I wish that I could tell you that, in my journey to better understand health, I came upon conclusions through insight, an examination of science, of epiphanies that showed me the way. It did indeed involve such efforts, but I also learned many lessons by making huge health mistakes and blundering my way to the truth.
We all hopefully learn from our mistakes. The real tragedy, of course, is to make mistakes and not learn from them. Had I not made these huge blunders, I would not have extracted the lessons that they could convey.
It was therefore my mistakes that yielded, time and again, insights into answers to many health questions. Let me therefore recount the many blunders I have made over the years that taught me new lessons in health:
- A diet dominated by wheat and grains is disastrous—I did not understand at first that a diet weighed heavily in favor of bagels, pancakes, rolls, and breakfast cereals leads to massive weight gain, metabolic disasters such as high blood sugars, as well as reduced functioning. After all, haven’t we all been advised by dietary guidelines and dietitians that we should cut our fat and eat more “healthy whole grains”? Personally, I did not understand why I could not sit for more than few minutes without falling asleep, why I found myself with no energy much of the day, why my moods seem to be dominated by cycles of fatigue and anger.
- Cutting dietary fat—Reducing your intake of butter, fats from meats, olive oil, etc. paves the way for an increase in carbohydrates, especially those from wheat and grains. I did this nearly 30 years ago, based on the awful advice of Dr. Dean Ornish who advocated an ultra-strict low-fat vegetarian lifestyle, and I gained about 30 pounds of weight and watched my triglycerides skyrocket to 390 mg/dl, my HDL drop to 27 mg/dl, developed huge amounts of small LDL particles (by NMR testing) that cause heart disease, and become a type 2 diabetic with fasting glucoses of around 160 mg/dl. Becoming a non-vegetarian and not limiting my fat reversed the entire picture. (Dr. Ornish claims, via his Lifestyle Heart Trial, to have reversed coronary disease. But an examination of the study reveals the flawed and misleading methods used that did not demonstrate reversal of disease. See this Wheat Belly Blog discussion about the huge and fundamental mistakes made in this trial.)
- Taking a statin drug to “reduce cholesterol“—The first time I took Lipitor about 30 years ago caused me to be bedridden for a couple of days. I almost never call in sick for work but, after taking Lipitor, I couldn’t work for several days. This made me question the notion that statin cholesterol drugs were benign. It took several years and many lipoprotein analyses in my patients to conclude that “reducing cholesterol” was a fool’s errand and that correction of more detailed lipoprotein abnormalities, such as reducing small LDL and VLDL particles, was far more productive and effective.
- Believing that coronary disease was a disease best managed with procedures—I spent many years performing thousands of heart procedures such as angioplasty, atherectomies, stent implantations, etc. spending 8, 10, even 12 hours per day in the cath lab. But it took my mother’s sudden cardiac death after a “successful” two vessel coronary angioplasty to illustrate to me how ineffective procedural solutions to this disease were. This provided my motivation to help set up Milwaukee Heart Scan to generate coronary calcium scores to detect, quantify, and track early coronary disease and thereby avert heart attacks and sudden cardiac death. Tracking coronary calcium scores also led to the conclusion that a low-fat diet and a statin drug does virtually nothing to stop the progression of this disease, even though my cardiology colleagues foolishly continue to call these ineffective strategies “optimal medical therapy.”
- Embracing the notion that, if there is a health problem, there is a drug to “treat” it—If blood pressure is high, prescribe a diuretic or ACE inhibitor. If triglycerides are high, prescribe a statin or fibrate drug. If atrial fibrillation rears its ugly head, prescribe anticoagulants, agents to slow heart rate, antiarrhythmics to convert the rhythm back to normal. Over and over again, the notion that we treat a disease with some drug backfires in so many unexpected ways. Reducing cholesterol with statin drugs sets us up for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Taking a stomach acid-blocking drug provides temporary relief from acid reflux but buys us long-term dysbiosis and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, SIBO, that then leads to irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, and neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. A much smarter and effective path is to address the factors that allow such health conditions to emerge in the first place. If someone shows a high blood triglyceride value of, say, 500 mg/dl, I used to prescribe a statin drug, fibrate such as gemfibrozil, niacin, and fish oil. Today, it has become clear that not consuming wheat, grains, and sugar (that fuel de novo lipogenesis), addressing common nutrient deficiencies that allow insulin resistance, and addressing dysbiosis to reduce endotoxemia reduce triglycerides to the ideal range (60 mg/dl or less) with no drugs required.
- Ignoring the intestinal microbiome—Ignoring the intestinal microbiome, i.e., the extraordinary collection of microbes housed in our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts, is among the biggest blunders I’ve made over the years. Anyone who ignores the health of their intestinal microbiomes is ignoring a huge factor in their health: mental and emotional health, metabolic health, intestinal health. Some of the most important and exciting strategies in health will be coming from insights into the intestinal microbiome such as the L. reuteri yogurt that restores many aspects of youthfulness and cultivates empathy.
I’ve made my share of mistakes in health over the years. But if I had not made myself a type 2 diabetic, or not tracked the coronary calcium scores of many people on useless statin drugs, or continued to believe that something like a high triglyceride level was an opportunity for drug treatment, I would still be trapped in the conventional healthcare model of largely useless or harmful “treatments.” Profit from my mistakes and recognize that you have astounding power in your own hands to seize control over health. While the doctor continues to believe that health comes from his prescription pad, pharmaceuticals, and procedures, you know better than that. And the results you can obtain are dramatically superior to the “health” that the doctor can provide.