If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that I often get to attend academic conferences to network and share my research. Well, this was a bit different. Last week, I attended the Ancestral Health Symposium 2018, a much more casual forum that brings over 200 people to share how diet, lifestyle, and our environment can shape human health, and it was truly unlike any conference experience I’ve ever had – the presentation content, the friends, and the atmosphere at AHS is something I’ve never experienced at any other conference.
I heard from many of my readers last week who would have liked to attend, so I put this post together to document the highlights from the conference and my time out west. I hope this inspires you to consider attending AHS19!
WEDNESDAY, JULY 18TH: Arrival in Bozeman
I arrived in Bozeman late afternoon on Wednesday and was immediately taken by the mountains and the cool evening air. After a nice walk around Montana State University campus, I grabbed a salad with lemon butter scallops and shrimp from South 9th Bistro and settled into my dorm room to put the final touches on my presentation.
When I found out that I’d be able to go to AHS, the speaker schedule had regrettably already been finalized, but I was told I could still present a poster. So, I spent a few days carefully crafting my poster, only to get an email just two days before the conference that a speaking position had opened up! I knew it meant that I’d have to work on the plane and in the evening when I got there, but I decided to accept the speaking position and keep my poster slot. I’m really glad I did because it gave me the opportunity to get my work in front of a lot more people at the conference!
THURSDAY, JULY 19th: AHS DAY 1
After a nice jog through the Montana State University campus on Thursday morning, I headed to the conference for registration and poster previews, where I gave a one-minute plug for my poster. I then listened to Dave Feldman give a fascinating talk on a new paradigm for cholesterol. Over the past few years, he’s gotten over 100 blood tests to track how his cholesterol responds to his diet – particularly the amount of fat he eats. The best part? He’s found an incredibly strong negative correlation between dietary fat and LDL cholesterol; in other words, the more fat he eats for the 3 days before a blood test, the lower his LDL-C. (There was also a negative correlation between 3-day fat intake and LDL particle number on day 5.)
Dave also argues that many people can be termed “lean mass hyper-responders”. These are people that have an LDL-C > 200 mg/dL, but also an HDL-C > 80 mg/HDL and a triglyceride level < 70 mg/dL. He presented intriguing data that these people are not really at high risk for cardiovascular disease and that HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels likely matter much more than LDL cholesterol levels.
I also gave my talk, titled “The gut-skin axis: scientific evidence and an integrative approach to testing and treatment” on Thursday. The presentation was essentially a 30-minute overview of the most salient points included in my recently published gut-skin axis guide. It went over extremely well, and I spent most of the lunch hour that followed discussing the implications with several attendees that hung around afterward! It was recorded, so I’ll be sure to post a link to the video recording soon!
On Thursday afternoon, Todd Becker gave a great talk on what hormesis is, and why we benefit from it. While we often think of modern life as too stressful, Todd contends that we suffer from a lack of beneficial stress. While high dose stressors can be detrimental, low dose stressors can stimulate beneficial adaptation – a phenomenon called hormesis. Hormesis activates defense and adaptation mechanisms, resulting in an increased resilience to stressors. For instance, resistance training causes acute microtrauma to the muscle, but this stimulates muscle growth and ultimately an increase in muscle strength.
Other examples that Todd discussed include probiotics stimulating the immune system, toxins and phytochemicals upregulating antioxidant enzymes, and cold exposure and calorie restriction stimulating programmed cell death and upregulating brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Todd believes that hormesis is a virtuous cycle: the more we intentionally expose ourselves to low doses of these stressors, the more willing we are to engage in health-promoting behaviors like exercise and cold showers. Contrast this with the vicious cycle of inflammation, where you have less energy and want to eat more, causing inflammation, which in turn further depletes your energy.
Tommy Wood, MD/PhD and co-founder of Nourish Balance Thrive, also gave a great talk on proper fueling for the athlete’s gut. Most ancestrally-minded athletes know that they should be eating real food, but still want to be competitive at modern sports. Tommy suggests that these individuals have a much higher calorie requirement than historical ancestral populations and may need to work really hard to consume enough calories. He also discussed carbohydrate requirements and reminded everyone that you can still be in ketosis if you eat 100-300 grams of carbs per day but have a high training volume.
