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Cynthia Thurlow on Biohacking Your Hormones and Sleep for Women

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Katie: Hello and welcome to the “Wellness Mama Podcast.” I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com and wellnesse.com, that’s wellnesse with an E on the end. And in this episode, Cynthia Thurlow is back to talk biohacking your hormones and your sleep, especially for women. And we get to go deep on some pretty fun science topics on this one. If you don’t remember her from the first episode, Cynthia is a nurse practitioner and the CEO and founder of Everyday Wellness project. She’s an international speaker with over 9.6 million views on her second TED Talk about intermittent fasting. She has over 20 years’ experience in her field, and she’s a globally recognized expert on health topics. She developed her intermittent fasting plan after entering her 40s and experiencing a health breakdown. It didn’t just help her lose weight, but gave her more energy, fewer cravings, and improved her blood glucose. She’s now worked with thousands of women in her private practice on many of the topics we talk about today.

 

We go deep on why women are not getting enough protein, sometimes by a drastic amount. What happens when we under-eat protein? The reason we need to get 40 to 50 grams per meal as women. More reasons to avoid vegetable and seed oils. How we can eat, sleep, and train with our hormones and how hormone changes affect what we can do in these areas? When estrogen is a superpower, how hormone imbalances can affect training, food craving and what to do about it? Why sleep is the ultimate biohack. The reasons muscle mass is so important beyond just how it looks. Benefits of heat and cold. What deuterium-depleted water is and what to understand about it? And we go deep on several other biohacks as well, but really go into the deep foundational things that are inexpensive or entirely free that are specifically beneficial to women. Lots of good information in this episode, let’s join Cynthia. Cynthia, welcome. Thanks for being here.

 

Cynthia: Yeah. Excited to be back.

 

Katie: I’m excited to chat with you again. Our first episode, the audience really loved and we got to go deep on some science, and I know we’ll get to do that again. And before we do, I always ask some unknown or fun facts about people before I interview them. And I have a note that you didn’t eat mammals for 20 years until you were hospitalized and dreamed of hamburgers, and then now are closer to carnivore. And I would just love to hear about that progression a little bit.

 

Cynthia: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. When I graduated from college, I had always wanted a dog and I finally had the opportunity to have a dog. And as I got to realize how smart she was, it really made me question eating mammals. And so, from that point forward, I just ate fish and I ate birds and it wasn’t until I was hospitalized in 2019 and wasn’t able to eat for 2 weeks. And I remember week two when I was cognizant enough to recognize that I was getting hungry. All I did was dream about burgers.

 

Like, I’m not exaggerating. I wanted a bloody burger. And so when I left the hospital, I was full carnivore for nine months because I had been so sick. And I remember saying to my husband, “I can’t get enough burgers.” Like, that’s what I dreamed about. I mean, the first week I dreamed of water and the second week I dreamed of burgers and the irony was that I was anemic. And so my body was probably innately trying to figure out a way to give me exactly the nutrients I needed to replace what I had lost. And so, yeah, people are oftentimes…because I’m so animal-based protein-focused, people are very surprised to know that for a very long time, I did not eat mammals, but now I do.

 

Katie: Well, and this is a good segue, I think, into some of the topics we’re gonna talk about today because it seems like from the data I’m seeing, a lot of women are actually undereating protein. And I was certainly in this category for a long time and I was absolutely amazed how much my energy levels improved when I really paid attention to my protein intake.

 

And a lot of mine also does come from animal sources and I don’t feel the same when I eat protein that’s not from animal sources, but let’s talk a little bit about women and protein requirements and how it seems like from the data while many women are dieting…many women are certainly under nourishing themselves, even if they’re getting enough calories and also likely not getting anywhere near enough protein.

