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#28 – This Is Your Brain On COVID-19 With Dr. Austin Perlmutter

Many of us are concerned with the possible physical health challenges associated with COVID-19. Less talked about are the mental health challenges. In this episode with Dr. Austin Perlmutter, co-author of Brain Wash, a book he wrote with his father to sound the alarm on the mental health toll caused by the constant use of technology and the standard American diet, we discuss strategies for reducing the stress we are all feeling during quarantine.

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This Episode Covers:

  • The challenges of social media use in quarantine [6:00];
  • Mental health and negative news [12:00];
  • Are you getting any benefit from the News? [19:30];
  • COVID-19 quick fixes and supplements [26:00];
  • The cytokine storm and the basics of health [29:45];
  • The opportunity to take a hard look at lifestyle and chronic illness in the US [34:48];


Austin: Negative news sells better and that’s why negative news is preferentially put on the airwaves. The question is why does that matter? Right? Maybe it’s just that people like to hear about bad things going on in the world, that’s just more interesting to us. But the reason it seems that this is so successful in getting us to pay attention is that it bypasses some of the more cognitive higher-level pathways in our brain and it speaks to an emotional kind of visceral response, a fear response.

John: Welcome to the Gene Food podcast, I’m your host John O’Connor. Hi everybody, today we have Dr. Austin Perlmutter coming on the show for a second time. Some of you will remember Austin from a previous appearance on the show, in March, and he came out at a time when the corona virus pandemic was just starting to heat up and prior to the disruption that we’ve seen in our everyday lives.

I wanted to bring Austin back because his message, through his work with Psychology Today as well as the book that he published with his father, Dr. David Perlmutter, called “Brain Wash,” has a major focus on the impact of nutrition on mental health, the impact of consuming social media on mental health, and how news cycles in technology play a role in how we feel every day. I think it’s important to bring him on for an episode at this time because, I don’t know about you, but I definitely have my ups and downs during quarantine in the era of coronavirus. You know, I’m pretty well-suited to this whole type of work because of the fact that my work is on the internet and Gene Food has a team that’s remote across the world. But it’s still challenging and I’m sure some of you are feeling ups and downs of your own mental-health issues as this pandemic unfolds.

Austin has such a great message for this time because it is steeped in science but it’s also rooted in common sense. And we get into a lot of different topics, including the supplement industry in coronavirus, how to consume the news in a way that’s not gonna make you crazy, options for detoxing and stepping back from some of the negativity that’s out there in the news cycle. There’s a lot of good stuff in this episode, I hope you enjoy it, I hope it offers you a few practical tips and tricks to kind of reclaim a little bit of normalcy during a time that’s very challenging for a lot of us. So, without further ado, here is Dr. Austin Perlmutter coming back on the Gene Food podcast for Round Number 2.

Okay, so we have Dr. Austin Perlmutter who has been kind enough to join us for Round 2 Episode here, speaking about mental health and coronavirus, joining us from his remote location in South Florida. Austin, how are you this morning, my friend?

Austin: I am doing so well. I’m happy to be here. I guess through the technology, speaking with you again, things are a bit different since last time we met in person and recorded the last podcast.

John: Yeah, that was not a social-distance podcast. We had matcha tea, Raya was there, I was restraining my dog for a good portion of that episode under the table because he was not behaving. So how have you been? You mentioned off the air here that you and your girlfriend kind of had a life that was well-suited to remote work. And what is your day-to-day looking like right now? How are you adapting to this new reality of quarantine life?

Austin: Yeah, well, as I had mentioned to you before, one of my biggest engagements in the last couple of years has been the self-development self-growth piece. And so, that requires me to dedicate time each day to things like meditation, exercise, and introspection. And so, this has actually been pretty good for that. I mean I think that there is a point at which even somebody who enjoys that type of stuff wishes for more social contact. And with that said, my routine right now is pretty, I think, consistent routine which involves setting an alarm most days, trying to get up at a reasonable hour, and then, meditation, and exercise, and coffee. And then I guess a lot of computer work.

