HILDA LABRADA GORE: My guest today is Thaddeus Owen, the Primal Hacker. Thaddeus takes the best of ancestral practices in today’s modern world to optimize health. He explains why diet alone may not be enough to get us to where we want to be and suggests that light and temperature are the missing pieces to our wellness. Thaddeus is a health expert with a master’s degree in holistic nutrition and a bachelor of science in chemical engineering. He educates us about the benefits of natural sunlight and being outdoors. He warns us about the biological confusion that occurs when our bodies are exposed to the blue light emitted by our many screens and even our LED and CFL light bulbs. But Thaddeus doesn’t just leave it there. He gives us the science behind what’s going on and he offers plenty of practical advice to go from just so-so, average health to optimized health.
If anyone were to see you today Thaddeus I don’t think they would have any idea that you once struggled with high anxiety and health issues. Can you tell us a little bit about that journey?
Thaddeus Owen: Yes, absolutely. Now I give very large presentations to big groups of people and am out in the forefront on social media for the things that I talk about. But ten years ago, I never thought that I’d be doing this. For my entire life I had very, very high anxiety. I didn’t know why and it was very hard to solve. I actually ended up going on medication for a year and then weaned myself off as I was searching for the answer. I began looking thoroughly into health and nutrition and ended up getting a holistic nutrition master’s degree. For that master’s degree, one of the sections I had to learn was on traditional foods and the Wise Traditions diet. I got into the Weston Price style of living, and that is actually what led me down the path of this concept called biohacking, which is a fairly niche concept. But the long and short is I adopted the Wise Traditions diet. I tipped over into this biohacking niche, solved my own anxiety issue, and found out what the root cause was, how to fix it, and how to help other people do the same thing. Through that journey not only have I helped other people with how to think about health and nutrition, but learned that a lot of these ancestral practices have so much more than just nutrition at their foundation.
There are actually two other things in addition to nutrition that I think are super-important and can help people overcome a number of health issues. My own anxiety was overcome through having the right diet—getting my brain and whole body the right nutrients it needed—doing the very difficult inner, emotional work that most people, me included, are afraid to do and even talk about with anyone else. And then using some of these biohacking techniques that merge ancient traditions, overcome modern technology and solve the problems of indoor living, I was able to overcome my anxiety problems, never to return in five years now. It was very powerful. I am doing things I never thought I would do before.
HLG: That is so fantastic. Now, help me understand biohacking because what comes to mind when I hear that term is a person who has a cabinet full of supplements and they’re willing to do anything to improve their health. And maybe they’re going to CrossFit daily and are super intense. If that’s a misperception, tell us what it means to be a biohacker.
TO: At its essence, biohacking is about optimizing human biology. We know so much about ancient practices and about the human body from modern science. By taking a look at ancient practices that worked and the modern science of human biology, quantum mechanics, quantum physics and quantum biology—we are now understanding more about how the human body works so that in biohacking we take advantage of all that information so that the environment outside of us, meaning where we live, and the environment inside our body are both truly optimized for better health and longevity. Rather than focusing on having average health by taking supplements or doing whatever it is to create the level of average health that most doctors and medical professionals talk about, we strive for optimal health. And we do that by utilizing appropriate technology to overcome our indoor, sedentary, toxic and modern lifestyle and utilizing ancient practices that humans have used forever to be healthy.
HLG: I see. I guess I was stereotyping the biohacker when really, it’s a person who doesn’t want to settle for less than being as strong physically and mentally as possible and live their best life.
TO: Absolutely. The term “biohacking” can turn some people off and it sounds kind of tech-y. It can bring up images of people that go all in on supplements, high technology and expensive gadgets. But really at the bottom of it is how to make yourself optimally healthy. Each person is unique and what I have found is that often if you study and practice on yourself, you don’t need supplements, expensive gadgets and other high-tech objects. There are very basic things that you can do.
HLG: Is that why you call yourself a primal hacker instead of a biohacker?