 

Cynthia: Well, I’m so glad that you brought up the topic of protein because I really do feel that in terms of macronutrients, it’s one of the ones that’s most important. And when I start working with women almost without exception, every woman is eating maybe 25 to 50 grams of protein total per day, which for a lot of reasons can be problematic number one. We know that we need to eat enough animal-based protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

 

We also north of, you know, 35 and 40, we are at risk for developing sarcopenia, which is this muscle loss of aging. And it’s not a question of if but when. We have to work a little bit uphill as, you know, our hormones are fluctuating in perimenopause. And the other piece that goes along with that is that what many people don’t realize is that protein is really satiating. And when you’re hitting those protein macros, and you’re really hitting 40 to 50 grams per meal, you can very comfortably push your plate away and not feel the desire to continue eating.

 

So I agree with you wholeheartedly that most women are undereating protein and they’re undereating at the detriment of their metabolism because their body thinks that they’re not fueling themselves appropriately. Their metabolism will start to readjust and they can then miss their hunger cues where they’re just not getting hungry. I see a lot of women doing this.

 

I would say the other piece that goes along with that is that many of us are eating the wrong types of fats. And I know your listeners are super savvy and they understand what vegetable and seed oils are. But I like to point out that the number one consumed fat in the United States right now is soybean oil. And that is because it proliferates in the processed food industry. We eat so much processed food that that is the most consumed fat in the United States.

 

We eat the wrong types of fats instead of having butter and gee and coconut oil and olives and avocado, etc., we’re consuming these highly adulterated inflammatory fats. And then the third piece I would add in is I find most women are really overeating the wrong types of carbohydrates. I am not anti-carb. I love carbs, but we should be focusing more on non-starchy vegetables, high-quality starchy sources, if it’s appropriate for our diet, you know, like squash and sweet potato and root vegetables, as opposed to the processed carbohydrates, you know, the chips and the cookies and the cakes and candy that really there’s no nutrient…there’s very little to no nutrient value.

 

And so once women start adjusting their macros, you know, aiming for 100 grams of protein per day is a starting point. And I know oftentimes women hear that, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t do that. You know, I just can’t eat that much food.” And I say, you know, if you’re eating 50 grams total per day, just start increasing your portion sizes. Like, instead of 4 ounces of fish, maybe you’re doing 6, and maybe instead of a 6-ounce steak, you’re doing 8 ounces and you just do it slowly over time.

 

This is when women will really start to see some improvement in their, you know, biophysical markers, they’ll see improvement in body composition just related to flipping those macros. So, again, 100 grams of protein a day, the right types of fat. And let me just dovetail and say that when I talk about right types of fat, if you’re having a rib-eye or salmon steak, you don’t need to add more fat to your diet because you’ve already got it in those meats.

 

But if you’re having like lean chicken breasts or piece of cod, you can definitely add some fats to that meal. And then, you know, really getting most of your carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables, low glycemic berries, tart apples. Tart apples are kind of hard to come by because everyone loves honey crisp and fuji. And, you know, the apples that tend to be a little bit sweeter on the profile, but really thinking thoughtfully about, you know, our relationship with food and how we fuel our bodies.

 

Katie: And I’ll link to our first episode so we don’t have to recap everything we talked about in there. But for me personally, I figured out that this was one of the keys, you know, we talked about with fasting and why it can be very much okay for women, but how you don’t wanna put your body into kind of like that stress mode by undereating too much.

 

And for me, this seems to be how I keep the balance, where if I make sure to eat enough protein and enough micronutrients and enough actual calories during the day during a window, then I actually do great on a kind of time-restricted window, or even when I do longer fast as long as I’m signaling my body really carefully to make sure that it knows I’m getting enough nutrients, we’re not in starvation mode, we’re nourishing and all that. That seems to be the balance that works well. And it seems like a lot of women have this experience.

 

Cynthia: And I think it’s just important for people to realize…you know, I’ve gotten myself into a position where I am not outspoken about OMAD as a strategy or one meal a day, but I invite whether they’re men or women to evaluate, are you able to get your protein in in one meal a day? If you are, great. But I find most women can’t. They’re probably getting 30, 40 grams. And then they’ll say, “Well, I’m not hungry.”