Turns out that everyone wants to do Zoom meetings, which is wonderful, but it does require you to be in front of a screen for most of the day. And then, trying to continue on with the learning piece. Most of my learning goes through the internet, at this stage, because I’m doing a lot of research into reading what there is to know about depression and microglial cells and the microbiome and immune cells. And so, I’m actually working with a group out in Seattle that’s doing some great stuff with immunity right now.

And yeah, then there’s been that kind of [inaudible 00:04:51] down phase towards the end of the day where my girlfriend and I will catch up on…I shouldn’t say catch up on because a lot of the time it’s watching the same episodes of “The Office” for the fourth and fifth time. But that decompressing part at the end of the day that tends to involve some mushroom tea and, you know, occasionally some alcohol. But for the most part it’s trying to stay away from the coping mechanisms. And, you know, I talk to a lot of friends and I have a lot of friends that are actively working in the hospitals and like…and I think it’s just finding the routine that is stable for you right now, understanding that it’s not going to be optimal. I’d like to be outside in the ocean a lot more than I am right now and it’s just the reality that we can’t be doing that. And I know a lot of people are wanting to get outside and see friends more than they are. And so, it’s trying to balance all these different aspects of what the world is like right now. And really I think a point we’ll get to is understanding that, yes, we wanna protect our physical health and not expose ourselves unnecessarily to the virus but finding the balance as it relates to our mental health as well.

John: In the book that you wrote with your father, that came out recently, “Brain Wash,” we talked about on the last episode, one of the big issues that you guys address is essentially trying to curate better habits, really fighting against your daily routine or maybe going with the [inaudible 00:06:18] of your daily routine to make it healthier. Where are you being challenged with coronavirus in the micro day-to-day decisions that you’re making?

Austin: Yeah. I think one that is a long-term battle for me and something we talked about a bit last time is it relates to social media and digital technology around anything that has some level of feedback from the audience telling you how much they liked it. So whether that’s blog posts and checking to see how many people have read it or checking your Instagram post to see how many people liked it, that’s something that is an active ongoing battle for me. And, you know, as we spoke about before, these things are designed to keep us coming back, to keep us checking to see how many other people liked it. And there’s such an easy validation pathway in the brain that’s, “Oh, I’m worth however many likes this is,” or you can justify it from the perspective of saying, “I’m trying to make sure that I get the most reach out of everything I do, so I need to know how many people are engaging with it. I need to know how many people are interested in these topics.” But it’s so easy to then justify checking these things hour by hour, even minute by minute. And when you’re home and don’t have the standard…I don’t wanna say distractions but the standard structure of, let’s say, a workday, it can be tempting to spend a lot of time specifically on the phone. So, I’d say, of anything that I’m doing right now with regard to trying to structure my life, the negative aspect of it is trying to push away from using my phone too much.

John: I totally can relate to that. I feel like I’ve never been more phone-addicted then since coronavirus started because, you know, I’m with my girlfriend all day…which is great, as you said earlier, your life was well-suited to quarantine, I think our lives are pretty well-suited to quarantine as well. I’ve had a internet-based job for a long time but it does feel as though, in this era, that does encroach a little bit more. Checking analytics, Twitter…

Austin: Yeah. And let’s think about the specifics here for just a moment, the average American is spending 11 hours each day interacting with media of which about 4 hours is on TV, basically watching TV, and other 2 hours or so on their phones. And that’s before anything like quarantine. Right? That’s in addition to doing the standard work-life balance. And so, now you say, “You’re not allowed to leave your house,” I know these things are changing so, by the time you listen to this, it may not be the case but, you know, it’s important to realize that probably for a long time things aren’t going to go back to completely normal. Right? We’re not gonna be going out to these big baseball basketball games, and so, to some extent we’re going to be having to content ourselves with smaller groups and with more time on our own.