TO: Yes, absolutely. Part of my journey was delving deep into the biohacking world and doing all the supplements and buying the technology. It’s like every modern person who is aspiring to get the latest phone and the latest gadget—it’s the same race that happens in biohacking. What I found was that ultimately this lifestyle wasn’t very healthy. I wanted to separate my burgeoning philosophy of how to be healthy with this new term. My idea incorporates part of biohacking in that we want to optimize health using all the available information and technology. I see it as merging the ancestral and ancient practices of health, nutrition, movement and information that we gain from our environment to help overcome a modern lifestyle where we’re inside 90 percent of the time. We have more electromagnetic radiation around us than at any point in human history—up to eighteen times more radiation than ever before, everywhere on the planet. Plus there are other factors to consider such as our soils which are losing certain minerals that aren’t being added back. So even if you were to live like a caveman or practice only ancestral practices, you might not be optimally healthy because of other factors.
There is an appropriate time and place for technology. However, what we recommend is going to the technology and supplement solution last after you first fix your environment.
HLG: Please take us from the theoretical to the practical and tell us one way we might live more like our ancestors did.
TO: What I have found in all of my research, all of my studying and all of my self-practice that made the most difference in my personal life and makes the most difference from a research standpoint is morning sunlight. Morning sunlight is accessible to everybody. It is 100 percent free. Our ancestors certainly would have been outdoors during the morning sunrise. The time when the sun is rising in the morning is a magical time that sets our body’s circadian rhythm. The Nobel prize in 2017 was given for circadian biology and recognizing how important it is to human health. Morning sunlight sets your circadian rhythm for the whole day. It builds hormones in your body that you need, such as melatonin and thyroid hormone, and it programs a bunch of information into your body through your eyes and skin that we now have all the latest science on. Based on an ancestral practice just being outside barefoot on the ground in the morning sunlight provides this needed information that keeps our body optimally healthy. Everybody can do it, and it is free.
HLG: Wow, this is so different from how most of us live. Not only are we not getting morning sun, but we might not get any sun on any given day.
TO: It is an unfortunate aspect of modern life that we often watch what we call “screen rise” instead of going outside to look at the sunrise. When people first wake up, they often turn on the phone to get messages or a laptop to get right to work. You’re flooding your body with light information. Most people don’t think of light as “information,” but all those texts and emails are going through the air as information, and our devices pick them up with antennas. Our body also picks up this information from the environment. Most people live indoors 90 percent of the time and are addicted to their technology, phones and social media—staying in contact with everyone—and turning on the artificial overhead lights, like LED and compact fluorescent lights. These devices and indoor lighting offer one bit of information. It’s blue, it has very high spikes of blue light. That blue light is constantly giving our body the information that it’s always summertime in the middle of the day. The modern lifestyle is providing lots of information to people without them necessarily knowing that they’re getting it through their eyes and skin into their brain and bodies. Yet everyone is going along and many have high anxiety, depression, mitochondrial disease without finding out the solution or cause.
HLG: In our Wise Traditions circles, we say that food is information, so it makes sense to me that light could be information as well. And in these same circles we also talk about food, farming and the healing arts and look for wisdom in those categories. What you are talking about definitely falls in the healing arts category. But why is it that the food component isn’t sufficient to help us live as our ancestors did?
TO: My three tenets are light, temperature and food. Food is 100 percent information, not just the vitamins and minerals in it, but food also provides light information. And that’s something most of us don’t think about. Where your food was grown had a certain amount of ultraviolet light—of red light and blue light. That plant absorbed those photons from the sun and made carbohydrates and other things inside the plant by absorbing these particles and waves from sunlight, and embedded that in the plant as information. When we eat those plants or animals that ate those plants, our body receives that sunlight information. If we’re purchasing food from the coast of California but living in northern Wisconsin, that information that our body is receiving may not be appropriate to where we live because our body is trying to deconstruct that light information, even from food, including the vitamins and minerals that are included in that food that may be different from our local environment.
There is more information that comes from the sun and light than we even know. Our body has receptors for light information. Two of the main receptors are called melanopsin and neuropsin. The job of these two receptors is to take information from sunlight and translate it into our body to build the correct hormones, tell our body what time of day it is and set our internal clocks and keep us healthy.
Basically, neuropsin measures ultraviolet light. The day starts out with no ultraviolet light at sunrise; it becomes increasingly stronger throughout the day; and it wanes and goes away at sunset. Our body actually picks up those changes in ultraviolet light and tells our body what time of day it is, setting our circadian biology.