 

And I always say, okay, then we need to kind of rework towards integrating another protein bolus during your feeding window to ensure you’re not undereating. Because the one thing that I’m finding is that you can over fast, just like you can over anything, overexercise, not sleep enough, and that creates a stress on our bodies. And depending on what life, age, and stage you’re in, that can set you up for developing some inflammation. And, you know, you can slowly over time become weight loss resistant.

 

If your body perceives that you’re under too much of a stress state, little bit of stress is good, too much stress is not good, but really leaning into the cues your body is trying to tell you.

 

Katie: Yeah. And the good news is that you can use that knowledge to reprogram and tell your body that you’re not in starvation mode. There doesn’t need to be that much stress and to kind of break that weight loss resistance. But I think for a lot of women, that’s a scary thing to actually have to eat more or at least more volume of protein and vegetables can feel scary, but I’ve seen it work over and over. And I’m sure you have too.

 

And this is also a good segue into women being treated different in medicine and how women weren’t even included in medical research until 1993, partially because our hormones fluctuate so much, which can be frustrating. But I also think of this a little bit as a superpower when we understand the hormone fluctuations because it gives us an advantage when we work with our hormones in training and eating and sleeping, we can actually really dial in a lot of these things when we understand our hormones. So, to start broad, can you kind of walk us through how we can kind of isolate these factors and train with our hormones?

 

Cynthia: Yeah. And I love that you’ve brought up the fact that women were eliminated from phase 1 research, which I think, you know, in the past, certainly, you know, made it challenging for clinicians, made it challenging for the lay public to make use of the research that was available because men and women are very different as we know.

 

And so when we talk about leaning into our physiology, first, we’ll start with women that are still getting a menstrual cycle. So acknowledging that if you have a pristine 28 to 30-day menstrual cycle, day 1 is the day you start menstruating up until ovulation around day 14, this is when estrogen, and this is an oversimplification, but it’s an easier way to explain it, this is when estrogen predominates. This is when you can have more flexibility with your workouts.

 

So maybe this is the time you can do CrossFit or more intense exercise, maybe some hit or burst training. This is when you can get by with a lower carbohydrate diet. So even if you’re not per se ketogenic, this is when you can really mix up your macros. It’s also a time when…I would say estrogen is our superpower, this is a time that maybe you can get away with a little less sleep if you’re keeping everything really dialed in.

 

And then acknowledging after ovulation, when you have this fluctuation and progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen. You know, progesterone predominates in the luteal phase. And I always say, progesterone is kind of the mellow sister. You know, she tends to be a little more insulin-resistant as opposed to estrogen being insulin sensitive. So this is a time, you know, especially that first week that women may not have as much energy. They may have some changes in their sleep.

 

This certainly becomes an issue the five to seven days preceding their menstrual cycle. We know with progesterone, as it’s starting to drop off, that can impact mood. It can impact sleep quality. It can also impact the food choices or food cravings that you’re experiencing. I always say that we may need a discretionary additional amount of high-quality carbohydrate, whether it’s sweet potato or squash, or, you know, if you tolerate grains. Although I always say, you know, be careful with the grains, it’s easy to overeat them.

 

Maybe you have a little bit more low-glycemic fruit, you know, in that window. And I find more often than not when women start replacing their nutritional choices, maybe they’re eating a little bit more of that sweet potato, it’ll oftentimes offset some of this faltering progesterone. The other thing is at the second half of our menstrual cycle in the luteal phase, you may find that restorative yoga, walking in nature, you don’t want the same intense exercise because your body’s just not primed for that degree of, you know, intensity.

 

And so, you know, when we really lean into what’s going on, and that’s why in the middle of our cycle, we may have a boost in our libido. And that’s our body’s way of trying to encourage procreation, you know, for us to seek out having, you know, sexual intercourse with our partners or significant others. And so once, you know, you start getting closer to your menstrual cycle, this is also when I tell women time to back off of fasting, maybe a 12 to 13-hour window. A 12-hour window for anyone is very beneficial, but maybe you’re doing 12 or 13 hours because it’s that additional bit of hormetic stress that can be just enough to make it really uncomfortable to fast.

