li: I’m a little bit of an unusual creature because between college and medical school, I did a gap year. In my gap year, I went to the Mediterranean long before the Mediterranean diet was popular. What I was interested in was the Mediterranean diet. I was interested in how foods in a particular part of the world shaped culture, and how that culture actually helped to inform the way that arts and sciences emerged from history. I was always interested in the history of regions. I was interested in the history of the Mediterranean and of Asia and trying to understand how do these old, old cultures, how did people live in the land, grow and assemble their foods into meals that today are regarded as amazingly delicious combinations and healthy to boot? How did that kind of life and lifestyle help shape things like painting, drawing, sculpture, mathematics, physics, and biology? It was an interesting thing.

I went to Europe. I lived there in Italy and in Greece. I was exploring diets. Again, this is long before anybody really knew what a Mediterranean diet was. I was living it. I wasn’t talking the talk, I was just walking the walk back then. For decades, I’ve actually lived a pretty Mediterranean style life. I have an Asian background so I grew up eating a lot of Asian-inspired cuisines. I’ll tell you what the common denominator of these old ancient healthy cuisines. They all tend to rely mostly on whole plant-based foods as their backbone. They tend to use fresh foods as opposed to a lot of prepared foods. There are very few ultra-processed foods involved in their diet. 

Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds are common. Fish, not just salmon, but all kinds of fish—mostly seafood. Fish and shellfish also are common along the coastline, as you might expect, and very little meat. Not the absence of meat. Some people don’t realize this but the Sardinians, which is one of the blue zones where people routinely live to above a hundred, the villages of the Sardinian Blue Zone are in the mountains were nowhere near the sea. They need a fair amount of meat too, I mean they eat meat.

One of the things is that it’s a very naturalistic integration of plants that are easy to grow, seasonal, eaten fresh, cooked in combinations, incorporating different ingredients that are tasty, making you want to eat more, and diversity of cuisine. I would say between the Mediterranean and Asia, those are the common denominators. I’ve really just embarked on that type of a lifestyle for the last 20, 30 years. It makes me feel great.


[00:30:50] Ashley James: What isn’t in your diet that’s in the standard American diet?


[00:30:55] Dr. William Li: Look, I grew up in America. I grew up probably eating the same stuff that everyone has eaten—the stuff out of boxes. I’ve had a Twinkie, I’m not ashamed to say, when I was a kid, right? I wouldn’t have one now, but I certainly had them when I was growing up. I would tell you what I’m very careful to avoid—I don’t eat a lot of meat. I try to cut down or cut out red meat. I try to stay away from processed meats of any sort. I try not to eat foods that come out of boxes. I do look at ingredients when I shop for things. If I see a whole bunch of Greek and Latin words that refer to chemicals, I try to stay away from the ultra process stuff. If I have a choice between having something that is pre-made versus freshly made, I will go hands-down for the fresh stuff.

By the way, I would say the other thing that I tend not to do is really do a lot of errant snacking is what I call it. We know that actually restricting your calories is actually healthy. It re-primes your immune system. It actually slows down your cellular aging, it lowers inflammation and helps fight cancer by cutting off the blood supply. Lots of things that caloric restriction does. That’s the opposite of let’s call it the Vegas buffet mindset. Let’s go in there and stuff our face. The other thing I don’t do is I live a life where if I miss a meal or two because I’m busy or I’m doing something else, I’m okay with that. I don’t try to make it up by stuffing my face. Those are some of the things that I don’t do. I really don’t do fast food. Like I said, I grew up doing that kind of stuff, but I can’t remember the last time that I went to a drive-thru or picked up fast food. I would rather not eat, and I’m okay with that. I’ll find something healthier when I get home.


Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash


[00:33:11] Ashley James: Your mission is to teach people how to use food as medicine. The number one killer is heart disease. That’s number one. Heart disease is going to kill more people than all infections combined and yet we focus so much on worrying about infection when most people statistically will die of heart disease. What can we do to prevent heart disease?


[00:33:37] Dr. William Li: Heart disease is really interesting because it’s really not just about the heart, it’s about the blood vessels supplying the heart. That comes from my field of angiogenesis or how the body grows healthy blood vessels. The heart, of course, is part of the circuitry, part of the plumbing of our blood vessels, but most people don’t know that there are 60,000 miles where the blood vessels are packed inside our bodies. Think about a ball of yarn that’s 60,000 miles long. Literally, if you unspool that yarn, you could have a string that would wrap around the earth twice, right? That’s your blood vessels. That’s your garden hose in your body. Our heart, which is the pumping machine, actually just really jets out oxygen and nutrients through our blood to every single cell in our body.

If it has any problem sending out that oxygen and nutrients, then the heart winds up struggling. If it can’t pump, you wind up having heart disease. There’s a lot of ways that the heart can have trouble. For example, the muscle can get weakened by itself. The blood vessels feeding the heart can get clogged. Then the vessels, the circulation that the heart pumps blood into can go from being kind of soft and elastic to being really hard and rigid. Imagine trying to blow into a long metal pipe, you know how hard that is. If your blood vessels are really hardened, the heart has to work really, really hard, which tires it out, wears it down, and causes it to actually eventually fail. 

All that means that to prevent heart disease we need to take good care of our blood vessels, prevent them from actually getting hard hardened, prevent them from clogging up, and make sure that these cells lining our blood vessels are as healthy as possible. Sleep, exercise, lowering stress, staying away from smoking, not drinking in excess, and physical activity. All those things are common-sense things. When it comes to food, here’s really where some really interesting research is happening. We used to think about heart health in our diet as cutting things out—no butter, no meat, no this, no that. You’re a bad person if you eat that. If you’ve got heart disease you got to cut out everything right away. It was really like guilt, fear, and shame mindset, an elimination program if you wanted to avoid heart disease. 

Now what we know with science is that if you want to protect your heart and you want to avoid heart disease, you should be adding things to your diet. Yeah, sure, stay away from the bad stuff but really focus on the good stuff. We want to have good fiber in our diet because good fiber feeds our gut microbiome and our gut bacteria actually helps. When our gut bacteria are healthy because we’re feeding it fiber, those bacteria digest the fiber. As part of the byproducts of the bacteria’s own digestion—the metabolites—they create particles that actually lower our cholesterol, which then prevents our blood vessels from getting hardened. 

They actually help our body metabolize cholesterol and sugar better so we can be able to use our blood glucose better. It’s like our bacteria is like our diabetes for better. Eating plant-based foods with a lot of fiber is super healthy for your heart. We also know that there are foods that, believe it or not, can actually help the lining of our blood vessels regenerate themselves and continuously repair themselves so they’re not quite as clotty. They don’t clog up or they don’t clot up quite as much.

Some of these things are, for example, omega-3 fatty acids, which you can find in nuts. You can find them in seafood, but you can also find them in nuts. You can also take it as a dietary supplement. A surprise would be cacao—dark chocolate. The cocoa bean actually can is used to make cacao. Cacao is the basis for making chocolate. Dark chocolate is where you have mostly cacao. That’s Mother Nature’s blood vessel helper.

What’s amazing is there’s been a study that was done in individuals who had heart disease, this was out of UCSF, where they gave two groups either a placebo drink or they gave people hot chocolate made with dark chocolate—dark cacao. The placebo, by the way, had the flavonoids and polyphenols were low, so it’s got low versus high. Then they fed the people we’ve known heart disease just two cups of hot chocolate a day for 30 days. Then they measured the number of stem cells in their bloodstream at baseline and compared it to the end of 30 days of drinking two cups of hot cocoa made with dark cocoa. They found that the people who had the dark chocolate version of hot cocoa had doubled the number of regenerating blood vessel cells, stem cells, in their bloodstream. They had better blood flow as well.

Again, human studies, plant-based foods, heart-healthy, these are the kinds of things that we should be leaning into and embracing. Now, for heart health, it’s all about leaning into the good stuff while, keeping in mind, we need to kind of cut down on the bad stuff as well.


[00:39:41] Ashley James: I love it. There’s a school of thought that consuming mass amounts of virgin olive oil is very, very healthy for the body, and just like the Mediterranean diet, every time I think of the Mediterranean diet we think of drinking gallons a year of olive oil. Then there’s a school of thought that we should not consume any oil once it’s been processed away from the plant, so we should eat olives not olive oil. For example, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, who’s a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says that oil harms the endothelial lining, which is the skin on the inside of the blood vessels. He sees that consuming oil and animal fat harms it, inflames it, and that we should eat our fat from a whole food source and not from the processed source. Have you sided with either side? What does science say for you?


[00:40:43] Dr. William Li: There’s a couple of ways to look at this. First of all, consuming anything in gallon form is probably not good for you. My first position on most things when it comes to food is that more is not necessarily more. There’s actually a biological concept called hormesis, which describes this which is that a little but isn’t enough, a little bit more is good for you, even more is even better, and then a little bit more than that gives you the optimal amount. But then if you keep on adding more, you start losing the benefits. You keep on adding more, even more than that, you start losing it. It’s the classic upside-down u-shaped curve where there’s an optimum amount where you get the optimum benefit, but if you keep on going beyond that you actually lose it.

I know Caldwell Esselstyn. He’s an amazing guy—a friend. We worked together on a couple of projects. Really smart, and I think he’s right. You do not want to damage the lining of your blood vessels. That’s my field of angiogenesis as well, but here’s what I will tell you. Not all oils are created equal. Saturated fats are clearly more damaging to the blood vessel lining—the endothelial lining of our blood vessels. Polyunsaturated fats have less damage. Obviously, if you go too high in concentrations, I mean anything is bad for you in excess. But olive oils are polyunsaturated, for the most part. It has less to do with the processing. If you think about it, eating an olive out of a barrel is a plant-based food. That is packed with olive oil, right? A little bit of olive oil such as you would use in a dressing or use for in cooking, not bad for you.

Actually, most of the study has shown that if you actually have up to about three tablespoons of olive oil a day, that’s probably okay—and or less. If you use olive oil in cooking, you’re probably in good shape. Don’t forget, it’s not about the fat that’s the good stuff in olive oil. The fat of olive oil is less bad for you, but in fact, olive oil has these bioactive compounds like oleic acid and hydroxytyrosol. These are some of Mother Nature’s secret weapons that happen to be found in plant-based foods. For example, hydroxytyrosol has been shown to be one of those olive oil-derived substances that can actually improve your immune response. 

In this COVID-19 era, we pay attention to things like that when we hear something is good. The next time you’re actually sautéing something I would say it’s okay to use a little bit of olive oil, don’t take too much of it. Never have gallons of anything.


[00:43:54] Ashley James: You said someone could be safe taking up to three tablespoons a day, what if someone does more than that? Could they be damaging their blood vessels, and is there a way to get all those great nutrients in a different form? Because you’re saying olive oil really isn’t a great way to get fat. You’re not actually taking the olive oil for the fat, you’re taking it for the medicinal extracts from olives. Whereas it would be more concentrated in an olive itself, wouldn’t it?


[00:44:21] Dr. William Li: It could be. By the way, a lot of the good stuff in olive oil, in olives, actually is not the oily part of it, it’s in the liquid part of it, which when you press an olive to make olive oil what comes out of olive is a liquid, which then is drained away, but the fat actually floats to the top and that’s what’s collected. In fact, there’s a lot of really great stuff in the olive water that gets drained away. That’s a whole other sustainability issue.


[00:44:47] Ashley James: Olive juice.


[00:44:48] Dr. William Li: Yeah, exactly.


[00:44:49] Ashley James: Why aren’t we drinking olive juice by the gallon?


[00:44:52] Dr. William Li: I love olive juice. Have you ever had it by the way? It’s just fantastic. It’s super concentrated olives. It’s like all the goodness of olive without the fat.


[00:45:02] Ashley James: Oh my Gosh.


[00:45:04] Dr. William Li: I’m actually not saying that olive oil is a bad fat. What I’m saying is that it’s actually a pretty decent fat, all things considered. By the way, if you look at clinical trials and if you look at population studies, people who live in regions where olive oil tends to be the predominant fat tend to be a little bit healthier. The [correlate] between consuming olive oil is healthier than not consuming olive oil. You’re asking though are there any other ways of getting healthy fats? I mean look, many nuts and flax seeds all contain healthy fats. 

We probably shouldn’t be having a ton of fasts to begin with. There’s no food that is really just only the fat, right? There are other things that are good with it. We have to take a more considered approach to what we’re putting in. For example, if you’re having olive oil, it’s not just the polyunsaturated fats you’re having, you’re also getting all these other bio-actives. If you’re having a saturated fat, there’s probably nothing good that you’re taking in with it.


[00:46:15] Ashley James: Got it. This olive juice, this olive water, the extract that’s not the fat, that’s where all the polyphenols are, all these chemicals that you’re talking about. How would one go about getting this into their life? Just by eating olives or is there a place to buy olive juice?


[00:46:38] Dr. William Li: It’s a great question. I know that I was traveling once in the Mediterranean. There was, for the lack of a better word, an olive bar. I’m trying to remember where it was, but it was amazing. You could get little shots of pure olive juice from different types of olives. I’ll tell you, it was just such an amazing treat to sample that. Be on the lookout. I suppose, if you have time in a lockdown mode to actually try out different baking recipes, maybe we should try to make our own olive juice. I’m sure there’s a way of actually doing it.


[00:47:23] Ashley James: There’s a ton of people baking right now. We should be cold pressing olives and drinking the juice instead. That sounds delicious and so nutritious. I’m predicting in the next 20 years that’s going to be a big health trend like goji berries and kale. We’re going to have little bottles of olive juice. That’s really cool. You focus on food as medicine, you focus on preventing disease because it’s more important to prevent a disease than treat it. At least, we have more tools to prevent a disease than we do to have to treat it because by the time someone is so sick that they have the disease it’s much harder to reverse it. What actionable steps could we take today? What specific steps would you tell us to start doing today to prevent disease?


[00:48:19] Dr. William Li: The one thing that everyone needs to know is that we actually have, from the time we’re born, all the defensive weapons we need to stay to live long healthy lives. Our body really craves health. Health is not just the absence of disease, it’s really a result of our own bodies—hard-wired health defense system—working as hard as it can—I call it firing on all cylinders—from the time we’re born until our very last breath. Some people say I know somebody who developed cancer or heart disease, why did they develop that? I would turn it around to say why don’t more people develop cancer, and why don’t more people develop diabetes or heart disease?

It’s because when our body’s defenses are working at full capacity, full throttle, they naturally resist cancer growth, metabolism going on haywire, blood vessels clogging up causing heart disease. Actually, even fat cells growing to ridiculous sizes our body kind of knows how to do what it wants to do. The problem is that once we’re born and we’re living on planet earth, life itself exacts a toll like the tax we pay for living on this planet is that we’re continuously assaulted by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Modern life, we’re surrounded by off-gassing from furniture and carpets. I always tell these damages our DNA and cause all kinds of problems. 

I always tell people if you still drive a car that uses petrol or uses gasoline and you get to fill your tank, do you stand upwind or downwind? A lot of people go I haven’t even thought about that. How about you, Ashley? Do you actually stand upwind or downwind when filling up your tank?


[00:50:16] Ashley James: I sit in the car while my husband does it.


[00:50:19] Dr. William Li: All right, the smartest one of them all. I’ll tell you what I do. I stand upwind because I realize that if I stand downwind and I can smell that gas, those solvents are actually going into my lung damaging my own DNA. Something like that, just even a small thing like that, is an assault on your body. The question is, how come we don’t have lung cancer every day, the next day, or the next week after we fill up a tank of gas? Because our body fixes itself. 

The number one thing I think is super important is that our body already has the secret to actually stay healthy. Number two is that those defenses have to work harder and harder as we get older because there are so many cumulative stresses that we’re subjected to, our body’s defenses have to work harder and sometimes they can break down. The third thing I would tell you, so you want to sort of stay away from those dangers.

This is like wear sunscreen, stay physically active, avoid solvents and toxins, but there’s even more which is that we can actually do our health defenses a favor by feeding them because foods can activate, support, and even enhance our health defense system. What are those health defense systems? I wrote about five of them in my book Eat to Beat Disease. There’s angiogenesis, our circulation, that’s 60,000 miles worth of blood vessels that deliver oxygen to all of our cells. There’s our stem cells, the regeneration. We talked about regeneration a little bit. Our stem cells are actually found in our bone marrow. We got tons of them even as adults.

When we were kids, we were told that starfish and salamanders regenerate but people don’t, humans don’t. Well, that playbook’s been thrown out. We have a new chapter written. We know that humans do generate very, very slowly. Foods can actually make that regeneration happen from the inside out, and we can speed it up and make it more efficient. Our microbiome, gut bacteria, we got 37 trillion bacteria in our bodies and most of it’s in our gut. 

When I was in medical school I was told bacteria are bad, kill the bacteria, prescribe antibiotics, and now we know, in fact, most of the bacteria in our body is good. Occasionally, there’s a bad actor that calls itself out. Sometimes, you need to actually bust out the pharmaceutical police to take care of that, but for the most part, we have a good ecosystem of healthy good bacteria. By feeding our good bacteria, it affects our mood, our brain, our emotions, our immune system, how good our skin looks, how fast we heal, whether or not we’ve got inflammation, our metabolism. 

It’s so important, our bacteria, that we actually realize that we’re not even fully human anymore because we’ve got 39 trillion human cells, we’ve got 37 trillion bacteria, so we’re like 50-50. Half of us isn’t even human. By the way, Ashley, the term for an organism that’s made up of different species like we are, humans and bacteria, is called a holobiont. That’s what you and I are. We’re all holobionts. We’re an ecosystem walking around. The bacteria are just walking around inside our human shell. That’s really important and foods can actually boost that.

DNA is another defense system. We’re all taught that DNA is our genetic code, and it makes proteins, absolutely. That’s true, there’s no quarrel about that, but many people do not realize that our DNA is a defense mechanism that protects us against environmental damage. For example, we know that if you go out to the beach and lay out you’ll get tan and you’ll get burned if you stay out too long. If you get burned that can actually lead to skin cancer because it damages our DNA. We know if you want to speed up that damage you should go into a sun tanning booth and bingo, in an hour you’ll have done 20 years of damage to your skin—really a bad thing to do. 

Did you know that actually even sitting in a car stuck in traffic on a beautiful day with the sun shining in through the windshield or with your arm out the window coming in stuck in traffic that also causes damage. Being in an airplane. Pilots receive huge amounts of ultraviolet damaging radiation just by sitting in a cockpit flying the plane. As do the passengers.

The fact of the matter is our DNA knows how to fix itself. It repairs itself, it can rebuild itself when it’s damaged, and our DNA is kind of a fuse like, a life fuse, that burns itself down in our cells so that the longer the fuse is the healthier and longer-lived we are. When our fuse burns down really short, they call these the telomeres that are protective they’re like the caps of a shoelace at the very end—the plastic tips. What happens when your shoelace loses the cap? Your shoelace frays open and immediately it starts to fall apart. That can happen to our DNA. Our DNA protects ourselves against damage including aging.

