Big Think Interview With Jonny Bowden

A conversation with the nutritionist and author
  • Transcript


Question: How do “free radicals” contribute to aging?

Jonny Bowden: There are four basic processes that contribute to aging that affect every system in the body. One of them is something we call oxidation, or oxidative damage. The way it works is this; you’re got these rogue molecules called free radicals and they operate – they’re kind of like, if anyone remembers from chemistry, or biology, an oxygen molecule has electrons which circle around the center of the molecule. These electrons like to live in pairs. They do very well mated. They’re like the prairie voles; they just like to be with their mate. But once in a while, one gets free. And when one gets free it acts like a traveling salesman at Club Med for the first time and will just go around hitting on anybody trying to find a mate. Now, what it hits on is intact molecules, your cells, your DNA, and it damages them. It hits on them maybe 10,000 times a day. And this is what we call oxidative damage. It’s free radicals looking for a mate.

And you can see what oxidative damage looks like. If you leave something out in the rain, like a metal, it gets rusted. That’s oxidative damage. If you cut an apple and you put it outside in the sun, it gets oxidative damage, it turns brown. And this ages us from within. It hits every cell, our DNA, it causes mutations and it basically ages us from within. It’s kind of like rusting from within. So, oxidative damage is really from free radicals. It’s really one of the four processes that age us the most and I talk about it in the most effective ways to live longer.

Question: How does one protect themselves from the oxidation process?

Jonny Bowden: Well, the best way to fight oxidation is with anti-oxidants. That’s why they’re called anti-oxidants. And these are natural vitamins and some minerals and phytochemicals that are found in food and sometimes in supplements. They include vitamin C; the famous ones are vitamin C, vitamin E, the very underrated trace mineral selenium. Zinc is an antioxidant, and just dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of thousands of them in the plant kingdom that come under all kinds of categories, like flavonoids and phenols and all these things help fight oxidation by donating one of their electrons so the can kind of do damage control on the oxidation. And that’s why anti-oxidants is such an important part of an anti-aging strategy.

Question: What steps can we take to protect our brains from aging?

Jonny Bowden: Well, you have to understand that one of the things that ages the brain, besides oxidation, is something we call inflammation. That’s another of what I call the “Four Horsemen of Aging.” And antioxidants will protect the cells in the brain just as the will protect the cells in the rest of the body. You also to really protect the brain, you really need a lot of anti-inflammatories in your body. If you look at any disease process, whether it’s Alzheimer’s or dementia, or anything that affects the heart, or the bones, or muscles, there’s always inflammation as a component. It flies beneath the radar, it’s not the kind of inflammation that you feel necessarily, when you feel a pain in your knee or stub your toe and everything gets all red and inflamed. It’s a kind of subclinical inflammation that’s existing all the time and it happens in the brain. And you see that in autopsies of Alzheimer’s patients.

So, the more we can eat foods that have natural anti-inflammatories and take nutrients, supplements that are powerful anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, the better we protect the brain. And of course, things that have nothing to do with food, like exercise, because that gets oxygen into the brain and it helps keep the circulatory paths running and going. So, this kind of lifestyle; a lot of activity, and a lot of anti-inflammatories, and a lot of antioxidants, goes a long way towards protecting the brain.

Question: Are there any specific foods that protect the brain?

Jonny Bowden: Well, no food is all things to all people. I think of foods like friends. Like you’ve got a friend that you’d go to a basketball game with and he’s great for that, but maybe you wouldn’t talk to him about your marriage. And then you’ve got these people you can really open up to about your marriage, but maybe you don’t talk to them about the Australian Open when it’s going on. So, foods provide different things. Like foods like salmon. Wild salmon, so powerful with anti-inflammatories, like Omega 3’s, and protein. But maybe not very much in fiber, for example, which is something else that you need. So, no food gives us all of these things.

But the antioxidants and the anti-inflammatories tend to be really heavy in the fruit and vegetable kingdom. That’s one of the reasons that one of the few pieces of conventional nutrition wisdom that I tend to agree with is to eat more fruits and vegetables. And you can do that even if you are on a low carb diet. So, the more vegetables, things like apples and onions are loaded with a very powerful anti-inflammatory called cretiton, it’s found in apples and it’s found in onions. Of course, you can get it in supplements as well.

So, the foods in the fruits and vegetable kingdom, high quality proteins, and of course, the number one with the bullet with the most anti-inflammatory supplements on earth, Fish Oil, Omega 3’s. These things go a tremendous way toward extending life.

