RHR: Biohacking Your Ancestral Lifestyle, with Ben Greenfield
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RHR: Biohacking Your Ancestral Lifestyle, with Ben Greenfield

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Trying to balance ancestral health with your modern lifestyle can be challenging, but that’s where biohacking comes in. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I talk with health performance expert Ben Greenfield about the best ways to use technology to enhance your health and support your ancestral lifestyle.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • What brought Ben to exercise science
  • Ancestral living and biohacking
  • The top four biohacks for ancestral living
  • What ancestral fitness looks like
  • How to track and improve your sleep
  • Boosting your cognitive performance
  • Ben’s upcoming book

Show notes:

Hey, everybody, welcome to Revolution Health Radio. I’m Chris Kresser. This week I’m going to be interviewing Ben Greenfield, a biohacker, health performance and longevity coach, ex-bodybuilder, 13-time Ironman triathlete, professional Spartan competitor, speaker, and author of the New York Times best-seller Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life.

So we’re going to be talking with Ben about the intersection of biohacking and the ancestral lifestyle and diet. And some simple strategies and maybe some not so simple strategies that you can apply to mimic the ancestral pattern by using current technologies. So hope you enjoy the interview. Let’s dive in.

Chris Kresser:  Ben, welcome to the show. Pleasure to have you.

Ben Greenfield:  Hi, Chris. It’s good to be here.

What Brought Ben to Exercise Science

Chris Kresser:  So, I always like to start with a backstory. We all, I’ve found in this field of ours, have a path that got us here to why we chose to get into this type of work in the first place. So, I’d love to hear more about what brought you to this type of work.

Ben Greenfield:  I got dropped off by an alien spaceship and found myself shuttled into an exercise science lab.

Chris Kresser:  I’m halfway believing that.

Ben Greenfield:  I know. There are many who would believe that with the crazy laser lights I’m seeing on social media wearing on my head and tubes and needles coming out of my arms. I have always loved fitness and nature and the outdoors. I grew up, I was homeschooled in Idaho. And so I would generally finish schooling by about 11 a.m. and just play outside the rest of the day hiking and catching rattlesnakes and making forts and digging holes and finding plants and even messing around with cooking a little bit, which I love to do now. And it’s a topic relevant to my heart because I just gave my boys—my twin boys, where I can see them out my window, they’re playing outside right now with their friends—and I just gave them the option to drop out of sixth grade, which would normally begin next year, and start homeschooling.

And so they’ll kind of follow a similar path as I had when I was a boy. And I really wasn’t that interested in exercise science or anything of the nature until I discovered the sport of tennis. My parents really wanted to build kind of a cool place for the kids to grow up, and we wound up laying asphalt for a tennis court. And my dad and I painted lines and put up a tennis net, and they hired an instructor, and I began to play tennis and just really loved that sport. And I started to delve into ways I could make myself better at tennis.

Up until that point, I was very much into reading and writing fantasy fiction, and I was president of our local chess club and played a lot of World of Warcraft. And I took apart computers and really wanted to be a computer programmer and design video games. That was my dream.

Chris Kresser:  Right, right.

Ben Greenfield:  And I began to run up the hills back behind the house and my dad brought me down to the sporting goods store and bought me my first little pair of 10-pound dumbbells that I didn’t have any clue how to use. I remember my first exercise. I’d lay on my stomach on my bed and do dumbbell curls. And that seemed to work to make my arms stronger.

Chris Kresser:  No YouTube yet at this point.

Are you struggling to get enough sleep, spend time outdoors, or follow other aspects of ancestral health? Biohacking could help. Check out this episode of RHR for the best ways to biohack your lifestyle. #optimalhealth #wellness #chriskresser

Ben Greenfield:  Yeah, there was no YouTube, nothing like that. I had a little TV in my room and that was about it. And I even wound up purchasing one of those as-seen-on-TV exercise devices at one point, this old-school ab device that you’d put up against your abs. Kind of an isometric crunch against, which actually is kind of a good idea and it worked. My forays to the library in Lewiston, Idaho, kind of progressed from me grabbing Arthur Conan Doyle and Grimm’s fairy tales and all these fiction books I’d voraciously buy and bring home to Tudor Bompa’s book on periodization and all manner of different exercise physiology and exercise manuals. And I kind of began to collect equipment and build my own little home gym.

I met a few mentors along the way—the Washington state powerlifting champion, who was a friend of my father’s, and he kind of taught me a few moves. And then my brother’s best friend was a professional bodybuilder, and he taught me a lot of things, too, about caring for my body and recovery. And eventually I decided I wanted to study exercise science. So I attended University of Idaho and got a degree in kinesiology, which is basically just glorified PE.

And along the way, I actually got very interested in medicine too. And so I took all the pre-med curriculum and worked my way up through microbiology and biochemistry and o-chem, and I even took the MCATs and got accepted to a few different medical schools. But I opted to stay in school and get a master’s degree in exercise science and kind of study human nutrition and pharmacology and biomechanics at a graduate level and wound up not attending medical school.