So, in those moments, it is very tempting to pull out your phone and see what other people are up to. Right? That’s an engagement with other people, that’s that social connection. But you only get so many hours in the day. And I am not saying that you can’t be productive on your computer, I spend a lot of time on my computer, but much of what we do with our screens, as I know we talked about in last podcast, is really not benefiting you whatsoever. It’s mindless time. It’s not teaching you anything, it’s certainly a distraction from any sort of growth that you could get from either physical growth, mental growth, otherwise. And as we’re adding to the typical routine of, as I said, so much time in front of our screens, we are definitely missing out on some other things. So, this is why it becomes even more important right now to set some boundaries, as far as what you’re trying to get out of the day, and not let your conscious attention be sucked into a screen for the entirety of your waking hours.

John: Yeah. I mean one of the things that I’ve tried to do, you know, listening back to that last episode we did, it was a very good reminder to try to…it’s such a good message, it’s such an important message to try to get off of the screens. I got a Light Phone…have you heard of the Light Phone?

Austin: Yes, yep.

John: Yeah. So I have a Light Phone and I finally got the number sharing set up so my regular cell will ring through to my Light Phone, I’ve been trying to use that more often. Have you bought one?

Austin: I haven’t, no. What I’ve been doing is trying to put my phone in other parts of the house. One of the big things is just not to have your phone in your room when you’re sleeping. The last thing you wanna do is be checking your phone right when you wake up, last thing before you go to sleep. But the Light Phone is kind of an extreme example of that. And for some people that might be a great step. For the average person, I would just say, “Do your best to detach yourself from your phone.” I mean there’s so many bypasses, right? You can get your messages to your computer, you can get your emails obviously on your computer. But, especially right now, it’s easy to default to saying, “I don’t have anything else to do with my time.” But once you start pulling away from your phone, my experience has been, my day’s…it’s just better. I don’t find…you don’t really think about it as you’re using your phone, it’s more afterwards you get this feeling of, “Did I kind of waste my time? Was it actually fun for me? Did I learn anything?” And so, I think anything you can do, whether it’s actually buying a Light Phone, as you did, or setting up smaller kind of constraints upon your access to your phone during the day is valuable. Understanding of course…I’m not telling you that [inaudible 00:11:51] and you can’t be on your phone, that is completely the opposite of what I’m trying to say. But, as we’re looking at interventions to improve the quality of our life in general but right now one of those is saying, “How can you best be spending your time so that you get the most out of your day?”

John: Right. I think that…so we’ve established that people are kind of defaulting to the internet, which is a natural thing to do, I think people are really looking for news about coronavirus, they wanna know the latest statistics, hopefully hearing some good news. I think most people, when they get on their phones or on the internet, are gonna be disappointed that they’re not probably gonna find good news about coronavirus. The constant drumbeat of negative headlines, although some of them are undeniably deserved, it has an impact on our stress, it has an impact on our brains. And you alluded to it at the beginning of the show, you’ve been doing research on the actual sort of biochemical ramifications of being inundated with huge disruption in life. And also, I think we could agree, news coverage that is skewed to the, “If it bleeds, it leads kind of a kind of a default setting.” So, what does that do, from a biochemical standpoint, to our brains?

Austin: Sure. Well, let me first speak to what you just mentioned which is that news tends to slant towards the negative. And this has been shown in research, it’s well-substantiated that negative news sells better and that’s why negative news is preferentially put on the airwaves. So the question is, “Why does that matter?” Right? Maybe it’s just that people like to hear about bad things going on in the world, that’s just more interesting to us, but the reason it seems that this is so successful in getting us to pay attention is that it bypasses some of the more cognitive higher-level pathways in our brain and it speaks to an emotional kind of visceral response, a fear response. And so, that, as we described in the book, has to do with the limbic system, specifically [inaudible 00:13:54] part of this limbic system called the amygdala, which is one of the core hubs in the brain involved with fear, evolved with emotions. And what we see is that, when this part of the brain is consistently activated, I mean this is part of the stress response, so it leads to overtime higher levels of the stress hormones in the body which causes a bunch of problems. We can talk about that in a moment. But the pathway is that, when you hear or see things that are explicitly negative, fear [inaudible 00:14:25], etc., they speak to this part of the brain, the amygdala, which then triggers, through the hypothalamus, this HPA axis. Right?