 

And the thing I always find really curious if I get messages on social media, which I’m sure you do too, people will ask, you know, I’m three days before a menstrual cycle and I can’t figure out why I can’t fast. Well, it’s this, you know, hormonal flux that’s ongoing that makes it a little less advantageous for us to fast at that time. And I remind people like, even if you choose not to have a child, even if you’re not sexually active, your body is going to behave as if there’s the chance of some degree of implantation/fertilization of an egg. And so your body is really focusing all of its reserves on the potential of, you know, creating a life.

 

And so really understanding that even if you choose not to have children at that point in your life, that that’s the way that your body…that’s the methodology or the way your body is thinking. Obviously, if someone is on synthetic hormonal contraception, you won’t have the same signaling pathways because there’s a disconnect between your brain and your ovaries, as an example. You don’t ovulate when you are on synthetic hormones, especially the pill.

 

But I think it’s important for women to understand these are the things I wish I had known as a younger woman because it just makes so much more sense. Why am I more tired in the luteal phase? Why do I have so much more energy in the follicular phase? And really leaning into what’s going on with your body at that point and not feeling like you have to apologize because you need to take a nap or, you know, understanding at the beginning of your follicular phase why you’re like, oh, you know, I can get away with more discretionary carbs because you are more insulin-sensitive vis a vis estradiol.

 

Katie: If there’s one lesson I’ve gotten to learn the hard way over and over is that if you’re trying to battle hormones and biology with willpower, you will eventually lose. And then often those are better times to listen to your body rather than fight your body. And I’ve seen that happen with me when I tried to overtrain in certain parts of my cycle or just undereat carbohydrates because carbs aren’t bad, it’s just making sure your sources are clean. And my body sent me very clear messages that it was not happy with that. And it’s good to listen to those.

 

And I feel like this also leads to a conversation about hormones and if hormones are out of balance and how that can actually cause some of these problems to intensify or signal them even through other parts of your cycle. So I’d love to get your take on that. What if women have underlying hormone imbalances or something like PCOS, or we know from the data now, many women might actually be low in testosterone, for instance? If you have an underlying hormone imbalance, how can that affect this and what are some ways to bring those hormones back into balance?

 

Cynthia: Oh, that’s a great question. So, if you have a progesterone deficiency, we call it a luteal phase defect, that’s the technical terminology, but if we’re really thinking thoughtfully about someone says, oh, my first two weeks of my cycle are fine. And then I have this very long luteal phase that goes on. I have cycles that are 30, 40, 50 days. Number one, I think about polycystic ovarian syndrome. And we know the root cause of PCOS is insulin resistance.

 

So, from my perspective, when someone…it sounds like if they got progesterone, that might improve things, but it’s really having the conversation of saying, okay, if there’s some degree of insulin resistance and if you have polycystic ovarian syndrome and you’re thin, about 25% of people with PCOS have a thin phenotype. Yes, it is still insulin resistance. It’s at the basis of that. So really working on your meal frequency, your food choices, how active are you, what’s your sleep quality like are all ways that you would start.

 

Obviously, you’d wanna do some testing to get a sense. You know, I think a fasting insulin can be hugely helpful and beneficial, you know, finding out what your progesterone levels are in days like 19 through 22 can also be helpful. I think that’s probably the starting point. I know that, you know, in clinical medicine that sometimes we start with medications first. Oh, we’re gonna put you on oral contraceptive that will fix it. No, actually it’s a bandaid, it’s not fixing it.

 

So really asking if you’re noticing that you have had a series or years and years and years of irregular periods that can be problematic. You know, again, the lifestyle piece is really what I lean into when we’re dealing with PCOS. I also think about the fact that low testosterone in men is almost always mitigated by insulin resistance or exposure to estrogen-mimicking chemicals. And so I think the same thing.

 

If someone comes to me and says, my testosterone’s really low, we can test. Maybe you have some genetic susceptibility and there are women that do experience that they just genetically don’t produce a lot of testosterone, but I always think upstream, like, what’s your stress level like? You know, in the hierarchy of hormones, your body is not going to make testosterone if your body perceives you’re being chased by a rabid animal. It’s like the hierarchy of hormones. It’s kind of like oxytocin, cortisol, and insulin. And then underneath that are the sex hormones.