Then finally, our immune system. Everybody now thinks about immunity as one of the most important defenses against COVID-19, but listen, we’re surrounded by viruses, bacteria, molds, and fungi all the time. Our immune system does more than resist attacks from the outside, which is what we’re thinking about with COVID. Our immune system prevents us from being attacked from the inside by cancer cells. In fact, we know that the immune system is so powerful that even if you were in your 80s or 90s, like an elderly person, their immune system is powerful enough to completely wipe out cancer even if it’s spread if you give it a chance.

We figured this out through one of the biggest breakthroughs in medicine in the last couple of decades, which was immunotherapy for cancer where you can now treat cancer some cancers with medicines that don’t actually kill the cancer cells directly. Instead, what they do is they actually help the immune system discover cancer and get rid of it by itself. A great example is President Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States and one of the oldest living presidents now. He actually had melanoma. 

He was one of the most amazing people that after his presidency dedicated himself to building homes for people that needed to have homes constructed. He and his wife Rosalynn would go out and build houses in Habitat for Humanity. A lot of sunshine in the state of Georgia. Got a melanoma, spread to his liver and his brain. It was thought that someone in their 90s would never survive a melanoma that spread to the brain, but he got immunotherapy in the 90s that didn’t kill the cancer cells. All they did was rip open the cloak that cancers try to hide from your immune system. His 90-year-old immune system said aha, I see you, I’m going to get rid of you. His own immune system wiped out all visible traces of cancer. Amazing. I never thought we’d see that happen, not in my career, but here we are.

Five defense systems: angiogenesis, stem cells, microbiome, DNA repair, and immunity. The great news is that our diet can be used to activate these, so you can, in fact, Eat to Beat Disease.


[00:58:28] Ashley James: I love it. Your book is just full of the science-based evidence showing us that every single time we walk into the kitchen we’re walking into our pharmacy. That every time we put something in our mouth we can be healing our body or we could be harming our body. We really want to maximize the nutrition, the nutrient density of every meal to support the body’s ability to heal itself and maintain optimal health no matter what our age is. The more you dive into this and help people to shape their diet to support their overall health, what illnesses have you been surprised that were able to be reversed with diet?


[00:59:17] Dr. William Li: One of the most surprising is in fact cancer. We talked a little bit about this earlier. I’ll tell you about the experience. This immunotherapy that I told you about there’s a bunch of different treatments that are out there like this. Even the best ones sometimes aren’t effective, and we don’t know why. Some people who actually wind up getting immunotherapy will have this incredible, amazing, and complete response. Back to baseline—they just regain their health back even after cancer has spread. On the other hand, some people don’t respond at all. Getting the treatment doesn’t do them squat—diddly-squat. What’s going on?

My colleague, Dr. Laurence Zitvogel in Paris did this amazing important study. She took 200 cancer patients who were being treated with the immunotherapies. She just separated them out into people that actually had a good response and people who didn’t respond. Then she dove deeply to figure out what the differences were between the people who are responders and non-responders. It seems like a really simple logical thing to do, but in fact, it’s quite a complicated thing if you really wanted to look for differences.

What she found, when you accounted for sex, age, comorbidities, medications, other risk factors, diet, lifestyle, and all kinds of other things, the only difference between someone who responded and didn’t respond is one bacteria in their gut—one bacteria. If you had that bacteria, you responded. If you didn’t have that bacteria, you didn’t respond. That bacteria is called akkermansia muciniphila. It’s a normal healthy gut bacteria that we now are beginning to realize it actually governs and helps to control. It’s like air traffic control for our immune system—it conducts surveillance.

Here’s the amazing thing about that bacteria, when she took out the bacteria from patients who were responders to the treatment and went to the lab to figure out—she took lab animals, mice, who actually didn’t have any bacteria and put them in there—if she put a tumor on there and then treated them, the same thing that you saw in patients. The immunotherapy would allow the mouse’s immune system to completely wipe out cancer. If on the other hand, she put the bacteria in there, the animal had a tumor and she gave an antibiotic and wiped out that bacteria, no effect of the immunotherapy.

Powerful, powerful concept of a single bacteria helping your immune system function, but where the surprise is for me when it comes to diet has to do with the fact that you cannot actually eat this bacteria. There’s no probiotic for akkermansia. The only thing you can do is to eat foods that actually cause your own gut, your own intestines to secrete the mucus that this bacteria love to grow in. By the way, what is the food? Pomegranate juice, cranberry juice, and Concord grape juice. They cause our colons to secrete mucus. When that mucus is secreted, the akkermansia loves to grow. It’s like putting fertilizer into your garden. The flowers start blooming, and you can actually put yourself into a situation where you can then have the best possible chances of responding.

This isn’t a food versus medicine. This is food and medicine. To be able to get that kind of impact from diet, life, and that situation to me was a delightful surprise.


[01:03:13] Ashley James: Oh my gosh. That makes all the difference. It’s funny, I googled akkermansia muciniphila. Is that how you say it?


[01:03:22] Dr. William Li: Exactly.


[01:03:23] Ashley James: I googled it and the first thing that comes up is a bunch of probiotics, but as you’re saying, you don’t want to take a probiotic. You want to eat food to support the gut in creating the environment that then this bacteria comes and lives. Does it have to be grape juice? Can you eat grapes or grape juice is the best way to do?


[01:03:48] Dr. William Li: The studies have been done so far with grape juice, but obviously, the juice is just coming from the grapes so you might as well eat the grape too and you get all the other good stuff that’s good for other parts of your body including your blood vessel health and metabolism. I always go for the whole food if you can get it, if you can eat it, but the juice isn’t a problem either. I would say many people are concerned about the amount of sugar that’s found in fruit juices. What I would say is that number one yes, sugar is found in some fruit juices, and yes, having too much sugar, from any source, is bad. But sugar in a natural fruit juice is better than added sugar in a soda or in a cup of coffee. You choose your weapons, you choose your sugar wisely.

The good thing about fruit is that you actually wind up having a lot of other good stuff that comes along with it. If the sweetness of the fruit makes your mouth water and it makes you want to eat more of it, that’s not a bad thing necessarily. Again, moderation.



Photo by Tom Brunberg on Unsplash


[01:05:02] Ashley James: Moderation is key. It’s interesting to know that fructose is the only carbohydrate, I believe, that will not trigger satiation. That’s why an 18-year-old could consider drinking two liters of Coke, but they would never drink two liters of milk in one sitting. The fructose does not trigger that satiation, so people tend to want to binge on or the brain wants to binge on fructose. It’s part of our mechanism for when we were hunter-gatherers. It’s just good to know for people who maybe have addictive tendencies that when they start drinking juice or start eating even just fruit or any form of fructose, it can help to trigger more of their addictive tendencies. But if you stay in moderation, like you said, everything in moderation, you have someone drank a few ounces a day of cranberry juice, which is very tart, I can’t see anyone wanting to over-consume that.

You said concord grapes, pomegranate juice, or cranberry juice, or someone could eat pomegranates. It’s kind of hard to eat cranberries. I actually have made a really delicious cranberry relish that didn’t have any sugar in it. It was raw cranberries diced in a food processor with a bunch of orange and orange zest. It’s very delicious.


[01:06:36] Dr. William Li: If you were to put cranberries with some mango, or cranberries some banana—I’m trying to think of other things you could actually blend with cranberries. I think you could actually find other ways to sweeten it. You don’t have to just do the old Thanksgiving recipe of dumping a cup of sugar with a cup of cranberries, as tasty as that might have been when you were a kid. Maple syrup is another kinder, gentler way of actually putting a little bit of sugar in something. I know you’re from Canada originally. It’s the home of maple syrup.


[01:07:13] Ashley James: Maple syrup courses through our veins.


[01:07:17] Dr. William Li: Exactly. I think it’s all about moderation.


[01:07:24] Ashley James: Right. That’s amazing. You’ve seen people reverse cancer with diet, but just understanding that those who consumed those foods so that their gut could have that bacteria made all the difference to them. Are there any other keys that you were really surprised to uncover?


[01:07:47] Dr. William Li: What was really amazing to me is that if you were to compare the potency of food side-by-side with a cancer drug or even a non-cancer drug, you can really get the sense of how powerful foods are. We did this actually with green tea where we tested green tea in the same system for doing cancer drug development. We found that it was at least as active as about half the cancer treatments that we had tested. What was also interesting, that was kind of a surprise to me, is when it comes to food and health, there’s a lot of science—more science to be done—but there’s also a lot of ideology, there’s a lot of belief system, there’s a lot of pride of thinking that’s out there. Sometimes that’s confusing with science.

What’s interesting is most people would say that tea is good for you and that green tea is really good for you and that black tea might not be so good for you because it’s been fermented and a lot of the polyphenols have been destroyed, but actually, we found in angiogenesis assays would say that in fact—and then people will say with green tea, that Japanese tea, is the best. When we actually were agnostic like we had no ideology. We said let’s just test some green tea from Japan and other places like China. Let’s test some black tea as well. 

A big surprise for me was we found that jasmine tea from China actually was more powerful in an angiogenesis assay for blood vessel health than Japanese tea. But even more surprising was that a black tea, Earl Grey, which is black tea with bergamot which is kind of a citrus type of citrus peel was more potent than any of the green teas. What was even more surprising is when we did something unthinkable culturally, which is to mix, blend Japanese and Chinese tea together, we actually found that when you tested that combination that was even more powerful than any of the teas.

So it opened their ideas of food synergies, right? Because nobody eats food by itself. We really tend to mix things together. What don’t we know? I mean we know tomatoes are good for you, we know that olives are good for you, and we know that some spices or herbs are good for you, but do we know what happens if you mix them together? Does 1 plus 1 equal 10? That’s the kind of research that lies ahead that I’m super excited to be doing.


[01:10:48] Ashley James: Absolutely. What was the Japanese and Chinese combination that made the biggest difference?


[01:10:53] Dr. William Li: It was a Japanese Sencha, which most people revere. I mean it’s got a great taste, I love Sencha. Then we tested it against Chinese jasmine tea, which they call Dragon Balls. Teas rolled together with jasmine flowers. We tested either those, side-by-side, in an angiogenesis assay. A big surprise to me was that the Chinese tea was more powerful and potent than the Japanese tea, but then when we actually mixed the two together we got actually an effect that was more powerful than either, and even more powerful than the black tea. If you counted the potency, it was definitely synergy. They were more than additive. They actually did something yet different again. What’s the impact on the growing conditions, the soil from which they came, or the age or the season in which the leaves are picked. All these are amazing questions that need to be asked.


[01:11:57] Ashley James: When you did this study, did you figure out how much? What was the optimal brewing and consistency of the tea and how much someone would need to drink every day to maximize the benefits of drinking it?


[01:12:14] Dr. William Li: The way I do food as medicine research is by looking at lots of different types of data and lots of different types of studies. The reason that’s important is that you can’t really study food in the exact same way you’d study a drug. You study a drug like a pharmaceutical, what do you do? You give 1,000 patients the drug and you give another thousand patients a sugar pill or a placebo. Then you make them take that drug X number of times a day for a few months or maybe a year and then you measure the outcome. You can’t make anybody just eat only tomatoes, and you can’t make the other people not eat tomatoes for a year. The way that I approach the research is number one, we look in the lab. We see in cells and looking at the genetics and molecular biology, what does the food actually do or the substance within the food?

This can be done in tissue culture and genetic studies. It could be done with lab animals, animal models. All the standard stuff. Then you can go to clinicals in humans. For humans, you can actually do a clinical trial. The cacao, the hot chocolate study I told you about—regenerative blood vessel cells, stem cells—was actually a human’s trial done with people. Small studies because it’s really difficult to do long term studies like this. But then you have population studies where you cannot just do a couple of dozen people, you can do hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people. In fact, some of the largest epidemiological studies, they call them population studies, can involve hundreds of thousands of people.

There’s a gigantic study in Europe that is looking at 500,000 people across a dozen European countries and studying them over the course of their lifetime. The conclusions that you get are really by converging all that data, and then figure out what does the data tell you. When we were talking about tea earlier when you were asking about the right dose, well, many of the studies have been done in humans have shown that tea benefits that protect the heart, to protect against cancer, even protect against dementia, any range, anywhere from two to four cups of green tea a day, most of the studies have been done in green tea. So that would be the dose. The question is, how long would you need to take it? Many of these studies are conducted over a period of years, looking at people’s intake over the course of years.

This is, again, food isn’t like a drug. You just go out to the drugstore and you pop a pill and you’re done or pop it once a day for seven to ten days like an antibiotic. This is why having a great habit when you’re young can pay off later on in life, but it’s never too late. You’re never too old to actually shape-shift a little bit and lean towards what I like to say, a delicious healthy diet that pleases you that you love. In my book, I write about more than 200 foods. They all activate one or more of the body’s health defense systems. Everyone can find something that they love in that list of 200 plus foods. If you start with the foods that you love as healthy choices, you’re already way ahead of the game because you’re not about cutting out things you love, you’re adding things to your diet that you love.


[01:16:07] Ashley James: That makes total sense. I was amazed to learn about—I’m not going to say this right—anti-angiogenesis or the compounds that prevent new blood vessels growing to cancer.


[01:16:26] Dr. William Li: That’s anti-angiogenic foods.


[01:16:28] Ashley James: Right.


[01:16:30] Dr. William Li: Some of the really interesting ones are also surprises. I got involved in this many, many years ago. When there was a research paper that came out, I spied. It was a Greek researcher doing research in Germany. The lab had vials and vials and vials of frozen urine from Japanese villagers outside of Kyoto who all ate vegetarian diets, mostly soybean products. The laboratory was studying female hormones. Obviously, during menstruation, there are female hormones found in urine. That’s what the lab is originally doing. They had all this extra frozen urine around, and they were trying to figure out what type of experiments would be useful to do. They decided they would just see what’s in the urine and not be biased. They looked at everything that was in the urine, and they found a couple of really interesting surprising peaks.

Think about urine, you put it into a device that can measure all the chemicals. If there’s a chemical, the needle jumps and you get a little spike in the readout. There’s a sticker tape that comes out and the readout there. They found a couple of gigantic spikes. They’re like what the heck is this? It turns out they were not female hormones, but they were homormoneish-like. They found that it was a phytoestrogen that comes from soy. We now know this. Soy is a phytoestrogen. What they did though is they tested the chemical from the urine. They tested it on blood vessel cells and they found that it potently shut down the blood vessels that tumors would grow to try to feed themselves. It was anti-angiogenic cancer starving.

You say, wait a minute, we know that women are often told to stay away from soy products because these phytoestrogens are dangerous for breast cancer, right? That’s an urban legend. The urban legend is from well-intentioned people trying to interpret the information is that soy estrogen, plant estrogens look nothing like human estrogens. They’re called estrogens but they actually don’t do the same thing. In fact, plant estrogens block human estrogens. We know that human estrogens can be responsible for some types of breast cancer, and in fact, we give blockers of human estrogen to treat those cancers. Turns out, soy estrogens—phytoestrogens—do the same thing as those pharmaceuticals. They block the human estrogen.

How do we know that soy is safe to take? A study of 5000 women who already had breast cancer, so the highest risk women were studied and this was a study done out of Shanghai called the Shanghai women’s breast cancer study. They found that those women with breast cancer diagnosis who ate more soy had better outcomes, less mortality, and less chance of cancer coming back the more they ate. How much soy do they need to have? About 10 grams of soy protein a day. That’s the amount of soy you would get in about a glass of soy milk per day, not that much. Again, go to the lab, look at what’s in there, look at human samples and human trials, then look at big populations and see. A study of 5000 women is pretty convincing. You would think that if it’s dangerous you would see it right there.

Then there was a meta-analysis of 14 different studies of women with breast cancer and studying the effects of soy. In every single case of these 14 clinical trials, the intake of soy was associated with better survival and in no case was the intake of soy associated with more mortality. I think that’s a case closed kind of thing.


[01:20:51] Ashley James: Do you know, in those studies, did they choose non-GMO soy or organic soy, or did they differentiate what kind of soy they were using?


[01:21:02] Dr. William Li: That’s a good question. In those big studies, they haven’t really differentiated those. Some of these studies were coming out of Asia, some of them were coming out of Europe. The big concern about GMO—the debate, the controversy about GMO—is something that’s really worthwhile studying. I’ll tell you something interesting that came out recently that I discovered about GMO and about organic. A lot of concepts of GMO being worse and organic being better are all based on the principles that they should be better or should be worse. The real question is how would you actually know? You’d have to do human studies, which some of which are underway right now, so we have to wait and see what those research studies show.

So far, what I would say is that for GMO, it’s very, very difficult to avoid GMO anything because the seeds are out there, butterflies and bees take them everywhere. Even if you think something is not GMO, it may wind up being that the pollination has contaminated a non-GMO with GMOs. That the seeds that they started them with weren’t that way—really, really difficult studies. The other thing that I got surprised with was organic. I mean organic supposedly better, and of course, nobody wants pesticides in their foods.

Recently, there was a paper study published showing that strawberries that are grown in an organic fashion, meaning without pesticides, actually have more healthful properties in the berry. That’s the reason is that when you don’t have pesticides used to grow the strawberries, bugs eat the strawberry leaves. That’s the whole point of pesticides to keep the pests away, but when insects eat at the leaves of the plant, the plant views it as a wound to the plant and it responds by actually healing itself. Part of the wound healing response is to put more bioactive stuff into the fruit. You actually get a more powerful fruit when it’s actually eaten, attacked by an insect.


[01:23:39] Ashley James: Interesting.


[01:23:40] Dr. William Li: Really interesting stuff, right?


[01:23:42] Ashley James: Also, when you’re eating food that isn’t sterile and been harmed by these chemicals, when you’re eating food like strawberries that have been grown in the most organic fashion—let’s say in your own backyard—when we eat the strawberry, we’re consuming bacteria that live on the strawberry. That bacteria helps our body to digest and assimilate the nutrients from that strawberry. I think that it’s really good to eat a variety of raw and cooked foods, if you can tolerate it. Some people with digestive problems can’t, but if you can eat a variety of fresh raw foods because it helps us to invite those good bacteria that are specific to those foods that help us to assimilate the nutrients.

My biggest concern is glyphosate, which is Roundup. It’s known as a chelator. I’ve had a few people on the show about it. Dr. Stephanie Seneff has talked about how it binds to heavy metals and it releases the heavy metals when pH changes in the body like blood to urine or blood to the cerebral spinal fluid, and that they find that it deposits heavy metals into the tissue in the body. We want to avoid Roundup or glyphosate as much as possible. I also had Jeffrey Smith on the show who’s a producer of documentaries around GMO. He brought up a really interesting study. It’s been a few years since I interviewed him so I don’t remember the exact title of it. In Canada, they studied women and found that Bt toxin—that they actually had gut bacteria. They stopped eating GMO but that their gut bacteria, the DNA of their gut bacteria, had been hijacked by the Bt corn. They believe that the DNA, the genetically modified DNA of the corn then attacks and hijacks our gut biome. The gut biome was producing Bt toxin.