I kind of saw dollar signs and got offered a job in hip and knee surgical sales, so I took that up with the idea that I’d work in the private sector for a little while and then go to medical school after I had gotten some money and maybe traveled the world a little bit. And I wound up becoming very dis-infatuated, actually, with medicine during my six months at that company, which was a biomet. Spent a lot of time shadowing orthopedic surgeons. And up until that point, I’d spent a lot of time in ERs and things like that, kind of preparing myself for medical school.

But, really, just being with doctors all day long and seeing that none of them seemed to enjoy their jobs that much. And at that point, I wasn’t that aware of alternative medicine or naturopathic medicine or other alternatives. But nobody told me that it was a good idea to go to medical school, and frankly they all, despite having big cars and houses and boats, seemed kind of displeased with life and didn’t seem to have much time to spend with their families or playing with their toys.

So I really made a decision that I didn’t want to be a doctor at that point. And after I quit that job, which I did do, I just quit it. I didn’t enjoy standing around in scrubs pointing a laser pointer at overpriced hips being put into obese patients who probably could’ve been managed via other methods prior to overpriced knee or hip replacement. I wandered across the street to the gym, which was next to the apartment that I was living in, and asked for a job and kind of slapped my resume down on the front desk. And at that point, I was already a certified personal trainer and a nutritionist, and I’d worked for four years as a trainer, kind of moonlighting during my college career. And I even had the privilege of being able to manage the wellness program at University of Idaho. So I’d done a lot up to that point.

So they gave me the job of fitness manager, and so almost immediately, I kind of had a full plate of clients to train and spent a couple years working at that facility. And then I eventually met a sports medicine doctor there named P. Z. Pearce, who was the head doctor for Ironman, which was kind of cool for me because I was really getting into Ironman triathlon at the time.

Up until that point, I’d been very immersed in bodybuilding and also played collegiate tennis. So I was, like, a power strength athlete and was really, really getting into endurance sports. And already doing triathlons and had done my first Ironman triathlon. And he presented to me this idea of, like, a one-stop shop for sports medicine where we would have physical therapists and massage therapists, chiropractic docs, a whole suite of medical professionals, and I would manage the sports performance laboratory doing exercise physiology tests on athletes and high-speed video camera analysis of gait and do bike fits. And also continue to train folks, as I had been doing as a personal trainer, and kind of be the nutritionist for the facility as well. And so we launched that facility about a year later.

I partnered up with him, and we launched that facility, called Champion Sports Medicine, in Spokane, Washington. And I operated that facility for five years and did very well. I actually used all of the materials from the exercise medicine initiative and partnered up with a lot of local docs, and they would send their patients over to our facility, and we were kind of the people to go to when nothing else was working for weight loss or even for sports performance. Because we had all this pretty cool equipment you wouldn’t find in a normal gym, like the high-speed camera, indirect calorimetry equipment, VO2 max. We had one of the first PRP machines, and so we were doing injections into joints and just a lot of kind of cool, cutting-edge stuff, or what was cutting edge 10 years ago.

And so I did that for a while, and a couple of the docs actually nominated me for the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Personal Trainer of the Year Award. And I actually received that. And so I was named as … basically, it’s kind of like being named America’s top personal trainer. And that kind of thrust me into the limelight, and I started getting calls from ACE and the ACSM and NSCA and all these different fitness organizations that wanted me to come speak at their locations on how to operate a profitable business, a profitable brick-and-mortar, gym-based business. And so I started to travel and kind of get on the speaking circuit. And around that time I’d also launched a health podcast and kind of started my own little blog and newsletter, and I was dabbling online kind of using what I’d learned in computer programming back in my early days to code my own websites and design a newsletter form, and I was just basically doing it all myself.

And I remember I was sitting at one of these conferences I was speaking at, and somebody got up and started to talk about the online industry. Selling information products online and making PDFs and affiliate marketing and all of the stuff that was completely new to me. And at the time, I remember I was sitting at this conference with my wife, who was pregnant with our twin boys at the time, and I thought, “Well, geez, if I could do a lot of this, take a lot of this, this IP and studying that I’m doing and kind of put it out there on the internet and begin to operate a business that way, that would be a cool way for me to be at home with my family, spend more time with my kids.

And so I spent about six months working on a triathlon training product. It was called The Triathlon Dominator, and it was my idea to take what I was doing at the time, which was training for the Ironman triathlon with a minimalist approach, a lot of high-intensity interval training and weight training and plyometrics versus the traditional beat-you-into-the-ground, four-hour-a-day endurance training protocols that were and still are very popular among the endurance crowd. And I kind of put together this package that allowed people to train for an Ironman without neglecting their family or their friends or their career, their other hobbies. And I launched this program and it was very successful. And I made, like, $50,000 over the course of a week just selling this program online to triathletes, triathlon coaches, and triathlon clubs, and it worked out so well. I thought, “Well, geez, I—”

Chris Kresser:  This, yeah. This probably could be a thing.