Melanopsin is in our eyes and skin and picks up blue light from the sun. Blue light starts out in the morning, increases during the day and then starts to decrease and goes away at night. Moonlight and firelight have almost zero blue light. When we turn on an LED or CFL light or a device after sunset, it provides blue light to your skin and eyes, telling your melanopsin receptors that it’s daytime and to stop producing melatonin, which gives us the benefits of sleep. Melatonin is the body’s master anti-cancer hormone. Instead, the body starts producing cortisol to keep us awake and alert because it thinks it’s daytime.
There’s a ton more information that programs other hormones and neurotransmitters in our body that come directly from light, but that’s just one example of how light information directly affects us and our health.
HG: Maybe this is why people have trouble falling asleep after they’ve been on their computer, phone or watching TV, because that blue light interferes with their natural circadian rhythm.
TO: Yes, this is huge. I gave a TEDx talk a year ago on this exact subject. I did a lot of research for that talk on blue light and especially artificial light at night. There are thousands of research studies that have directly studied artificial light and its effect on sleep. Harvard Medical School released an article around 2016 summarizing this topic and the American Medical Association in 2017 sent a letter warning cities not to install LED streetlights because blue light in LEDs negatively affects human health. Light at night affects sleep by destroying your melatonin and increasing cortisol, which is the stress hormone. If you are watching television and fall asleep even for eight hours, you might wake up still feeling tired because you are missing out on the rejuvenating benefits of sleep by exposing yourself to light at night.
HLG: I’ve seen articles and maybe even read the studies you’ve talked about, and yet even though I have the knowledge, it’s very difficult to apply. In other words, I think we’re really addicted to our devices.
TO: Here’s an interesting thing. We know from studies that being out in full spectrum sunlight increases dopamine in our brains. It’s a pleasure hormone and also the hormone of addiction. So the sun is almost making us addicted to being outside. When we live mostly indoors with blue-shifted light, we lose that dopamine hit from being outside and tend to then over-indulge in social media, which for a very brief time increases dopamine. We keep going back for more and more dopamine hits because we’re not getting the natural dopamine we get from being outdoors.
HLG: So you said light, temperature and food are part of the biohacking optimal health plan. I still don’t quite get why food isn’t enough.
TO: I wish it was that easy. You look at all the different diets, and new diets keep coming out, and people keep looking for more superfoods. It’s because diet alone doesn’t work. And if we simply look at what Dr. Price studied when he went around the world and looked at indigenous cultures, not only were they eating a native diet, but every one of them was connected to the outdoor environment. They all were getting natural light through their eyes and on their skin. None of them were living a completely indoor lifestyle.
If we think about just eating the right foods, one of the things we have to understand about the information contained in food is that in those indigenous diets, somebody living in a northern climate would not have access to carbohydrates all year round. When you begin eating carbohydrates, but you’re exposed to outdoor or indoor lighting situations that tell your body it’s winter, it is a challenge because your body is made to burn fat potentially during winter, not carbohydrates. So just eating the right foods but eating too many carbohydrates in the winter tells your body that it’s still summertime while the light information is telling your body it’s wintertime. There’s a mismatch in that information and it causes confusion in the body.
Food is important but combining that with the right light environment is key. Also when blue light hits the melanopsin receptor, DHA is destroyed. So when DHA is destroyed there are mechanisms that recycle it. But if we’re never outdoors in the right light environment, those recycling mechanisms start to lose the DHA as it gets destroyed over and over in the blue light environment we’re in. So eating the right amount of DHA-containing foods and protecting yourself from too much blue light then increases your overall health.
We know that high omega-3 and DHA in the body are very beneficial, and the reason people are deficient is not just that they’re not eating enough; it’s because the light that they’re exposed to is destroying some of the DHA that they eat.
HLG: It’s almost like the light is the secret sauce to help us get the most out of the very food we’re eating. Let’s pivot for a moment and talk about temperature. How can we be more primal or ancestral in our approach to the temperature we’re in?
TO: This is more critical than I realized. I was focused on food first and then on light, but all of a sudden as I was doing this research it dawned on me because I came across so many studies on temperature and its effect on human physiology. Humans were designed to use cold. We were never designed—or evolved depending on your belief system—to live in an indoor environment at 70 degrees Fahrenheit all the time. We get into our SUVs and turn on our heated seat, go to our heated garages, our heated offices, the heated gym—we are living at 70 degrees for our entire lives. In the summer we use air conditioning to be cooler than the outdoor temperature and keep us again at 70 degrees.
