In this episode, we discuss:
- Max’s journey into health and wellness
- The many ways that lifestyle impacts your health, wellness, and longevity
- How light exposure affects your body and health
- The health risks of noise pollution
- How air pollution affects your health and longevity
- How to find out more about The Genius Life
- Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life, by Max Lugavere
- Bread Head
- The Genius Life podcast
- The Genius Life: Heal Your Mind, Strengthen Your Body, and Become Extraordinary, by Max Lugavere
- Max Lugavere’s Instagram
Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. I’m Chris Kresser, and this week, I’m really excited to welcome Max Lugavere as my guest. Max is a filmmaker, a health and science journalist, and the author of The New York Times best-selling book Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life, which has been published in eight languages. He’s the director of the film Bread Head, the first ever documentary about dementia prevention through diet and lifestyle, and is also the host of the number one iTunes health podcast The Genius Life.
Max appears regularly on The Dr. Oz Show, Rachael Ray show, and The Doctors. He’s contributed to Medscape, VICE, Fast Company, CNN, and The Daily Beast and has been featured on NBC Nightly News, the Today show, and The Wall Street Journal. He’s an internationally sought after speaker and has given talks at South by Southwest, the New York Academy of Sciences, the Biohacker Summit in Stockholm, Sweden, and many others. I’m looking forward to talking to Max about his upcoming book, The Genius Life, where he explores the importance of lifestyle and behavior factors beyond just diet in contributing to health, wellness, and longevity. So let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Max, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you for joining us.
Max Lugavere: Thank you, Chris. I’m a fan of yours and have been for a while. So this is a real treat.
Max’s Journey into Health and Wellness
Chris Kresser: Let’s start. I always like to get a little bit of the backstory. How did you get interested in this world we inhabit of health and wellness?
Max Lugavere: Yeah, so, I mean, I like to tell people that I’m a health and science journalist. I became, I was a bit of a generalist early on in my career. I used to work for a TV network co-founded by Al Gore, and although he’s a political figure, the network actually had very little to do with his politics. And it was more sort of like a news and information network for younger people. And so, I was one of the main anchors for the network, one of the main journalists, and I likened my time there as having been a, like a bit of a stem cell. Like, I got to explore whatever was under the purview of my interests.
And oftentimes, that included health and technology and things like that. But it really wasn’t until about 2011, [when] my mother got sick, that I decided to funnel all my resources and all my skills that I had gleaned working at that network into the investigation of why this would have happened to a woman at such a young age. So my mom was 58 at the time, and she was spirited and youthful, and she started to display the earliest symptoms of what would ultimately be diagnosed as a form of dementia. She had something that, it actually took us a few years to get a diagnosis. She had something called Lewy body dementia, which actually has more in common with Parkinson’s disease.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Max Lugavere: For anybody who’s familiar with it, or has it, it’s sort of like having Alzheimer’s [disease] and Parkinson’s [disease] at the same time. And I had no prior family history of any kind of neurodegenerative condition. I certainly might have expected a family member to develop a condition like this in advanced age, but my mom was not old, as I mentioned. And so, it threw me and my family completely off guard, and it was traumatic and upsetting. And the trauma of it all was compounded by the fact that in every single doctor’s office, I experienced what I’ve come to call “diagnosed and adios.” Essentially, a physician would tinker with a drug that my mom was on or prescribe a new one, and ultimately send us on our way. But not once was diet or lifestyle broached. And even Googling, like, I think many people, when they’re in the shoes that I was in, they turn to Dr. Google for better or worse. And what you’ll end up finding is that these conditions are unpreventable, incurable, and, virtually, there’s nothing that can be done.
But what I did at the time was I used the skills that I had learned as an investigator to try to look into the primary literature to uncover what it was about my mom’s diet or lifestyle that might have predisposed her to developing this condition and, in tandem with that, what can be done to help prevent it from happening to myself. And the optimism that I saw in terms of what was available in the literature was eye-opening, to say the least.
And so, that really began what would ultimately become a 10-year journey, doing my own research, reading study after study, but then also reaching out to experts around the globe, many of whom have authored some of the papers that are really showing us how much agency we have when it comes to our diets and our lifestyles and our brain health. And that’s what has led to this journey. And it’s a, the question of what type of environmental toxicity or toxicities led to my mom’s decline, that’s a question that’s going to be with me for the rest of my life. It’s just something that I’m not going to ever be able to rest on. And so, yeah, it’s the basis for all my work.