 

So if your body’s perception is that you’re under extreme stress, it’s going to deflect resources to cortisol because cortisol is necessary for life. So the other thing that I think about is if it’s not just insulin resistance and stress, I also think about estrogen-mimicking chemicals. And I know your community’s super savvy around this, but when the average woman is exposed to 12 to 20 chemicals every single day just in your personal care products, just in your toothpaste and your deodorant, etc., your makeup, I will oftentimes recommend the women that they start really getting very clear about cleaning those up, thinking about, you know, is your food packaged in plastic?

 

I mean, it seems pretty benign, but that exposure over time, like, do you touch receipts that have BPA in them? So just understanding that all of these exposures to chemicals over time can dysregulate our hormones and contribute to dysregulation of our sex hormones, in particular. The other thing that I see quite often is that women are getting closer to perimenopause.

 

So this 10 to 15-year window prior to menopause, average age of menopause in the United States is 51. So mid to late 30s, most women are just starting to…they may not even be cognizant of it, but your ovaries are producing less progesterone. And what I will oftentimes see is a relative imbalance between progesterone to estrogen, where estradiol is the predominant form of estrogen prior to menopause. And that in and of itself can really lead to a lot of symptoms.

 

And so it’s really fine-tuning, you know, working with someone that can do the testing, but also the lifestyle piece. I always say they go hand in hand. Just doing testing without addressing the lifestyle piece can be a huge problem. And I do see some very well-meaning individuals out there, clinicians that will just focus on, okay, well, you’re not getting a menstrual cycle every 28 days, so we’re gonna put you on synthetic hormones. And people think, oh, this is great until they realize maybe they go off the pill to try to get pregnant, or maybe they’re older and they have no idea what’s going on.

 

We also know that even when young women start menstruating, it can take up to 10 years for their cycles to become regular. And that’s a very vulnerable time because this is when women are in high school, maybe college, maybe post-college and because their cycles aren’t regular, they are definitely at risk for being placed on synthetic hormones. And there’s no judgment because quite honestly, I was that person with irregular cycles who was on the oral contraceptives before I knew better.

 

But we acknowledge like based on research that we’re looking at now, you will actually pick different partners if you’re sexually active and on oral contraceptives than you would if you were not on oral contraceptives. And so the whole concept, you know, for me as a clinician, like from my perspective, is, are we adequately counseling our patients prior to starting synthetic hormones that it may then impact a lot of things, not just the gut microbiome, but also the potentiality of selecting partners they would not otherwise be interested in or attracted to?

 

So there’s a lot to unpack there, but I always find it really interesting. So it always starts with lifestyle and then testing, I think can be hugely influential, but it’s also the realization that things that we’re exposed to in our food, our environment, and our personal care products can all dysregulate these key sex hormones, in particular, that can lead us to developing, you know, whether it’s fertility or reproductive issues or wonky cycles.

 

Katie: Yeah. So many good points. And thinking about testing and data also makes me think of we now have access to so many types of different trackers that previous generations have not had access to. And I personally am a data nerd and I love the availability of genetic data and sleep data and all of the things we can track now. I’ve been tracking my cycle pretty carefully and have for about 20 years, but it makes me curious, what are some of the ways that we, especially as women, can use this data to our advantage to kind of hone in and improve some of these things?

 

Cynthia: Yeah. I would start with probably my two favorites, so a glucometer or continuous glucose monitor because it can help you predetermine what is your unique response to certain foods, stress, exercise, sleep quality. And what I find for a lot of women is they’ll start tracking their blood sugars, even if it’s not with a continuous glucose monitor, maybe with a glucometer and they’ll say, okay, first two weeks of my menstrual cycle, I have a lot more ability to eat different types of carbs versus once I ovulate, then I notice that my blood sugars are not as well controlled.