We’re playing with the DNA of the foods we’re eating. We have to wonder about the effects it will have on our cells but also the effects it will have on the microbiome, which, as you pointed out, is so important. I totally agree with you. We can never be 100% sure if the soy we’re eating is non-GMO. If we could buy organic, hopefully, there’s no glyphosate in it. Very interesting what you’ve pointed out that consuming healthy amounts of soy can help to prevent cancer but also people with cancer benefit from it as well.

Dr. Joel Fuhrman talks about the importance of eating even just a cup of mushrooms a day and something like maybe half a cup or a cup of onions a day, raw or cooked, can increase the ability to prevent vasculature growing to new cancer. Like you said, if you eat food that you like I love mushrooms and onions, so I make sure I eat them every day. If we can pick foods that we like that we enjoy that also nutrify the body, then go for it. Eat lots of variety of those healthy fruits and vegetables.

I definitely want to make sure listeners get your book, Eat to Beat Disease. Your website is drwilliamli.com. Of course, the links to everything that Dr. Li does is going to be in the show notes of today’s podcast at learntruehealth.com. Do you do telemedicine? Do you work with people? What are the other ways that listeners can follow you, learn from you, and work with you?


[01:27:40] Dr. William Li: One of the best ways is actually to sign up on my website at drwilliamli.com. Actually, I’m going to be unrolling a new program where I’m actually able to give out the breaking news information, news you can use, tips on how you can actually live a better lifestyle. One of the things that you can get, definitely just by signing up, is a free shopping list. Because I’ve taken the 200 foods from my book, and I’ve broken them down into, generally, the order that you might encounter them when you actually go into a grocery store. These days, you don’t want to waste any time in the grocery store. You want to get in there and get out like a SWAT team.

The more you can actually take a look at what the healthy stuff is—mark it off, check it out, make a list, get it in your head, make a beeline for the parts that you want to get, and then get out of dodge that’s something that I really feel like a healthy food shopping list can be useful for. That’s how I encourage people to do it. I’m also on social @drwilliamli. Please follow along, like, and spread the word because this is something so important in the COVID era. This virus has been a big wake-up call for the entire human species that our health is no longer about juicing, jogging, and yoga. It’s about how we take care of ourselves every single day, and we make decisions when we eat that can really help make the difference between whether we can resist disease and whether we might succumb to it.


[01:29:26] Ashley James: If everyone did a little bit of juicing, jogging, and yoga I think this world would be a better place. Thank you so much for coming on the show. My last question for you is I know you already eat a very healthy diet and you focus on a healthy lifestyle because you see the science behind it in preventing disease, what did you change in your diet and lifestyle in the last few months? What did you encourage your family, your close loved ones to do because of the COVID pandemic.


[01:30:00] Dr. William Li: I’ll tell you, one of the things that I really wanted to make sure that we’re doing is getting enough vitamin C and vitamin D. Those are micronutrients that are found in many different types of foods like citrus or mushrooms that if you’re deficient in, your immune system is more likely to fail to detect viruses. I wanted to make sure that, at least for me, I’m actually getting up to snuff at the baseline. Then some of the other foods that I started eating that really can enhance our community are things like I mentioned pomegranate juice. I started to have more tomatoes, which are a great source of vitamin C. I started really making sure I was eating tree nuts like pecans, which I really love, olive oil, blueberries, and blackberries are really great.

Actually, one of the things that I did is I actually did a little public service announcement on YouTube called 10 Things You Should Eat Right Now To Beat COVID-19 and put it out there. Immediately, it started to go viral because people were just looking for information of what I would do to actually eat and what I’ve done, so I put that out there—10 things that you can eat to be COVID-19 on YouTube, subscribe. Those are how I changed my life. I’m happy to continue to let people know what new things I’m actually doing as well.


[01:31:31] Ashley James: Awesome. Thank you, Dr. William Li. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show. You are welcome back anytime you want to come and teach and share. We’d love to have you back.


[01:31:40] Dr. William Li: Thank you, Ashley. It’s a real pleasure to be with you.


[01:31:43] Ashley James: I hope you enjoyed today’s interview with Dr. Li. Please share it with those you care about. Let’s get this information out to help as many people as possible to learn true health. Come join the Facebook group. Search Learn True Health on Facebook or go to learntruehealth.com/group and join the Facebook group. It’s a wonderfully supportive community. We’re all in this together to learn what we can do to tweak our diet, our lifestyle, supplements whatever we can do to just switch it over to build the body into a place that develops health instead of disease. We can heal the body. The body has an amazing ability to heal itself. Even if you’ve been told you’re going to have this for the rest of your life, I have met so many people, myself included, who have reversed diseases and illnesses that they were told by doctors they’d always have for the rest of their life.

So don’t give up hope. Instead, dive in, listen to more episodes of the Learn True Health podcast, and come join the Facebook group. There is hope. As long as you’re living and breathing, as long as you have a pulse, your body can heal itself. You can do many things to support your body’s ability to heal itself. I’m so happy that you’re here to learn how you can optimize your health through every meal, through every breath. There are so many things you can do mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and energetically. That’s exactly what this podcast is here to help you with.

So please, dive in, keep listening. Make sure that you share this episode and share the podcast with those you love so we can help as many people as possible. Come join the Facebook group so that you can keep learning, keep asking questions, and keep growing. Thank you so much for being a listener. Thank you so much for sharing. Have yourself a fantastic rest of your day.


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Eat To Beat Disease – Dr. William Li & Ashley James – #432

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Dr. Steven Gundry & Ashley James


  • Importance of removing lectins from beans
  • Leaky gut causes leaky brain
  • All diseases come from the gut
  • Why nightshades are bad for us
  • Why we should consume olive oil
  • Go-to foods to eat that support our gut

Hippocrates mentioned thousands of years ago that all diseases start from the gut. Now we’re finding out that his statement is true based on different researches on health and nutrition. In this episode, Dr. Steven Gundry talks about which foods harm the gut and which foods heal the gut. He also shares why we need to remove lectins from our diet and how we can destroy lectins.


Hello, true health seeker and welcome to another episode of the Learn True Health podcast. I’m so excited you’re here. Today is our interview with Dr. Gundry. He wrote the book The Plant Paradox, and I have to say, it was quite controversial. I know you’re going to love today’s interview. Dr. Gundry talks about removing anti-nutrients from your diet. If you, as you listen, want to learn how to do that, come join the Learn True Health Home Kitchen. Go to learntruehealth.com/homekitchen. I’ve been filming for several months. There are many videos in there, and I teach you how to remove these anti-nutrients from your diet—the oxalates, the lectin, the gluten, and how to eat a whole foods diet filled with nutrient-dense foods that heal the gut, prevent heart disease, reverse disease, and nutrify the body. Go to learntruehealth.com/homekitchen, sign up, and start cooking food that heals the body.

Awesome. Thank you so much for being a listener. Thank you so much for sharing this podcast with those you love. Enjoy today’s interview.

 Photo by Shelley Pauls on Unsplash


[00:01:06] Ashley James: Welcome to the Learn True Health podcast. I’m your host, Ashley James. This is episode 431. I am so excited for today’s guest. We have, this is going to be such an interesting interview, Dr. Steven Gundry. Your book is The Plant Paradox, and from everything I’ve seen, people either love it or hate it. There’s no in-between. I’ve not met someone who’s lukewarm about your book. People are either passionately for what you do or passionately against what you do. I think it’s going to be fun to have you on the show today and share what happened for you to discover and create The Plant Paradox, and how your system is helping people reverse disease and heal their body. Welcome to the show.


[00:02:03] Dr. Steven Gundry: Thanks for having me.


[00:02:05] Ashley James: Absolutely. I have interviewed several whole food plant-based doctors that reversed disease with plants. They are up in arms about what you do. They say it’s just ridiculous that someone would cut out legumes, beans, and plants that contain lectins. They think that these are very healthy foods. I’d love for you to start by sharing. Obviously, there’s so much controversy around that, especially with doctors who claim that the opposite of what your diet is healthy. How do you handle that kind of criticism?


[00:02:50] Dr. Steven Gundry: I just show them the data that I show in my book and it’s subsequently published. There’s actually no getting around the fact that the harm of lectins has been known about for actually well over 100 years. In fact, just to use an example, there are three papers in the literature in monkeys showing that the lectin in peanut oil is a major cause of the hardening of the arteries—of coronary artery disease in monkeys. When you remove that lectin from peanut oil and give it to monkeys they don’t get coronary artery disease. Recently, I published a paper in circulation showing that lectins are a major cause of an autoimmune attack on the inside of blood vessels. That when you remove lectins from human’s diets, that they’re markers for an autoimmune attack on their blood vessels minimizes. We can say I’m telling people falsehoods but in fact, this is all published data that I write about.


[00:04:20] Ashley James: How does one go about removing lectins from their diet?


[00:04:25] Dr. Steven Gundry: That’s actually pretty easy. Recently, I had, on my podcast, Dr. Joel Fuhrman who actually I am a big fan of. A few years ago, when The Plant Paradox, came out, I believe he was pretty vocal that how dare I take beans away from people. I don’t take beings away from people, I merely ask them to destroy the lectins with the pressure cooker. While I had him on the podcast and we were chatting, it turns out that he actually pressure-cooks his beans. He does not eat his beans unpressured-cooked. Sometimes, the noise gets in the way. I had beans three times last week. Believe me, they were pressure cooked. I have nothing against beans, but we have to know our enemy, and we have to know how the plant decided to protect itself. The good news is, for the most part, you can neutralize the enemy by some simple tricks.


[00:05:41] Ashley James: You brought up a really good point that plant protects itself. Explain what lectins are. How does the plant create it, and how does our body react to lectin?


[00:05:51] Dr. Steven Gundry: Lectins actually were discovered almost 150 years ago now. We use lectins to blood type. There was a very famous lectin diet, it was well-hidden, called the Blood Type Diet. Lectins are used by plants as a defense mechanism—one of the defense mechanisms—against being eaten and of having their babies—their seeds—from being eaten. Lectins are proteins. They’re what are called sticky proteins because they actually look for sugar molecules to stick to—specific sugar molecules. Those sugar molecules line the inside of our gut, they line the inside of our blood vessels, they line the inside of our joints, and they line the space between our nerves.

The theory is if lectins can break through the wall of the gut and they’re very good at this, Dr. Fasano from Johns Hopkins a few years ago proved that gluten, which is a lectin, causes leaky gut by binding to the sugar molecules in the gut and breaking the tight junctions. There’s no question that this happens. Why do they do that? Because quite frankly if you can cause an animal to not feel well, to not thrive, then a smart animal says every time I eat these particular plants or these plant babies I don’t do very well. I think I’ll go eat something else. The animal wins, the plant wins, and everybody’s happy.

Then humans arrived. As most of us know, we’re not very smart. When we eat something that bothers us, let me give you an example, heartburn is caused by lectins. Instead of avoiding lectin-containing foods, like for instance, a hot pepper, which is loaded with lectins, we instead take Prilosec or Nexium and we keep eating these things. That’s really dumb because, actually, there’s a beautiful paper in humans that shows that in normal human beings who were asked to take one of these proton pump inhibitors for one week—one week only—they had dramatic changes in their ability to remember things, process—one week. I can’t believe Larry the Cable Guy thinks that not being very smart is worth a corndog.


[00:09:03] Ashley James: How do lectins cause heartburn?


[00:09:05] Dr. Steven Gundry: Lectins actually break down the mucus lining, that mucus is a mucopolysaccharide—a sugar molecule, and exposes the covering of our esophagus. The mucus is used up by a lectin attack and then the acid irritates it. I used to have horrible heartburn. I used to eat Tum’s left, right, and every day. I haven’t had heartburn in 20 years now.


[00:09:36] Ashley James: Amazing. Tell us a little bit about your story. Your background is so extensive. Reading your biography, it’s amazing what you’ve accomplished through the years and what you have given to the medical space. You have helped so many children and so many cardiac patients around the world, but you yourself had health issues. You uncovered this particular way of eating to heal yourself. Tell us a bit about your personal journey with recovering your health.


[00:10:15] Dr. Steven Gundry: I was a very famous heart surgeon, children’s heart surgeon, and transplant surgeon. Very famous for inventing devices to protect the heart during heart surgery, but I was 70 pounds overweight despite running 30 miles a week, going to the gym one hour a day, and eating a healthy low-fat, primarily, vegetarian diet. I had high cholesterol, pre-diabetes, and arthritis. I used to operate with migraine headaches doing baby heart transplants, I don’t recommend it, but somebody had to do it. I thought this was normal because I was assured it was normal because my father was very much the same way.

It wasn’t until I met a fellow I described in my books by the name of Big Ed from Miami Florida who in six months’ time following a diet, very much like what I described and taking a bunch of supplements from a health food store, he cleaned out 50% of the blockages in his coronary arteries in six months’ time. He had inoperable coronary artery disease. I was totally shocked that that could happen. I was taught, as most doctors are taught, that coronary heart disease is progressive. Yes, we could maybe slow it down, but eventually, it’s going to get you. To watch an individual—now many individuals—reverse coronary artery disease with food and supplements changed my life.

I was ready to discover this. Believe it or not, as an undergraduate at Yale, I had a special major in human evolutionary biology—basically epigenomics. I had a big thesis that my parents had. I’m actually staring at it in my bookcase right now. I actually put myself on my thesis and I lost 50 pounds in my first year, another 20, and kept it off for over 20 years. I started treating patients that I operated on with my program to try and keep them from visiting me again. Lo and behold, not only did they not visit me again, but their diabetes went away, their arthritis went away, their high blood pressure went away, and their autoimmune diseases went away. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years.


[00:13:10] Ashley James: I love it. Lectins, are they proteins?


[00:13:15] Dr. Steven Gundry: Yes, they’re proteins.


[00:13:16] Ashley James: They’re proteins. Everyone’s heard of gluten at this point. I’ve been gluten-free since 2011. So many people have heard that gluten can cause leaky gut. There’s also this new thing that we’re hearing about called leaky brain. Have you heard of this?


[00:13:37] Dr. Steven Gundry: Have I heard? What do you mean? I’ve been studying and writing about it.


[00:13:40] Ashley James: Tell us more about leaky brain.


[00:13:43] Dr. Steven Gundry: It turns out, there is an incredible gut-brain connection that is being elucidated, actually, with every passing day. I wrote quite a bit about it in The Longevity Paradox but my next book, which is entitled The Energy Paradox, gets even more into that. What we found, we now have some pretty nice sophisticated tests that look at the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is basically a barrier that keeps everything out of the brain. For instance, if you had a malignant brain tumor, we can’t give you chemotherapy by swallowing it or through your veins because the chemotherapy won’t get past the blood-brain barrier. We actually have to inject chemotherapy into your spinal fluid. That’s how impenetrable the blood-brain barrier is.

In people with leaky gut, a great number of people actually have a breakdown of that blood-brain barrier. There is more and more and more evidence that conditions like Parkinson’s, like Alzheimer’s, and like plain old everyday dementia is in large part coming from leaky gut and causing leaky brain. You don’t have to look very far to realize we have an epidemic of dementia, and we have an epidemic of leaky gut. In fact, this certainly was known for a very long time. Hippocrates 2,500 years ago, the father of medicine, said all disease begins in the gut. He didn’t have a human microbiome project, but he knew this. The fascinating thing he was absolutely right. All disease does begin in the gut, and the good news is, all disease can be reversed by reversing leaky gut.


[00:16:03] Ashley James: How do we heal the barrier for our brain? How do we heal leaky brain? By focusing on the gut?


[00:16:11] Dr. Steven Gundry: Correct. Leaky brain comes from leaky gut, not the other way around.


[00:16:15] Ashley James: Got it. How do we heal the gut? Is it as simple as removing lectins from our diet?


[00:16:20] Dr. Steven Gundry: It’s not as simple as that. For instance, I just gave a paper at the American Heart Association Lifestyle and Epidemiology meeting in March where we looked at people who were gluten intolerant, who did react to gluten. These people were gluten-free and yet they still had leaky gut. We found that 70% of people who are gluten-sensitive also react to corn vigorously. Sadly, most gluten-free products have corn in them. We also found that in this report, taking away other major lectin-containing foods like brown rice, like peas for instance, like legumes, like the nightshade family—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes—then and only then did these people stop their leaky gut.

It was not only just being gluten-free, but it was also actually being lectin-free. In fact, as I wrote about The Plant Paradox, you can take people with celiac disease, which is the extreme form of gluten intolerance, and you can put them on a gluten-free diet for a year and a half and 70% of those people on a gluten-free diet will still have celiac disease by biopsy, which is the gold standard, even though they’re on a gluten-free diet. My premise is it’s because most of the gluten-free foods that they’re eating have lectins other than gluten. This is what I just showed in that paper I gave in March.


[00:18:11] Ashley James: So many people who are gluten-free don’t avoid oats and oats getting gliadin, which is such a similar protein. I always tell people to try to avoid oats and then try to avoid them for a month. Avoid them for a month and then add them back and see what happens. Very quickly people notice a difference once they’ve been abstinent from it.


[00:18:31] Dr. Steven Gundry: Yeah, there’s no such thing as gluten-free oats because you’re right, they could cause reactivity of those proteins. As my daughter who’s a horsewoman always reminds me, the only purpose of oats is to fatten a horse for winter.


[00:18:50] Ashley James: Wow. That’s interesting. It reminds me of looking into the idea of eating chicken. People who want to bulk up at the gym are told to eat chicken. People who want to lose weight are told to eat chicken. That’s paradoxical in and of itself. It’s like wait a second, one person wants to bulk up and they’re told eat a bunch of chicken like the bodybuilders, and then people who are on Weight Watchers and stuff are told to just eat chicken, it’ll help you lose weight. But it doesn’t. That’s a paradox. There are foods that people think are really healthy, but they have to look deeper like you do.

What about resistant starch? So many of these foods you’ve mentioned, which contain lectins, are also full of resistant starch, which helps to feed the good gut bacteria. This is the paradox. It’s something that could help us but also is harming us at the same time?


[00:19:45] Dr. Steven Gundry: The good news with most of these resistant starches is that you can destroy lectins with the pressure cooker. The only lectin that has not been capable of being destroyed is gluten. You can pressure cook gluten for an hour, two hours and it will not break. All the other lectins, in general, will break. Oats is also a problem. We’ve had a number of people try it and it won’t work, but there are two grains that don’t have lectins because they don’t have hulls and that’s sorghum and millet. I have a lot of sorghum of millet recipes. The other great news is that the best resistant starches are tubers like sweet potatoes, taro root, yucca, or green bananas. They’re fantastic sources of resistant starches, and they don’t have any lectins in them.


[00:20:47] Ashley James: I noticed that you didn’t mention any nightshades. What are nightshades, and why are they so bad for us?


[00:20:55] Dr. Steven Gundry: Two reasons, the nightshade family that we think of have pretty impressive lectins in their peel and their seeds, the flesh doesn’t. Traditional cultures have always peeled and deseeded tomatoes or peppers before they eat them. The nightshade family came from America and, believe it or not, even goji berries are nightshades. They actually came from America and were taken to China and trade. They were called wolfberries in America. Even goji berries are pretty nasty little lectin sources.