Chris Kresser: It’s so interesting. It’s a common thread, either a personal experience with one’s own health struggle or a health struggle of a close friend or family member that brings us to this work. There’s something that, it seems like most people don’t get too, too interested in health and wellness unless something like that happens. Or perhaps if they’re an athlete trying to optimize their performance. But they’re, especially when we’re younger, it seems like it often takes something very personal like this to draw us in.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in nutrition and fitness at a pretty high level. I mean, I actually started college pre-med, but I realized halfway through my schooling that I also had a love for storytelling and creativity. And I ended up switching my major to a double major in documentary filmmaking and psychology.
But for as long as I can remember, dating back to probably ninth grade, in high school, I’ve been really interested in health science and nutrition. And it was from the standpoint of fitness, I suppose. But really, it led to me being the perfect substrate to kind of tackle this topic when my mom got sick. Because I already had an understanding of, I mean, a very high-level understanding, I’ll concede, but some of the basics in terms of, like, nutrition.
And when I say basics, I mean, these are things that most people still don’t even understand. But it allowed me to roll up my sleeves and get to work, and, yeah. I was lucky in that I was not personally ever affected by any major health problems. I know you’ve struggled with chronic illness, but I, yeah, I was pretty lucky. But I love my mom and, I just, it was the most heartbreaking thing to see her decline. And so, that really was the fire under the proverbial butt that really got me to engage with this topic in a more formal way.
Chris Kresser: So, yeah, let’s, I mean, you’ve had an interesting background. I think the combination of documentary filmmaking and psychology is kind of ideal for exploring some of these topics. Because you can’t address or investigate any of these issues without understanding human psychology. And, as a filmmaker, I think you directed Bread Head about dementia prevention through diet and lifestyle. And then, of course, you are the host of The Genius Life, which is the number one iTunes health podcast and also the title of your upcoming book, which is going to be released on March 17. Is that right?
Max Lugavere: Yeah, The Genius Life.
If you’ve got your diet dialed in, your next step to improving your health and wellness is addressing harmful lifestyle factors. Check out this episode of RHR for actionable tips from Max Lugavere on optimizing your lifestyle. #optimalhealth #healthylifestyle #chriskresser
The Many Ways That Lifestyle Impacts Your Health, Wellness, and Longevity
Chris Kresser: Yeah. So tell us a little bit about what led you to write this book. I know you have a previous book, Genius Foods. It was a New York Times bestseller and very successful. So how did this next project come about? Like, what was the impetus for this one?
Max Lugavere: Yeah, great question. So, I mean, I guess, Genius Foods was what I considered to be a nutritional care manual for the human brain. But, as you know, nutrition is just one part of the story. And you could be checking all the nutritional boxes in accordance with the best available evidence. And if you’re not engaging in regular physical activity, if you’re not getting adequate sunlight, if you’re not making sure that your vitamin D levels are optimal, if you’re not sleeping well, if you’re not finding a way to meaningfully deal with your stress, or at least to boost stress resilience, you’re still going to be fighting a losing battle.
And so, I set out to write The Genius Life with the intention of creating a 360 degree sort of lifestyle guide. So all the simple small habits that you can integrate into your 24 hours that are going to have a noticeable impact on the way that you feel, but then also really move the needle in terms of your long-term health in accordance with what we currently understand to be true about circadian biology, about our codependence with nature, about time-restricted feeding, and even nutrition. I go deep into nutrition, sort of high-level nutritional recommendations in the book that are different from Genius Life and that are more sort of calibrated to help attain the readers’ best possible body composition and metabolic health.
So it’s more about how to build and maintain lean mass and to maintain strength as one ages, and how to be able to eat foods in a way that keeps your hunger levels in check. So a lot of people today, I was just reading horrifying statistics that we’re on track to become a nation where one in two adults is obese. I’m not just talking about being overweight.
Chris Kresser: I saw that story. It’s just shocking. And one in four are going to be severely obese. Not just obese, severely obese. We had to create a new category for that.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, yeah, I literally read that, like, 20 minutes before jumping on the call with you. So I think there’s no question that we’re living in a world that is out of sync with the needs of our body. And I would go so far as to say that the world has become toxic in many ways. And it’s not just that one thing is out of place or awry. It’s that the accumulation of all the various factors, whether we’re talking about the toxic food supply that’s now just overrun with ultra-processed foods, refined grain products, and industrial grain and seed oils. But it’s also the fact that chronic stress is rampant.
Most of us, or many of us, I should say, are not getting adequate sleep. Leisure time, physical activity is at an all-time low. So it’s the accumulation of all these many factors that I think overwhelm the body’s defenses and predispose us all to, at best, malaise, but, at worst, sickness and shortened lifespans. And so, actually, when I began writing The Genius Life, which I started writing about six months after Genius Foods came out, I mentioned that my mother had a form of dementia, which was very heartbreaking.