Question: How healthy is the low-carb diet?

Jonny Bowden: How healthy is a low-carb diet? Well, here’s the interesting thing. We talk about low-carb diets as if they are a fad diet. But in fact, the diet we are on is the biggest fad diet ever invented. For the 2.4 million years that the human genus has been on the planet, we did eat mostly a lower carb diet. We didn’t have agriculture until 10,000 years ago, so we basically ate from what I like to call the “Jonny Bowden four groups” which are foods that you could have hunted, fished, gathered, or plucked. So, we didn’t even really have growing until agriculture was invented. And we certainly didn’t have a grain-based society, and we certainly didn’t have processed carbs. So, basically this diet we’re told to eat, which is about 60% carbohydrates, is a very, very modern invention. And if you look at the results of it for the last 2, 3, 4 decades, they have not been good.

So I don’t really think of a lower carb or a controlled carbohydrate diet as a fad diet. I think of it as a much closer to the diet that we were kind of meant to run on. That does not mean we should eliminate carbohydrates from our diet, but it does mean we should really focus on carbohydrates that come from natural sources, from whole foods that don’t come with bar codes, that aren’t processed, and that don’t have sugar in them.

Question: What is the link between calorie restriction and lifespan?

Jonny Bowden: Calorie restriction has been shown in every species studied. And this goes from yeast and fruit flies to Reese’s Monkeys. Calorie restriction has been shown to extend life. There’s a lot of complicated reasons, a lot of hypotheses for why it does that, but the fact that it does that is not really in dispute. Now, when we talk about calorie restriction, people get very confused because what does that really mean, how much do I need to restrict. So, you’ve got to start with the premise that we’re all eating about a ton more calories than we need. And if you can reduce what you’re eating now by even a-third, a quarter, several things will happen. One is, it’s a lot less burden on the body, there’s a lot less insulin secreted, which has definitely got some connection to aging and certainly to things like metabolic syndrome and heart disease and diabetes. There’s a lot more chance you will be able to control your weight. So, calorie restriction doesn’t really have to be this horrible life of deprivation and there’s a calorie restriction society where they count ever gram of every thing, and they’re all very thin and they don’t look very happy, but they are very healthy. I don’t think we need to necessarily go to that level of commitment to get a lot of the benefits of just cutting back.

One of the things I talk about in The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer, is the strategy that comes from Okinawa. And they have a saying there and it’s called, hara hachi bu. And what it means is, push your butt away from the table when you’re about 75% full. Most of us eat too fast, so we don’t even give our bodies time for – there’s a hormone that’s made in the gut called CCK, it goes up to the brain and says, “Hey dude, you’ve had enough to eat.” Well, most of us eat so fast, we don’t even let that message get to the appetite centers. Slowing down, eating a little more mindfully and maybe pushing away when you’re about three-quarters, pleasantly full. You don’t really have to be stuffed. That is an enough of a calorie restriction strategy to get a lot of results with it.

Question: How unhealthy is a lack of sleep?

Jonny Bowden: Well there is a lot of things to say about sleep, both as an anti-aging strategy, as a weight loss strategy, believe it or not, and as a general strategy for health. I’d consider getting a good night’s sleep is definitely one of the five top strategies you can do to extend you life. And here’s why. A lot of stuff happens during sleep. Biochemicals are replaced, hormones, like melatonin are secreted and growth hormone. These are very, very important for human health.

We have adapted to this electrically based society in which lights are on all the time and computers are available all the time. And if you go back, again, to our heritage as a species, as the human species, we kind of went to bed when the sun went down and we woke up when the sun came back in. And that is closer to our natural biorhythms. So, we’re very sleep deprived. The standard advice is to get seven to eight hours. It’s not bad advice. But I am a big believer in biochemical individuality. I think people can adapt to a fairly wide range of foods and diets and sleep, but I don’t think we do well with four or five hours, and we certainly don’t do well with anxious sleep, interrupted sleep, and I don’t think that sleep gets the credit it should get as an anti-aging strategy.

If you look at these very long-lived cultures where these little pockets are around the world they are called the “Blue Zones” where people routinely live to 100. Now, they don’t take Ambien. They don’t have sleep problems. The sun goes down, they go to sleep. They have a good night’s sleep, they wake up in the morning and I think that goes a long way towards getting us back on track as far as our biology goes, as far as our biorhythms go, the replacement of our hormones, and I think it’s a very, very important and neglected part of health.

Question: What is the link between sleep and body weight?