And then, you get, in essence, these two systems that occur simultaneously. One is activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the other is the HPA axis which is, at the end of this system, going to increase levels of cortisol in the body. And so, you get kind of this combination of neurotransmitters or hormones which include norepinephrine, dopamine, epinephrine, and cortisol.

What does that do in the brain? Well, in short bursts what that can do is actually keep people focused. And it makes sense that, in conditions of stress where we’re scared, that we should be singularly focused on getting away from whatever that threat may be. And so, we kind of go from more of like a candle where we get a little bit of light all around us to more of a spotlight on whatever the imminent threat might be. So that’s the ideal situation is you have a threat in front of you, whatever that might be, there’s somebody who’s trying to hurt you, you focus on that, you fight, you flight…or you flee, right, or you freeze, and then you move on after that. But when that system is activated for longer periods of time, as is the case if you’re watching news for hours and hours each day, as is the case if you’re talking to your friends and family about all these horrible things going on in the world, or you scrolling through your phone and hearing everybody else talk about what’s wrong, or ruminating over all these things that have changed in your life for the negative, then that leads to pathology in the brain and that translates into pathology with our mental health and with our decision-making.

So what you see is that, over time, when these stress chemicals are elevated, you functionally disable the higher levels of the brain and revert to more kind of primitive, impulsive decision-making and it’s also linked to things like anxiety and depression. So, that’s why I worry about the effects of paying too much attention to the news. I am a proponent of being informed, I think it is important to know what’s going on, sure, at a global level, but, practically speaking, at a local level, if you own a business right now and you need to know when you can reopen, if you wanna know, “How risky is it for me to go out to the grocery store in my neighborhood?” right, “is there an uptick in cases? What’s going on around me? Is there a place that I can get testing?” those are valuable things to know. But most, I believe, of what’s going on right now, in general, but especially during coronavirus, is that we’re trying to get rid of this uncertainty in our brains. We’re trying to get rid of this sense of anxiety and stress and the way we are trying to do that is by learning something more, as though having that one further detail is going to tell us, “Well, now I know what’s going on and therefore I can rest.” But it’s just not the case. You can check the Johns Hopkins’ dashboard 30 times a day, there’s nothing that that’s going to tell you that’s going to significantly impact what you’re going to do, unless you’re a researcher for your quality of life. And seeing those big numbers of millions of people who are infected worldwide, it’s not necessarily the best thing for you.

So, coming back to, again, these pathways, I think that it’s this unfortunate loop where we develop some stress because of really the uncertainty of not knowing what happens next. We try to quell that stress by paying attention to the news because that is the source of information. And when we have information available in theory, that should calm us down because we get some certainty back. But there’s no certainty to be [inaudible 00:18:21] right now, no one knows exactly what’s happening next. And so, we just progress into this spiral where we’re again activating these neurotransmitters that leads to activation of the parts of the brain that keeps us stressed such that we then continue to pay attention to the new. So I think it’s really important right now to be aware of how this works, and then, to start pulling back on especially the news, but again, it’s really doing very little for us. We’re not learning much from it that is of any benefit to us, we’re doing it to say that we can be informed. But your uncle will call you up and say, “Did you see the latest headline about all these horrible things going on?” and it’s fair to take a pause at that moment and say, “hey, you know what, I don’t actually need to know it right now.” If somebody in your house is watching TV, it’s fair to say, “Hey, listen, this is not doing great things for my mental health, can we take a break?”

John: Right, yeah. I mean I think that’s a great point. I’ve heard Jason Fried, who’s the founder of Basecamp, I don’t know if you used Basecamp, it’s a popular sort of online workflow management software that probably a lot of more people are gonna be using in light of coronavirus. But he says the same thing you just said which is, if something really big breaks, a friend or your mother or, you know, your cousin is gonna text you and let you know. Would you invite people to just turn off the news for a couple days? I mean you kind of acknowledge that…okay, so let’s give people right now, the people listening at home, you’re relating to what Austin saying, you’re feeling stressed, how long would you turn the news off for?