But what I never would have expected occurred on Labor Day 2018. My mom was actually diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And by the time it was diagnosed, which is often the case with pancreatic cancer, it was already, there was already evidence that it had spread. So it was already in stage four. And they gave her a three- to six-month window. And it was three months, almost to the day, that she was diagnosed that my mom passed away. And it was just horrible and painful and traumatic and barbaric. And it really, the fact that this happened during the time in which I wrote the book really caused me to kind of like, look at the world in a new way.
I mean, what were the factors at play for my mom’s awful health, that she developed not one but two of humanity’s most feared conditions? And so, those are all the kinds of questions that I posit and explore ultimately in The Genius Life, everything from our relationship with nature to light, [to] stress, to sleep, to food in a way that’s more about sort of health and longevity on a more broader scale, I think, than Genius Foods was, which was really kind of focused on dementia prevention.
Chris Kresser: I’m on the same page with you about the contribution of non-dietary lifestyle factors. As I do this work, it’s been over a decade now, and I just, I think, especially with the population of patients I work with, and maybe the people you interact with, a lot of them are already thinking about nutrition, [and] they’re doing a pretty good job with their diet. It might not be perfect, but they’re at least 80 percent of the way there. But they might not be, they might be kind of a basket case when it comes to sleep or stress management or toxic burden or exposure, any number of things that you and I both talk a lot about.
So I think those are often the elephant in the room when it comes to health optimization or even reversing, preventing or reversing chronic disease. So let’s, with that in mind, let’s dive into some of the more, the specifics that you discuss in your book starting with light exposure. And this is something that my listeners have heard me talk a lot about. But why don’t you share a little bit about your research on the effects of light on the brain and body. And then what the, kind of, easiest most practical solution to that is for folks.
How Light Exposure Affects Your Body and Health
Max Lugavere: Yeah, so I think this is a really exciting area for science. And the story is, we’re just in the first chapter of what is being called circadian biology, which is basically how our biology responds to cues in our environment that let our genes know what time of day it is. And by far, the most potent time setter that our bodies use to gauge the time of day and to then accordingly set off its very many processes that it will undergo through the course of the day is light.
And so, as a master time setter, I think the impetus is on us to make sure that we are getting good bright, it doesn’t even have to be that bright, and I’ll explain shortly, light into our eyeballs sometime in the morning. Ideally, soon after waking up. But generally, that light is going to anchor your body’s internal clock, which affects everything from your ability to feel energized, to focus, to pay attention, to be at your cognitive best. It affects physical performance.
We know that, for example, strength is something that is influenced by our circadian rhythms. It affects digestion. You’re digesting at your best, peristalsis is at its most revved up during the day. I mean, we’re diurnal creatures. We’re meant to eat during the day, and that’s when digestion is, our digestive mechanisms are firing on all cylinders. It affects metabolism. We know that we are primed to utilize and partition fuels during the day. We’re at our most insulin-sensitive during the day. And the inverse of that, insulin resistance, is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes, which many people struggle with. But then also our circadian, that circadian influence affects the latter half of the day, as well.
So it dictates when the sleep hormone melatonin is going to begin to be secreted by the pineal gland. And melatonin is, a lot of us think of it purely in that context to help us get to sleep. But actually, melatonin is a gatekeeper hormone involved in autophagy, which is when our cells clean house, and that’s important for longevity, [and] it’s important for cancer prevention. And the secretion of melatonin is dictated in many ways by our circadian rhythms.
So the way that it works is we have this small group of light-sensing proteins in the eye called melanopsin proteins. And I, actually, I had the privilege to get to go and interview Satchin Panda down at the Salk Institute who’s on the team [and] who discovered these proteins. And these proteins are fairly insensitive and they’re not involved in vision. And their insensitivity is actually, is a good, it’s a purposeful insensitivity because if it were so sensitive that a candlelight would set these proteins off, then our circadian clocks would be desynced from, like, really low-level light. Thankfully, they’re only really sensitive to, it seems, [light] that is at an intensity of about 1,000 lux or higher, which you can easily attain by just exposing your eyes to just normal daylight. You don’t have to be in direct sun. It doesn’t even have to be all that sunny out. It can be a fully overcast day. I get a lot of questions from people living in the north, during the winter. How do they do this when the sun is blotted out most of the day? Well, it can be overcast. You’re still getting light at an intensity that is going to anchor your body’s circadian rhythm.
And what happens then is that those proteins then speak to a small region inside of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is, your listeners don’t have to remember that. But I think it’s worth knowing where it is in the brain because the hypothalamus controls some of our very base-level mechanisms that are involved in survival. So metabolic rate, our drive to eat, to procreate, these are all controlled in that region of the brain.