We know there are pathways in the brain that make use of cold. And there are systems that get turned on in the body. Our DNA has epigenetics and our environment dictates what genes are expressed in our DNA. If we’re never cold, we’re never expressing these genes that are coded in our body for cold. In fact, those genes help us stay alive longer and stay much healthier. Both getting cold and getting hot like a sauna have massive benefits to athletic performance, longevity, inflammation, muscle acquisition and fat loss.
Today people are doing “cold thermogenesis protocols” which use cold to lose fat, and there are also sauna protocols. We’ve seen data from Finland where people who use saunas often have a longer lifespan. They live longer the more they use saunas and get hot.
Getting our body uncomfortably hot and uncomfortably cold has very big benefits and actually is a lot easier and less uncomfortable than you might think if you do it the right way.
HLG: This is fascinating. And it reminds me of that viral video of children in some Scandinavian country who get in a sauna and then run outside and play in the snow in their underwear. This is part of the Wise Traditions, isn’t it?
TO: It is. There are easy ways to do this that can be accessible to most people. Essentially, we’re not experiencing the temperature fluctuations we need to be fully human and fully healthy. It is super-appropriate to just get outside as often as possible. In a cold environment, your body will adapt. There is such a thing as cold adaptation and it will take more or less time depending on the technique that you’re using. Once you’re cold-adapted, you’re very resilient to cold and interestingly, you’re more resilient to heat as well. You can stand longer times in hotter temperatures with less stress, and your body will actually have less stress overall from any situation the more cold-adapted you are. It can be as simple as turning down the temperature in your house, even just at night. You can roll down the windows once in a while when you’re driving in the fall or winter and go outside with fewer clothes. Bring a hat and gloves with you and cover up when you really need to, but try to go longer and longer outdoors without as many layers, and your body will cold-adapt. There are some special techniques that allow you to do this faster and more intensely and also safely. But your body is made to cold-adapt and if we never experience that, I don’t think we can have ultimate longevity and health.
HLG: This is really drawing me in and I’ve actually been working on cold adaptation. I’ve been going outside with a light jacket instead of a heavy jacket. To my surprise, it hasn’t been as hard as I expected. It is cool to see my resiliency and realize I can manage the cold better than I anticipated. But going back to your point, you’re not just bringing these facts out of thin air. You have looked at studies and you’re convinced that temperature fluctuation is good for our health and longevity.
TO: Yes, there are quite a number of studies on sauna and cold use, especially NASA astronauts getting cold. Scientists have looked at sherpas and noted how they have such high performance and are so cold-adapted. I then began experimenting on myself, and I look at others who have done experimentation and have seen results. It’s not just that I see and believe the data, I try these out on myself to see whether it works. I can then tell others about my personal experience.
HLG: I know football players or other athletes who take ice baths after a competition. so it seems that some of this thinking is out in the conventional world as well.
TO: It is, and most people commonly look to ice to reduce inflammation. You don’t want to do it after weight lifting because your body will drop inflammation too quickly and not allow your body to adapt to the weight you just lifted and to build additional muscle. But after an athletic event where you do need to recover quickly and get back to training, it’s a great way to reduce inflammation and improve performance. What most medical doctors and athletic trainers are not looking at is that not only can cold reduce inflammation but also it can improve athletic performance. The head trainer of the Washington Wizards basketball team attended our retreat. He is doing biohacking for the Wizards. This idea is not well known or well-studied yet the research is out there. And the anecdotal evidence from people who are using it, including from Lance Armstrong, is very compelling.
HLG: In the show notes on our podcast page for this interview we have put links to articles from your blog about heat and cold therapy (primalhacker.com/blog/primalhacker-cold-thermogenesis) and some of the studies that you’ve mentioned, because we really want to wrap our minds around these concepts. Thaddeus, the final question: If the listener could do only one thing to improve his or her health, what would you recommend that they do?
TO: I’ll go with what I have found most beneficial in my life and from what I’ve learned from the medical research—it will benefit every human on the planet. Get outside within forty-five minutes of sunrise in the morning and, if possible, stand barefoot. Do this just five minutes minimum. If you can just get outside at sunrise for five minutes for three weeks, believe me, it will change your health.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2019