Hilda Labrada Gore: Philip Weeks is one of the leading natural health experts in the U.K. He is a master herbalist, registered acupuncturist and naturopath. He’s studied a variety of approaches to wellness all around the world, and he has a real knack for communicating important health concepts in terms that are both easy to understand and easy to apply to our lives. I’m going to start right off the bat by challenging you. You’ve written a book entitled Make Yourself Better. That’s a big claim in a title. What’s the reality? How is this supposed to happen?
Philip Weeks: I mean that the body knows what it needs to do to get well but for that to happen we need to do basic things: we need to eat the right kinds of foods, we need to get the toxins out of our body, we need to live a certain lifestyle. My whole aim with what I do is to help patients empower themselves with their lifestyle and changes, in order to optimize the body’s ability to repair itself.
HG: So what’s step one? What’s the first thing to do in order to improve your health?
PW: I begin by discussing constitution, because everybody’s different. We all know people who can eat what they like, drink what they like, smoke what they like and they’re really well, while other people have to eat pure food, have a perfect lifestyle, and even then they’re only just okay. So fundamental in natural medicine is understanding that we’re all different. I know that’s obvious but in Western medicine that isn’t necessarily seen as obvious. The first step to recovery or being at our optimum health is fundamentally knowing that we’re different and there’s different constitutional types and different medical systems around the world. There’s different ways of understanding biotypes, different body frames, different outlooks on life, different ways that our bodies process different nutrients. And, of course, some of the most interesting advances recently involve testing our genetic and our SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), how our genetics change according to our environment—whether genes turn on or off. That does not mean that genes are our destiny but they’re very important for understanding what we need to do to be well. That’s the first step: understanding ourselves more, what our constitutional health is, and then our lifestyle should be aligned with our body type.
HG: So, for example, when you talk about constitution, I have a friend who catches colds all the time. How she chooses to improve her health may be different than what I choose to do, right?
PW: Right. The first thing I discuss with patients is the fact that you can’t compare yourself with somebody else. For example, I have a patient in her mid-seventies now, and she’s incredible. She only needs five hours sleep at night, she’s up in the morning, she does loads of things, she has loads of energy. But other people are not like that. Others may say, “I wish I was like her.” But you’re not going to be like her; you’re just going to be yourself. The important thing is understanding your own body, the way that you work and then making the best out of what you have. As soon as we start comparing ourselves with other people and thinking we should be more like them, it’s really a road to disease in many ways.
HG: Right, because actually, our attitude affects our health as well, correct?
PW: Yes, health depends on so many different factors; it’s not just our food and our lifestyle—it’s also our beliefs and our emotions and our connections with people in the world and community—all these different things. All of these factors are very important for our wellbeing.
HG: If you have a bad relationship with your spouse, you feel that in your stomach, right? Your stomach is tied up in knots, you can’t even enjoy your food and digest things properly.
PW: Our emotional wellbeing and our mental wellbeing aren’t separate from our physical being. I test patients’ cortisol levels, for example, to see the levels of stress they are under and how well their adrenal glands are functioning. We know that emotional stress affects the body biochemically in the blood in the same way that physiological stress does. The brain doesn’t really recognize the difference so we are a very complex blend of our emotions, our spiritual wellbeing, our physical wellbeing—all of these things come together. I actually never wonder why people are ill; I only ever wonder why people are still well. With our environment, with our food, with all the challenges that we have, it’s incredible how well people are, considering all those things.
HG: The resilience of the human body, right?
PW: It’s extraordinary! Still, the first step is nourishment. What are we supposed to eat? I’m still finishing my master’s degree in nutrition and I’ve done all kinds of different training throughout my working life, but it’s a confusing question, isn’t it? We could be talking all day to so many different experts around the world about what we should eat, and we get different kinds of answers. The simple answer is that we need to eat food.
HG: Got it!
PW: It sounds obvious but that’s not what’s happening anymore. Much of what is classified as “food” isn’t really food. The additives, the chemicals, the kinds of preservatives added—if you think about it, we really should only be eating food that we can make at home—food that our grandmothers, our grandfathers would have understood as food. You can’t go into your kitchen and make margarine—you would need machinery and chemicals, it can’t be done. Can we make textured soya protein at home? No you can’t, so why should we be eating it? Without getting too complicated, the fundamental thing is we need to be eating simple food—that’s stuff we can make at home, stuff we can prepare ourselves. That’s the first level and then we can go into more detail about what kinds of fat should we be eating. There’s a lot of debate about what kinds of fats we should be eating but, again, if you look at the foods of traditional cultures, they’re eating saturated fat for sure, and they’re eating a variety of fats. Many of the patients I see have become ill as a result of our lowfat food recommendations through the years.
HG: So why do conventional doctors continue to push lowfat?