So, needless to say, it’s a very primordial relationship that we have with light. And it then functions like a timer, where at every point during the day, your body has plans, essentially. And you can do whatever it is that you want to do, no matter what time of day it is, but it’s the question of, like, when is it going to be optimal? So we know that eating food, generally you want to do it, like, in the, when it’s sort of light out. We know that that’s when we’re at our most insulin-sensitive, especially if you plan on consuming carbohydrate-dense foods and things like that.
And so, that, I think, is crucially important, like, being mindful of the light that you’re getting in through your eyes. And also, it’s important to know that people have varying sensitivity to light. And I would say the most pronounced variation occurs across the age spectrum. So there’s a yellowing that occurs to the lens of the eye. That means that older adults are going to have dramatically less sensitivity to light in terms of the ability for these light-sensing proteins to be activated essentially by light, as people who are much younger. And so, a lot of older adults, I think, accept that getting lower-quality sleep is just par for the course of aging, when, in fact, I think it just means that they need to spend more of their time outdoors. The relationship with light becomes even more important as we get older. And in light of statistics, no pun intended, that we now spend about 93 percent of our time indoors. I think that the time for this message, it couldn’t be a more opportune time to get this information out there.
And then, as easy as it may seem to get that light in through your eyes in the first half of the day, one of the central challenges of modern life has thus become how to keep super bright light and circadian-disrupting light out of our eyes in the latter half of the day when we’re inundated with light from our smartphones or TVs that seems to be getting increasingly large, to even overhead lighting in stores like drug stores or supermarkets, which can easily reach 1,000 lux, which is a measure of light intensity required to set off these melanopsin proteins. So, I mean, if you’re looking at a large TV screen and it goes white for whatever reason, or you happen to do a late-night snack run to the supermarket, you’re basically receiving in through your eyes a light at an intensity that is capable of telling your brain that it’s daytime, thus completely throwing your circadian rhythm off into the abyss.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Max Lugavere: And what that’s essentially doing is, Chris, it’s causing us all to live in a perpetual state of jetlag. Which is why most of us feel so crummy, I think. Or it’s one reason why I think most of us feel so crummy these days.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I think light pollution is one of the least appreciated forms of pollution, at least in the general public. Although among researchers, as you pointed out, it’s very well established how harmful it can be and how important the circadian clock is to regulating virtually all aspects of physiologic function. Because it controls about 10 percent of gene expression, and genes really are running the show. So it’s so critical. What is your personal routine with light and controlling light exposure, both natural light and artificial light exposure, at night?
How to Control Light Exposure
Max Lugavere: Yeah, so, I mean, during the day, I mean, the first thing I do when I wake up, I open up all the blinds in my apartment. So I’m lucky in that I have, I live in a place where I get good natural light, which was something that intuitively, even before I was that familiar with this research, I knew was good for me when I was actually looking for a place to live. So, I mean, I settled on the apartment that I live in now because it has large windows that allow for natural light to enter the living room. So I’m able to actually spend a good portion of my morning in relatively close proximity to bright natural light.
If I have to leave the house first thing in the morning, which I think many people do to commute to work, I like to drive to wherever I’m going, or walk to wherever I’m going without sunglasses on, which is something that, again, before really doing a deep dive into this research, I probably would have put sunglasses on first thing in the morning. And so, it’s important to not wear sunglasses during that sort of pivotal time in which your body is really getting to know what, or your brain rather, is getting to know what time of day it is.
And then, generally, just the more time that you could spend outside, I think, the better. The sun, the wavelengths of light that the sun gives off at any given point of day, they vary. And so, I do think that there’s value to just being outside more often from the standpoint of light and circadian biology. Not just in the morning. But it seems to be that the proposed amount, the proposed duration at which we need to be exposed to really set off those proteins is about half an hour. In the latter half of the day, I try to do my best to limit my exposure to bright light, which, admittedly, can be very difficult, especially when you’re being compelled at every moment to binge-watch the latest show on your favorite streaming device, which I’m certainly guilty of, too.
But generally, what I do is in my apartment, I keep, I make sure that all the bulbs in my apartment are very warm. And this, to me, is another one of these tips that seems pretty intuitive, almost too intuitive to mention. But I look around at other apartments in my complex, and you’d be surprised how many people have these really bright, like, almost blue hue light bulbs. Like, almost, like, fluorescent, hospital light.
Chris Kresser: Fluorescent light, yeah.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, in their homes. And it just blows my mind, Chris.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I’m with you.
Max Lugavere: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: I can’t stand to be in that light. You go into, like, a doctor’s office or a building like an office building. It’s just, like, I feel like a vampire or something.