Ben Greenfield:  Yeah, I mean, I was doing well as a personal trainer. I was making six figures-plus a year as a trainer, but I was also working my ass off. I’d show up at the gym at 5 a.m. and I’d get home at, like, 9 p.m. And that wasn’t really sustainable to family life. And I certainly could’ve just hired a bunch of employees and kind of outsourced a lot of the work, but I instead opted to kind of fire all my clients or move them on to other trainers, and I stepped down from my position at Champion Sports Medicine and began to do largely what I do now—podcasting, writing articles, and doing books.

Chris Kresser:  Nice.

Ben Greenfield:  That’s kind of what I do now.

Chris Kresser:  That’s quite a journey. Thanks for laying that all out. It’s always fascinating to me to see where people came from and how they ended up where they are.

Ancestral Living and Biohacking

Chris Kresser:  So, I want to dive in a little bit to some of the topics that I want to explore with you, and one is ancestral living versus biohacking. And the way I said that almost makes it sound like those are diametrically opposed, which I don’t necessarily think is true. But we might think of it kind of as a spectrum, and some people perhaps are very interested in biohacking and not so much in ancestral living. Others are really interested in ancestral living and not so much in biohacking. I’d probably put myself closer to that end of the spectrum. And then others are very interested in both. So where would you put yourself on that spectrum, and how do you identify in both of those categories?

Ben Greenfield:  Yeah, biohacking, I kind of grit my teeth on that word a little bit nowadays because it’s gotten a bit silly. People, whatever, jumping on trampolines and wearing their training masks and shining laser lights on their balls all at the same time or using their vibration platform to get six-pack abs. Or whatever the case may be.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Ben Greenfield:  And I think that term has been bastardized, to a certain extent. I simply view biohacking as using technology to a certain extent to enhance biology or even to simulate what ancestral living can give us. For example, like I mentioned, I’m looking out the window of my office at my kids playing outside in the sunshine, and I’m in here blogging and podcasting and doing what I do during the day. And so, to a certain extent, I find ways to simulate some of this ancestral living. Like, I use these photobiomodulation panels in my office to get near infrared light that I am not getting from the sunlight during the day because I’m indoors.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Ben Greenfield:  Or when I’m traveling and I know I have access to the Spokane River, this ice-cold river I can go and jump into near my home. When I’m at home I will go into a cryotherapy chamber and do a quick burst of cold. Or I sleep on a grounding mat to simulate, I just got back from a weeklong hunting trip on an island in Hawaii. And I’ve spent the past week just sleeping on the ground on the beach. No sleeping pad or anything. My sleeping bag in the sand and slept wonderfully. As I know a lot of people do in our sector, I wear, like, a self-quantification device to quantify my sleep, and sleep scores were just amazing, just sleeping outside on the ground, especially deep sleep, at levels of 20 to 25 percent, and I can simulate that at home by using essentially pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, or PMF, on my bed. And I would consider that to be a biohack as well.

Or doing something like instead of going outdoors in the afternoon heat and sweating to upregulate heat shock proteins or to induce more nitric oxide, I’ll get into an infrared sauna in the mornings a lot of times and do my sweating that way. And so there are so many examples of ancestral living, many of them based on hormesis, right?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Ben Greenfield:  Like,, some radiation and cold exposure and heat exposure and the low-level radiation that we get when we’re outdoors barefoot or sleeping on the ground. And you can simulate a lot of those hormetic stressors or other effects that we would get from being outdoors or living ancestrally by using a lot of these biohacks. Because we do live in a postindustrial era where it can be difficult in many cases to tap into a lot of these things outdoors or simply relegate it to being indoors because of the lifestyle that we’ve chosen.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, it sounds like you’re interested in using technology or biohacking of using technology to kind of get some of the benefits of an ancestral lifestyle that are difficult to obtain in our modern lifestyle.

Ben Greenfield:  Right. And I think you always need to have a base foundation. Like, stem cells are very popular right now. Going out and getting the adipose tissue extracted from your fat or the marrow pulled from your bone and have your stem cells concentrated and reinjected. Or we’re using things like exosomes or amniotic or umbilical or placental cells to do the same thing. But I don’t think anybody has any business spending $5,000 or $8,000 or $10,000, doing one of those procedures before they’ve adopted more simplistic methods of enhancing stem cell health. Probably the biggest elephant in the room in that respect being fasting.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Ben Greenfield:  And so, there are so many things that we can accomplish getting out in the sunshine, fasting, going on a walk in cold weather, etc., that we should be adopting as lifestyle habits before we begin to hop onto Amazon and order a light panel or buy a membership to a cryotherapy facility.

The Top Four Biohacks for Ancestral Living

Chris Kresser:  Right. And even those might come before stem cell treatment. But I agree with you a hundred percent. There’s so many things we can do just with our diet and our lifestyle and making even relatively small turns of the dial that can have a really big impact on our overall health.

So, with that in mind, what are those, the, let’s say, three or four top tweaks of the dial, so to speak? You mentioned fasting. We’ve talked a lot about fasting on the show. We can go into that. But if you were to just pick three or four of these biohacks that get us closer to emulate the effects of a truly ancestral lifestyle, what would those be?