PW: There’s lots of reasons. The logic is that people who have heart disease tend to have furring of the arteries, hardening of the arteries, and some studies showed that heart disease is associated with high cholesterol. Then they analyzed food; foods high in cholesterol tend to be high in saturated fat also. Therefore, so the logic goes, saturated fat causes heart disease. So that’s where it began and that myth is continuing. However, a high-saturated-fat-diet doesn’t necessarily result in high cholesterol in the blood. In fact, some people are thinking that cholesterol is more related to inflammation—that if you have inflammation in the body, the body will be producing its own cholesterol in order to have an anti-inflammatory effect. Fat in itself is anti-inflammatory. However, our central adipose tissue—that’s the fat around our belly—is associated with inflammation. We also know that a high-carbohydrate diet can increase triglycerides and cholesterol. The type of cholesterol in the body is also a factor. Oxidized cholesterol can contribute to the buildup of plaque, so people can have a low overall cholesterol count but if the cholesterol is oxidized it’s more dangerous than having high cholesterol in your bloodstream.
HG: I actually have heard and read more studies coming out in the mainstream media that fat is no longer the culprit.
PW: It is encouraging but there’s still this myth that you need to have lowfat foods. But the high-carbohydrate diet, especially a high-sugar diet, is much more of an enemy to us than saturated fat. And recently, there’s been studies showing that heating up vegetable oil creates oxidation in the body which could be carcinogenic, so vegetable oils can cause more problems than saturated fats.
HG: The name “vegetable oil” makes them sound healthy.
PW: It sounds awesome. It’s a vegetable, right? What can be wrong with vegetables? But this oil is not coming from vegetables, and how do they process it anyway? I recommend butter, I recommend saturated fat. I use a lot of ghee in my clinic. The colder the climate, the more saturated fat we need. The Inuits are eating a diet that’s incredibly high in fat—something like 70 percent of calories as fat– almost like a ketogenic diet. A diet so high in fat may not be so necessary in California. So there are some basic things: we need to eat food, we do need to have saturated fat, and we shouldn’t be eating refined carbohydrates.
HG: As someone recently pointed out to me, preservatives are there to keep the food intact; but when we try to digest food, the object is to break it down and activate the nutrients, get them into your body, so the preservatives are fighting our body’s digestive process. Right?
PW: Yes, processed, refined foods are not designed to be consumed. They’re not designed to be consumed by bacteria, they’re not designed to be consumed by fungi, they’re not designed to be consumed by organic life—but then we’re eating them. The ingredients in them aren’t food. It’s about going back to the basic principle of what we can make at home. Of course, then we can drill down into more detail, such as the issue with gluten. You know, gluten used to be a food for most people, but like many clinicians today, I’m seeing an increase in not just celiac disease but nonceliac gluten intolerance. For many people today, gluten is inflammatory, it aggravates neurological tissues. Anyone with an autoimmune disease, anyone with a neurological disease fundamentally needs to avoid gluten.
HG: What else should we do to make ourselves better?
PW: The next step involves detoxification. Our grandparents lived on a planet that was organic. It was organic but we’re no longer on that planet; we live on a planet that is full of different chemicals and toxins. I do different kinds of blood tests—we even do fat biopsies—and we find all kinds of things. I’ve never come across a patient who doesn’t have some kind of environmental poisoning, maybe very low levels but everyone has something. The most common things are plastics and phthalates—things like Bisphenol-A, which is a xenoestrogen added to plastic to make the bottles harder. These things affect our hormonal systems. I also find heavy metals, and lots of other things.
HG: No wonder you’re in wonder that we’re surviving—in spite of the toxins that your tests are finding in our bloodstreams.
PW: Yes, and this explains why the kind of diseases that affected our grandparents in their old age are now affecting our children. Today we are seeing type 2 diabetes and even heart disease in children. We are aging earlier because we’ve got oxidative stress and environmental toxins. The body is wearing out at a young age.
HG: You were talking about the organic environment. It just made me think that people who live and work on farms seem healthier, perhaps it is in part because they’re exposed to fewer toxins than city dwellers.
PW: Not necessarily. I have a practice in the countryside as well as in London, and I treat quite a lot of farmers who are now exposed to farm chemicals such as organophosphates; when I do blood work on them I find all kinds of pesticides and insecticides. I don’t think there’s any safe haven. I’m not being paranoid but I do go through periods of despair. I test these things and say, “My goodness. What do I do with this individual?” However, the body will detoxify itself but we need to encourage it, we need to give it the opportunity. There are lots of ways we can encourage the body to detoxify. For example, I’m a real advocate of intermittent fasting where on certain days of the week you reduce the amount of food you eat to change the way your body is working. We do liver flushing, use herbs and cleanses and all kinds of things to try to get rid of these toxins.