If you go over to Italy and talk to chefs, which I do all the time, they will tell you that you cannot make tomato sauce without peeling and deseeding your tomatoes. If you go talk to the Southwest American Indians, you know that you have to peel and deseed peppers before you eat them or grind them in chili powder. In fact, what’s really hilarious, is those chili pepper flakes and seeds that we put on our pizzas we’re actually the byproduct of making peppers safe to eat.


[00:22:14] Ashley James: Oh my gosh.


[00:22:15] Dr. Steven Gundry: Oh, yeah. That’s why they exist because they were thrown away.


[00:22:19] Ashley James: That’s so funny. What about peeling a potato, just a regular Yukon potato, would that make it safe?


[00:22:27] Dr. Steven Gundry: Yeah but there has recently been discovered a new class of lectins, which are called aquaporins. There is an aquaporin in potatoes, there is an aquaporin in green bell peppers, there’s an aquaporin believe it or not in spinach. I have, sad to say, a number of, particularly, women who have autoimmune diseases and leaky gut who we’ve been befuddled as to why they get better but not all the way. These women, for the most part, react to the aquaporin lectin in spinach. When we take their spinach way, and they’re usually big spinach eaters, they finally get better. Why haven’t I had a podcast on that? Because I don’t want to have mass panic. Most people don’t react to the aquaporin in spinach, but those that do it’s pretty impressive.


[00:23:34] Ashley James: It’s like if you’ve tried everything and it’s not working, try this one thing, but not everyone. Does aquaporin become destroyed by pressure cooking it?


[00:23:47] Dr. Steven Gundry: Probably, nobody has actually done the experiment but I do have people that eat potatoes and I do ask them to pressure-cook it. So far so good.


[00:24:00] Ashley James: Because they’re discovering new lectins, what can we do to stay on top of this information? Is your book updated? Does your book have the aquaporin information in it, or should they follow your podcast? What’s the best way to make sure we stay on top of this information?


[00:24:21] Dr. Steven Gundry: My podcast covers these subjects. For instance, between my Plant Paradox book and The Plant Paradox Cookbook, it was discovered that pecans have a lectin that in some people it actually causes an autoimmune attack on the pancreas. We put that into The Plant Paradox Cookbook that probably pecans are not your best not to eat, particularly if you have an autoimmune disease or if there’s any question of diabetes.


[00:25:03] Ashley James: Are there any nuts or seeds that are safe?


[00:25:07] Dr. Steven Gundry: Oh, yeah. For instance, walnuts are quite safe, pistachios are safe, macadamia nuts are safe, for the most part, hazelnuts are safe, and Brazil nuts are safe. You notice I’m not mentioning almonds. There is a lectin in the peel of almonds that a number of my patients with rheumatoid arthritis react to. That’s why we recommend either blanched almond flour and/or Marcona almonds—the peeled almonds. Again, it’s very interesting that there are a number of cultures, particularly Spain and Portugal, where the mothers teach the daughters how to soak and peel almonds before they’re eaten. Again, you start looking at cultures and say why do they do this? Because it’s kind of a lot of work. Why not just eat the skin?


[00:26:13] Ashley James: When I was six years old my mom took me to a Naturopath. He put us on a specific diet, and it turned out that Naturopath was Dr. D’Adamo. I grew up on the O blood type diet. It changed my life. I was very sick. I was just sick all the time, and my mom was sick too. He had a practice in Toronto. Overnight, my life changed. It was phenomenal. One day I was sick, the next day I was healthy. That’s how quick it was shifting my diet to the O blood type diet. Then, of course, when I was 13 I got incredibly rebellious and started eating everything my mom didn’t want me to eat. I got to develop sickness again. Then through my 20s, I was very sick, and in my late 20s and through my 30s I spent trying to get my health back and reversing all the diseases I gave myself by eating the wrong foods.

I’ve lived this several times. Eat the wrong foods, get sick. Eat the right foods, get healthy. The waters can be muddy for many of us especially those with autoimmune because, like you said, some people react to this but not to this, some people react to this, not to this. Where do we start? Should one do an elimination diet? What’s a good place to start? Because not everyone reacts to all the lectins like you mentioned.


[00:27:41] Dr. Steven Gundry: I’ve published a paper of 102 people with biomarker-proven autoimmune diseases whether they’re lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, or MS who were put on my program for six months. At the end of six months, 95 out of 102 or 94% were biomarker negative and off of all immunosuppressive drugs. That’s not a bad result. My first principle, The Plant Paradox, is it’s not what I tell you to eat that matters, it’s what I tell you not to eat. It really is. That’s an elimination diet. Interestingly enough, the carnivore folks, have taken my recommendations to the extreme. Since all plants are out to get us one way or another, that total elimination of plants is a rather impressive elimination diet.

I happen to think that they’re going to be sadly mistaken because there are some really great things, particularly the soluble fibers in plants that our gut microbiome is dependent on. As people found in The Longevity Paradox, and they’re going to learn more in The Energy Paradox, we are absolutely positively dependent on messages and transmitters that our gut microbiome makes that keeps our mitochondria working properly, that keeps our brain working properly.

Taking away the known causes of leaky gut, and that includes more than just changing the type of plants you eat. It’s primarily trying to eliminate, for the most part, antibiotic overuse, which is rampant, not only in us but in the animals that we eat. Eliminating the non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen for instance like Naprosyn. One ibuprofen is literally like swallowing a hand grenade. Eliminating the antacid drugs like the proton pump inhibitors like we mentioned earlier. They totally changed the bacterial flora.

Eliminating artificial sweeteners like Splenda, just as an example, completely changes your gut bacteria. Something that many of us are passionate about trying to get glyphosate roundup out of our lives. It’s probably not doable, but glyphosate is a major disruptor by itself of our gut ball—really good at causing leaky gut.


[00:30:59] Ashley James: You said that ibuprofen is like swallowing a grenade. Can you elaborate on that?


[00:31:06] Dr. Steven Gundry: I could give you an hour lecture. Long ago, the original nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory was aspirin. Aspirin was used extensively in our arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Of course, people know that it cause stomach bleeding. A class of drugs in the same family were developed that wouldn’t cause stomach bleeding, but the drug companies knew that the bleeding wouldn’t actually be caused in the small intestine. You couldn’t see down into the small intestine with gastroscope so you would never know it was there. Believe it or not, when these drugs came out, they were prescription only. Things like Motrin was a prescription, things like Naprosyn was a prescription. There was an FDA black box warning that you could only use these for two weeks at a time because they were so dangerous.

Now, of course, they are the largest over-the-counter drug there is. There is children’s Advil for instance. What these do, and this is documented and google it sometimes, great fun. These are drug company research that shows that these destroy the lining of the small intestine causing leaky gut. I can’t tell you the number of people that I see, young women and men who were athletes, who suffered an injury and were put on high-dose non-steroidal anti-inflammatories by very well-meaning orthopedic surgeons, and they, in turn, developed autoimmune diseases. I write about some of them in my books. When we stopped these medications and sealed their gut, lo and behold, their autoimmune disease went away.


[00:33:07] Ashley James: How quickly can one recover their gut? How quickly does it take to seal the gut once they have eliminated the foods that have been causing holes in it?


[00:33:22] Dr. Steven Gundry: Great question. We’ve seen it turn around as early as three months. One of my more troublesome patients with multiple autoimmune diseases all her life took about nine months, but there are other things that are part and partial with healing the gut. The vast majority of people have very low vitamin D levels. As I write about in The Longevity Paradox, vitamin D is essential to tell stem cells that help repopulate the gut to grow and divide. Without vitamin D, they just kind of sit there and twiddle their thumbs. The vast majority of people I see with autoimmune disease and/or leaky gut, they have very low vitamin Ds when I see them.

I’ll give you an example of a woman I just saw today from Southern California. She’s in her 40s. She developed ulcerative colitis five years ago, out of the blue. We think we know why but she was put on an immunosuppressant and then came to see us a year ago. She was positive for antinuclear antibody, which is an autoimmune disease marker that most people associate with lupus—very positive form. She had a very low vitamin D. We’ve now been seeing her for a year. She stopped her immunosuppressant a year ago. She’s had no episodes of ulcerative colitis since. She is negative for antinuclear antibody and has been actually since we started the program. She’s a pretty happy camper.


[00:35:28] Ashley James: I love it. The idea, for those suffering from autoimmune, that they can completely go into remission—I mean, that’s a dream come true. There are so many people suffering. They’re told by the average doctor that they’re going to be on medication for the rest of their life and this is their new norm. It’s so frustrating that so many doctors are still in this old way of thinking that once you’re in a diseased state you’re going to always be in the diseased state. They don’t look to nurturing the body through food and shifting diet and lifestyle to heal the body. You must be really waking a lot of doctors up showing them that there’s a way to heal. You’ve obviously published so many articles on helping people to reverse autoimmune. Are you starting to see that doctors are listening and prescribing your diet?


[00:36:29] Dr. Steven Gundry: Particularly in functional medicine, I don’t do functional medicine, I do what I call a restorative medicine. I’m not quite sure what functional medicine means. I have good friends like Mark Hyman and Jeffrey Bland in functional medicine, and that’s fine. But I think there are more and more people interested in the fact that Hippocrates was right. That all disease comes from the gut, and that we really ought to be looking at the gut as to where we need to do our work. Somebody tell Kelly Clarkson that you can’t reverse Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Kelly found my book. She had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, she was on thyroid medication, now she doesn’t have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and she’s off of medication. Her doctors told her hey, you’re going to be on thyroid for the rest of your life.


[00:37:35] Ashley James: I love it. I love hearing stories of success of people being able to reverse diseases and get off of medications.


[00:37:44] Dr. Steven Gundry: I’ll tell you another funny Hashimoto’s story. Usually, we’re so busy that the first visit in our office they see my PA and then the next visit they see me. That’s usually three months or six months after the first visit, depending on the severity. I’m seeing a woman in her late 50s for the first time after she had seen my PA. I say, “Why’d you come here? She said, “Well, I have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.” I said, “Oh is that a fact?” She said, “Yes, I’ve had it all my life.” I had seen her new results and when we first saw her she in fact did have both markers for anti-thyroid antibodies and Hashimoto’s. This time they were negative and I said, “Well, that’s interesting you should say that because you don’t have Hashimoto’s.” She said, “What kind of quack are you? Of course, I have Hashimoto’s that’s why I’m here.” I said, “Well, yeah. You used to Hashimoto’s but you don’t now.” I flipped her lab results open and she said, “Oh my God. It is true. You can get rid of this.” I said, “Yeah, look at that.”


[00:38:59] Ashley James: I love it. Once her antibodies go down do the hormones restore themselves? I know of some people who have completely eliminated—the antibodies are virtually non-existent in their labs but their thyroid is still not functioning optimally. Are the lectins causing harm still to their thyroid levels?


[00:39:24] Dr. Steven Gundry: A lot of times, people who have had it for a long time, they’re immune system has destroyed—their thyroid gland. For instance, type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys the beta cells in the pancreas. But having said that, we always, once we get these antibodies turned off, start weaning off thyroid medication. We actually just started this weekend with a woman from San Francisco, a fairly young woman, who we now have negative for anti-thyroid antibodies and we’re starting to wean her thyroid know, and we’ll see. The good news about thyroid medication is that you can take both T4 and T3 and do a good job of replacing what the thyroid does, but that doesn’t mean we should actively allow Hashimoto’s thyroiditis to continue. Because one of the things that got me interested in this in the first place is this autoimmune attack takes many forms, and you could have multiple autoimmune diseases at the same time.

Recently, there’s increasing evidence that Parkinson’s disease is actually an autoimmune disease, which to me makes a great deal of sense since I and others are convinced that Parkinson’s disease comes from the gut, not from the brain.


[00:41:05] Ashley James: Fascinating. I have heard there’s a relationship between MS and Parkinson’s and MS is autoimmune, so that doesn’t surprise me. Have you seen someone reverse Parkinson’s through healing their gut?


[00:41:19] Dr. Steven Gundry: We’ve seen it stop. My father had Parkinson’s for 20 years without changing his medication at all. If you know anything about Parkinson’s that’s impossible, but we got to him early. My mother was a very good person about denying him the foods that he loved. He made it to 91 and then actually died suddenly of a bladder infection. Getting to 91, 20 years with Parkinson’s pretty doggone good run.


[00:42:01] Ashley James: Very cool. We’ve talked about gluten and lectins, are phytates or phytic acid, I know they’re anti-nutrients, are they also lectins?


[00:42:11] Dr. Steven Gundry: No. Again, the plant has lots of tools to prevent itself from being eaten, or to warn the predator that you really don’t want to eat me, or try to make the predator not thrive. Phytates are one of these methods. I actually think and agree with some of my vegan colleagues that there’s a lot to like about phytates, but this is all part of the anti-nutrient system. One of the things that we have to realize, for instance, since lectins are proteins, rats and rodents are primarily grain predators. Rats and rodents have 10 times the amount of proteases that are enzymes that break down proteins than we have. They’re very well equipped to go after these lectin proteins in the food that they eat. 

When people point out we look at these great rat and mice experiments where whole grains are really good for them. That’s great. They have a great protease system that breaks down these proteins, we don’t.


[00:43:50] Ashley James: Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t get our protein primarily from plants?


[00:43:58] Dr. Steven Gundry: Oh, no. Are you kidding? I am a plant predator. I tell my patients that we should actually be gorillas who live in Italy. By that I mean we should be eating huge amounts of leaves and pouring olive oil on them.


[00:44:21] Ashley James: Very interesting. Why consume olive oil?


[00:44:26] Dr. Steven Gundry: Great question. As I wrote in The Longevity Paradox, there are three groups of people who live in blue zones, and blue zones are those areas of the world that Dan Buettner, the journalist, described as having incredible longevity. I’m actually the only nutritionist who has ever spent most of his career living in a blue zone and that was Loma Linda, California where I was a professor. When people talk to me about blue zones and say I don’t know anything about blue zones, I said, “Well, I guess I didn’t live in one for most of my life.” Anyhow, three blue zones use a liter of olive oil per week. That’s about 10 to 12 tablespoons a day. 

There are some fascinating head-to-head studies done in Spain called the PREDIMED study making 65-year-old people use a liter of olive oil per week versus a low-fat Mediterranean diet. Lo and behold, at the end of five years, people who used the olive oil had actually gained memory compared to when they aged 65, while the low-fat group lost memory, the people in the olive oil group had a reversal of our disease, whereas the low-fat diet group increased their heart disease, and we could go on and on.


[00:46:02] Ashley James: Could we gain the same benefit from eating olives instead of drinking or consuming olive oil?


[00:46:10] Dr. Steven Gundry: Yeah, and I actually ask people to do both. I actually have a product that I sell that is the combination of incredibly high polyphenol-rich olive oil, olive leaves, and olives that are pressed into little pearls that look like caviar. They’re called polyphenol olive oil pearls. It turns out, interesting fun fact, there are far more polyphenols in the leaves of fruiting plants than there are in the fruit. For instance, there are far more apple polyphenols in apple leaves than in apples, there are far more polyphenols in black raspberry leaves than there are in black raspberries, and so on.


[00:47:03] Ashley James: It’s nettle season right now so we can go out in nature and harvest nettles, which the leaves are rich in polyphenols. I learned recently that if you grow sweet potatoes or yams, you can harvest some of the leaves and eat them much like spinach. That is such a delicious thing to grow in your own backyard. I know a lot of people are looking into growing their own food given that they’re all at home and want a new hobby and that they’d like to have some sustainability and have some healthy food. I know you tell us what not to eat, what are some of your go-to foods to eat that are very supportive of our gut and just are very healthy overall?


[00:47:51] Dr. Steven Gundry: Great question. Avocados are a great choice to start with. The family of chicories: radicchio, chicory, Belgian endive, and curly endive are some of the best foods you can possibly eat to help your gut buds. Jerusalem artichokes and artichoke hearts are just loaded with a type of sugar molecule that we can’t digest called inulin but our gut buddies think it’s the best food that they could possibly eat. That along with the cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, bok choy, and Swiss chard. All of these actually have some pretty fascinating compounds that actually tell the immune system in your gut to calm down and relax a little bit. They’re called the AHR receptors if anybody wants to look them up, but pour olive oil on them, please.


[00:49:10] Ashley James: Interesting. I think the olive oil thing—it’s so controversial depending on who you talk to. There’s a handful of doctors that say that we shouldn’t consume any oil. That any oil, no matter what kind of oil, even if it’s cold-pressed virgin olive oil, raw cold-pressed coconut oil or all the kind you could buy in the supermarket, that they’re all bad for you and that they cause damage to the endothelial lining of the cardiovascular system. Once the oil is exposed to oxygen, it creates free radicals, so you’re actually absorbing free radicals into the body. What do you say to that? Are the benefits of olive oil outweigh those negatives?


[00:50:01] Dr. Steven Gundry: All I say is why don’t you look at the actual human controlled trials where that has been tested, and the results are exactly the opposite. One of the most famous trials was the Lyon Heart trial where they looked at a diet that was supplemented with alpha-linolenic acid oil from purslane and compared that to the low-fat American Heart diet. It was a 5-year study, it was randomized. They stopped the study at three years because the group given the Mediterranean diet with the alpha-linolenic acid oil, and large amounts of it, did so much better in new episodes of MIs and unstable angina that it was not fit to continue the trial. 

Anybody can look it up—the lean Lyon Heart diet—and anybody can look up the PREDIMED trial and see a head-to-head of high-oil versus no-oil or low-oil and the results always come out that it wins. The olive oil wins, the alpha-linolenic acid wins. People say this becomes rancid. Yeah, olive oil could become rancid. That’s why you want to buy it from a high-volume source, and you want to use it quickly.

Interestingly, olive oil is the least capable of oxidizing of any oil. It even beats coconut oil as not being oxidized with cooking. We’ve had two of the world’s oil experts on my podcast and they both confirm that olive oil is the safest cooking oil. People say no, no. It smokes and that means it’s oxidizing. That’s not true at all. It has a low smoke point but smoke has nothing to do with oxidation. People have been cooking with olive oil for over 5,000 years and the results speak for themselves.


[00:52:16] Ashley James: I don’t think when you burn olive oil it tastes that good anyway. If I were to eat olive oil, I’d eat it raw anyway. The idea of cooking with oil just concerns me, especially it doesn’t particularly taste good when you burn it. Very, very interesting. Where would one buy oil that is very high quality? Where’s the place to buy oil in the highest quality form?


[00:52:45] Dr. Steven Gundry: They can come to my website Gundry MD. We have an olive oil list that has 30 times more polyphenols than any oil that’s ever been tested. Having said that, you’re not all going to come to gundrymd.com. Believe it or not, Costco has an excellent olive oil. It comes in at a tall square bottle. It says Toscana on the label, and I use it as my everyday oil. That’s a good source. There’s another very good company out of California called Bariani. Again, I have no relationship with these companies. They just have a very high-quality oil. There’s a company out of Napa and Sonoma Valley called O, just a big O olive oil company. All small producers, all organic. Those are good choices.


[00:53:38] Ashley James: Very cool. You had touched on mitochondria. Obviously, you’re coming out with your book The Energy Paradox. Can you give us a little bit of preview into this book? How does your method help our mitochondrial health?