Jonny Bowden: When you don’t sleep in an ideal way, when it’s restless and you wake up and you’ve got nightmares and you’ve got, or you run to the bathroom 10 times, or any of the things that tend to keep up through the night, you’re body sees that as a stressor. And it responds by releasing a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is the enemy, not only of health, but also of a lean body.

Cortisol sends a message to the body that you’re in an emergency state and you’d better refuel. It also sends a message to the body to store weight around the middle, which as we now know and is pretty much uncontested, that that is the most dangerous kind of fat. It’s the most metabolically active kind of fat, and you know the apple shape is definitely more dangerous in terms of diabetes and metabolic symptoms and heart disease than say the pear shaped distribution of fat. So, cortisol contributes to all of that.

When you’ve under slept, you also tend to overeat. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent the night doing an all-nighter, but the next day you will just grab anything because your body is sending a signal to refuel, refuel, emergency is coming. So, it has a very profound affect on weight. And there’s a lot of studies showing that sleep problems are very related to obesity. The less you sleep, or the more disturbed you sleep the greater you have sleep problems, the more risk there is for developing obesity. So, I think that a good night sleep, a deep restful sleep, without electricity, without computers in the bedroom is a very, very powerful strategy for keeping your weight where you want it to be. And keeping your weight where you want it to be is one of the strategies for living longer.

Question: What can people do to improve sleep?

Jonny Bowden: And there are things you can do to improve sleep. And they’re not expensive, in fact, they don’t cost anything. They’re just some strategies. The first one is, get the electronics out of the bedroom. Now, it’s really hard to get people to do that, it’s even hard for me to get the TV out, but I tell you, sleep improves. You’re bedroom is not a second office. I have bad news, we are not Hugh Heffner. We can’t do everything in bed. The bed really should be for the fun of what the bedroom is for and for rest and relaxation. And the more you can set it up that way. Get a dark room with the right temperature. Take your worries and put them on a list and leave them outside. They’ll be there in the morning. If you can go to bed a half hour early because we found it’s difficult to sleep in as a strategy. It’s much easier to add sleep if you just train yourself to go to bed a little bit earlier. These things are really very powerful strategy for health. For reducing stress, which is also one of the four horseman for aging, and for reducing cravings and for kind of getting you into hormonal balance that is conducive for you keeping your weight where you want it to be and your stress levels where they need to be.

Question: What effect does stress have on aging?

Jonny Bowden: I singled out four processes that I think age us. And they are systemic, and they operate on the heart and the brain and the lungs and the joints and the muscles and just about every system – the immune system and hormonal system. And one of them is stress. Now, stress doesn’t necessarily cause these diseases, although in some cases they can, but it exacerbates almost any condition you can mention.

Stress can cause an outbreak of Herpes Simplex, it can cause an outbreak of asthma, it can cause an outbreak of acne. And it can certainly make serious degenerative diseases a lot worse. So, there’s a very intimate connection between stress and aging. Stress shrinks – and when I talk about stress, I’m talking about the hormones that your body secretes in response to stressful situations, such as cortisol, or adrenaline. These hormones, particularly cortisol, actually shrink areas of the brain particularly the hippocampus, which has to do with thinking, memory, and cognition. And in studies lab animals who are under a great deal of stress actually have smaller hippocampuses. Their memory is impaired; their resources are spent dealing with the stress. So you find that when you are under a lot of stress, you don’t remember things as well. You don’t control your appetite as well because you can only concentrate on so many things and if one of them is the emergency that stress is the signal about, then controlling your appetite isn’t going to be high on the list. Digesting food isn’t going to be high on the list. You’re trying to survive. Stress is a very primitive signal to the body. It was meant to tell our Paleolithic ancestors that there’s a wooly mammoth coming and that you had better be able to run up a tree or pick up a club and fight him off. That’s why it’s called the “fight or flight” hormone.

Now these hormones keep us alive. They have tremendous survival purpose. But they weren’t meant to be on all the time. It’s kind of like the fifth gear in your car. They are not meant to be petal to the metal all the time. And unfortunately, most of us in the way that we live have that stress hormone dial turned up far more than it should be.

Question: How can we minimize stress in our lives?

Jonny Bowden: We do think that stress is not an easy thing to do in our current industrialized, westernized society. But there are some things that you can do to lower stress hormones, and they are very effective. One of them, and I would consider this to be one of the top anti-aging strategies I know of and I talk about it in the book, is deep breathing. And it doesn’t take that much.