Max Lugavere: I know.
Chris Kresser: It’s a bright light.
Max Lugavere: And some people actually choose to have lights like that in their homes. It’s just crazy to me. So I’ve, as soon as I moved into my place, I swapped out all the bulbs and bought these just very inexpensive, slightly more dim, but bright enough where I could read and do all the things that I would want to do in my apartment. But a very warm hue. Like, very, very orangey. They all have, like, a very orange glow. And I also have a lot of lamps in my apartment. So I’m not a big fan of overhead lighting. I think eye-level lighting makes the most sense from an ancestral standpoint.
The brightest light that a hunter–gatherer would have access to would be a campfire, which emits, again, like, a very warm glow to eye level. So I’m using, like, predominantly my lamps at night. And then, of course, I try to limit my use of technology. But then, when I am working into the wee hours, I make use of amber-colored blue-light-blocking glasses, which, for all of the many gimmicks that there are out there in this sort of biohacking health and wellness world, I do think that, like, amber-colored blue-blocking glasses are worth the money.
And so, I do use those. There was research that found that by wearing them for an hour or two before bed, you’re able to mitigate some of the blue-light-induced melatonin suppression that occurs. So anywhere by up to about 60 percent is the, you see a 60 percent increase, actually, in melatonin secretion where it would otherwise decline when exposed to bright blue light.
So, yeah, those are all sort of the high level, and then also I keep my bedroom very dark. Because there have been a few studies that show us that even with very low light intensity that this light is still able to enter through our eyelids and affect next-day cognitive function.
Chris Kresser: Yep.
Max Lugavere: So I’ve taped over pretty much all the sources of light in my bedroom. The perennially blinking alarm clock and everything else.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, yeah, I’ll even, I typically will wear a sleep mask when I travel when I don’t have control over the environment. And initially, it was not super comfortable sleeping with one, but I’ve trained myself to do it now. And I notice a difference when I don’t wear it, for sure. So we’ve been talking about light pollution. There’s another type of pollution that has become increasingly common in the modern world, which is noise pollution.
And this is probably even less understood than the effects of light pollution. But you mentioned an interesting study in the book about how noise can actually increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Every 10-decibel increase in traffic noise increased the risk by 14 percent, which is not insignificant. So tell us a little more about that. And then, are there any steps that you recommend people take for reducing their noise pollution exposure?
The Health Risks of Noise Pollution
Max Lugavere: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought that up. I mean, that was a little section in the book that I couldn’t leave out just because of my own personal experience having lived in New York City.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Max Lugavere: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: Noise pollution capital of the world, or one of them.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, for sure. I mean, the thing about noise pollution is that we’re unable, our sense of hearing is the only sense that we can’t consciously disengage, right? So, without your consent, you could be on the side of the road and a truck could roll by and stimulate your body’s fight or flight response. I mean, without your consent. And that has a number of physiological effects in the body. I mean, it’s a cascade that was really meant to put us out of harm’s way as a hunter–gatherer. But today, in the context of chronic noise pollution, I mean, it can lead to ill health. I mean, there are all these studies now coming out, showing us that chronic noise pollution can increase [the] risk of heart disease, of type 2 diabetes. And yeah, I mean, I think it’s important to kind of contextualize what noise does to the body. I mean, as a hunter–gatherer, the loudest sound, a loud sound that you might hear, like the roar of a lion, might indicate imminent danger.
And so, the fact that we’re just chronically inundated with traffic noise and the like, I don’t think that that’s doing good things to our health and, certainly, I didn’t feel at my best when I was living in New York and I was chronically exposed to noise pollution. Also noise annoyance. There is an actual term used in the medical literature about being near, living close to a place where there’s regular noise annoyance, like an airport, for example, can also have disastrous effects on health as well as cognitive function for younger people. And I detail this in the book.
How to Control Noise Pollution Exposure
Max Lugavere: So I think some really actionable tips, if you have access to a white noise machine. See, white noise is the kind of thing that, because it’s so consistent, we actually can get used to that. And so, white noise doesn’t really count for, as a source of noise pollution, and in fact, it can blot out noise annoyance. It can blot out those spikes in whatever the sound may be; if it’s, like, your radiator that is clinking and clanking all night, I think a white noise generator or, like, a fan, or even an air conditioner can be very useful. I’m a big fan of noise-cancelling headphones, which I think can be useful with the caveat that wearing them is not without risk in a large city because you might not hear something that might be deserving of your attention.