Austin: There are no clear-cut rules here. But the first thing that a person has to get over is their realization that the world doesn’t end because they aren’t keeping up with the news. So, starting to think back in the last week, was there any aspect of the news that you, by knowing it, significantly changed what you’re doing on a day to day? There may be one or two. Maybe. But it’s hard to pin those down. And I think it gets back to an example that I like to use, which is we have this idea that, now that we have phones available, we always have to be available on our phones. Right? You have to have the phone next to your bedside and you can’t turn it off because, goodness, somebody could need you at 3:00 in the morning. How often has that happened? It just isn’t the case. We make up these excuses to stay plugged in.

So, what I try to do is compress my news into a couple of minutes, maybe 15 minutes, each day in the morning, and then I’m done for the day. But I think that, you know, it’s tough to define exactly what I mean by news. Right? So, reading the latest research coming out can be, in theory, seen as news. But I’m talking about headlines, I’m talking about news sites, I’m talking about newspapers. So, if you are somebody who is spending a lot of your time right now trying to keep up with the news, the first question you have to ask is is that doing anything for you. Because if you are translating that into articles, if you are doing podcasts and forming others, maybe it’s necessary. But if you’re not, then you need to ask, “Is it benefiting my mental health?” Because, if the answer is no, which for a lot of people it will be, the next step would be to say, “Can I rebalance?”

And so, a good first step is to say, “Let’s try a day without the news.” Just none. See how you feel. You might feel a little bit anxious at first because you think, “Maybe something’s happening.” But as time goes on, you’ll realize that you really didn’t need to know what was going on in order to improve your quality of life and to improve the quality of life of others. I think one of the common arguments against taking a break from the news is, “Oh, being informed translates into you helping other people.” But, for most people, it really doesn’t. And in many cases, it may actually lower the quality of life of other people because then you take that negativity that you’ve gained from the news and throw it on to your friends, your family, your loved ones. So, to try to answer your question more explicitly, I would say, if you’re somebody who’s spending a lot of time watching the news, take a day off, see how you feel. Try 2 days off, see how you feel. You need to find your balance. And it’s this fallacy that you need to be watching the news every day in order to stay, quote, informed, right, if you really enjoy that, if it’s adding to your quality of life, then fine, maybe that’s your balance. But, as far as it relates to improving a person’s quality of life and improving the quality of life of those around them, there is no obligation to be paying attention to the local, national, international news each day.

John: Yeah, that’s so true. This is like a personal therapy session for me, it’s good for me to hear these messages because, yeah, I’ve been terribly addicted to the news, I’ve been reading all the blogs. I feel like with the coronavirus you can either take the red pill or the blue pill, I don’t remember which keeps you in the matrix and which gets you out. But it’s kind of like I chose the pill that kept me in the coronavirus matrix and I just went deep down the rabbit hole. I could’ve just opted out but this is I guess motivation to kind of head in that other direction.

Austin: And, you know, you’re translating some of this information into blog posts and into podcasts for people to understand what’s going on, so that’s not necessarily a problem. I think the bigger picture, the macro piece here that’s worth considering is, “What is it that most people are doing?” Right? So, most people are probably paying attention to the news right now, actually that’s what the statistics would say. And then you say, “Well, are most people doing well? Should I be following the crowd?” And the answer to that, in many cases, is no. And so, you obviously do a lot around food and I think that’s the perfect example to show how it’s not always valuable to do what is the default option. As it relates to our food, most people eat junk food, most people are unhealthy, most people are overweight or obese, most people have chronic preventable diseases. So, if you were to say, “Oh, well, most people are eating these foods so therefore should I?” then the answer is probably no.

And I think of it the same way as it relates to the news, it’s, “Are most people consuming the news? Okay, fine. Yes, they are, but are most people in a good state of mental health?” And I would say no. So then you say, “Maybe I need to do things differently from most people in order to ensure good mental health for myself?” And one of those pieces that you can modulate would be exposure to the news.