HG: I teach fitness as a hobby, and we change up the exercises because if you don’t, your body becomes accustomed to a certain movement and you’re no longer challenging it and strengthening it in the same way. So I guess the intermittent fasting in a way surprises your body.
PW: It’s the same thing, exactly. There’s this idea of neuroplasticity; you have to have routine in some ways but you have to have variety as well. It’s like walking home; if you’re walking home from work, choose a different route every day, try to encourage neuroplasticity. This can help people with pain, for example, changing your routine, doing intermittent fasting, changing the way that you live—all this can be very helpful. There was a time when people didn’t have to worry about detoxification; I think everyone has to worry about that now. Everybody has to do something every so often, and even ancient cultures all had something. They often did fasting; this is part of every culture in the world. It’s not new.
HG: But honestly, when I hear “Try my seven-day detox,” it seems like a scam to me. Why can’t the body detoxify itself? You’re not scamming me, are you?
PW: I’m not selling you anything, that’s for sure. There was a time when the body could process the toxins it was exposed to. In fact, we have toxins that come from inside our body—urea and ammonia and all kinds of things that are normal waste-products; these are called “metabolic waste products” that are a natural part of what a human body produces, but now we’re exposed to chemicals we’ve never been exposed to before. In the last one hundred years we have unleashed some eight thousand chemicals; some of them we’ve never been exposed to in the history of mankind.
HG: Our bodies need help!
PW: Yes, but it’s not about buying products and supplements; I’m really not into that. Fundamentally, a lot of what we can do is through food, a lot of it we can do with sweating—I’m a real fan of using saunas or using exercise to get people to sweat. We know that works, we know that’s one way of reducing toxins, the toxic load in the body. If we have excess weight we need to lose that excess weight, specifically the weight around our belly, the central adipose tissue. That is where our body stores a lot of these fat-soluble toxins. We often need to lose weight in order to get rid of some of those toxic metals and toxic chemicals that are stored in our fat cells.
HG: Otherwise, our bodies may become sicker with a chronic disease of some sort?
PW: Correct. What we’re seeing is that we’ve replaced acute disease with chronic disease. We’re good with acute disease; Western medicine is fantastic. If you have a car accident, there’s microsurgery, there’s incredible advancements that have occurred in modern medicine. But most of the health burden today comes with chronic disease. With acute disease, the whole design of treatment is more black and white. Do you have an infection or not? Is this working or not? That’s all very well because there’s a drug for this and there’s a drug for that. With chronic disease, patients rarely have one isolated symptom. They may have eczema and psoriasis and headaches and migraines and irritable bowel and asthma. And what happens in Western medicine? They’re giving a drug for every single symptom. So rather than prescribing a drug for every single symptom, why don’t we look at what’s occurring fundamentally? It might be that all of those symptoms are related to a single event that’s going on in the body; it might be a nutritional deficiency, it might be an issue with the gut, it might be an issue around lack of detoxification. Instead of throwing drugs at all these symptoms, we need to promote the body’s natural ability to repair itself. For starters, most chronic disease is related to inflammation.
HG: I’ve heard that, and so, what does that mean? What’s causing the inflammation? PW: Often it comes from oxidative stress, the body struggling with the amount of free radicals it’s dealing with, including environmental toxins and too much sugar. We know that a high sugar intake increases the amount of insulin, and high insulin can affect the immune system. There’s something called the TH1 and TH2 balance which is part of the immune function. When that goes out of balance, the body can’t resolve its inflammation any more and that creates all kinds of different conditions.
HG: Okay, after detoxification, is there another step?
PW: The next thing I talk about is “activation movement.” We need to move. Now there could be debate about what kind of exercise is the best—is it high intensity, is it yoga, is it…? But fundamentally we all just need to move. There are lots of studies showing the ill-effects of sitting down all day. It’s a real problem that people aren’t moving enough, but good studies have shown that simply by walking for thirty minutes, three times a week has huge health benefits. I think people need to stretch and I’ve seen in ancient cultures they do that all in the morning, so exercise really should be done in the morning. There’s good, sound reasons for that—that’s when our peak cortisol occurs. We shouldn’t have a peak of cortisol in the evening; we want to be exercising in the morning. I stayed with monks in a Shalu monastery in China and did all the training with them. We got up early, doing quite hard physical training, then you do your meditation, then you have breakfast and the day begins. Same in India, I saw that in the Himalayas. Yoga exercise takes place in the morning, and then you get on with your day. We just need to move. You cannot get well if you’re not moving.
HG: And I’ve heard the best kind of movement is the kind that you’re likely to do. In other words, don’t force yourself to do something that you don’t like. If you enjoy dancing, dance, right? If you enjoy walking, get a dog so you can get out—whatever it takes. You are saying that all cultures have some form of movement and that’s the essential thing. It’s not about which type you do.
PW: Well, they have movement but they don’t have exercise. They do not do exercise. You never go to a tribe and find them going for a run in the morning. Living is exercise, isn’t it?