 

And they may not be in a dangerous level. They just notice maybe they’re 10 or 15 points higher than they are in their follicular phase. The other thing that I think is helpful in, and I know the Oura Ring, in particular, is doing this now, they’re helping to trend and track sleep data. And so this also impacts, you know, what’s your temperature like as you are heading follicular phase versus ovulation versus luteal phase, and you will see changes in your temperature, which can be observed from just wearing a ring on your finger.

 

Also looking at REM and deep sleep. And this is something that, you know, certainly this metric was really hard to track before, but now I will have my female patients, like, are you getting at least 90 minutes of REM? Are you getting at least two hours of restorative deep sleep? And being able to kind of look at those metrics. Now, not everyone has the ability per se to have like all the discretionary income in the world, but I would say out of all the metrics I look at, those two are oftentimes the most valuable.

 

And then you can plot information over time. I, just like you, I love looking at data because generally more often than not, it confirms what I’m already thinking. You know, did I have a good night’s sleep? Did I eat too late? And now I’m noticing not only was my blood sugar not as well controlled overnight, but I didn’t sleep as well. My sleep quality is eroded. I’m one of those people where the Oura Ring would like to put me to bed at 8:30 to 9:30, which is not always realistic.

 

And if I eat later, so if we’re honoring our chronobiology, if you look at the research, chronobiology, as an example, encourages us to eat earlier in the day, you know, eat when it’s light outside, don’t eat when it’s dark outside. I recognize that may not be realistic for everyone that’s listening, but I think it’s important for people to understand why that is the case. And a lot of it has to do with insulin sensitivity. We are more insulin sensitive during the day, as the day goes on, we are less insulin sensitive.

 

So if you’re gonna have discretionary carbs, probably easier to eat them earlier in the day. The other piece is that we have these melatonin clocks. We have these biologic clocks that are throughout the body, but we have them in the gut. So if you sit down when it’s dark outside and you have a big dinner, and then, you know, you’re wondering why not only do you have a terrible night of sleep, your blood sugar’s a mess, you’re just full and uncomfortable, and a lot of that has to do with your body is suppressing melatonin in an effort to increase cortisol to kind of get this bolus of food moving throughout your digestive system. And sleep is really designed as a metric to be able to be restorative.

 

You know, we have the glymphatic system, which is this waste and recycling process in the brain. And so I really always encourage women, in particular, to really lean into their physiology understanding, you know, why is it important to get sleep? Well, because the glymphatic system as one example requires so much energy that we really have to do…the only time it’s really effective, or the only time that can really occur is when we’re in sleep mode because otherwise, it has to kind of…it’s almost like other operating systems in the body shut down to allow your body the time to clean out these amyloids and these toxins in the brain, and to be able to provide this restorative timeframe in which to do it.

 

So when I think about biohacking, it could be as simple as, you know, are you the type of person who gets up in the morning and you get sunlight exposure on your retinas because we know that will help suppress melatonin and help increase cortisol so that your day gets started. Do you start your day off doing something joyful or do you get out of bed and the first thing you do is jump on your iPhone and your iPad and you start working and you’re stressed because you’re looking at your emails and social media? Depending on who you follow and who you interact with, that can be super stressful.

 

I just think about, you know, when we’re thinking about hacks that are important in terms of strength training, I remind people all the time, we wanna maintain muscle mass throughout our lifetime. And although this doesn’t seem like a super sexy topic, this is why muscles are so important or maintaining muscle mass is so important. Muscles are largely the organ of longevity, meaning the more muscle mass we maintain, the more insulin-sensitive we are.

 

And so we kind of started the conversation talking about the hierarchy of hormones and when the bulk of the population is metabolically inflexible and unhealthy, probably over 90% right now, we need to understand why muscles are not just about aesthetics, muscles are actually important as a glucose disposal agent. Meaning, you know, if you eat that carbohydrate-heavy meal and, you know, you’ve got enough muscle, your body is very likely able to process the carbohydrates and rhythm.

 

You wanna really think about the fact that insulin resistance actually starts in our muscles. This is something that when I learned it, it finally made a lot of sense. And so we wanna maintain muscles. Yes, it’s helpful to have them for aesthetics, but we wanna really maintain muscles because we want to remain as insulin sensitive for as long as we possibly can. So this is another seemingly kind of benign biohack.