Ben Greenfield:  Yeah, I’d say a lot of them would be based on things that would enhance the health of the mitochondria or have some type of a hormetic effect. Enhance autophagy, for example. I would say the biggies that come to mind would be cold and heat. Some form of earthing or grounding. Some type of way to simulate what we’d get if we were drinking natural spring water rich in minerals. And then some form of light, like in the form of near-infrared light or the light spectrum that we get from the sun. So using that type of logic, you could say some of the best biohacks, so to speak, would be like an infrared and cold tub set up, which I know is becoming very popular nowadays, and I certainly like that idea. I have an infrared sauna and a cold pool. And going back and forth between those two, I absolutely consider that to be an essential part of my week. I’m doing that almost every day. So cold and heat would be two.

The light, like I mentioned, getting some type of a red-light panel that you can use, like a near-infrared light panel. And then for the grounding or the earthing, some type of grounding mat or earthing mat or pulsed electromagnetic field unit, which would simulate what you’d get if you were walking outdoors barefoot or sleeping outside. And then for the water piece, there’s a lot of different ways to hack your water, so to speak. But what I do is I have a well here. I live on about 10 acres of forested land up in Washington and we’re pretty off grid. But I have a well, and even after the water’s passed from the well up through the pipes and gone through a couple of filters that I have—because people think well water is pristine, but, for example, I have very high levels of manganese and iron in my well water. So the water passes through a manganese and an iron filter, and by the time it gets into my home, it’s been somewhat bastardized from its original underground spring. And so it passes through a structured water filter, which kind of creates something a little bit like the easy water that Dr. Gerald Pollack has made popular in his book The Fourth Phase of Water, the University of Washington researcher.

And so I think drinking some form of structured water or hydrogen-rich water, preferably enriched with minerals, or supplementing that with some type of mineral intake or sea salt intake would be another good move. And once you’ve done that, you’ve kind of got your cold, your heat, your light, your earthing, your grounding, your water, your minerals, and I would say that those would all be very good places to start if you were going to kind of outfit your home with some basic biohacks.

What Ancestral Fitness Looks Like

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense, and I like the way you framed that in terms of the elements that are important in an ancestral environment. I want to shift and talk a little bit about fitness. That’s a huge part of your background, where you came from, and still you’re focused today, I know. And I haven’t had a lot of people on the show, a lot of experts in fitness on the show, so I want to take advantage of that and pick your brain a little bit.

What are, from your perspective, some of the biggest fitness and performance mistakes that you see people making today?

Ben Greenfield:  Well, I mean, if you look at, for example, the blue zones where you have a  disproportionately high number of people living a long period of time and having relatively good health span during that time as well, you don’t see a lot of structured exercise. You see a lot of low-level physical activity, typically outdoors in nature. As our friend Mark Sisson would say, kind of moving and then lifting heavy objects like rocks or pushing wheelbarrows or building fences or gardening or things like that during the day. And then occasionally sprinting, whether that be a pick-up game of soccer or tennis or in some cases, some hunter–gatherer societies, or even what I experienced during my recent hunt in Hawaii, those brief forays where your heart rate is very high. You’re racing to the top of a hill because the herd of wild goats or sheep or deer or whatever you might happen to be hunting has disappeared over the other side and you have to do a very fast stalk. And so you’re moving very quickly and so you’ve got this interval-based training worked in throughout the day as well.

And so you don’t see CrossFit boxes everywhere or this idea that in order to feel good about having exercised at the end of the day, you must have suffered in the gym for 30 or 45 or 60 minutes. And in fact we do know, based on research, that once you exceed about 60 minutes of intense exercise or even 90 minutes of the typical aerobic exercise that a triathlete or a marathoner or a cyclist or swimmer would be doing, kind of not aerobic exercise like walking, but kind of that mid-level aerobic exercise where it’s burning a little bit and you’re suffering just slightly, we know that once you exceed 60 minutes of the former, 90 minutes of the latter, your risk of mortality actually increases. And so we’re kind of in this situation where people are often sitting down for long periods of time during the day doing a hard workout at the beginning or the end of the day or both, and that’s how exercise is viewed, as this thing that’s separate from just life, versus incorporating low-level physical activity during the day.

You and I had the video on just before we started recording, and you probably saw me on my treadmill. And I’ll typically walk at a very, very low pace, whether I’m dictating emails or dictating an article or speaking on a podcast like this or doing a consult. I save all my phone calls for between 4 and 6 p.m. in the afternoon and duck up to a farm road back behind the house and walk more. And so by the end of the day I’ll typically walk a good five to seven miles. Low-level physical activity during my day that doesn’t involve me going to the YMCA or a 24-hour fitness and getting on the treadmill.

Chris Kresser:  Yep.

Ben Greenfield:  In addition to that, I have in the room next door to the office here, a hex bar that’s loaded up with weights. And I’ll just drop into there every once in while kind of in between calls or during my Pomodoro breaks and I’ll just lift the hex bar five to ten times. I have a kettlebell on the floor of my office, and same thing. During some of my breaks, I’ll stop and I’ll do 30 kettlebell swings to get my heart rate up and simulate that intense interval training. When I go to check the mail, we have about a quarter-mile long driveway. So, I’ll walk down to the mailbox but then I’ll, assuming no one’s delivered an enormous package, in which case I’m walking up the driveway, I’ll sprint up the driveway kind of clutching the mail to my chest.