But it is effective in terms of helping reduce that kind of noise exposure. Better insulating your house is another route, for, like, soundproofing your home, which can be a double-edged sword because actually elsewhere in The Genius Life, I talk about the fact that, in general, our homes and our buildings are becoming better insulated, and that is causing us to be exposed to greater levels of indoor air pollution. So these are all the kinds of things that you have to kind of be cognizant of.
But I think the most important thing is just the knowledge that noise is not a benign phenomenon and that noise, whether or not you want it to, can have an effect on your biology, and when regularly exposed to this kind of noise pollution, that it can have negative health effects.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I’m super sensitive to noise and noise annoyance. I love that term. I wasn’t familiar with it. It definitely applies. And I always just kind of marveled at people who are able to fall asleep, for example, with the TV on in the background, or the radio on in the background, or just have some kind of ongoing chatter happening in the background. Because that’s kind of like nails on the chalkboard for me. But, I mean, that strikes me as another aspect of the modern lifestyle that’s totally out of sync, because that constant noise, as you pointed out, is probably triggering a fight-or-flight response, at least on some level. Because from an evolutionary perspective, loud noises or noises that are not consistent in their tone would have triggered an alarm response just from a survival perspective, right?
Max Lugavere: Yes.
Chris Kresser: If you have some kind of noise in your peripheral awareness, you’re going to be like, wait, what’s that? Is that a friend or foe? And I love that you included that in the book because I think a lot of people aren’t really considering the impact [of] noise.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, one of the concepts that I advanced in the book that I’m super excited to sort of bring into the spotlight is this notion of allostatic load, which I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept. But, essentially, we all have a limited capacity of stressors that we can deal with at any given time, before our body essentially just throws up its hands and we experience the phenomenon known as burnout. In the medical literature, it’s sometimes referred to as allostatic overload. Things that we, lifestyle modalities that we know are good for us, like exercise, like saunas. So the use of saunas or cold water immersion, or even intermittent fasting. I mean, these are all good for us in part because they’re mild stressors on the body.
And these are, this is like the type of stress that I think we would both agree is a good type of stress. But if you’re living in a constant state of fight or flight, you have stress in your professional or personal life that you’re not dealing with, you’re exposed chronically to noise pollution or light pollution on a regular basis, you’re already functioning in a place where your allostatic cup, so to speak, is already half full. And then, you throw in any additional stressors and caffeine and sleeplessness, and you’re just going to hit that tipping point where your allostatic load becomes overload. And so, I think it’s really worthwhile to look at all the places in your life where you’re, where you have stimuli that may be stressful, but it’s not, like, the good kind of stress. It’s stress without your consent.
And noise pollution I would definitely put in that category. And I would do everything in my power to get rid of it, to cater to it, because then you’re beginning every day with an empty glass and you can throw in things like caffeine, if you choose caffeine from coffee, or high-intensity exercise, or intermittent fasting. The problem is, I think sometimes with people [who] don’t respond to these kinds of lifestyle modalities, that all of us in the wellness world are talking about these days, if they don’t respond favorably, it’s probably because they, they’ve just got too much, like, going on in their lives.
If you’re chronically stressed and you’re chronically exposed to road noise and things like that, and then you’re underslept, you’re not dealing with stress, and then you throw in caffeine, which, I mean, if you go to my Instagram, you’ll see I’m a fan of coffee. But for the wrong person, some of these can actually be disastrous. Because they just, they cause the cup to overflow. So I think it’s important to, in the acknowledgment that there is no one-size-fits-all diet or lifestyle for optimal health, you’ve really got to uproot the stress, the sources of chronic stress in your life. And yeah, I would definitely put noise pollution in that category.
Another source of stress that I talk about in the book is, I mean, even simple aspects of our environment that you wouldn’t necessarily, you wouldn’t necessarily think about, there was this really great study that came out that found that people sitting on wobbly furniture, it started to paint their worldview in a way that was less peachy. They began to favor traits that were less stable in terms of relationships. When they were looking at celebrity couples, it was, like, this very interesting controlled study where they took people and they put them in either stable furniture or wobbly furniture. And they found that just the environment in which a person is sitting can actually affect the way that you see the world. And so, those are all the kinds of things that I implore readers to think about and become cognizant of.
