Inside the WELL Summit: Meet Keynote Speaker Dr. Steven Gundry
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As a world-renowned cardiac surgeon for more than 30 years, Dr. Steven Gundry used to spend his time operating on everyone from babies to so-called “hopeless” cases. It was one of those “hopeless” patients that changed the course of Dr. Gundry’s career and research. Now, at The International Heart & Lung Institute’s Center for Restorative Medicine, his clinic in Palm Springs, California, he works with patients to change their diets as a first course of treatment for auto-immune diseases, heart conditions, weight issues and more.
Dr. Gundry is sharing his expertise at WELL Summit in Brooklyn on October 5 and 6. For a peek into his work before the Summit, keep reading to learn more about how he founded his clinic and how he reversed his own lupus diagnosis.
What’s the root of your current research on foods that contribute to disease?
When I was Professor and Chairman of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Loma Linda University in the late 90s, I met a guy called Big Ed. He was a big guy with coronary artery disease and was considered hopeless by other surgeons—that’s why he came to me. In the span of six months, I saw him, on his own, reverse his artery blockages by somewhat randomly adding in supplements and adopting a unique diet. The angiograms don’t lie: One showed blocked arteries, and six months later, one showed clean arteries. I couldn’t explain that away.
At the same time, I was running 30 miles a week, and I was overweight and sick (there are a number of auto-immune diseases in my family). So I decided to experiment on myself, with diet and supplements.
I’d always thought that supplements were just expensive urine in a bottle. Big Ed, who was taking these sort of willy nilly, was actually ingesting some of the same nutrients that I was using to keep hearts alive in the lab in a bucket of ice for 48 hours—it had just never occurred to me to swallow them!
So I started taking some of these supplements myself, and adjusted my diet to eliminate some of these foods that conventional wisdom tells us are “healthy.” I did a panel of tests on myself before starting, and when I did my second panel, my high blood pressure and cholesterol had dropped to healthy levels; my migraines were gone (at one point, I was doing heart surgery on a baby while I had a migraine—that’s how frequent they were); my arthritis wasn’t bothering me.
With those results, I started offering my program, which was published in 2008 as my best-selling book Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution, to patients at Loma Linda. I figured it would be better for them and for me if people could stop coming in for their third, fourth, fifth or ninth operation, and instead, I could teach them to eat so they didn’t need any more operations. After a year of trying it on patients, I decided I needed to teach it, so people could avoid me and my heart surgery from the beginning!
It’s kind of stupid, as a surgeon, to teach people to avoid having surgery—it’s basically putting myself out of business. But if I was going to live with myself, I decided I had to teach, not just operate. I left my position at Loma Linda and founded my private practice, where I could teach people what to eat, what not to eat, what supplements to take, and do the bloodwork and panels that I wanted to. I basically started my own study, which led to that first book in 2008.
After that book, people with auto-immune diseases started showing up in my office. I was a heart surgeon; I didn’t know anything about auto-immune diseases. But, I did know the immune system. I was a transplant immunologist—I hold the record for the longest-surviving pig-to-baboon heart transplant. So we started our own research in my clinic with 102 patients who presented with auto-immune markers. In six months on my plan, 95 out of 102 of those patients were biomarker negative for auto-immune disease.
Now, we’ve worked with thousands of patients, and studied well over 500 patients, and we find that patients have a 95 percent remission rate if they stay on the prescribed diet.
When I was at Yale University for my undergrad, my thesis was based on the idea that our minds and bodies are locked in an eons-old “computer program” that is actually very fundamental and logical, and controllable. We’re now living in a time where we eat things that our bodies weren’t built for—we eat things year-round that we should only eat seasonally; we eat things that our ancestors thought were poisonous to us.
Most of us have heard of gluten, and we’ve probably read about how it can be aggravating to our systems. But gluten is just one variety of a common and highly toxic, plant-based protein called lectin. Lectins are found not only in grains like wheat but also in the “gluten-free” foods most of us commonly regard as healthy, including many fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and conventional dairy products. These proteins, which are found in the seeds, grains, skins, rinds and leaves of plants, are designed by nature to protect them from predators (including humans). Once ingested, they incite a kind of chemical warfare in our bodies, causing inflammatory reactions that can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions.
Do you have to do the diet permanently to get the benefits?
I’ve proven that this system works to reverse auto-immune diseases on myself. I carry the antinuclear antibody [which looks for auto-immune conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis]. I also have psoriasis in my family. So I know the genes are there. After I’d been on the Plant Paradox diet, the ANA markers were gone. Then, I went back to a less restricted diet, and ate lectins, and a few months later, the ANA marker came back.
In our research, 17 of the 102 patients we initially studied went off the diet, usually accidentally or they forgot something was on the list of things to avoid, and their auto-immune markers came back. So, yes, you do have to stick to the diet to see the benefits. But it’s actually empowering when you think about it—these conditions are NOT the curse of your life, like they’ve been thought of for many years. You can go into remission (not be cured, as these conditions can lie in wait) and be healthier and happier.
With the diet’s restrictiveness, is it for everyone? Or just people with existing health conditions?
I’ve been doing this now for 17 years, and the longer I do it, the more I believe that any disease process, be it pre-diabetes, cancer, dementia, stems from a leaky gut. Hippocrates said it first more than 2000 years ago: “All disease begins in the gut.”
I like to think of it like a rowboat you’re out in on the lake. If you spring a leak, you have two options. One, you can get a bucket and bale water out. That’s most gut-healing protocols. Your second option is simpler: You can plug the hole with your finger. If we take lectins out of our diets, there are no more holes in our gut. It just works.
What about the stress of the restrictiveness of the diet? Does that play a role in our health or outweigh any of the benefits of the diet?
Most of the “normal” foods we have in our diets today, we didn’t eat until about 10,000 years ago. And lots of them weren’t in our diet until 500 years ago. I’m trying to convince people that we should party like it’s 9999 B.C.—before all those foods! If we can start thinking about our diets in terms of modern foods vs. ancient foods, we get it.
It takes about two to four weeks usually to get into a comfort level with the Plant Paradox diet. Then, most of my patients find that when they eat something outside of that, they feel so miserable that they don’t wanna go back. It becomes a self-regulating thing.
But I do recognize that we crave foods we’re used to, comfort foods. That’s part of the reason I did The Plant Paradox Cookbook—to show people that you could make waffles and funnel cakes with lectin-free ingredients. I want people to learn that coconut, almond and cassava flours are so good. It’s not about feeling deprived, but about finding replacements that you’re excited about.
Talk to me about the accessibility of the diet. Can anybody afford it?
We work with a lot of patients on Medica, and we actually find that people often save money on the program. You switch what you spend your money on—from processed foods, to whole foods. You can fill up a lot more on a head of lettuce than a bag of Doritos! I also believe that everyone should have access to healthcare and to healthy foods, so we work with as many people as we can. We also find that people who are on multiple medications, be it for heart conditions or auto-immune diseases, end up being able to stop those meds. So people are also saving money by not having to pay for three or four medications.
What are you excited about for WELL Summit 2018 in Brooklyn?
Well, I love New York. My wife is from Greenwich and I’m always happy to be back! What I love about WELL Summit is that you’re trying to give people options to live their healthiest lives. There are lots of ways to get there and I really like that WELL Summit is helping people find daily ways to change their lives.
Any last thoughts you want to share?
When we’re talking about the 80/20 rule, or balance, I think it’s really important to remember to do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Do the best you can for you. I give guidelines for what I think is the healthiest way to eat to treat disease and live longer—the closer you can get to those, the better, but it’s most important to do what you can.