And so, my kind of rule and what I encourage people to do is to change your environment, especially your working environment or your lifestyle environment to the extent where you’re engaged in low-level physical activity during the day, you’ve got a few things that you can lift or swing, or I especially like the idea of—I believe the technical term is brachiating—but hanging. Like, having a pull-up bar installed on the door or your office or in the kitchen so that you can hang. And I have a yoga trapeze in the living room and a pull-up bar in the office and a rope hanging outside the tree that’s near the front door. And so I have these objects I can hang from and climb on and pull from as well. So, by the end of the day, exercising, in the way that we tend to think of exercise, is this packaged hard-core exercise session as an option, not a necessity.

And of course I should clarify that if you have chosen to do, let’s say, a Spartan race or a CrossFit competition or a figure competition or some type of what we would probably consider to be an unnatural form of physical activity, but maybe that scratches your itch, maybe that’s your personal Mount Everest that you want to climb or the dragon you want to slay. Yeah, you do have to do more. You do have to probably go to the gym and do a formal exercise session that involves you training for that particular activity. But when you think about it, that type of training traditionally has been relegated to the realm of gladiators and athletes and warriors and Olympians, and it’s not synonymous with longevity. You shouldn’t fool yourself that going out and doing an Ironman or one of these longer Spartan races or bodybuilding or figure fitness competition is going to help you live a long time or is natural.

If that’s what you’ve chosen to do, though, and you’ve accepted the fact that you’re sacrificing some amount of health or longevity for performance, yeah, you’re going to need to hit the gym. You’re going to need to have some of those suffer-fests. But ultimately, in my opinion, the biggest mistake people make is that they don’t adjust their life and their working environment and their home environment to allow them to simulate what we would see in a more traditional kind of ancestral movement format, and instead sit in a chair, work out at the beginning of the day or work out at the end of the day or both, and that’s just not a healthy exercise scenario or mental approach to exercise.

Chris Kresser:  No, we know so much about that now from research, where even if you meet the government guidelines for exercise, if you’re sedentary the rest of the time, you’re still going to be at an increased risk of disease. It’s funny, my setup is pretty similar to yours. I have a treadmill desk and a kind of a split desk. So I’m standing and sitting on one side, treadmill on the other. I’ve got kettlebells and weights and straps and a bunch of stuff like that. And I alternate, I go back and forth between that, doing those kinds. Most days are like that. But I found personally that sometimes I like … for me, a distinct period of exercise is as much about getting away from my work and my computer and all of that stuff as it is about physical activity.

Ben Greenfield:  That’s the dangerous part, too, is a lot of people will use it to just, like, check out, almost as their form of moving meditation or form of catharsis. And I get that too. I understand if going out and doing a, whatever, a hard weight training workout at the end of the day to blow off some steam or going for a relatively difficult lunchtime run to just get your mind off of work, I get it. But at the same time, I think people just need to understand that there can be some danger there in terms of chronic low-grade inflammation or excess wear and tear on the body or just adding more stress points to the day. Or if you’re tracking your heart rate variability, as a lot of folks do, I’ll look at the HRV of a lot of my clients who are training heavily and it’s just kind of relatively suppressed the entire week, showing that the nervous system is simply not getting a chance to repair and recover, which can affect sleep cycles and can affect again, your inflammation, your movement, the quality of your movement.

So it’s just something you need to be careful with. And what I encourage people to do is find as many ways to scratch that cathartic itch or that movement-as-meditation itch as possible that don’t necessarily involve, especially, like, eccentric exercise, that tears muscle fibers, like weight training or like running, for example. Sauna sessions, cold therapy, I’m huge on walking. And so I probably exercise about a third the amount that I used to, but I’m still doing a lot of things. I’m still hitting the sauna and the cold pool in the mornings and walking for an hour in the afternoons. And it’s just as enjoyable and fulfilling, and almost just as cathartic as well, and gives me that form of moving meditation. Because I love to move. I just can’t sit still most of the time. But it’s not, it doesn’t have to be the elliptical trainer or the rowing machine at the gym, or just like doing multiple sets of reps over and over again until you’re sore and you can’t move the next day.

Go out and find things that scratch that movement itch that don’t necessarily involve beating up the body. And you’d be surprised at how fulfilling that can be. And if you do want to lift or sprint or do workouts, you can get away with a couple of decent weight training workouts per week, which is what I do. I do a full-body weight training session twice a week to keep your VO2 max elevated. You only need to do a hard, very hard cardiovascular workout once every two weeks to keep your mitochondria health maintained. Or to even get mitochondrial biogenesis, you only need one like high-intensity interval training workout per week.