Lastly, Tommy talked about the gastrointestinal symptoms that accompany increasing intensity and duration of training. Essentially, the reduced nutrient absorption and reduced motility during exercise can lead to fermentation of ingested material, leading to gas and bloating, or osmotic effects, where water is pulled into the gut, leading to diarrhea. Fiber, fat, protein, and carbs have all been associated with increased GI symptoms, so unless you are doing a long duration endurance event, it’s best to avoid consuming food during exercise. I’ve discussed this before in my article on exercise and gut barrier function.
After talks ended for the day, I joined in with a MovNat session led by Danny Clark. It truly is amazing how many of us have lost the mobility to squat, roll, crawl, and get up as our ancestors would have! I learned a lot and am excited to pursue more ways to incorporate natural movement into my day. And yes, I did it in a dress!
Next, I headed to a cocktail hour and dinner for speakers and attendees, where they had an awesome build-your-own taco bar and I got to talk with some amazing people. I ended up having a lively but friendly debate with Darryl Edwards, founder of Primal Play, on whether nutrition or exercise was most important for health. I think we eventually both came around to acknowledge that (of course) you need both to be healthy! We also discussed whether ketogenic diets were effective for cancer treatment – a topic I’ll have to reanalyze sometime in the future – and some of the research from my lab on different modes of exercise and how they influence the gut microbiome and colitis outcomes. I enjoyed the conversation with everyone so much that I didn’t turn in until around midnight – a real rarity for me!
FRIDAY, JULY 20th: AHS DAY 2
AHS Day 2 kicked off with a talk by Amber O’Hearn, who discussed genetic variants of Inuit populations, and whether the Inuit were actually in ketosis at all. The arctic variant of CPT1A, an enzyme that shuttles long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria, reduces enzyme activity by about 2-54 percent. This impairs fasting tolerance, which is very dangerous, and may be responsible for increased infant mortality rates.
Given that food shortages happened regularly, Amber raised the question: “How could this mutation have been selected for?”. The first hypothesis was that the CPT1A variant prevented chronic or particularly high ketosis on a low carb diet high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), since PUFA are known to induce higher ketosis and upregulate CPT1A gene expression. The second hypothesis was that the CPT1A gene variant allowed continued ketosis with higher protein during lean times. While we don’t have definitive evidence one way or the other, I tend to favor the first hypothesis, which would also suggest that chronic, sustained ketosis is probably not ideal and that cycling in and out of ketosis is best for health.
Next, Dr. Kevin Boyd, a pediatric dentist who studies anthropology, gave a fascinating talk called “The Incredible Shrinking Face” about how our craniofacial structure and respiratory complex has diminished since the advent of agriculture. He and Dr. Mike Mew, orthodontist and orthotropist, also held an impromptu panel discussion at the end of the day to field questions from attendees and speakers about how best to fix our misaligned jaws and crooked teeth, the importance of nose breathing, and the implications of small palates and nasal cavities, among other things. I certainly learned a lot and plan to look into tongue tie release and the tongue exercises on Dr. Mew’s YouTube channel.
Next, I attended Ben Greenfield’s talk “Biohacking vs. Ancestral Living”, where he covered about 100 different bio-hacks in the span of 30 minutes, ranging from as expensive and invasive as a full-body stem cell treatment to as simple and easy as using berberine for blood sugar control. Many of the hacks he mentioned were ways to increase the ratio of NAD to NADH in the body. NAD is an important electron acceptor, and an increased ratio is associated with health and longevity. Some bio-hacks that increase this ratio that I already use include fasting, fermented foods, raw honey, and cold exposure. Others that he mentioned that I plan to try include Pau D’Arco tea, regular saunas, and Buteyko breathing.
Ben also mentioned several ways to increase our natural stem cell production or availability, including aloe vera, colostrum, chlorella, curcumin, coffee berry fruit extract, moringa, blueberries, dark chocolate, resveratrol, and marine phytoplankton. Overall, he emphasized the need to get our nutrition and lifestyle in check through natural means whenever possible, but also the benefits of being open to better living through modern science. This was refreshing to hear, given all of the time, money, and effort he spends on expensive and sometimes very unnatural bio-hacks!
At lunchtime, I participated in a session called “Primal Play” run by Darryl Edwards. It was unlike anything I’d ever tried before, and I had a great time getting to know people while also having fun and getting stronger. Darryl has certainly convinced me that I should incorporate more play into my life and that your mindset is often more important than the amount of muscle you have.