[00:53:55] Dr. Steven Gundry: Well, it turns out, we’ve done just the best job of destroying our mitochondrial function. You couldn’t design a better lifestyle, a better diet than the standard American diet for destroying mitochondria. In the book, I talk about how—and I talked about this actually in The Plant Paradox as well. Mitochondria are the energy-producing organelles in our cells. They’re actually ancient engulfed bacteria. They carry their own DNA, but they are bacteria that live inside our cells. 

If you think of them as workers on an assembly line, they have periods of time where they’re going to do one shift, but currently, in the United States, we’re asking them to do three shifts with no time off. They actually produce a labor slowdown because they don’t want to work that hard. That labor slowdown is the cause of pre-diabetes, insulin resistance, and cancer. We got to have them have some time off. That’s why fasting, intermittent fasting time, restricted feeding actually gives our workers some much-needed rest and recreation. The more we do that the more work they’re able to do for us and do it better. That’s a little teaser.


[00:55:52] Ashley James: I am such a big fan of fasting, and I love that you brought that up. Since mitochondria are bacteria, when we take antibiotics, do antibiotics harm our mitochondria?


[00:56:11] Dr. Steven Gundry: Indirectly because it turns out, as I write about in The Longevity Paradox, that the bacteria in our gut actually talk to their sisters in the cells. They actually tell the mitochondria how things are going in the outside world. The more diverse those bacteria are and the happier those bacteria are, then the better the mitochondria function. We used to conjecture that there were text messages that we hadn’t been able to measure, but they had to be there. It turns out, we’ve discovered a large number of those text messages—they are real things that we can measure. The book is about we ought to have a diverse group of bacteria in our gut, we ought to give them what they want to eat, and they need to tell their mind everything’s great.


[00:57:21] Ashley James: Since researching and writing The Energy Paradox, what changes have you made to your lifestyle or diet?


[00:57:31] Dr. Steven Gundry: Actually not a whole lot because The Energy Paradox is where The Longevity Paradox would naturally take me. If you actually look at the people who enter my office, fascinatingly, fatigue is one of the biggest complaints. At least 50% of the people I see are fatigued for apparent no reason. The Energy Paradox grew out of that. Believe it or not, there are really good reasons why most normal people are fatigued.


[00:58:25] Ashley James: Since the last few months have been really crazy with the COVID-19, have you done anything to change your lifestyle or diet to give extra support to your immune function?


[00:58:41] Dr. Steven Gundry: As most people know, I’m a huge fan of vitamin D. I’ve never seen vitamin D toxicity, neither is my friend Dr. Mark Hyman. There are now four human papers showing that people with low vitamin D are much more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus and are likely to do poorly with it—that is die. Whereas if you have an adequate or high vitamin D level, you’re much likely not to contract it and/or much likely not to die. That’s number one. Number two, sugar dramatically suppresses our white cells’ ability to engulf bacteria and viruses. I’m releasing a podcast about that. The less sugar or things that we turn into sugar the better. What’s really fascinating is a paper from 1973 showed that white blood cell function dramatically increased daily during five-day water fast and that the longer you fast the better your white blood cells work and aggressively ate bacteria and viruses.

Additionally, that same study showed that even orange juice, even fructose would dramatically suppress your white cells ability to engulf bacteria for up to six hours after you had that beverage—even orange juice. The idea that drinking orange juice right now is going to help you fight these viruses is actually exactly wrong.


[01:00:35] Ashley James: You said that foods that convert to sugar, which would be plants, would be carbohydrates. Are you saying that we should look at more of a low glycemic diet right now?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash


[01:00:48] Dr. Steven Gundry: Right. Here’s the problem with a lot of my well-meaning patients. You can take a resistant starch in its natural forms like say yucca, taro root, turnip, or even almonds for instance. You can grind it up into a fine powder and make a flour out of it. Unfortunately, and I’ve seen this much too much, those will rapidly turn into sugar even though what you originally started with isn’t sugar. For instance, I had Dr. David Kessler who was the head of the FDA when the food labeling law came into effect back in the Reagan era. The food labeling law was incorrectly made because of food lobbyists and not tell the truth about how much sugar. 

One of the things I have people do is on the back of the label read total carbohydrates, subtract the fiber, and that will give you the amount of grams of sugar per serving in that product and it will shock you. It will have nothing to do with what they put has the sugar content on the label. For fun, since there are four grams of sugar per teaspoon of sugar, divide the number by four and you will see the teaspoons of sugar per serving. You will shudder when you see it.


[01:02:36] Ashley James: Right. You can take a healthy food, if you dehydrate it and turn it into flour, it reacts totally different with the body. You could eat chickpeas—pressure-cooked chickpeas—or you could eat something like a chickpea pasta. Chickpea pasta is going to convert much quicker to sugar, give you a larger sugar spike in the blood. Even for those who are not diabetic, they still will have that. Whereas if you ate pressure-cooked chickpeas, it’s a slow steady release of sugar.


[01:03:08] Dr. Steven Gundry: Covered in olive oil.


[01:03:10] Ashley James: Covered in olive oil.


[01:03:13] Dr. Steven Gundry: And throw some mushrooms in.


[01:03:15] Ashley James: Oh, man. Mushrooms are so great for the immune system. Get your vitamin D. Let’s just clarify that. What form of vitamin D is best, and how many international units should someone be taking a day?


[01:03:30] Dr. Steven Gundry: Vitamin D3. The bare minimum should be 5,000 IUs a day. For me, my 5.000 gets me vitamin D level above 120 nanograms per ml, but during this season, I’ve doubled my vitamin D to 10,000. If I think I’m coming down with something, and I’ve said this before, I actually take 150,000 international units of vitamin D3 three days in a row. Now I’m not telling people to do that. I’m telling people that’s what I do. For instance, when this all started and I decided to keep seeing patients, even though I wasn’t feeling anything, I took on a Sunday, 100,000 international units, on a Monday 5,000, on a Tuesday 25,000, and then I continued on 10,000. I just load up with it. 

I just saw one of my patients in Santa Barbara last weekend. Her vitamin D level is 244. I assure you, she’s not vitamin D toxic, and she doesn’t have an elevated calcium level. I think we’ve underestimated what a normal vitamin D level is. The Cleveland Clinic Lab now says that a normal vitamin D level can be up to 150.


[01:05:08] Ashley James: Amazing, amazing. I know people whose vitamin D level is 10.


[01:05:15] Dr. Steven Gundry: I know, it’s really scary.


[01:05:17] Ashley James: I have known MDs to say they don’t want to see it above 30. They’re scared if you’re above 30. They want you to stop taking your supplements. Whereas NDs want you at least to be 60, but many NDs I’ve met don’t want you above 90. They’re afraid that if you get above 90 that that could cause toxicity. You’re saying that you’ve never seen toxic levels. Because of course, the worst-case scenario is vitamin D toxicity could cause kidney failure. At that point, it’s almost too late. We definitely don’t want to harm ourselves with supplements, but you’ve never seen that happen in prescribing large amounts of vitamin D.


[01:06:01] Dr. Steven Gundry: I measure vitamin Ds on people every three months. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. I’ve never seen vitamin D toxicity. I have some patients who taught me in their late 70s they run their vitamin Ds in the high 200s and have all of their lives. When I first met these people I couldn’t believe they weren’t dead, they didn’t have kidney failure, or they didn’t have calcifications and kidney stones. They didn’t. When I was researching The Longevity Paradox, it turns out that people with the highest vitamin D levels have the longest telomeres. If you like the telomere theory of aging, and it’s a good one, why wouldn’t you want long telomeres?


[01:06:54] Ashley James: That’s exciting. What form of vitamin D is best? Obviously, you said D3, but I’ve seen supplements where it’s like a dry capsule, and then I’ve seen the liquid form as drops.


[01:07:06] Dr. Steven Gundry: Great question. Turns out that Dr. Michael Holick from Boston University, probably the most famous researcher in vitamin D, showed that vitamin D is absorbed whether or not there is any fat around. So a dry vitamin D is perfectly fine. Most vitamin Ds in capsules or gel caps. Interestingly, I see a number of people who use vitamin D drops. As a general rule, those people have much lower vitamin Ds than people who swallow the little gel caps. Most of my liquid folks I change over and I’m delighted to see that their vitamin D goes up.


[01:07:53] Ashley James: I was using a liquid and my vitamin D went down and down and down and I kept using more and more and more. I got so frustrated I switched to a capsule even though I heard from a Naturopath how could that work? There’s no fat in it. I was like well I’m going to try this now. My vitamin D went up. I was told it’s not going to work but my labs say it worked.


[01:08:18] Dr. Steven Gundry: Dr. Holick showed that it has nothing to do with fat even though it’s a fat-soluble vitamin.


[01:08:25] Ashley James: Should we take it on an empty stomach, with food, or does it not matter?


[01:08:28] Dr. Steven Gundry: It doesn’t matter.


[01:08:30] Ashley James: Love it. What did you eat in the last 24 hours?


[01:08:35] Dr. Steven Gundry: Let’s see. When did I eat? Last 24 hours I had nothing for breakfast, I had nothing for lunch, and I had some sautéed calamari and a Chinese cabbage salad with olive oil and rice vinegar on it. That’s what we had.


[01:09:08] Ashley James: Very interesting. Now your diet has helped people to reverse autoimmune conditions. You’ve also helped people to reverse cardiovascular issues and weight loss. Weight loss is the biggest industry out there. You look at all the diets and people are just yo-yoing. Every diet seems to work for a short amount of time. They blame themselves. The diet stops working, they blame themselves, they fall off the bandwagon, and they go back to eating the state American diet, but people are left feeling broken, right? They failed. What we’re looking at is it’s not their fault, it’s the diets fault because there are so many wrong diets out there. You’ve had great success in helping people with weight loss. Why does removing lectins help with weight loss?


[01:10:09] Dr. Steven Gundry: As I write about in The Plant Paradox, there are actually some very interesting data looking at one of the lectins called wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), which is present in whole grains, whole wheat. It binds to the insulin receptor on muscle cells and also on fat cells. In muscle cells, it actually blocks insulin from letting sugars and protein into the muscle cell, but in fat cells, it actually continues to pump sugar into fat cells. I go into more of this in The Energy Paradox. We’re set up with our diet to literally starve our muscle cells and feed our fat cells with lectins are a big chunk of that. Also, it turns out, that it starves the brain and so your brain is constantly hungry despite how much you eat or not eat.


[01:11:19] Ashley James: Wow. So when someone removes that, they’re all of a sudden not feeling so starved? They’re not feeling hungry all the time?


[01:11:28] Dr. Steven Gundry: Yeah.


[01:11:29] Ashley James: Very cool.


[01:11:31] Dr. Steven Gundry: The other thing that we have to make sure we understand is that we took over the world because of our ability to go prolonged periods of time without eating. Where the fat ate for a good reason. It is absolutely normal to go periods of time without eating. In fact, do you really think our ancestors crawled out of their cave and said what’s for breakfast? There wasn’t any. There was no storage system. We had to go find breakfast. If breakfast occurred at lunch, or breakfast occurred at dinner that’s when we found food. I actually tell my patients, when we get into this, to embrace the hunger. There is nothing horribly wrong with going a period of time without eating. In fact, just the opposite. It’s really one of the smartest things that we can do for long-term health.



[01:12:32] Ashley James: Actually, I haven’t eaten today, and I’m not going to eat today. I love fasting. Hunger is probably the hardest part about fasting, but hunger goes away.


[01:12:44] Dr. Steven Gundry: It goes away quickly, very quickly.


[01:12:45] Ashley James: It’s kind of like going to the gym. Just get your shoes on and go to the gym. The hardest part is actually getting your shoes on. Once you’re there, it’s easy. Starting a fast is the hardest part, and then following through is the easiest part. I love all the science that’s coming out about fasting. What resources could you point us to for those who haven’t really dived into fasting yet?


[01:13:14] Dr. Steven Gundry: There’s a lot of good ways to learn about it. I certainly spend a lot of time talking about it in The Longevity Paradox, one of my New York Times best-selling books. My friend Jason Fung has some good books about it. I think Dr. McCullough and I would agree that for most people who have been following the standard American diet that a prolonged water fast of 3 to 5 days is probably the dumbest thing to do because heavy metals and organic pesticides are stored in fat. They’re released into our circulation and we do not have a good detoxification system. I’ve got a lot of podcasts out on that, so please be cautious.


[01:14:05] Ashley James: Right. Always proceed with caution when fasting, especially if someone’s on medication. I agree. I like some of Jason Fung’s work—easy to digest. I particularly like—he has a video on YouTube called the 2 compartment syndrome. I think that’s a great place to start. Intermittent fasting is something where it’s gentle enough that people can ease into it. I actually did a whole series with a man who has invested his own personal money into labs doing fasting to show the heavy metals and pesticides being released in the body and how to best remove them while fasting. He found that, dramatically, if you were to use a sauna while fasting and also consume activated charcoal while fasting throughout the day, they saw a dramatic decrease in heavy metals and pesticides being released from the fatty tissue into the bloodstream.

There are ways to combat it but we have to be aware of it. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been such a pleasure having you on. I definitely would love to have you back to talk more about your next book when it comes out. It’s been such a pleasure having you on the show today.


[01:15:28] Dr. Steven Gundry: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.


[01:15:31] Ashley James: Awesome. Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure, and I can’t wait to read your new book when it comes out.


[01:15:37] Dr. Steven Gundry: All right. It’ll be out right after the first of the year, 2021.


[01:15:43] Ashley James: All right. Sounds great. Terrific. Thank you so much. Have a great day. Take care. Bye


[01:15:46] Dr. Steven Gundry: Take care.


[01:15:48] Ashley James: I hope you enjoyed today’s interview with Dr. Steven Gundry. Did you know that the Learn True Health podcast has a Facebook group? Come join us. It’s a very supportive community. Just search Learn True Health in Facebook. Come join the Facebook group, or you can go to learntruehealth.com/group. That’ll redirect you straight to our group. It’s a free group, a very supportive community to support you in your holistic health success, support you in your true health journey. Come join the Facebook group, and please, go to the website learntruehealth.com. You can find all my episodes there—all 431 of them now and counting. You can find free wonderful resources. You can find my course.

I have a month-long program where I teach you all the techniques—the NLP techniques—for eliminating anxiety, decreasing stress, and increasing focus on productivity in your life. Go to learntruehealth.com, and on the menu, you’ll see where it says free your anxiety and click on that. There’s a great video there for you. Lots of resources to explore. I have a search function on my website. You can search for topics that you are interested in learning about. You can also go to the Facebook group and search for topics there. There’s a search function on Facebook as well. There are so many resources that I provide through my membership, the Learn True Health Home Kitchen membership, through my free your anxiety program, and free resources at learntruehealth.com.

If you have any questions for me, please feel free to reach out to me. Just ask questions in the Facebook group. I love helping, I love supporting you guys in achieving optimal health. If you’re interested in becoming a health coach just like me, check out IIN, the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. That’s the program I took. I absolutely love it. It’s 100% online. If you’re quarantined at home right now you could be becoming a health coach. Go to learntruehealth.com/coach. That’s learntruehealth.com/coach and there, it’ll give you access to a free module of IIN, the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s online programs so you could see if health coaching is right for you. It’s a free course so go ahead and take it and see what you think about it, experience it for yourself. Learntruehealth.com/coach.

Awesome. Thank you so much. You are so wonderful, and you so deserve true health. I’m really glad that you took the time today to honor your body and honor your mission for achieving optimal health through learning more about what you can do naturally to support your body’s ability to heal itself. Have yourself a wonderful rest of your day.


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Dr. Seth Gillihan and Ashley James


  • How CBT is different from other therapy
  • What the Think Act Be approach is
  • Mindfulness-centered CBT
  • How to get rid of worrying
  • Focus on what’s real
  • Service is a crucial part of self-care

During this time of uncertainty, many people are always worrying. Constant worrying leads to anxiety and stress and doesn’t help us and our situation. Ph.D. Seth Gillihan joins us in this episode to talk about what mindfulness-centered CBT is and how it is different from traditional CBT as well as other forms of therapy. He tells us that we need to worry less and instead focus on what we have. He also gives some tips on how we can reduce stress in our lives.


Hello, true health seeker, and welcome to another episode of the Learn True Health podcast. Today’s guest is Ph.D. Seth Gillihan. He specializes in mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy. He has some wonderful things to share today, and I’d love to make sure that you know the best link to go to to get access to all of his stuff including his online courses, which I just love, learntruehealth.com/calm. That’s learntruehealth.com/calm. If you find yourself in a bit of anxiety, panic, or worry these days, you’re going to love his training and his system because it’s going to bring you back to center, bring you back to a place of being grounded, peaceful, and focused, and give you a lot of clarity. Enjoy today’s episode, and please, share it with those you care about who also would love to master their brain, their heart, and their mind and increase their mindfulness. Have a wonderful rest of your day and enjoy today’s interview.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash


[00:01:06] Ashley James: Welcome to the Learn True Health podcast. I’m your host, Ashley James. This is episode 430. I am so excited for today’s guest. We have with us Ph.D. Seth Gillihan I. You are a licensed psychologist, and you’re the host of the weekly podcast Think Act Be. I’m really excited to have you here because you specialize in cognitive-behavioral therapy, and that’s something that is so cool. To me, it’s one of the coolest things in the world. I know we were talking about how it might be really dry and boring, I don’t think it’s working at all.

I think it’s so cool that you can help someone to shift their mind, their behavior, and their results in life. That we can reprogram ourselves and that cognitive-behavioral therapy is not painful. It’s not like Freudian where you sit and have to relive your childhood over and over again and cry. No, no. It’s actually just really quick. You get to the root of it and you shift your behavior, which shifts your results and you can shift your whole approach to life. 

It’s really exciting that people can break free from phobias, anxiety, and issues that have plagued them their whole life. I love that you’re an expert in it, you’ve written several books in it, you have a wonderful online class so people can, right now in the comfort of their own home, start to shift their life. This is the perfect time to do it. I’m just so excited, Seth, to have you here today. Welcome to the show.


[00:02:45] Seth Gillihan: Thanks a lot, Ashley. Thanks for that warm introduction. Yeah, I think that is right about CBT. It does tend to have that reputation of being somewhat dry and maybe a kind of formulaic approach, but hopefully, by the end of our talk today, we’ll show that that doesn’t have to be the case. There really is a lot more to it, and the techniques can be very quick and effective, but can also be quite deep.


[00:03:13] Ashley James: I love it. I love it. Before we dive into learning from you today and learning tools for shifting our life, I want to learn a bit more about you. What happened in your life that had led you to want to become a psychologist that led you to want to help people in this way?


[00:03:33] Seth Gillihan: It’s an interesting question because the answer really has changed over the past couple of years. I’ve been doing cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness related approaches for the past, gosh, I don’t know, 10, 15 years. Mindfulness really is in the past 10 years and CBT longer than that. I wasn’t prone to a lot of anxiety or depression growing up, so I wasn’t quite sure what drew me to it initially. In hindsight, some of it might have been seeing family members struggle with those things. Unconsciously, on my part, wanting to offer some kind of help and not really knowing what to do. 