And then to maintain your muscular endurance, or what we would call your lactic acid tolerance in exercise physiology, if you’re doing a weight training session a couple times a week and you start and/or end that workout with something like a Tabata set of 20 seconds hard, 10 seconds easy, you’ve all of a sudden checked the mark of strength training, lactic acid tolerance, VO2 max, and mitochondrial training, assuming you’re engaged in low-level physical activity during the day. You’ve got the aerobic piece managed, and all of a sudden you’re checking all the boxes of fitness with what might amount to an average of perhaps 30 to 40 minutes of formal exercise per day without the amount of body wear and tear that a lot of people are getting by, you know, kind of hitting the gym for an hour every day.

How to Track and Improve Your Sleep

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it makes sense. So let’s talk a little bit about sleep. You’ve written a lot about this over the years and sleep tracking with various devices. And I’m just curious where you’re at now, what you’re finding to be most helpful in terms of tracking for sleep and getting the most out of the sleep tracking data. Because it’s one thing to collect the data and it’s another thing to actually put it to use.

Ben Greenfield:  Yeah. I actually did just publish an article recently on, a 10,000 word article on deep sleep over on my website because that seems to be the thing that’s the most problematic for people—

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Ben Greenfield:  Is having very low percentage of deep sleep, like 2 to 5 percent, when in fact something closer to 15 to 20 percent seems to be better for nervous system repair and recovery and for good sleep architecture. And as far as the tracking component goes, I personally just use the Oura ring. There are other better ways to track.

Some of these newer headbands that track actual brain waves like the, there’s one called the Dreem headband. Those work even better. The problem is that unless you’re a back sleeper, the headbands tend to kind of move around during the night and they’re difficult to keep on. So I haven’t been able to get good data from those. And then some of these mats and newer mattresses. I know at CES they showcased a few different mattresses that kind of track your sleep cycles for you during the night. And the problem with those is they tend to often be accompanied by high amounts of dirty electricity. You usually have to have Wi-Fi switched on or you’re sleeping with Bluetooth on during the night.

I tend to keep the bedroom relatively electricity free as much as possible. I actually have a kill switch installed in my kids’ bedroom and in my bedroom where you can just turn off all electricity during the night. And the only thing that I have plugged in during the night is that PMF mat that I sleep on that has a little dirty electricity filter built into it. And then an essential oil diffuser. And those are all plugged in to a dirty electricity filter in the bedroom. So I try to limit the amount of EMF, especially in the bedroom. And we also don’t have Wi-Fi. I just plug everything in via ethernet cables in the house. So if you want to connect to Wi-Fi, it’s kind of annoying until you get used to it. But you just have an ethernet cable and an ethernet-to-FireWire adapter or ethernet-to-USB adapter, and you just plug in your laptop or your computer in whatever room of the house that you happen to be in.

But back to the sleep tracking. Right now, I just use the Oura ring. It gives me pretty decent data. A few of the interesting things that I’ve found are temperature affects it very dramatically. And so most people are aware of normal sleep hygiene, right? Sleep in a quiet room, sleep in a dark room. Avoid especially blue light exposure at night and don’t do business in bed, right? The bed is for sex or for sleep. So you have your temperature, your light, your sound, and your sleep environment kind of dialed in. But when it comes to temperature, I found that going beyond just lowering the temperature of the room to 64 to 66 degrees and instead getting some form of cold exposure in the evening, a lot of folks, and I like this approach because it works well, especially when I’m traveling.

And also when I don’t have access to, say, like a sauna and a cold pool, although that regimen helps tremendously with deep sleep. Just a simple, hot/cold contrast shower, which involves five minutes of 20 seconds of cold and then 10 seconds of hot. And you do that 10 times through for a total of five minutes. That dramatically affects deep sleep if you do that sometime in a couple of hours leading up to bed. If you wear socks when you go to bed to keep the feet warm so that more blood is shunted to the core, it enhances that effect even more. And so if you take a hot/cold contrast shower, then you put on socks and you go to bed, and the room is already at a relatively cool temperature, 64 to 66 degrees, that’s one thing that amps up my deep sleep cycles dramatically.

This might not be something accessible or affordable for a lot of people, but I also have one of these chilly pads under my top sheet of my mattresses. And so that circulates about, I have it set as low as it can go, which I think is 55 degrees.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Ben Greenfield:  So it circulates 55-degree cold water under my top sheet while I’m asleep. And that enhances it even more. So that’s one thing. Another is CBD, and there’s been a lot of research on CBD for anxiety and for sleep. The problem I’ve found is that a lot of these CBD oils and tinctures, the dosage is about five to 10 milligrams. When you look at the research, most of the research is 100 up to 900 milligrams for sleep. And I find when I approach that 100 milligram mark with CBD oil, it dramatically increases my deep sleep quality. And you wake in the morning just slightly groggy, very similar to if you’d taken a lot of melatonin.

But if you just get up, it wears off. You have your cup of coffee within about 20 minutes, you feel just fine. And whereas I’ve found THC to actually decrease deep sleep percentages, CBD and isolation, especially these higher doses, seems to help out quite a bit. So that’s another protocol that’ll do in addition to the cold, is I have a little CBD dropper. I’m kind of brand agnostic because there’s so many different brands out there now. But I’ll use whatever brand of CBD I happen to have around the house and take a higher dose of that, and that also seems to help out quite a bit.