John: Yeah, I think that’s a great analogy. Cable news, in all its forms, is like the ultimate visual junk food. You’re taking complex topics, you’re getting a very surface analysis of them for like a bite-size snippet, and it makes you dumber and it makes you unhappy, I totally agree. It also, as we well established, causes stress. Let’s tie this back to the immune system. Everybody is so worried about the immune system right now they’re trying to optimize for it, you know, because of the…I know it’s ridiculous but it’s true, they are. You know, I’m definitely taking a little bit of extra vitamin D and getting a little bit of extra sun, based on some of the research that’s out there about vitamin D and severity of respiratory infection. You hit interleukin 6 as a marker that, if you, as a new doctor, wanted to get a lab done for a patient you were looking at as one of the markers you would look at, turns out they’re very prescient because elevated levels of interleukin 6 are associated with bad outcomes for coronavirus. Can you tie this back? Stress, lack of sleep, worrying about statistics, and the immune system…

Austin: I will do my best.

John: Please do, please do. Let’s start again with the bigger picture. People in general suffer from preventable chronic diseases. And now, all of a sudden, there’s an infectious disease that has become the single biggest global health concern. And that is transferring us from this mentality of not being so concerned about our decisions to trying to fix our risk for developing this disease with quick fixes around boosting our immunity, around immune supplements. So that’s kind of the global shift is that, all of a sudden, everyone’s worried about improving their immune function. As we spoke about last time, there’s a big problem when we’re looking at quick fixes. In general, that is one of the biggest issues that we face, as humans, right now is that we’re so tethered to getting the quick fix, whether that’s in eating some junk food or trying to take a pill to lose weight or trying to find something to lower our level of stress or trying to boost our immune system to fight off this virus, it’s not a good long-term plan. And so, there’s a lot going on right now with conversations around boosting the immune system. And so much of what I see is people who want to continue on with their poor decision-making, eating the same junk food, engaging in the same poor mental hygiene, and not exercising, but then to take whatever supplement so that they don’t get coronavirus. Right? And I just think it’s not a good way of looking at it. And the reason for that, as I know you’re well aware, is that immune function is not this infectious specific issue, that immune function is so closely tied to every other system in our body. So, when you think about metabolic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes and even to an extent things like depression, these are very much a reflection of our immune system. But we are so concerned about the ability to fight off a specific virus that we forget that some of the best interventions for improving our resilience against that virus are the same things that we’ve been talking about for decades. It’s improving your metabolic health.

So, now let’s kind of take the next step, which is talking about specific immune markers, you have mentioned interleukin 6. Why is that such an important, I guess, cytokine and all this? And, for listeners, you probably already know this, but cytokines are chemical messengers in the body that transfer responses, specifically with immune function, hematologic function. So, interleukin 6 is generally thought to be a cytokine involved with inflammation, with an inflammatory response. And higher levels, as you mentioned, are something that you look for in conditions like sepsis, not necessarily a good thing. Also interleukin 6 seems to be tied to brain function, so it is one of these cytokines that you see with activation of the brain’s immune system, the microbial cells, along with tumor necrosis factor interleukin 1 beta.

And so, then you say, “Why should we be caring about this at all?” Well, if you think about how the body works, you take information from the outside environment and that information gets translated into the internal environment through your nervous system, through your microbiome. And that then goes into these other systems, one of which is the immune system, which tells every part of the body, “We need to coordinate to either,” let’s say, “fight off infections or to regulate our metabolic function, to regulate our mood.” And so, these chemical messengers, things like interleukin 6, are the ways that our body is able to respond to changes in our environment, to our outside environment. Now, we can get into the technical aspects of it, which is one of the concerns for coronavirus is that you could be immunosuppressed, meaning you don’t mount an immune response, or that, on the backend, you mount an overactive immune response, the so-called cytokine storm, where you have higher levels of these inflammatory chemicals that causes your body to almost attack itself. Right? One of the concerns is that you attack your alveolar cells with these high levels of inflammation and that damages your respiratory function, leading to some of the complications.