HG That’s excellent. Is there one more step?
PW: We talked about neuroplasticity and change, but at the same time, you also need a routine. This came to me when I was talking to some of my older patients who’d lived through the war. We talk today about being stressed but people had a lot of stress then—they had bombs raining down in London, so that was stress. What did they do? They had routine. Key to this is eating on time. You should eat breakfast at the same time every day, lunch is the same time every day, evening meal, go to bed at the same time every day. They should be routine and within that structure, there should be lots of variety.
HG: Interesting. And what’s the benefit of routine?
PW: It stops our adrenals from getting burnt out, it stops us using up our reserves. Our whole body works on cycles. Obviously for women that’s much more obvious with a monthly cycle but for everyone it involves circadian rhythms—the whole body works on rhythms so we have to work within the rhythms of our body. We can’t have erratic lifestyles and be healthy. It’s not going to happen, so we need variety but we also need stability and structure.
HG: Anything else?
PW: One of the most important principles is getting enough sleep. It’s difficult to get enough sleep. We need a minimum of six hours; some people need eight hours. One of the things I kind of bang on and on about in my clinic is sleep hygiene, the importance of not having any lights in the room at night when you’re sleeping. An interesting study found that profoundly blind women have half the rate of breast cancer as women who have vision. Half the rate. They think it’s to do with melatonin; melatonin is essential for immune repair and for preventing all kinds of chronic diseases like cancer. So the way we get our melatonin, the peak melatonin, is at night and we need to be sleeping in an absolutely pitch black room—no little lights going in the background, no clocks, no TV. I mean we shouldn’t have a TV anyway, but especially in the bedroom. The room we’re sleeping in should be pitch black in order for us to get enough melatonin, but if we’re using bright screens at night, it takes between one and three hours for the melatonin levels to become normalized. You can fall asleep but you’re not having proper sleep.
HG: And also people seem to be having more and more sleep problems, right? And of course they want to pop another pill for that but your advice is sound. Now, does that make up the whole Wheel of Health then?
PW: One more thing: the emotional and spiritual connection. How do we connect with the greater world, how do we connect with that that’s greater within us, how do we connect with communities? We know that obesity increases the likelihood of an early death by 20 percent, we know that poor air quality increases it by 5 percent, we also know that smoking and many things increase the risk of death, but the biggest risk that increases the likelihood of an early death by almost 40 percent, is loneliness and isolation. That is the biggest health risk that any of us can face. Nutrition and lifestyle are important but it’s connection that keeps us well, and there are many ways of making us connected. Social media is great on one level but can also make us more isolated. It is important to address how we deal with our emotional world, our connection with other people in our lives and also about how we deal with all of our difficult emotions. It’s hard being human. We’ve got a right and a left brain. We can’t out-think a lot of our problems; we have to feel them, we have to feel grief, anger, irritation and sadness. If we don’t feel those emotions, how are we going to feel joy and connection and all the good emotions?
HG: And if you tamp them down you’re going to create a little chaos.
PW: It’s the beach ball effect, isn’t it? You push a negative emotion under the water and then eventually it will come back out again. We need to be able to feel our emotions and we shouldn’t be feeling happy all the time. It doesn’t happen. You know if you look at our expectations of how we’re supposed to feel, we can see that with how many drugs are prescribed, especially in America with serotonin reuptake inhibitors and other anti-depression medications. We read that one in nine people are on anti-depressants in America, is that possible? One in nine?
HG: Do you think they’re just trying to maintain a level of happy emotion that isn’t attainable?
PW: I think we’re given a framework that’s unrealistic. We’re given unrealistic expectations that we buy into because a whole society buys into it; we need more help about creating communities and connection. On the other hand, there’s certain things that need to happen for us to file away trauma. We all have traumatic things that happen to us, but some people find it more difficult to move on from those traumas than other people. One theory holds that REM sleep is very, very important for filing away trauma. We’ve got these virtual filing cabinets in our brain and we file things away, “Oh that’s happened and it was terrible, but now I’m okay about it and I’m going to put it away over here.” This only happens in REM sleep. Studies were done on soldiers from the Vietnam War who were still having flashbacks. Those who kept having flashbacks tended to have poor REM sleep. So the question is “How do we encourage REM sleep?” They tried medication, they tried all kinds of things but some of the most effective things are actually free. Dancing can improve REM sleep and help with trauma, as can looking at a fire. Just sitting around a fire can actually stimulate REM sleep. So if you think about tribes, they dance around fires, they have community events when they’ve had war and famine and children have died. Maybe there’s a connection between what our ancestors have done and what we can do now to help us cope with a world that essentially isn’t working very well any longer.
HG: You’ve given us some practical ideas of things we can do to make ourselves better. Thank you for joining us today.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2016.