And then if I could throw one more at you, I have replaced all the bulbs in my home. For awhile I was kind of into the whole biological LED thing, which there are companies out there that will make bulbs, LED bulbs, that can be either high amounts of blue light for areas where you want to be more awake and alert like a gym or an office, and then bulbs that have lower amounts of blue light for areas of rest, like the master bathroom and bedroom, or the kids’ bedrooms. But the problem is, I actually had a building biologist visit my home and kind of walk through with not only things that the tech, the amount of microwaves or the amount of radio waves or signals coming in from cell phone towers or other forms of electricity that could be disrupting your physiology during the day or your sleep during the night. He tested the flicker from two of these LEDs and very similar to a computer monitor flicker, they all produce quite a bit of flicker which is irritating to the eyes and can be damaging to the retina long term and can also affect sleep architecture.

So I’ve replaced all the bulbs in my home with incandescent. Just full-spectrum incandescent, but in particular in the bedroom, replaced all the bulbs in the bedroom and the master bathroom, should I turn on the light when I get up to use the restroom during the night, with red incandescent bulbs. And that had a pretty big impact on sleep cycles as well. I can still see, but it’s pretty much the same as firelight. And so, in the bedroom it’s red incandescent bulbs, and that bulb replacement seemed to help out quite a bit as well. So those are a few of the discoveries I’ve made of late when tracking my sleep cycles, is the hot/cold contrast shower or some type of sauna, cold pool, back-and-forth therapy sometime in the few hours leading to bed, like after dinner, for example; the use of higher-dose CBD; and then also installing red incandescent bulbs in the bedroom.

Chris Kresser:  Nice. Yeah, those are all tips that I think will be helpful for people. I’ve found, as I imagine you have, in working with clients, like certain ones will make a bigger difference for some people than others. So it pays to experiment a little bit and see what really leads to the biggest shift. For me, temperature is one of the biggest. Like, that’s one of the things that I don’t like about travel is less control over the temperature of my environment. And not having, like, the cooling pad. And if the HVAC system in the hotel or whatever is not working properly, that will torpedo my sleep more than anything else.

Ben Greenfield:  Yeah. The air pollution one is an especially tough one when you travel. There’s not a lot you can do about it. So I found that some hotels, in a similar manner as when I travel, I always have my little Whole Foods shopping list and have the Uber drop me off at Whole Foods. And I’ll typically buy them a little snack in Whole Foods while they wait outside. And I’ll go in and grab my Pellegrino and a few cans of sardines, a couple of avocados, some coconut yogurt and a few of the things for the hotel room. But I always call ahead and make sure they have a mini fridge. And if when you call ahead, you also ask if they have an air filter. A lot of hotels have a few extra HEPA air filters that they’ll actually have available for you in your room if you want.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Ben Greenfield:  That’s always an option as well, unless you’re staying in a place a long time. If you have a Costco membership or you shop at Walmart or whatever, someplace with a decent return policy, you can go that route too. But yeah, the air quality one is pretty tough when you travel.

Boosting Your Cognitive Performance

Chris Kresser:  So how about the cognitive performance? Let’s finish up with this. I mean, sleep is obviously a huge contributor to cognitive performance, and exercise and fitness, which we’ve already talked about. What else have you found to be the biggest levers for cognitive performance?

Ben Greenfield:  There’s a few things that maybe fly under the radar, because I know neurogenesis is talked about a lot. The idea of learning new things and protecting inflammation of the brain by limiting sugar and vegetable oils. There’s a lot of, of course, nootropics out there, from Ciltep to Qualia to Alpha Brain. A lot of people are aware of many of the things that are out there. But if I could give you a few that folks might not be aware of, one is this idea of using low-level laser therapy or some form of infrared light at a specific frequency in the form of, like, a head cap for the head during the day. There’s a company called Vielight, V-i-e light. And they initially were developing these head-worn devices for Alzheimer’s and dementia that have a signal emitted in the range of 10 hertz. And then another device that has a signal range of 30 or 40 hertz. And that newer device is called The Gamma.

I recently got my hands on one, and I’ve been using that in the mornings. It can, because it enhances the activity of cytochrome c oxidase in the mitochondria neural tissue, and whenever you upregulate mitochondrial activity like that, you do create reactive oxygen species. In the same way, you wouldn’t want to use an infrared light panel all day long. You would only want to use this about once every 24 to 48 hours. But when I use it in the morning, I’ll often put it on while I’m sitting with my cup of coffee in the morning reading through research or replying to emails. It really gives me a big boost of cognitive energy for about four to five hours, I’ve found. You wear it for about, I think it automatically turns off after about 25 minutes. It’s called a Vielight. I want to say the price point is somewhere between like $600 and $1,000. So it’s not an inexpensive device. But that’s one I’ve been toying around with that seems to give pretty good results.