But what I would really tell listeners that they should be thinking about here is, the basic stuff that you can be doing to lower your chances of getting the virus…and everyone knows, you know, you’re supposed to wash your hands. Okay, great. There’s some debate about the mass but, in general, it seems practical that, if you’re going to be exposed to the virus, you wear a mask. Okay, fine. And then, you try to avoid contact with other people who may have the virus. Great. For a lot of people, that’s where the conversation ends. And then, for some people, they say, “Okay, in addition to that, I wanna boost my immune system. I wanna take whatever herbal remedy or whatever supplements or,” you know…there are so many people putting out these supplements right now. Some of those have evidence behind them, a lot of them are just, “Maybe this will help.” But I think, in general, it’s far more practical to think about the immune system as a kind of a global modulator of our function tied into our metabolic function and, to that end, thinking about how to support it as a system that has effects throughout the body, through things like diet, through things like exercise, through, you know, in your case, through things like targeted interventions on diet that takes into account a person’s genetic profile. These are the types of things that are going to be the most long-term benefit to us, not just in lowering our risk of having complications of coronavirus but, you know, playing the odds of lowering our risk for dying of the conditions that kill most people. So I hope that was a general response…I know that maybe it wasn’t exactly specific to your question.

John: No, I think that’s spot-on because I think that it is a good policy to treat the supplement marketing with a great deal of skepticism. And you’re not just gonna go buy a cocktail of zinc and vitamin C and some vitamin D and some elderberry powder and, you know, ward off your metabolic issues or whatever the case may be. Right? I mean the flip side to that coin is there was a pretty good piece of content that was put out. And it was probably put out under pressure because people are so interested in this right now but an organization that you’re tied to and your father’s tied to, which is a very good organization, which is the Institute for Functional Medicine, they put out a really interesting list of nutraceuticals and agents that have the potential…you know, they had citations and they were just claiming, saying, “Look, it’s not a magic pill,” but they did put out some that were kind of interesting.

Austin: Right, Actually…so, I know some of the people involved with creation of that list. And I think this is helpful to think about and it may be that these are ways that we can, to some extent, lower our risk of having issues from this disease. It’s just…my personal sentiment is that your problem, in your body, isn’t that you have an elderberry deficiency, you know. Maybe there are some people who have a relative zinc deficiency who would benefit from some supplementation there, same thing with vitamin D. Right? We do actually see lower levels of vitamin D and zinc in people who have immune issues, so, maybe that makes sense. But the goal here isn’t to patch individual holes. And that just gets back to this general mentality that I think is so important to understand, which is, in the modern day, humans want quick solutions to their problems. And this COVID thing is just another example of people trying to find those quick fixes to this issue. When you see that the top risk factors for complications from COVID are really all these metabolic chronic diseases and, to an extent, you know, even aging itself, the biological cellular process of aging is a reflection of our decision making. And healthy decisions can help to lower levels of immuno senescence, which is basically the fact that, as we get older, our immune cells don’t work as well.

Then we understand that we’ve got to think about the bigger picture here. And I know it’s challenging right now, I know that everyone’s stressed and everyone just wants something that they can do to lower their chances of having problems, such that they can continue on with what they were doing before, but this is a chance to see the real significance of the lifestyle choices that people have been making over the last several decades and also a wonderful opportunity to reverse course, in some of these cases. And maybe it’s through explaining to people how one of the best ways to improve your immune function is actually to help to improve your metabolic function. But I just think, you know, in anything that’s going on, in the last several decades, the push has been to say, “This is the problem and here’s the solution.” And a great example of this, again, is in mental health with antidepressants. It’s saying, “Oh, your problem is low serotonin. Here’s the solution,” as opposed to thinking about all of the factors that are actually involved with these conditions. And again, COVID being, in many ways, a lifestyle-related disease, just like depression.