I was inspired by my grandfather’s life of service. He was a physician for over 50 years in rural Eastern Kentucky. I knew I wanted to do something some way of being of direct service to people, and I wanted to do it as effectively as possible, which got me into CBT and later into mindfulness. But it was only really through my own prolonged sickness that I’m actually still recovering from that. I really found what to me feels like a really holistic integration of mindfulness and CBT that I’ve started calling mindfulness-centered cognitive-behavioral therapy because it’s not about tacking on this third technique. 

We can do cognitive stuff and behavioral stuff and here’s some mindfulness stuff if you need it, but viewing our spirits as central to who we are and to everything else that we experience. Putting mindfulness in that place really of priority within the approach and letting it lay the groundwork for everything else that we do. As we’ll talk more about it, it’s much more effective to address our thoughts and our actions when we’re coming from a place of really being centered within ourselves rather than being off-kilter and then that kind of frenzied chaos we often find ourselves from. It’s hard to make really positive changes from that place.


[00:06:14] Ashley James: What was the first aha moment that you had, your first experience with cognitive-behavioral therapy? What was the first oh my gosh, this is amazing—like body tingles amazing shift for you?


[00:06:30] Seth Gillihan: I still remember the first time reading about what cognitive therapy was. I was reading an interview with Dr. Aaron Beck, one of the founders of the CBT approach. This was probably around 1999 or so. I was in a master’s program at George Washington University. I was in the library late at night, I was reading this interview, and I thought wow, this just makes so much sense this idea that our thoughts—the things we tell ourselves—have so much to do with the way we experience the world, the emotions we experience, and how we interact with other people. I carried that with me and it was probably a few days later I was in the kitchen in our little apartment in Washington DC where my wife and I were living at the time. We hadn’t been married that long, and we’re probably arguing fairly often at that point. There was a good bit of tension in our relationship at times.

For some reason, it stands out in my memory. I was in the kitchen and I was getting ready to bake a frozen pizza. I don’t remember what the specific thought was but some thought about my wife went through my mind. It was some kind of interpretation of like she thinks such and such or she’s treating me in some way, and I caught it at that moment. I was like oh wow, that’s an interpretation. The way that I am seeing my wife at this moment where the story that my mind is crafting about who my wife is or what her actions mean has everything to do with the way that I’m seeing her and the way that I feel about her because I recognize such a close link between that story—the kind of negative view of my wife—and this kind of feeling I had toward her of probably just feeling she wasn’t being very nice or wasn’t very generous.

I realized, at that moment, wow, this really can revolutionize relationships, which obviously is such an important part of our experience and our well-being in life. From that moment, I think that’s when it really hooked me and I realized the power and the potential of it.


[00:08:59] Ashley James: How has this type of therapy helped you in your health?


[00:09:12] Seth Gillihan: I guess this goes back at least a couple of years now, maybe coming on three years when I realized. It turned out to be toxic mold poisoning my now former office, or my old office, or my mold office. I only got out of there a few months ago. So thankfully, since then, it’s been slow and uneven recovery, but the world’s better than it was two or three years ago. This has been going on probably at least for five years, really when the umbrella of this really began. Just the stress, the uncertainty, and all the unknowns and the questions about what is going on with my health? Why can no one figure out why I have no energy? I can’t sleep, my brain is fuzzy. All this wide range of nonspecific symptoms that wasn’t clear why they all should hang together.

I ended up getting quite depressed through that. Actually, I had a podcast guest on. We talked about treating depression and the power of shaping our behavior in a way that boosts our mood. I looked at my life and I realized wow, my activities really have shrunk down to almost nothing. I mean, I spend a ton of time in the kitchen preparing food for these specialized diets that I was on. I wasn’t seeing anyone because the illness had led to a lot of vocal problems including growth. My vocal cords, I had to have surgery for it to have removed. My world has gotten quite small as it often does when we’re going through a chronic illness, and that tends to lead to depression.

As I was reading this book in preparation for my interview with this guest who’s also a psychologist, I thought, you know what, I’m going to put this into action. I’m going to do CBT on myself. So that led me to really think about what are the life-giving activities that I can build back into my life that I’m actually able to do now even with the physical limitations that I have. That included building a pretty extensive garden in our backyard. In hindsight, I didn’t realize it at the time, Ashley, but it was kind of rebuilding me as much as I was building it. I felt just compelled almost not against my will, but more than I was willing myself to just throw myself into the work of building this garden. At a time when I had very little energy and I was in a building these eight raised garden beds and doing all this learning to figure out how and what to plant and figuring out the watering schedule and all that, that really was a big part I think of the process of beginning my healing. I still experience those benefits now as the crops are coming in again. It feels like there’s that resonance in the life in the garden and in the life within me.


[00:13:38] Ashley James: I love it. I love it. I love it. There are so many ways that nature or gardens metaphorically represent our life and our health. I think that’s so beautiful and healing that as you built that garden you also built that inner garden as well.


[00:14:05] Seth Gillihan: I remember the day. It was one of the first really warm days last year and the whole garden had grown. The way I’d built it was there were four beds on the outside part of the garden, and the inside was for triangular beds arranged in a way with the long edges facing in so it formed a kind of diamond on the inside. There’s an opening in the middle. I was working on that opening and I knelt down on both my knees to pull something out of the ground or something. It just hit me at that moment. It felt like an act of reference, it felt like an act of worship. I used it as exactly that to just say thank you, I can’t believe here I am, I’m feeling well. I’m surrounded by all this green and this energy. This is not Seth Gillihan who went to graduate school to become a psychologist and learn CBT, this was something different. It had a much more overtly spiritual feel to it then. I think I would have a little wigged out by me ten years earlier, but that’s what happened.


[00:15:26] Ashley James: I love it. We grow so much so we look back to ourselves 20 years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about 1999 transitioning into the 2000s and that was 20 years ago. It just feels like yesterday but it also feels like a whole lifetime. I’ve had these thought exercises of what kind of conversations I’d have with my 19-year-old self back in 1999. What kind of conversations would I have, how different am I, and what’s the same? That thinking then in 20 years, what’s my life going to be like when I’m 60? Who am I going to be when I’m 60, and who’s still going to be me? What’s still going to be me and what’s going to be different? Because we are growing, and that’s good. That’s a good thing. 

We want to grow and change. We want to shed what’s no longer serving us. We want to shed the anxiety or the habits that are no longer helping us whether it’s something obvious like alcoholism or smoking, or if it’s something less obvious like maybe quick to interpreting things in a way that sets you up to feel like a victim, or not allowing you to quickly resolve issues and instead go to anger or other negative emotions. This is part of the wiring of the brain, and we can shift it. If we can look at our life like what’s no longer serving me and what can I shift? Maybe it would help if you could explain what cognitive-behavioral therapy is because a lot ­­of people who have not been to a therapist, we all think therapy is basically what Hollywood has portrayed for us. 

There’s a stigma that only sick people go to therapy, and I don’t think that that’s the stigma for the millennials. I’ve seen more and more that in the millennial, in the younger generation, that therapy is seen as something that we go to to become even better or at least like for preventive medicine. I have a friend and I’ve told her story on the podcast before but I have a friend who is in her late 30s, she has a 5-year-old daughter, she has a wonderful boyfriend who’s the father of their child, and she is a personal chef for people—wealthy families in Seattle. She’s constantly traveling to these different houses and cooking for them and very, very busy. 

She said on Facebook one day, “People ask me how I keep it all together,” because she’s constantly go-go-go between having a wonderful relationship with her boyfriend, being a great mom, being there for her daughter, and running her own business. How does she do it all? She says, “I see a therapist three times a week. Therapy for me is what allows me to keep my sanity, and it is something that people should do like they go to the gym. You take a shower, you should go to a therapist because if I didn’t go to therapy, I’d be blowing up at my daughter. I’d be putting my stress on to other people in my life instead of processing it. I don’t bring my work home. I don’t bring my stress work home. If I’m stressed about something I process it, I don’t project it onto other people, and that’s what therapy has done for me.” 

She said that there are certain generations that still think that therapy is something that you have to wait to get sick and then it’s taboo. It’s like they’re touched with the plague or something if you’re going to go to therapy, whereas other people are beginning to see that therapy is something that you go to the gym for your physical body, you go to a therapist or a counselor for your mental and emotional body. Maybe if you could explain the different types of therapies. Cognitive therapy is so vastly different from Freudian, for example, which is the stereotypical therapy that we’ve been exposed to if we’ve followed Hollywood.


[00:20:02] Seth Gillihan: I love the comparison to the gym because we’re not surprised when someone who goes to the gym is in really good shape, but as the example you gave shows, we might be surprised when someone who’s really well-adjusted emotionally goes to therapy. But it could be that someone is able to cope with things because they go to therapy, not that everyone has to be in therapy. There’s certainly no shame in it. The way you describe it is how I tend to see it that it’s really for anyone at any level of things they want to work on whether for really debilitating issues or because they feel like they just want to get more out of life and live as fully as possible.

The therapy we’re most used to seeing, if I ask someone to describe what happens in therapy, they’ll probably imagine someone comes in and maybe lies on a couch. Maybe some people still have that image from classic Freudian psychoanalysis where the analyst is sitting behind the person. Maybe they imagine sitting face-to-face, but the person who’s there for treatment does most of the talking and focus on issues with their mother or things from early in life. That is the kind of more traditional Freudian or the psychoanalytic or what’s now called psychodynamic approach. It’s influenced by Freud but not exactly the type of therapy that Freud delivered because the real analysis is four times a week and it was for many years.

With Freudian or psychodynamic therapy, there is a lot of focus on the past and in talking about a person’s earliest relationships. The emphasis is on things that a person isn’t really aware of. These unconscious conflicts, so conflicts between different parts of my psyche. The part that I identify with that I’m aware of called ego and then the id, which is the more primitive drives like drives for sex, power, and domination. On the other hand, the super-ego, which is like our conscience. It’s sort of seen as a battle between these forces and most of the id and superego are said to be unconscious. They’re operating outside of our awareness. If that’s your model of what the human mind is, then it makes sense you need a therapist to walk you through that and help you to uncover these unconscious drives and motivations and to integrate them more so they’re not exerting these effects that we’re not aware of.

A lot of what happens in the therapy relationship in Freudian therapy is about what takes place between the therapist and the client. People may have heard of this idea of transference that the way that I treat the therapist is going to be based on earlier relationships. For example, if I tend to see authority figures as overly controlling, then that’s how I might respond to the therapist, not because of anything the therapist is doing, but because I’m projecting those early experiences onto them, so a lot of the therapy is going to require understanding, identifying, and working through those transference reactions. That’s a very different set up from CBT where the emphasis is more on things that all of us can learn and observe within ourselves. That each of us is seen as the expert on who we are. That we know ourselves better than other people do, and then we can really become our own therapists.

That’s done through really understanding the CBT model, which is about the relations between our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions. That there are links between those that we can recognize and start to shift in a way that serves us. A quick example is if I have a tendency, when someone doesn’t respond to my text messages, to think they don’t like me or they think I’m not you know worth their time, to first of all recognize that as the story that we’re telling ourselves. It may or may not be true like that story that I was telling myself about what my wife did as I was making that frozen pizza back in DC. Recognizing the stories we tell ourselves and then we can examine whether they’re true, or maybe there are alternative explanations. Is there any other reason why someone might not have texted or responded to my text? Maybe they didn’t get it, maybe they’re busy, maybe it got buried in other messages, maybe they’re homeschooling their kids in the middle of a pandemic. It could be anything.

That’s something we can all learn to do. That’s one of the emphases within CBT, and it’s also highly collaborative. It’s not that I am, as the therapist, have this specialized knowledge that you’ll never have access to and you’ll require my input and interpretation to figure things out, but rather, I have some tools that I’ve been trained in that may be helpful to you. It really is going to take the two of us coming together to figure out what’s going to work for you through trial and error and through really this evidence-based approach of trying things out. See what works, keeping what does, and trying new things as we need to. The cognitive part is about our thoughts. The behavioral part is about becoming more aware of our actions and the things that influence our behavior and the effects of our behaviors. Again, an example might help.

If I’m someone who has a lot of social anxiety and I also am dealing with a low mood, then I might pine on this choice where I can go to a party or I can stay at home. If I look at the different payoffs for those different choices, then I have a better chance of making one that’s going to really serve my longer-term goals. The short-term payoff for not going to a party that I know it’s going to make me feel socially awkward is I’ll get some relief. I don’t have to face that anxiety and so that avoidance will be rewarded in the short-term, but the downside is, I don’t have the eventual enjoyment of going to the party, I don’t feel a sense of accomplishment from facing that fear, and my mood is going to tend to be worse because I’m going to continue to be isolated and alone. By understanding those payoffs, I can choose the action that’s going to have the best long-term outcome.

The cognitive-behavioral approaches are the first two waves of CBT and then mindfulness came along as a third wave. I’ll pause for breath there in case you have questions.


[00:28:06] Ashley James: With cognitive-behavioral therapy, the client is not seen as a victim or seen as broken. They’re seen as someone who’s the expert of their own person, and you are a collaborator with them as their therapist. You are a collaborator, you have tools, they’re the master of themselves, and you’re helping them master their inner world and then their effect on the outer world.


[00:28:37] Seth Gillihan: Yes. That’s a nice way of saying it. Yes, definitely not broken. I always ask in the first interview about a person’s strengths because those strengths are the things we’re going to emphasize that are going to help a person to address the things they want to change.


[00:28:58] Ashley James: Brilliant. I love it, I love it. I’m so passionate about cognitive-behavioral therapy because everyone can benefit from it. Is there anyone that shouldn’t do cognitive-behavioral therapy?


[00:29:13] Seth Gillihan: That’s a really good question. Going back to Aaron Beck, he was kind enough to write a blurb for my second book on CBT. He said something to the effect of these principles would be helpful basically for everyone. I tend to agree with him. We would need to tailor the approach for different people. Maybe a person needs a certain level of cognitive ability, I mean, minimal level, not like you have to be a Rhodes Scholar or something to do this because the approaches really are frightfully simple when you come down to it.


[00:30:01] Ashley James: They’d have to be able to follow directions, basically.


[00:30:04] Seth Gillihan: Yeah, they’ll be able to follow directions. I mean, there are definitely people who don’t want that kind of approach. They would rather be in a more exploratory therapy, or an insight, or in at one, or there are some people who come and they really don’t want to work on things between sessions. Maybe they want to but they know that there’s a really high likelihood that they’re not at a place where they’re going to follow through on an activity plan that they come up with the therapist and it’s going to end up being a punishing experience like all right, great. You go out to work on those things. I’ll see you next week. Then they come back and have to say, yeah, I didn’t do any of that stuff. 

That may not be the best therapy for someone in that position. I should say, as much as I love CBT, I’ve also had major reservations about it over the years. I want to put that out there. I don’t think that everyone should do it or if someone’s doing different kinds of therapy they’re doing the wrong therapy. There are lots of types of therapy that could be effective, but if someone is interested in CBT, I can think of very few cases where it wouldn’t probably be helpful.

Image by jamesoladujoye from Pixabay


[00:31:34] Ashley James: You’ve taken CBT and you’ve shifted it. As you said, you had some reservations. You’ve seen where it could be improved upon and that you’ve brought in more mindfulness, more of a spiritual approach. Tell us about your approach to CBT.


[00:31:53] Seth Gillihan: That’s a really nicely worded question, Ashley, because you asked about the more spiritual aspect, and that’s really what I came to. This goes back to what you asked about my own experiences and developments along the way. Through that period of my illness, there were so many nights where my energy would just get worse and worse throughout the day and by the evening, I would just feel completely despondent and suicidal at times and just lying on the couch so many nights just despairing and feeling like I had reached the end of myself. Yet there was something in me that kept me going. I didn’t understand it because all I wanted to do was just stop, was just give up. I don’t know what that would have looked like, although, as I said, there are times when I thought I should just do everyone a favor and end my life.

I realized in one of those moments when this phrase is going through my mind—I’ve just reached the end of myself. I’ve reached the end of myself. But I realized that that wasn’t the end. That there was something else there. It felt, at that moment, like I needed to come to that place in order to find what was next. What I found next was my spirit was there. My spirit was undiminished by anything that I’d been experiencing. That it was as big, as vibrant, and as alive as it had ever been. That it was unperturbed by anything that was happening on the surface of my life. I felt such strength coming from it. When I felt like I had nothing to give that it was this spirit within me that was me and yet was more than me that I was drawing strength from, that I was drawing sustenance from. I felt like it was that spirit that actually drew me back to CBT, which seems a little bit funny to me that that feeling of something eternal and grand drew me to such a mundane approach—something that is so concrete and nuts and bolts.

What I love about it is that it feels very integrated. That the sacred in my life is intimately tied to something as simple as what I put on my calendar. That really is what led me to see. I understood as I realized the spirit within me in this connection to the spiritual, I realized that’s why mindfulness tends to be so effective. It’s not just a way of hacking our attention system and not focusing on the future because that makes us anxious, but that our spirit is like our bodies. It exists in the present. When we really come into the present moment, we open to our experience just as it is, we invite ourselves to connect with our spirits, and that is such a vital place. That’s a place of such vitality. I actually thought about calling the Think Act Be approach, that’s my shorthand for mindfulness-centered CBT. Think for cognitive, Act for behavior, and Be for mindful presence.

I thought about calling it spirit-centered CBT, but I thought that might be a little less accessible for people. People might scratch their heads a little too much with that, but to me, it feels interchangeable. That really is what it’s about. It’s about operating from that spiritual connection. It’s why I think CBT is more effective when it comes to that deeply grounded place. I think that CBT can help us to move toward that place of connection with our spirits. It ends up being this really beautifully circular process, this virtuous circle of spiritual connection drawing us to right action, right thinking, which in turn reinforces our spiritual connection and really keeping us healthy and grounded and continuing in that direction.

So much in my life has changed over these past few years as I’ve been drawn, not even really through. It hasn’t felt like all right, I made a decision. I’m going to start living a mindful CBT type of way, but it’s just what I’ve been drawn to. That’s really strongly affected my work and my approach with CBT because it felt superficial, it felt like it wasn’t really getting at the heart of what people were coming to me for. Yet there were times when so many people, I had seen in working with them, these really profound breakthroughs they had made just through mostly a cognitive and behavioral approach, but they really had been able to come home to themselves in a way that did feel deeply spiritual.


[00:38:22] Ashley James: I love it. I think we’re spiritual beings at our core. If you could remove the blocks to get us there, if you can remove any blocks to allow us to get back to being connected with the source, then that would just enhance all the quality of every part of your life.


[00:38:47] Seth Gillihan: Yes. That’s exactly how I think of it. That we are spiritual at our core. You were saying earlier it’ll be interesting to see in 20 years, when you’re 60 and I’m 65, who we are. I love thinking about that because I believe there is that core about us that will endure. So many things will change but something will be the same, and I think it is that eternal core within us—that spiritual core. Yes that we naturally tend toward that connection if only we remove the blocks that keep us from being there. That’s [you and I 00:39:30] right now about cognitive and behavioral approaches. That’s how I think about them. That the idea is we’re removing those things that are blocking us from our natural inclination towards spiritual connection.