How Air Pollution Affects Your Health and Longevity
Chris Kresser: Let’s continue on this theme. We talked about light pollution, noise pollution. Let’s talk a little bit about air pollution because this is something my listeners and readers are very familiar with if they’ve followed me for some time. Because I’ve talked a lot about biotoxin and mold-related illness, and I’ve been treating that in patients for many years. There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that both outdoor air pollution in an urban environment and indoor air pollution can contribute to everything from diabetes to autoimmune disease to neurological and cognitive issues. And you mentioned both in your book. So let’s dive into that a little bit.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, I mean, so many people live with exposure to polluted air. And the kind of pollution that I talk about in The Genius Life is primarily fine particulate matter pollution, [or] Pm2.5 for short, which is basically the most dangerous type of airborne particles. Those measuring 2.5 micrometers or smaller. And what they found is that these particles, when we inhale them, they’re able, actually, not only to enter circulation, but they’re also able to pierce the blood-brain barrier. And they’ve found that in heavily polluted parts of the world, you can see evidence of these particles in the brains of young people. And that when they’re there, they stimulate changes that are, that you would more frequently see in much older people. Changes that are more indicative of, like, accelerated brain aging, like the appearance of amyloid plaques. Which amyloid is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease because it forms the backbone of the plaques that aggregate and clump and are present in the brain.
And the latest thinking on amyloid is that it’s not necessarily the causative player, but it’s there at the scene of the crime. And it’s there to sort of reduce, perhaps, the consequences of proinflammatory insults. They’re doing a lot of this research over at Harvard and they find that it could be viral for some people. But what they found is that Pm2.5 has actually been shown to not only cause blood-brain barrier dysfunction, but to promote the appearance of amyloid plaque and these tangled tau proteins way earlier than you would typically expect to see them in the brains of humans.
So, I mean, that right there is super unsettling. And then, at the other end of the age spectrum, there was a really great review of the environmental factors that play into Alzheimer’s risk. And it posited that 20 percent of Alzheimer’s cases alone may be owed to regular exposure to air pollution. Another study that occurred across 48 states found that high exposure to air pollutants increase the risk of cognitive decline in women by 81 percent and Alzheimer’s disease specifically by 92 percent. So, I mean, air pollution is playing a major, I think, role here. Exposure to high levels of air pollution can affect heart rate variability, which is an important marker of cardiovascular health, which we know the brain relies on. It can create inflammation and things like that.
Reducing Your Exposure to Air Pollution
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and I mean, I’m sure you saw this last year. There was a study, a pretty big study, [of] 103,000 births. In pregnant women, they found an association between exposure to air pollution and autism spectrum disorders, which, of course, is, all the caveats apply with an association. We can’t prove [a] causal relationship, but there are a lot of plausible mechanisms that could explain that. So [it’s] definitely [a] growing problem. And, unfortunately, as is often the case with these things, it’s a problem [that] tends to disproportionately affect people of disadvantaged socioeconomic circumstances. But what are some of the steps that you recommend in your book and otherwise for reducing exposure to both outdoor and indoor air pollution or at least mitigating exposure when you can’t reduce it? Some people aren’t able to actually reduce their exposure.
Max Lugavere: Right. I mean, if you live in New York City, it’s very hard.
Chris Kresser: Or Shanghai.
Max Lugavere: Or Shanghai, yeah.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Max Lugavere: Yeah. So I’m very sympathetic to people who don’t have a choice. And so, yes, I provide tips in the book. But at a very high level, the best ways to detox, I call it the three Ps of detoxification, is:
When you pee, you excrete a significant proportion of certain types of pollutants through your pee. That’s why it’s always great to make sure that you’re well hydrated and that you’re peeing clear or light yellow at the darkest. As they say, the solution to pollution is dilution.
So making sure that you’re drinking ample fluids. Making sure that you’re eating a diet that’s rich in healthy produce. Fibrous, dark, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and things like that. We want to support gut bacteria, certain species of which have been shown to actually block intestinal uptake of certain heavy metals, which are now ubiquitous in the environment. And other toxic compounds are released into our gut after absorption, and we poop them out. So making sure that you’re consuming lots and lots of fiber, I think, is a reasonable recommendation. Including veggies at every meal. And it’s just one of the many, many benefits of consuming plants.
Chris Kresser: Don’t tell Paul Saladino.
Max Lugavere: Yeah. No, I know. I’m not a fan of the carnivore movement for most people. I think it can do [well for] some people, primarily people with autoimmune conditions or inflammatory conditions, as a therapeutic diet. But, for most people, I think that you’re going to be far better off with vegetables. I mean, there are cruciferous vegetables, which Paul actually is not a fan at all of sulforaphane, but actually, sulforaphane has been shown directly to help activate the liver’s phase II detox enzymes, which help you literally excrete environmental toxins.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and that wasn’t a dig against Paul. I think he’s a very thoughtful, intelligent guy and is approaching this with much more rigor than many others in the movement. And I have a lot of respect for what he’s doing.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, same.