Another would be, I don’t know if any people are familiar with peptides. But there is kind of a growing interest in peptides. I was recently at the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, and there were many, many kinds of peptide breakouts and conferences there. And peptides are just these strings of amino acids designed to elicit specific functions. Like, two that are popular in the sporting world are BPC-157 and TB-500. The former works on decreasing inflammation, the latter on improving healing of myosin and actin fibers. And these are all injectables. Other popular ones would be, like, there’s one called epitalon, that’s one that would be used as kind of like an anti-aging peptide. Another two similar peptides that are kind of mitochondrial drive peptides are humanin and MOTS-c. So this world of peptides is very interesting. You need to be very careful because a lot of websites are popping up that are selling kind of bastardized versions of peptides. Typically, you want to work with a physician who has access to a good compounding company, like, Tailor Made Compounding is one very good one for peptides.

But there is a newer peptide of late that enhances neurogenesis and decreases inflammation. Might improve the integrity of the blood–brain barrier and is also kind of, acts very similar to a nootropic for cognition and for memory. That one’s called Semax, s-e-m-a-x. That’s another one I started to play around with in the past month. It involves injecting it, just like with an insulin syringe in the skin, around the abdomen during the day. And that works very well, again, for a very good clean boost of cognitive energy that seems to last about six to eight hours without producing any kind of drop in energy afterwards or a crash like you’d get from something like, say, modafinil or something like that. But that seems to work very well, this peptide Semax. So that’s another one.

And if there is, let me see if I can think of one more. That’s kind of interesting in the world of nootropics or smart drugs. I guess another one, and I’m trying to come up with some things that folks may not have heard of.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, thanks.

Ben Greenfield:  Lysergamides, probably the most popular being LSD, are kind of popular now in terms of things that one would microdose with. And LSD can cause kind of a merging of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and allow for you to engage in creative and analytical thinking simultaneously. And, for example, I actually, when I kind of wanted to experiment a little bit with microdosing with LSD, I used it about a year and a half ago for about eight months. Every Friday, I would use it because I was writing a fiction book, and I found that it seemed to help quite a bit with me being able to organize thoughts and still be able to tap into my creative brain. And so I just used it every Friday to write fiction. It worked very well.

The problem with it being that it’s a little bit difficult to get your hands on, LSD. But there’s a new analog of it called 1P-LSD, which is also a lysergamide, that’s a little less expensive and easier to find. And there’s a website called Lysergi, I think it’s just L-y-s-e-r-g-i, where you can buy this stuff called 1P-LSD and in very small amounts. And you want to be careful because you do get a little rush of serotonin and dopamine, and you don’t want to create some kind of a neurotransmitter imbalance with frequent use. But used every so often for a day in which you want some really good kind of creative/analytical thinking, using a very small amount, like 10 to 20 micrograms, which is nowhere near like a trip dose of LSD, that also seems to really help with things like creative writing, creativity, problem-solving, etc. And it’s not LSD, it’s called 1P-LSD. I forget what the P stands for.

Chris Kresser:  What is the legality of 1P-LSD?

Ben Greenfield:  I actually don’t know. It’s one of those things, not sold for human consumption. Probably questionable in terms of legality. But as something that acts as a pretty powerful nootropic, it seems to work pretty well. So if anything, I just advise everyone to go out and use illegal drugs, so my apologies. But that’s one that came to mind.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah. No, I was just curious. I haven’t heard of that, and since you mentioned you could order it online, I was, I mean, I know you can order a lot of stuff online now that …

Ben’s Upcoming Book

Chris Kresser:  So cool, this has been really fascinating and I know listeners are going to get a lot out of it. Just in closing, what’s on your radar these days? What are you exploring next? What are you up to?

Ben Greenfield:  Besides working really hard on developing a curriculum for my kids, which involves sitting them down and picking their brains over and over again about their passions and what they want to learn from gardening to graphic design to how to dissect a wild animal, I am kind of deep in the throes of finishing up a book called Superhuman RX or Superhuman Prescription. It’s kind of a beast. It’s about 600 pages long on this big eight-and-a-half-by-eleven hardcover. And it’ll be, probably won’t come out until January of 2020, but it’s almost like a sequel to my former book, Beyond Training.

I wanted to work in a lot more spiritual healing, gratitude, sound healing, vibrational therapy. There’s a lot of quantum physics in there. A lot more of what some people might consider to be woo-woo. But things that I’ve found to be very helpful. And there’s even chapters that take a pretty deep dive into things like sexual enhancement and libido, etc. And then a lot on the brain and cognitive enhancement. And about 10 chapters on the body as well, especially in terms of using a lot of the type of longevity topics that we talked about.

And the chapter on anti-aging is, like, 90 pages alone, just delving into everything from peptides to injections to stem cells to just kind of like the new world of anti-aging and what works and what doesn’t. So that book has been kind of a beast, but it’s turned into the publisher, and so that’s what I’ve busy with as of late.

Chris Kresser:  Congrats.

Ben Greenfield:  Thanks.

Chris Kresser:  That’s a lot of work. Well, Ben, thanks so much for joining me, and it’s been a pleasure to chat with you. And I’ll see you at Paleo f(x) as we do every year.

Ben Greenfield:  I’m looking forward to it, man. I’ll see you at the speaker’s dinner.

Chris Kresser:  All right, take care. Bye-bye.