I used to be so self-conscious to talk about these kinds of things so explicitly. I have a very strong background in science. I moved away from a fundamentalist Christian upbringing after college. There’s kind of squeamishness about things that are overtly spiritual, but what I realized is that I guess I care less on the one hand, but also I think all of us are aware that we are something beyond these minds and these bodies. Whether we call it spirit or something else, there is something eternal about us.


[00:40:33] Ashley James: You said I care less and I think that’s interesting. I think it’s an interesting saying, but I don’t think it’s accurate. I think you care as much as you’ve always cared, but you don’t care about what other people think as much.


[00:40:50] Seth Gillihan: That’s right.


[00:40:51] Ashley James: Your care has shifted. You probably care in a different way. Something that we heard—my husband and I, followed this guy, it was pretty neat. He said a lot of very interesting Tao spiritual sayings, and we liked following him. This was like an online radio show 12 years ago. He said, “It’s none of your business what other people think of you.”


[00:41:24] Seth Gillihan: I love that.


[00:41:26] Ashley James: We had to hear it a few times and he said it over and over because, at the time, my husband was so self-conscious he wouldn’t hold my hand in public. I mean it was bizarre. Bizarre, right? I’m your wife, hold my hand. He got it. He was just so worried his whole life. He was so worried about what everyone thought of him, and he was constantly creating these alternate realities in his mind where people were judging him for things. It’s just made up, right? This is what we do. We’re meaning-making machines, but we typically like to go to the worst-case scenarios in our minds. When he heard that it hit him like he almost fell over. It’s none of your business what other people think of you. It just gave him so much freedom. After hearing that he just let it go. He stopped worrying as much about what other people thought of him or stopped caring as much about what other people thought. He’s a very caring person, but he stopped making up these realities in which people were judging him.

I’ve had an experience in the last few months where I had a really good friend who I felt very close to. I’d known her for a long time and then I found out that she was telling lies about me—very horrible, nasty, and really hurtful lies. I had poured so much support into her over the years. I had helped her. I’d invested in her with a lot of money, a lot of time into her business, and any possible way I could help her. At one point she was living on our couch. For over the years, we helped her and helped her and helped her and helped her and helped her. We were doing nothing but just being supportive friends and then she turned around and she said these really, really nasty things to another friend about us that were not true. I mean, they’re all lies, but in her mind they were true.

At first, obviously, I was very hurt. I was very angry, but then I sat back and I asked myself what reality does she live in in which she interpreted my kindness as evil or my support as a friend as that way? She must be living in such a sick world or such a warped reality to have interpreted my generosity as something other than just generosity. Then it hit me. I started laughing. I went from just being angry and so deeply hurt because someone I considered where my best friends betrayed me, but I didn’t make it about me. I was thinking about like wow, what’s going on in her life that that’s her reality? That’s really like a scary reality she’s invented for herself. Then I started laughing because I got that. 

I spend so much of my time worrying about what other people think of me. I create, in my mind, like I’m worried that people are going to judge me because I didn’t pluck the chin hairs today. Oh gosh, I got out of the house without plucking these chin hairs. People are just going to be judging me. I left the house and there’s a tear in my pants or whatever. In my mind, I’m worrying about what other people think of me. I’ve decided that they’re going to worry about what I think they should worry about, but she created. What she made me realize is that there’s no use in investing your energy in inventing things for people to worry about because people are going to come up with their own stuff. They’re going to make up their stuff about you that is so wrong, that is so off-kilter that you would have never guessed, that you should have been worrying about that. 

I laugh because why invest energy into worrying about what other people think when people are going to come up with their own stuff to judge you on, and you can’t control it no matter how virtuous you are, no matter how good of a person you are. I mean, even people interpreted Jesus the wrong way. No matter how good you are, there’s going to be people that don’t like you, but it’s not about you. It’s them and their life and their baggage. Don’t invest any of your energy in making up what to worry about because they’re off doing their own thing inventing their own stuff about you, and it’s not you, it’s them.

It gave me a lot of freedom. It was a hard lesson to learn to lose that friendship, ultimately, but at the same time, it was a beautiful lesson she gave me. When I walk out of the house with my chin hairs unplugged, I rest assure that the people who love me will see past them no matter what, and the people who are judging me are going to invent their own things and probably not even see the chin hairs because they’re just going to be making up their own stuff. I can live my life just connecting with those who love me and moving on and letting go of the worry of judgments. When you said that, it reminded me that when we focus on worry, we’re self-creating so much anxiety and stress, and it doesn’t serve us.

It’s actually really interesting, why is it that we have this mechanism? Because it doesn’t help our survival. In fact, it harms our physical health to have a mechanism in which we are constantly in anxiety and worry. That doesn’t actually help us survive anymore so why do we do it?


[00:47:31] Seth Gillihan: I think as best we know, it’s because when we were being selected for it was helpful. There was a time when your neighbors rejecting you could be a life or death matter. If you were excluded from the clan, then that could be a matter of survival. But, yes. Now, it’s completely counterproductive that we spend all our time worrying about things that don’t happen. As you pointed out, worrying about the wrong stuff. We get it wrong. We probably worry about dying from the wrong things. It’s probably not that thing we’re worried about that’s going to get us, it’ll be something else, but I love how you described it. It’s not like we have to trick ourselves into thinking no one’s ever going to think anything bad about you or you know you’re never going to get sick, but you don’t know what it’s going to be, so you may as well stop trying to figure it out. Just live what’s in front of you.

I think so many of us are asking ourselves that question, Ashley. Why am I spending so much time unproductively in my head—doing things that aren’t helpful, thinking in ways that aren’t helpful? I think it does go back to that. Our minds are trying to do us a favor. They think they’re doing something positive for us. That they’re keeping us safe by warning us about all these potential disasters, and that’s why I think we really have to retrain our minds because our default is toward threat, danger, and insecurity.


[00:49:14] Ashley James: Yeah. How much are we still running on default? How much are we still running on the tools we had as a child where it’s that survival brain? At some point, we have to become our own parents. We have to raise ourselves. I’ve been looking at this a lot, thinking about this a lot, this idea that we are adults that are still children in many ways. We look to the government as our parents. Take care of me. Take care of us. I feel good that the government is going to take care of us. Some people give over their power to their doctors. It becomes a parental relationship where it’s like take care of me. I am helpless. I don’t know what to do. Take care of me. We revert back to becoming a child where someone else has the answers, and we can just go about our day because someone else is going to handle it.

Being a parent now, we have a 5-year-old, and watching how to be a 5-year-old again where someone’s doing all of the major decision-making for you. Where someone is feeding you and putting a roof over your head and all you have to worry about is playing with your toys and having fun all day. Anytime something bad happens you look to your parents to solve it, right? At some point, we grow up, but even in my 20s, when I was looking at this recently I’m like, when did I stop blaming my parents? When did I stop? Something happened and I was like I can’t believe I spent my 20s still blaming my parents. If they only did this right then my life would be bettered. I was like wow. At what point did I figure out that it’s me, I’m responsible for it.

No matter how good or bad your parents were as being parents, it’s not their fault your life is the way it is because you are the one who gets up every day and does what you do. Catching myself and going, what parts of me are still at the default setting where I haven’t grown up—I haven’t grown myself up—I haven’t gained the tools? Looking at what parts of me are still acting like a teenager—rebellious teenager still acting like a child, still handing over my power, and looking for someone else to solve my problems. I’ve been going through that mental exercise lately. It’s interesting that you say that. Cognitive therapy and especially your form of cognitive therapy that really includes mindfulness is also about helping us grow up. Grow up and grow up those parts of ourselves that are still acting like that survival mode, especially if anyone is running around feeling anxiety right now and running around in worry and feeling overly stressed out. That’s when they need your tools for sure. Can you teach us some things? I’d love for the listeners to learn especially since stress is so bad for our health. Are there any tools that you can teach us to help us decrease stress?


[00:52:38] Seth Gillihan: Yes. First of all, I’m glad that you saw through that idea that your parents were to blame for everything in your 20s because we can hold on to that belief well beyond in our 30s, 40s, 50s, or older. I think that’s a positive thing. I think I discovered some of that later in life, not blaming my parents, but looking to the medical establishment to fix me. When I’d exhausted what mainstream medicine could offer with tests, labs, and things. Then it’s going to be this practitioner, it’s going to be this type of therapy. I definitely got help through a lot of those, but I kept reminding myself it’s not going to be that one person that’s going to be the Savior that I’m looking for. I’m not going to find that one diet that’s going to tell me to eat this and don’t eat that. I’m going to have to figure these things out the best I can for myself through trial and error and just listening to my body.

It is such a stressful time and such an anxious time for so many of us. The mindfulness-centered CBT approach that I use, the emphasis, it’s not on short-term like rescue fixes like a Pepto-Bismol for anxiety. If you’re anxious take this, this will knock it out. Try this trick or this technique. I think a lot of the practices that can be helpful in the middle of anxiety, but the most effective approach is to build the type of life where anxiety is not the dominant force or stress doesn’t have the upper hand. It starts with very basic wellness exercises like literally moving our bodies and attending to our sleep. Treating sleep as a sacred activity and honoring our bodies and our minds with the foods that we put in them and what and how much we drink. It starts there.

My approach, to be honest, for my first few years of doing CBT, I really ignored those kinds of somewhat superfluous details. Maybe a person was drinking six bottles of Diet Coke a day then maybe they’d be a little jittery from anxiety, we could talk about that, but I wasn’t attending to just the overall wellness in the machine, so to speak, and attending to the machine of our bodies and how that affects our minds and our spirits. I think starting there or thinking about the way we treat our body as being as important as anything else in dealing with anxiety. But then in terms of more specific practices, obviously, the parenting idea made me think of an exercise that I often encourage people to do.

Think about the bookends of your day from one being when you wake up and the other being as you’re going to sleep or preparing for bed. When we wake up in the morning, it’s common that we wake up with a lot of anxious arousal because our stress hormones, cortisol, and norepinephrine are going up during that time because we’re preparing to mobilize for the day. That can jolt us awake. That can launch us headlong into our day and our busyness. Going back to the premise of mindfulness-centered CBT, starting our day from that wobbly place of being out of balance, it’s not going to set us up for having the best kind of day.

Even taking a few moments when we wake up just to say hello to ourselves. I’m thinking about the reparenting idea that you talked about. When a parent goes into their, let’s say, two-year-old’s bedroom in the morning and then your child wakes up, the parent doesn’t say, hey, you’re awake. All right, come on. Let’s go. They don’t grab them, bring them out of the crib, and overwhelm them. At least I hope not with a lot of energy and intensity, but they say, hey, good morning. How are? How did you sleep? Whatever questions you ask a two-year-old. Our kids are older than this now. I don’t know if we asked them how’d you sleep last night, but you greet them. You connect with them. 

I think we can do that to ourselves, just say hello to yourself in the morning before you jump into your day. Maybe it involves taking five calming breaths in the morning can be a useful exercise—lying in bed, just feeling your body, and coming into your body as you emerge from sleep. Then asking ourselves what kind of day do I want to have rather than what our default question is something like how are things going to go today, or I wonder if there are going to be problems today, but those questions really make us feel like victims as we start our day. What is today going to do to me? I hope I can survive today versus what do I want to bring to this day? Who do I want to be? How do I want to serve today? Where can I find opportunities to show love? Where do I want to direct my attention today? 

Those kinds of questions, it’s such a different emphasis. All these things, again, for me this is not an academic exercise. These things I rely on even as recently as this morning. I woke up and my first inclination was all right, got to get upstart that blog post that came to mind last night. I thought, no. Let me just yes spend a few moments here and see what it’s like to start the day that way. That’s number one. That’s a long explanation, but really, the beauty of most of these things is they take anywhere from a few minutes to a few seconds. It only takes a few seconds to say hello to yourself before you get up and do whatever is next.


[01:00:05] Ashley James: Would you recommend journaling or meditation, or do you have exercises for people to follow in the morning?


[01:00:14] Seth Gillihan: I do. I have a couple of decks that I’m excited about because I think they work. They’re card decks. They’re just literally a deck of cards with a practice on each card. The one that’s been out for I guess a couple of years now is more general CBT approaches for probably anyone could find helpful. Then I’ve got one coming out soon that’s focused on anxiety, rumination, and worry. Both of them have practices that can be and some of them are for any time of day, some of them are specific to morning—kind of setting your course in the morning, and some of them are useful at night.

There are different types of meditative activities. One is called thank you goodnight where you do write down things you’re grateful for from that day, but I like a gratitude breath exercise that you can do anytime. I found it to be useful like if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall asleep. It’s easy to turn to worries or frustrations like why am I not falling asleep? If I fall asleep now I’ll only get four and a half hours, come on. We can redirect that energy with every breath cycle. Bring to mind one thing, one good thing in your life. Inhale, exhale—at least I’ve got a bed. Inhale, exhale—some specific friend, I’ve got a refrigerator, or I’ve got a house. All these things and we don’t have to try to force ourselves to feel grateful, but just direct our attention to the things that we have. It’s a meditation, but it’s also training our attention to notice what’s going right in our lives instead of what’s going wrong.

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash 


[01:02:29] Ashley James: I love it. I had a man named Michael Weinberger on the show a few times. He has manic bipolar, has attempted suicide several times, and his life has been plagued with mental health issues. He found therapy to be essential. He got to a place where he needed tools in order to just not kill himself that day, basically. What he found that his morning routine was the difference between whether he was going to kill himself or not. His morning routine was—he would wake up and ask himself, on a scale of 1 to 10, where is my mood? Where am I on a scale of 1 to 10? Whether it’s happiness, sadness, or whatever. He might wake up and be like a three, and then he would write down or text or something—write it down in a journal three things he’s grateful for. Then ask himself again, on a scale of 1 to 10, where am I? 

He’d notice that always, his mood would improve simply by taking the 90 seconds it takes to write down great things he’s grateful for. No matter what, no matter how bad he felt, he’d get out of bed and take a shower. That would shift his mood. But he had a certain routine in the morning in that there was an inward reflection, just checking in with yourself, how am I feeling? Not judging it, not making a story like because I feel this way my whole day’s going to be… No, just checking in like hey, how are you doing? Just like you said. Then he’d write down three things he’s grateful for and then he’d check in again. 

Another thing he added to his routine was reaching out to someone, anyone, and just letting them know that you are thinking about them, you care about them, or thanking them for something. It could be someone professional like hey, when you helped me with that thing, I just want to let you know that it really meant a lot to me. Thank you. You could reach out to your wife, your husband, your kids, or your mom and say thank you, I love you, or I’m thinking about you. Just connect with someone. It could be a text, an email, phone call, or in person—every day. Basically, just get out of yourself and thank someone for the impact that they have had on your life. He ended up taking all these things and making an app so that people can log into the app, and the app also has reminders that you can set for medications. It’s like a mental health app that he created.


[01:05:26] Seth Gillihan: Oh, wow.


[01:05:27] Ashley James: In the morning you press the number, on a scale of 1 to 10, how are you doing? Then you type in the three things you’re grateful for, and then it has reminders set up for mindfulness, for connecting with others, and letting them know that you’re grateful for them. He created his app because those were his tools that helped him to like to stay alive and on track towards mental health. Now he’s much more stable. It’s just really neat that a lot of parallel with what he noticed really works. He was at a point where he was ready to break. Those tools really helped him, and then you’re saying these same things. It’s just really neat that there’s a lot of parallels there between the two.

You really help people with anxiety, and you have this online course. Listeners can go to learntruehealth.com/calm, that’s learntruehealth.com/calm to gain access to your course. Tell us about your course. Also, I’d love for you to teach us something about eliminating anxiety.


[01:06:36] Seth Gillihan: Great. I’m really excited about this course. I’d wanted to do one for a while and finally did one this year. It’s a pretty deep dive into mindfulness-centered CBT for anxiety, stress, and worry. It’s 24 lessons. A person could do it over for weeks if they wanted, six lessons a day. I’m sorry, that would be ambitious. It’s six lessons a week. Or they can space it out longer than that. Really, it’s up to the person. Once they enroll they have lifetime access to the materials. Each lesson begins with a guided mindfulness exercise or 24 different mindfulness exercises. You were asking earlier about some specific practices, we offer a lot of different ones. A person can sample a lot of different approaches and find what works for them.

Then there’s a video-based lesson for each day focusing on recognizing and reducing stress or finding cognitive tools or behavioral approaches that help us to deal with anxiety. Then I spend a full five lessons talking about worry because worry is such a common issue that so many of us struggle with and also a really difficult one to break out of because it’s mental. It’s easy for our minds to do it automatically. Worry actually is really interesting, and maybe I’ll focus here in terms of ways of reducing anxiety because worry, I think we often think of worry as I’m anxious and worried. Almost like worrying is something that happens to us. It is somewhat automatic, but it’s also something that we do. It’s a mental behavior that becomes a habit because it feels safer in a way to worry than not to worry.

We will tell ourselves things like why I should worry because it shows that I care, or I can prevent bad things from happening if I worry. All these beliefs and assumptions that reinforce our tendency toward worry. The problem with worrying is that it’s self-reinforcing. If I’m worried about my plane, for example, and I’m thinking about is everything okay? Those sounds I’m hearing during the flight, is that a bad sign? I’m looking at all the faces of the crew and seeing are they worried? Imagining what I would do if the plane suddenly dropped in altitude. I’m suffering as all that’s happening, but when the plane lands, the lesson that my brain is going to take from that is not well that was silly, I shouldn’t have worried, but it’s going to be thank goodness you worried because you got the plane here safely.

We don’t think that rationally, but when things go badly in our lives, our brains want to know why. They’re going to look to see what happened before things turned out okay. A lot of the time the answer is you worried. The lesson is we better worry next time because that’s how you keep the plane up, that’s how you keep people from thinking badly of you, right?


[01:10:31] Ashley James: Oh my gosh. There’s a payoff.


[01:10:34] Seth Gillihan: There’s a total payoff.


[01:10:35] Ashley James: We see that worrying gives us something because we’re still alive, we’re still safe, and so it must have been the worrying that got us there.


[01:10:41] Seth Gillihan: It must have been, yes. Thank goodness for that worrying. Imagine what might have happened if I hadn’t. It’s our magic feather. We believe that. Again, probably not consciously and cognitive therapists can believe in the unconscious mind. We want to break out of that cycle by not arguing with our worries, not getting into a back-and-forth with them. If the worried mind says what if the plane crashes? Then the most effective long-term response is to say that’s a possibility that could happen. That’s not going to lower anxiety immediately, most likely. No, I don’t want to crash.


[01:11:35] Ashley James: Because in our mind the plane is still crashing so the body is still reacting to it. The body is still in stress mode.