Chris Kresser: You and I are on the same page with this where we recognize the potential therapeutic benefits of it in the short term and possibly even the long term. But that the risk here is that diet is so trendy. When low-carb came along, which is, I believe, also a therapeutic tool that’s not a general all-purpose diet for everybody. Inevitably, people start to think if it worked for someone else for their problem, it must work for me, or [it] must just be something that’s good to do. And I even see that happening with [the] carnivore [diet] now. People are going on it with, for really no reason other than they hear a lot of other people talking about it and getting great results. That’s concerning to me.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, and I echo that. I’m a big Paul Saladino fan. I think he’s a brilliant guy. But we disagree when it comes to the necessity of produce.
Chris Kresser: Which is healthy and productive.
Max Lugavere: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: I’ve said this often, I’m a huge advocate for disagreement.
Max Lugavere: Yes.
Chris Kresser: And healthy, respectful dialogue around that disagreement. I wish we had more of it in more areas of health. Paul had me on his show, and I’m going to have him on my show. We had a very respectful discussion where we agreed about some things and disagreed about other things. And I think people benefit from that. I wish there was more of that in this domain that we inhabit.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, couldn’t agree more. Yeah. So, I mean, I think the, making sure that you’re, if you live in one of these polluted areas, just making sure that you are. I think the harm of air pollution [is] probably pretty contingent on a person’s overall nutritional status and everything else that they’re doing to detox. For somebody who’s eating a diet that incorporates lots of fruits, vegetables, properly raised meats, eggs, [and] things like that, and a micronutrient-rich diet, and they’re also exercising, they’re sweating regularly, they’re sleeping, then I think that the pollution is going to have a, probably a much different effect. But it can, obviously, or I shouldn’t say obviously, but I could, my assumption would be that it would magnify the effects of [a] less optimal diet for sure.
Chris Kresser: I would agree with that 100 percent. I’m also a fan of air filters. I mean, if you live in China, for example, in an urban area, you almost certainly have several air filters because there’s no way of living there and not being exposed to huge amounts of particulate matter, air pollution. It’s not a panacea, or they’re not a panacea, but I think they can be helpful in mitigating the exposure that can’t be avoided.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, I agree with that. I mean, I think having an air purifier. I use a reverse osmosis water filter. I don’t drink my water from the tap. I also have plants in my apartment, which there was a really great book written, [and] I forget the author’s name, but he was a NASA research scientist; I think it was Wolverton. About, basically, he ranked all the plants that have the potential to effectively and efficiently clean the air in your personal breathing zone, as he defined it, of a few feet around you. And so, I actually give readers the top 10 most effective plants in my book.
Chris Kresser: Cool. That’s interesting.
Max Lugavere: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: Any highlights that you remember, which ones are more effective than others?
Max Lugavere: Well, the snake plant is a great plant. The rubber plant is also great. Some of these plants are, actually, you have to, if you have pets, you really want to look and make sure whether or not they are potentially toxic to pets. Because some can be. But if you don’t have any pets, then there’s zero harm in having them in your house. But the snake plant, the rubber plant, there were a few others. The areca palm, the lady palm. There’s a few, and they do, some of them are great at cleaning out formaldehyde, which is used to create wood products that many of our homes have. Various chemical vapors and things like that. So, yeah, it’s important to have plants. And then there’s also the stress-mitigating role of plants.
Chris Kresser: Sure.
Max Lugavere: Which is looking at green things.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, that’s been well established now.
Max Lugavere: Yeah.
How to Find out More about The Genius Life
Chris Kresser: Well, Max, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the show. Where can people learn more about your work and your book?
Max Lugavere: Yeah, so, I mean, the book can be found at GeniusLifeBook.com, and we’ve got some great bonuses for people that preorder. But generally, the book is available wherever you buy books. And then, I’m very active on Instagram. So you can come and find me at @MaxLugavere, L-u-g-a-v-e-r-e.
Chris Kresser: Great. Well, thanks again, Max. It’s been a pleasure. Excited about your book. I think addressing these lifestyle issues is really the next step, in my mind. I think a lot of people are, fortunately, considering nutrition, at least, certainly, we have a ways to go for talking about the general population, but in the audience of people who are listening to these kinds of podcasts, I think many folks have nutrition. Like I said before, maybe not 100 percent dialed in, but pretty well dialed in. And they could get even more improvement.
Instead of trying to take that 80 or 90 percent to 100 percent with diet, they could get more improvement by focusing on other areas that have been previously neglected. At least that’s what I see in my patients. So I’m super happy to see you addressing that in your book. And I would definitely recommend [that] everybody go pick up a copy and check that out. And, Max, let’s stay in touch and do this again.
Max Lugavere: Sounds good, Chris. Thank you so much for having me on.
Chris Kresser: All right. Take care.