John: Yeah. Yeah, I hear you’re saying essentially, “Look, we’re all hun…” Well, at least I’m hungry for football, I’m just really hoping that there’s some degree of a football season. It’s the blocking in the tackling and it’s the 300-pound offensive lineman in the trenches, which is metabolic function, which is sleep that’s gonna push you through to help you win this game of, you know, better health. Some of the supplements is kind of the equivalent of spending all of your time drawing up fake punt plays or onside kicks rather than…

Austin: Or it’s getting mad at the quarterback because he didn’t throw the ball the way you would’ve wanted to. And I think that that is the only problem going on here. If you could’ve just had him execute a little differently, everything would go right, and forgetting that there are all those other players on the field and without them none of it really matters.

John: Yeah, it works in concert. The 500 milligrams of course, on an empty stomach, is not gonna do away with the damage that’s caused by drinking a six-pack every night.

Austin: That is accurate. With that said, [inaudible 00:36:55] actually a pretty interesting compound in its [inaudible 00:36:58] capabilities as well.

John: Well, I took both…

Austin: A molecule, not compound.

John: Well, I say that, you know, but I took 500 milligrams [inaudible 00:37:06] this morning before I had my coffee. So, I mean is there anything you wanna close out saying, [inaudible 00:37:14] stabilizing nutrient, but there’s anything you wanna close out on with [inaudible 00:37:19] or any bow you wanna wrap around this very sort of calming conversation, which we very much appreciate you coming out to conduct, [inaudible 00:37:29]?

Austin: Yeah. So, let me perhaps close with what I opened with, which is, in general, people aren’t doing that well. And I don’t want this to be a reason for people to be pessimistic because I think a lot of this has to do with factors within our control. So, looking at the statistics and looking at the fact that most people have chronic diseases in the United States, a really high percentage, probably around 30% of people in the United States have depression and have anxiety over the course of their life spans. So, appreciating that physical and mental health is not good, and so, then saying, “Are you going to be content to follow an average trajectory and allow those statistics to apply to you or are you going to say, ‘I want to make some changes to protect my physical and my mental health.’?” And if you are willing to take the red pill, right, or to take option B, then you can start looking at all of these things that people are doing with a little bit of a different perspective.

And so, as it relates to coronavirus right now, [inaudible 00:38:38], it’s a bad bug, especially if you have pre-existing diseases. But there are things that are very much within our control. And I’m not talking about your exposure to the bug itself, I’m talking about your exposure to all of the negativity around it. And that means that looking at the fact that most people are paying attention to the news and that most people are talking about how the world is collapsing, remembering that most people aren’t doing well, and then questioning, “Is this something that I need to participate in?” I think that, you know, there’s a really important goal that we should have, which is to improve the quality of life for other people, to improve the global conversation on what matters, and, you know, really to just improve our own quality of life. And to that end, we don’t have to participate in all of these negative conversations, we don’t have to be allowing ourselves to become upset by everything that, you know, is going wrong that is outside of our control. And I think that right now internalizing this message, which is that there are very many things that we can do to improve our health, and especially our mental health, even with everything going on, it’s empowering.

So, my hope would be that people listening to this understand that, as much as it can seem the case, there is not an obligation to be steeping yourself in all the horrible things going on in the world right now. And then, you have to make some changes to move away from concerning yourselves with the things that are outside of your control and to be more available to people you care about and to yourself.

John: It’s an important message, it’s a valuable message, it’s something I’m gonna try to incorporate a little more into my daily routine here and during quarantine. And we really appreciate you coming on and sharing your wisdom. Dr. Austin Perlmutter, the new book out, “Brain Wash.” Stay safe in South Florida, hopefully, the beaches will open soon.

Austin: Thanks for having me.

John: All right, man. Thank you.

The Gene Food podcast is our attempt to synthesize the latest developments in the fields of genetics, nutrition, and medicine, and offer you practical tips and stories you can use in your own unique health term. If you enjoy this podcast, you can find more information online at

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food, a nutrigenomic startup helping people all over the world personalize nutrition. John is the host of the Gene Food Podcast and a health coach trained at Duke's Integrative Medicine Program. Read his full bio here.

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