There are a couple of things about deep breathing. Number one, when you take deep breaths, really deep, from the diaphragm, slow, conscious breaths in and out. That’s kind of incompatible with the stress response. That’s why people will tell you when somebody’s really angry, count to 10 or take a deep breath. Because we intuitively know that that’s not really compatible with the stress response; it lowers blood pressure, it lowers cortisol. So, meditation, which not everybody can do, and it’s tough for some people, it’s tough for me, works by doing exactly what deep breathing does. So, if you can’t meditate – if you can meditate all power to you, that’s probably the best stress reliever, or the best strategy for bringing down those stress hormones that has ever been tested. But if you can’t do that, even four to five minutes a day of just sitting quietly and doing deep breathing, counting in for four, out for four, and concentrating only on your breath. Anybody can do that for four minutes. I’m the most ADD high energy guy I know, and I can do it for four minutes. So, if you do that for four minutes a day, even a couple of times a day, you actually do kind of – it’s sort of like putting the – in a tea kettle, opening up that little thing to allow some pressure to escape. And it really does reduce the level of cortisol in the body and that goes a long way toward reducing overall systemic stress.

Another thing that you can do, and I talk about this also in the What to Do section of my Live Longer book, is make a gratitude list. Wake up in the morning and list 10 things you’re grateful for. The kinds of things we think about when we think about what we’re really grateful for is not compatible with anger and rage, and worry. And if we can just relax for a minute and put some attention, some mindful attention on the things we are grateful for, or things we could do for others. It really goes a long way towards balancing out that phoneticness that comes with stress, and it does relieve stress and reduce cortisol.

Question: What are the five most effective techniques for preventing heart disease?

Jonny Bowden: If I had to pick five strategies to reduce the risk of heart disease, I’m going to start with one that every conventional doctor in America that hears this is going to roll their eyes. But all the doctors that I work with, the cutting edge people are going to be nodding their heads. And here’s the first one. Stop worrying about cholesterol. Cholesterol does not cause heart disease. Cholesterol is a bad predictor of heart disease. Fully half the people with elevated cholesterol have perfectly normal hearts and half the people who get heart attacks have normal cholesterol. It’s a lousy predictor, it’s a $20 billion a year industry. We’re focused on the wrong thing.

Inflammation, number one with a bullet in terms of strategies that will help prevent the risk of heart disease is to reduce inflammation. Inflammation is the key here. Omega 3’s, the number one anti-inflammatory compound on the planet. That’s why even orthodox medical organizations have you eat fish twice a week. I would go further, I would say eat fish more often than twice a week and take Omega 3 supplements. These are very anti-inflammatory. Even cholesterol is not a problem until it becomes oxidized and until it becomes damaged. And so I think we’ve way, way over-concentrated on cholesterol and way under concentrated on real risk factors, like inflammation. So, that would be number one with a bullet.

The second would be to exercise every day. Even 30 minutes a day of walking, which will not make you look like Mr. Olympia, it’s not necessarily going to create a weight loss, but it has been shown to completely reduced – well not completely reduce, but significantly reduce the risk from dying from heart disease. It also has been shown to actually grow new brain cells; the gray matter of the brain actually gets larger in volume. So, walking 30 minutes a day would be top strategy for reducing the risk of heart disease.

Number three would be eating a lower sugar diet. Less calories, less sugar, less processed carbohydrates, more vegetables, fruits, proteins, fat, and I say good fat. My definition of good fat is not just any fat that is not saturated because there’s plenty of very healthy saturated fats. Non transfats, non fried foods. So, any of the mono unsaturated fats, any of the Omega 3’s, some saturated fats from whole foods like eggs, all of these things are part of a good diet that can certainly reduce heart disease but particularly when calories can be cut back a little, like we talked about earlier.

Number four, reduce stress. Stress contributes to not only to aging in general, but certainly is a contributory factor in heart disease and to the extent that you can reduce it, you have added to your arsenal of things that can reduce heart disease. Let me give you an example of that. It’s a fabulous study called “The Rosette Phenomenon.” And this was done in the early part of the 20th century. It’s an area in Pennsylvania where the people had probably the greatest risk for heart disease that anybody had ever seen. They were smokers; they worked in the mines, in areas where the most stressful conditions and breathing god knows what. They smoked, they ate a terrible diet, and doctors observed that they had one of the lowest rates of heart disease anybody had ever seen. It’s certainly not what you would predict from their risk factors. How did this happen? How did this phenomenon, now known as The Rosetta Phenomena happen.