Friday afternoon was the poster session, where I presented some data from our lab and others in a poster titled “Training the gut: how exercise affects the microbiome and intestinal barrier.” I was incredibly pleased with how many other speakers and attendees came to learn about my research, and I had some great conversations and discussions about the implications for human health. A video presentation of my poster will be available shortly, and I’ll be sure to post a link to it here.
I enjoyed many of the other posters as well. Chris LoRang presented on the importance of encouraging natural movement in babies, and how infant orthotic devices (like Bumbo seats, Exersaucers, Infant Walkers) can actually inhibit the natural progression of proper motor and musculoskeletal development. You can see a copy of his poster here. He also brought to my awareness the fact that fecal transplants are 1,700 years old!
I also had the absolute joy of talking with Angie Alt and Mickey Trescott, bloggers at autoimmunewellness.com, about their recently published study on the efficacy of the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet for Inflammatory Bowel Disease. I’m super excited about collaborating with them on a study on AIP for eczema next spring!
After a fulfilling Day 2, I went out to dinner with some of the conference volunteers at Open Range, a farm-to-table American restaurant in downtown Bozeman. I had a fantastic salmon dish and enjoyed some great conversation with the other attendees!
SATURDAY, JULY 21st: AHS DAY 3
Saturday morning kicked off with a talk by J. Stanton, who hypothesizes that we “lost our minds” to agriculture. His argument is that the exorphins contained in gluten changed human consciousness, pacifying us as a population and enabling the transition to agriculture. I’m not sure how much I buy this hypothesis. While wheat may have played a role in the progression of agriculture in the Middle East, I think other evidence suggests that climate change was likely the first drive towards abandoning our nomadic ways. Still, it was certainly an engaging and thought-provoking talk!
Next, Nora Gedgaudas gave a fascinating presentation called “Navigating the Matrix: Facing modern realities in the quest for ancestral health.” She discussed the role of corporate interests controlling the food market, infant formula, nutrition recommendations, and medical trials. She encouraged us to take the red pill; to truly see what is happening to our food system, healthcare system, and society; to take thoughtful, considered action; to develop firsthand knowledge of where our food comes from; to do what we can to inspire others; and to remember that we are all in this together. It was an incredibly inspiring talk and received an overwhelmingly positive response from the audience.
On Saturday, I again participated in the lunchtime movement session, this one called “Animal Moves”. I have to say that of all of them, the crocodile was definitely the hardest! I also had some fun playing primal tug with Darryl and a few other attendees. It’s amazing how much more intrinsically rewarding playing with other people is, as opposed to just exercising alone. And how much you can get your heart rate up and break a sweat!
After some great exercise, I went to lunch at the Montana State University cafeteria with some of the other speakers, volunteers, and attendees. I was pleasantly surprised by the healthy options they had there and was able to craft this delicious burger salad. After lunch, I networked with other speakers, tried the infrared BioMat, and participated in a wonderful guided meditation led by Angeles Rios.
It’s important to note that this is only a sampling of the wonderful talks that went on at AHS. There were often two talks going on at once in different rooms, and it was hard to choose which one to attend! Most of the talks were recorded though and will be available on the Ancestry Foundation YouTube channel in a few weeks. I know that I’m looking forward to catching a few that I missed.
Best of all, though, were the friends that I made throughout the conference. It’s just amazing to have so many people with such similar values, goals, and dreams come together in a single place for three days, and I know that there will be many attendees I will keep in touch with.
SUNDAY, JULY 22nd: Yellowstone and Grand Teton!
Sunday brought Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park with some friends I met at the conference! It was an amazing experience, and the park was absolutely breathtaking. By the time we reached Salt Lake City airport at 1:30 am, I was so wonderfully exhausted from a full day of hiking, swimming, and talking that (after getting through security) I passed out until 20 minutes before my 8 am flight! Here are a few of my favorite photos from the parks:
The orange and yellow colors surrounding this hot spring are actually extremophiles – microbes that have evolved to withstand extreme environments.
Wild bison! It’s amazing to think that the entire west looked like this to our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors.
All in all, I had an incredible time, and I can’t wait for AHS 2019. Word at the conference says it will likely be in San Diego or Arizona next year! :)