[01:11:40] Seth Gillihan: Yes, exactly. We can reassure ourselves and say there are 20,000 planes land safely every day in the United States alone. That might give a little bit of relief, but then the mind is going to come back with how do you know? How do you know your plane’s not going to be that one? Because it does happen. It’s not like it’s impossible for planes to crash. We can get out of that back and forth like what if. Okay, now it’s good, it’s probably not going to happen. It’s probably okay. Oh no, but what if? Saying, yup, that could happen. Treat worry like an annoying bully that keeps trying to get a rise out of you. Saying you’re stupid. No, I’m not. Then, of course, all you’ve done is guaranteed that the bully is going to keep teasing you. But if you say like yup, you’re right, I’m an idiot. The bully is going to be confounded.

With worry, the same thing. You could say, yup, that’s a possibility. That’s not something that ultimately I control. But then we don’t have to stay there. We don’t stay there. Okay, this plane might crash. From there, we want to say what is in my control? What do I actually have power over? I can choose where I direct my thoughts, I can choose how I spend my time, I can choose whether I try to get engaged in conversation with the person I’m flying with versus I get annoyed with them because I’m trying to keep the plane up—even though I’m not to pilot.


[01:13:11] Ashley James: My worry is keeping this airplane in the air.


[01:13:16] Seth Gillihan: That’s right. Don’t break the spell. Are you insane? That’s where mindful presence comes in is using our senses then to focus on what’s real, to get out of that fantastical thinking about possible plane crashes. It’s all fantasy and telling myself the plane’s not going to crash. That’s also a fantasy, that’s also a made-up story of the mind. We can focus instead on what’s real. I think focusing on what’s real, again, it brings us into a real connection with ourselves, and it’s also where long-term peace can be found.


[01:13:58] Ashley James: For those who have anxiety about their future now because of the long-term effects of the COVID shutdown, people are worrying about their long-term security. Whether their job is at stake, or whether the food chain has been affected, or whether they’re schooling. I have a friend who is in school, in college. I was just talking to him last night. He graduated with his AA online. They had to transition to online classes, and then he’s going in to get his next level of education at another university. They’re considering having it be online even though he’s going in as a music major. These are classes that require me to be with someone.

He goes, “I have to learn every instrument that an orchestra plays.” He knows how to play nine instruments professionally, but he has to learn the entire orchestra for his master’s, and he has to learn how to play quartets. It’s just he was telling me all about the different things that he’d had to do in person. He’s really concerned, again, it’s a genuine concern because this university, which is in California is like we’re not sure your next semester is going to be in person, and that’s months and months away.

People have legitimate concerns, but as you said, it’s a fantasy. We can fantasize over the worst-case scenarios or we can fantasize over the best-case scenarios. Either one is a fantasy. Focusing on the worst-case scenarios induces anxiety, worry, panic, and stress. But how do we prepare? There’s a difference between lamenting and preparation. How do we prepare for our future even though it’s uncertain and take the actions we need to take now to be the most responsible we can be, but not give in to worry and anxiety?


[01:16:09] Seth Gillihan: Great question, Ashley. There are two things we need to prepare for. One is we can prepare for the unknown. We don’t know what it’s going to be, but we can prepare as best we can. I mean, to be honest, I’ve had some fears about getting coronavirus for one, but also the possible disruptions to the food supply chain. I found that’s kind of a hot button for me even though I’ve never really wanted for food, but that does trigger some anxiety in me. It’s not an unreasonable thing to do to prepare as best we can. I’m not renting a pod to stockpile food in. I think having a certain amount of food on hand is probably a good idea, but then also recognizing the limits of our control. If I try to guarantee that my family will never go hungry that there’s no way to guarantee that. That’s going to reinforce our anxiety because we’re going to be trying to control the uncontrollable.

There are some good studies showing that the more we try to be certain about things that can’t be known, we actually increase our level of uncertainty and make ourselves more anxious in the process. It’s this double process of preparing realistically and also accepting the limits of what’s actually in our power. That goes for the virus too. None of us ultimately know or can completely control whether we contract the virus and how it turns out for us if we do. But that doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say whatever will be will be. I’m just going to let fate run its course because fate will depend, to some extent, on our actions, so we do what we can.

We also need to ask not just how do I prepare for the outside world but how do I prepare my internal world for whatever comes? That to me actually is striking me as the more important question because there are going to be challenges that come, and we don’t know exactly what those are going to be, but we do know we’re going to need strength, we’re going to need courage, and we’re going to need grace to get through them. I would want each of us to be asking ourselves that question as much as anything else. Again, it’s a bigger version of that question we might ask ourselves first thing in the morning. Who do I want to be regardless of what happens with my courses, my career, my health, or my family situation? How do I want to respond to challenges? Where do I want to look for my strengths? How can I deepen my spiritual connection in a way that it’s available for me? What’s my mission and my purpose in life and how can I enact that regardless of what happens? I think that may be the best preparation we can make.


[01:19:59] Ashley James: Oh my gosh. That makes so much sense. Imagine six months ago everything seemed so certain, right? The economy was doing so well. The economy was great. Everything was great. We didn’t have the coronavirus, the murder hornets.


[01:20:22] Seth Gillihan: It was greater than we knew.


[01:20:24] Ashley James:  Exactly. It was great. We live in that idea that the parental figure is this certainty that we’ve invented in our minds, certainty that everything’s going to keep going the way it’s going, certainty that the future is going to be the same. We’re just going to keep going as status quo. I can plan out my life because it’s always going to be fairly the same. We, in our lifetime, have had several things shake that to our core like 9/11, right? Obviously, this virus is another example. We’ve had big events happen every twenty years or so that completely shake us to our core and make us realize that we cannot keep planning for everything’s always going to be certain to a certain extent. To a certain extent, everything’s going to be guaranteed like the sun’s always going to come up tomorrow. We always think that the library is going to be open. Just the amount of what we take for granted. That taking for granted is like this idea of the parental figure that we give over our power to in our thinking. Then, all of a sudden, now it’s not certain. 

Our life is not certain and we have worry and fear because we’re constantly worrying about this fictitious future because we’re making up in our mind what if I don’t have any food? What if I’m homeless? What if this, what if that, what if this. We’re just imagining threat after threat after threat, which triggers the stress response in the body because the body goes into the fight-or-flight mode whenever we imagine worst-case scenarios. We’re actually feeling a physical—that’s why we have panic attacks. Physically in the now, our body’s having a real tangible physical reaction to a made-up future, to a fictitious future. We’re having a physical reaction which makes it feel even more real, so it doesn’t feel fictitious. 

I’m imagining the grocery store is empty. Of course, not being able to feed my family, now I’m in stress mode. I go into anxiety, and now I’m having somewhat of a panic attack. I’m feeling the panic so now I’m actually feeling something in the now, which is real. Then it seems certain in my mind. It really all comes down to mindset because it’s not certain. We cannot live in that anything is certain in the future. As you said, we can only control who we are in the now. You said wake up and say who do I want to be right now? That’s what we can control. Never assume that the future is going to be any one way—good or bad.

Now we could plan. We should always plan. I like the analogy of planning for an earthquake. I live in the Pacific Northwest, apparently, we’re going to get a really big earthquake one day, and people worry about it. They stress about it. They’re imagining these worst-case scenarios in their mind. That’s not actually preparing, that’s lamenting. Preparing is like let’s get together the family, create a family plan, have some seven days of storable food, or whatever, and have a first-aid kit. Have everything you need to have and prepared for these different possibilities. You’ve got the storable food, water, emergency kit, and everything that you should have. Then you move on with your life. You’re not waking up every morning living like the earthquake is today.

I think that people who are in constant worry and anxiety wake up every morning imagining that their worst fears are going to come true. They’re just creating a fictitious reality, which we all do. We all imagine the future. Even making a grocery list is imagining a fictitious future because we haven’t done it yet. Anything that we’re planning to do in the future we haven’t done yet so it hasn’t happened so it’s fiction until we can do it and then it’s a fact. But what future are you imagining because that impacts your physical body right now? 

Your stress levels are directly impacted by the fictitious future you’re imagining. So which one are you going to imagine? I’d like to prepare for the possibility that we might have a disruption in our food chain so I have a garden in the backyard, we’ve got storable food. Just that level of planning, but I don’t lament and I don’t let it affect my physical body right now. I don’t allow it to impact my stress levels right now in my body because I’m not going to constantly imagine a fictitious future in which I don’t have food for my family. That’s a big difference.


[01:26:02] Seth Gillihan: It’s a huge difference. What you’re suggesting is that by stepping out of worry, we actually get better at problem-solving.


[01:26:12] Ashley James: Yes.


[01:26:13] Seth Gillihan: We think we can solve problems in our heads, but we don’t take that what if question the right way. We said what if there’s an earthquake? We just think oh no, would that be bad? And just treat it like a mental issue. But if we treat it as a real question, what if there were an earthquake? Well, I would need X, Y, and Z and you prepare as best you can. Then the rest is fantasy. Yeah, we figure out what we can really act on and focus there.


[01:26:47] Ashley James: Do you have anything else you want to make sure that you teach us today or that you covered today? Was there anything else that you were really excited to share today?


[01:26:59] Seth Gillihan: I think we’ve touched on this to some extent. You had alluded to when you were talking about the morning routine for your guest. So much of our stress and our anxiety comes from and feeds a kind of self-focus. I know this so well, Ashley, from a lot of my life but most intensely from when I was really sick and our struggles really tended to focus our energy and attention inward. That makes sense on the one hand just like it’s completely understandable during really stressful times like now that we’re anxious, worried, and focused on our own well-being, but the more we can deliberately get out of our heads and direct our attention toward others, the better it is for all of us. Obviously, for the people that we’re attending to but also for ourselves. We end up swallowing our own tail in a way when we’re struggling and just burrowing deeper into our suffering, but if we can get out of ourselves it can be quite liberating. 

Maybe it means asking if there’s someone who may also be struggling. That we can reach out to or just connecting with someone around us. It’s a way of showing ourselves that we can be of service to others even were not feeling 100%. Even if that doesn’t miraculously make us feel better, at least it might bring a greater sense of meaning into our lives at a time when it might feel like there’s not much point to us because we’re feeling so low. Service is something that I try to think more about and I want to emphasize too that it’s really a crucial part of self-care is asking how we can conserve others.


[01:29:20] Ashley James: I love it. Once we get outside of our own head and we focus on helping others there’s so much peace that comes with that. There are many studies that show that people who are depressed have the depression lift, that people who are in service in some way, volunteer in some way, they live happier longer lives.


[01:29:47] Seth Gillihan: Yes. I like this idea of even if all you feel like is you are a broken empty cup, to just offer that up, to offer up whatever you have in service.


[01:30:03] Ashley James: The links to everything that Seth does is going to be the show notes of today’s podcast at learntruehealth.com. Tell us a little bit about your books. You have a few, and you’ve got your online course, which listeners could go to learntruehealth.com/calm to gain access to. Tell us about each of your books so that our listeners can know which one would be best for them.


[01:30:30] Seth Gillihan: Great. The two most recent CBT books aren’t actually books but they’re there card decks that people seem to find quite useful. One is just called the CBT deck. That’s for more general daily practices. Its 101 practices. So 1/3 of the deck—roughly 1/3—are more cognitive approaches, so there’s the Think cards. Then there are behavioral exercises that are the Act pile of cards, and then the Be cards are mindfulness-based practices. They’re brief things that a person can do each day. These are practical exercises for bringing mindfulness-centered CBT into our lives. To be honest, I’ve actually used the cards a lot myself because I depend on these types of exercises as much as anyone. Probably by the time this show comes out the CBT deck for anxiety, rumination, and worry will be available. That’s a few more practices—108—because I had more than would fit on 101, plus 108 is kind of an auspicious number in some traditions.

Those practices are under the Think Act Be approach but really focused on dealing with an anxious mind or a mind that’s stuck in unproductive trains of thought like dwelling on regrets and things like that. For someone who’s dealing with a lot of anxiety, I think that the more recent deck may be the more useful one. Then I’ve got a couple of books for those of you who are interested in self-directed CBT in a book format. The earlier one came out in July 2016. It’s called Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive-behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks, and that’s the workbook for managing anxiety and depression. As the title suggests, it’s divided into seven lessons across seven weeks, and it’s really my effort to make my therapy approach into a self-guided workbook format. There are worksheets, exercises, and things to go through there to bring the practices to life.

I have a more recent book that came out of 2018, Cognitive-behavioral Therapy Made Simple. It’s not a workbook so it’s not a step-by-step approach, but it’s divided in chapters on mindfulness. It incorporates the Think Act Be approach. There’s a chapter on self-care. It’s really a broader approach to managing difficult emotions using mindfulness and CBT. For those who just want a daily short reading with an invitation at the end of each day’s reading—each day is about a page long—a really good friend of mine, fellow psychologist, Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh and I wrote to each other every day for a year, go back and forth taking turns who wrote, just writing each other messages with reflections on a quote for the day, and an invitation to do some specific practice to bring mindfulness and CBT into our lives each day. That book is called A Mindful Year. That came out, I guess, in 2019.

Those are the books. I hope people find them useful and get a lot out of them.


[01:34:38] Ashley James: That’s so cool. That book where you wrote each other letters, that’s really neat. Did you ever include any information? Do people feel like they’re reading your personal letters back and forth?


[01:34:52] Seth Gillihan: I appreciate that, no. It’s a good question. Our initial entries, there were a lot more. There were probably two or three times the length then we had to edit it down to because it would have been about 1,000-page book. Coincidentally, I just reread today’s entry, which I had written and I described briefly some of my wife’s and my struggles with conceiving, fertility, and having miscarriages along the way. We did try to incorporate things from our lives that would make it feel like really two human beings we’re writing to each other but also trying to keep it broad enough that people would find it applicable for their own lives. We’re getting nice feedback about that, that people are finding these surprising connections with the day’s entry and something that they’re dealing with that day. As I reread it, I also find wow, gosh, that’s really timely. I wrote this three years ago. So yeah, that’s that book.


[01:36:02] Ashley James: Very cool. Do you have any stories of success that you’d like to share either from people who’ve read your books, or worked with your decks, or even your podcast? Do you have any stories of success of specific people who have had some great results working with your content?


[01:36:25] Seth Gillihan: Yeah. I get a number of emails from people just out of the blue. People who have used the book or a deck and found it useful. I’m always touched because it’s the most, I think any self-help writer could hope for, is that people are actually not just reading what you write but finding it useful. There’s a young woman who just had a heartbreaking story about losing a family member recently and dealing with substance use issues and just overwhelming depression and anxiety. Having gone through one of the CBT books and just finding it comforting. I don’t mean this to sound self-congratulatory but just to describe what the person’s experiencing to be was not just that they were reading a how-to book but that there was a real voice on the other end, that there was a person who didn’t know them but understood somewhat intimately the kinds of things they were going through. I have to say, Ashley, thank God I’ve had some of the struggles that I’ve had because otherwise, I would know much less about what it actually means to struggle and to suffer and to be afraid and to feel lost. She just described—she was still working on things but said she no longer felt hopeless. She felt like she had hope, and she was going to get through it, and was grateful that she had tools to do that. I’m always touched by those kinds of stories.


[01:38:27] Ashley James: I love it. Do you have any other stories of success that you’d like to share in working with people?


[01:38:37] Seth Gillihan: I treated a man for— this was actually a longer course of CBT. It’s kind of slow going, and he was uneven at times. This was someone who had dealt with a lot of trauma and loss as a child and really despised himself, just was filled with self-loathing and he saw himself as pathetic and assumed other people did too and assumed that I would see him in that way. I think this was where a lot of the mindfulness was helpful. The behavioral things that we worked on and the cognitive techniques certainly played a part, but so much of it was just about staying present with someone, being witness to someone’s experience, and letting ongoing relationship with someone be direct evidence against their assumption that they would be despised and abandoned by everyone. 

Over the course of a couple of years, and this was someone who actively and expressly wanted to die—wanted to end his own life—and saw that as an inevitability. It’s scary as a therapist when someone tells you that because suddenly it can feel like a liability, but if we focus on it as what’s my risk here, I think that people quickly detect that? And no, this is no longer about my well-being, this is about your legal defense. The person was not in immediate danger so it wasn’t like hospitalization was necessary, but by not making that the focus, by making it okay for a person to have thoughts of suicide at times and to have a part of him that sincerely wanted to die, I think there was a kind of mindful acceptance that had to be there to allow. That I had to bring to the therapy room to allow all that experience to be there in a way that helped this person to feel fully embraced exactly as he was even with his suicidal thoughts.

That really became defining in a way of our relationship that that feeling of acceptance even of that perhaps most distressing part of his experience, I mean, from the point of view of a therapist. Through the course of our therapy, this person gradually was able to start to question the beliefs he had about himself about his own inadequacies, failures, and assumptions about how other people must see him. Eventually, this just broke my heart in the best possible way. This person told me that he actually cared about himself and he actually loved himself and I’m just blown away. I could not believe when he said this because that idea of loving himself, probably for a lot of us, just made him feel really squirmy for the longest time, ugh. Feeling of like loving myself, eek. I can’t possibly imagine directing that kind of regard toward this person. Eventually, he did.

That goes back to the point you made early on, Ashley, about how we don’t come to therapy because we’re broken. I think we’re driven to therapy by the part of ourselves that’s whole, and that wholeness was still there. It was there the whole time, and it was finally able to express itself more fully across the course of therapy. It’s that kind of experience along with my own personal experience of spirit-centered CBT that restored my excitement about CBT. That it’s not a superficial approach, it’s not a collection of hacks. It’s not just a way of tinkering with thoughts and behaviors, but it’s as deep an experience as we’ll allow it to be.



[01:43:42] Ashley James: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Seth, for coming on the show today and sharing with us. I definitely urge listeners to check out your podcast Think Act Be, and also go to learntruehealth.com/calm to check out your membership. Of course, the links to everything that Seth does including the cards, the decks, and the books are going to be in the show notes of today’s podcast at learntruehalth.com

It’s been such a pleasure having you on the show. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and mental health impacts our physical health. We can’t separate our mind, our heart, and our body. We are one, and we need to take as much time to foster a healthy heart, a healthy mind, along with a healthy body. I’m glad that we got to spend time today really focusing on that. It’s been such a pleasure having you on the show, and I’d love to have you back.


[01:44:48] Seth Gillihan: That’s beautifully said, Ashley, I really appreciate talking with you. Thank you for having me on your show. You really asked lovely questions and clearly know a lot in this area and care a lot, so thank you very much.


[01:45:04] Ashley James: I hope you enjoyed today’s interview with Seth Gillihan. Check out his online course. I think it’s such a valuable resource for us, especially in these trying times. Go to learntruehealth.com/calm to check out Seth’s online courses and all his materials—his resources. I know he’d love to see you there and love to see you join his online platform.

If you have any questions, feel free to jump in to the Learn True Health Facebook group and share, or if you have any great insights from today’s interview or any interview that you listen to, start up a conversation in Learn True Health Facebook group. We’d love to see you there, we’d love to connect and communicate with you. Go to learntruehealth.com/calm for more of Seth’s information and access to his online course and materials. Then go to learntruehealth.com/group, or just go to Facebook and search Learn True Health and join the Facebook group, join the discussion, and join a community that wants to support you and your success. Have yourself a fantastic rest of your day.


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