And what they found were, these were Italian immigrants who were very close knit. They stayed in the same community, they had dinner together, they had community events together, they were connected to the people in their communities, and this was such a powerful anti-aging and anti-heart disease strategy that it actually tended to mitigate these enormous risk factors in their diet and their lifestyle. That’s how important lowering stress is, and you can do that, again, not just with the deep breathing, but by community connections; outreach, doing things for others, making gratitude lists, deep breathing, thinking about joyous things, pursuing your bliss. All of that stuff would be one of the most powerful strategies I can think of to reduce the risk of heart disease.

And probably number five would be. Take the right supplements. Eat the right food and take the right supplements. A lot of supplements are very heart healthy. Coenzyme Q10, which by the way is depleted enormously by the number one drug that people are on in this country for heart disease which is statin drugs. They eat up CoQ10, which is one of the most important nutrients for the heart. Vitamin D, and again Omega 3’s, and that’s probably number one with a bullet.

It’s a fabulous strategy. So, between reducing inflammation, exercising every day, a lower sugar diet, reducing stress, and taking the right supplements I think is a very powerful strategy for reducing heart disease.

Question: What foods can boost our immune systems?

Jonny Bowden: Improving immunity is something that’s on a lot of people’s minds, and for good reason. And we all have this experience of working in an office and three people get sick and they’re out for two weeks, and then one person gets the bug and he’s back the next day, and one person doesn’t get anything. We’re all exposed to the same germs. But how well we defend against it depends very much on our individual makeup. And since the immune system, like every other system of the body runs on nutrients, getting the right diet and eating the right nutrients goes a long way towards making your immune system run like an efficient engine.

Now, we concentrate a lot on Vitamin C, that’s kind of the “go to” nutrient, and it’s very important, but zinc is probably equally, if not more important. Vitamin A is an enormous immune system booster, the things that are found in all the red foods; cantaloupe and carrots. Vitamin A, very strong immune system booster.

I’m a big fan of Olive Leaf Complex. Now you know, olive oil gets a lot of press because it’s such a healthy fat, but actually the emerging evidence is showing that it may not be the fat that’s in the olive oil, but that it’s a delivery system for these fantastic polyphenols that are found in the olive plant. So, I take, for example, Olive Leaf Complex every day. I think it’s very anti-microbial. It’s been found in studies to be very effective against a lot of microbes, so that’s a good immune system booster. And again, a diet that is really rich in these nutrients will support a well-working, well-oiled immune system.

Question: What do you feel is the biggest misconception about aging?

Jonny Bowden: There is so many misconceptions about aging, it’s hard to pick one. But I’m a big fan of the work of Ellen Langler at Harvard. She’s a psychologist who has done some remarkable studies on how our mind influences how we age. One of which I’ll tell you about very briefly.

She took some very ancient people, who were pretty impaired in terms of their strength, their mobility, and believed about themselves that they pretty much needed assistance to do every thing. She took them on this brilliantly designed study. She actually took them to a cabin and set everything up as if it were 1950. There were no newspapers, nothing that related to the present. The music was the 1950’s, the discussion were things that were going on in the 1950’s, so she actually took them back to a place in which they – to a decade in which they were very much more able.

Within a week, not only did their blood lipids improve, their posture improved, their strength improved, their test of memory improved. They actually had a different self-concept about their chronological age and they behaved differently. And the things you could measure, like blood lipids and strength and mobility had actually improved.

So, our ideas about aging are very, very important and they have profound effects on the cellular energy and the way we – everything about us is influenced by the way we think about what’s going to happen in aging. So, if you think of aging that is something that’s inevitable, and you’re going to slow down and you’re not going to be able to do what you used to do, believe me, that’s going to happen.

Now, does that mean that nothing ever slows down or makes a difference? I don’t run as fast as I used to, but I also play singles tennis every day and do a lot of the things that people my age are not supposed to be able to do, and I think that when you stay active and you stay engaged and you stay involved and you look forward to things, you send a different message to every cell in your body about what’s going on and what you’re capable of doing. So, I would say, number one with a bullet, stop believing everything everyone told you about how you need to age.

In the studies on the blue zones, they found people who were 94 years old who were out at 4:30 in the morning milking cows, and they had all their faculties. So, the Black Swan Theory is if there’s one black swan that means not all swans have to be white. So, I actually really do believe that our attitudes and our belief systems have profound effects on how we age and when we can change that and make it more optimistic and more forward looking, more engaged, we do a tremendous disservice to ourselves and to our communities and we do a lot to combat aging.

Recorded on: January 28, 2010