 

And I would say the other thing that I think is always important to talk about is, you know, the nutrition piece and the sleep piece. So when we’re talking about anti-inflammatory nutrition and what does that mean? That means, you know, eating a nutrient-dense whole foods diet, you know, eating less processed food, eating those protein macros, balancing your healthy fats, eating the right types of carbs based on where you are in your menstrual cycle.

 

Again, just to reiterate, luteal phase, you are going to be a little less insulin sensitive. You may have to be really mindful about the choices of carbohydrates. You do need a little bit more carbs right before your menstrual cycle, but we’re talking about half a cup. We’re not talking about 5 pounds of potatoes. We’re talking about, you know, pretty, you know, nominal, about 100, 150 calories worth of carbohydrates. So not a lot.

 

And then just really leaning into your physiology. I think that it’s helpful for women to understand that. The one caveat I do want to make is that perimenopause and menopause in terms of biohacking, I always say, if you can’t sleep well through the night, you have to focus in on that first. And that has a lot to do with the fact that sleep is not just for restoration, sleep is for helping to balance hormones. And there’s a lot of good research to demonstrate that people who get, you know, less than six hours a night of sleep, they have a harder time regulating their blood sugar. They’re less insulin sensitive.

 

They struggle with balancing leptin and ghrelin, which are these hunger and satiety hormones. And so I remind people that when you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you don’t crave broccoli, you’re gonna crave junk. And so perimenopausal and menopausal women, sleep is foundational. I can make the argument is for anyone, but especially for that age group, the right types of nutrition.

 

So, suddenly, the alcohol at night may no longer be serving you. You might not do as well with gluten or sugar or dairy. And then really thinking strategically about the right types of exercise. This is not the time to do CrossFit five days a week. And there are women who reach out who are doing that. You may wanna make sure that you’re getting lots of restorative processes in there.

 

And then the other thing is managing your stress. And I always say that I’m as guilty as the next person, but managing your stress doesn’t mean five minutes of meditation three days a week. It actually means you have to find ways throughout your day to, you know, reduce your stress threshold. And a great way, I know that you have younger kiddos at home, but oxytocin is a hormone that will actually reduce cortisol.

 

So thinking about ways throughout your day, like whether it’s hugging your child, or your husband, or your dog, or doing something joyful is a way… You need oxytocin hits throughout the day because they only last two or three minutes. And this is a hormone that I think is really poorly understood, but one that is definitely helpful for women.

 

Katie: So much good information. And I think you’re right, sleep, I’ve always thought of as kind of the ultimate biohack. And I also feel like if you don’t have sleep figured out, almost nothing else will work. And if you have sleep figured out, you have a lot more leeway in every other area because of all the hormone implications that you talked about.

 

And because we know that even just one night of really bad sleep can affect your insulin to the point of making you look like a prediabetic, it can affect your cortisol, like you said, it can affect so much. And so we’re kind of stacking the odds against ourselves if we’re not getting sleep dialed in. And to that note, you mentioned a few things, but are there any other things we can do to help use this data may be to really dial in our sleep because there seems to be an individualization here as well?

 

I know like, as an example for me, the not eating after dark is a big key. In fact, if I stop eating at like 5, I get even better sleep than if I stop eating at 6 or 7, along with I do great sleeping in cold and complete dark. And, unfortunately, my Oura has well informed me over and over, I do better if I don’t drink alcohol at all. But what are some of the ways we can use this data to our advantage to really improve our sleep?

 

Cynthia: Yeah, no. So I agree with you that sleep is truly foundational to our health and, you know, I will dovetail into what you said that there are definitely supplements. And I know a lot of people wanna just take the supplements and not do the work. So the supplements are only if you’ve done all these other things and you’re still struggling quite a bit, you know, getting off electronics in the evening, wearing blue blockers.

 

You know, certainly certain types of supplements can be beneficial. I always start very benignly. I don’t jump to melatonin. I think about GABA, which is this calming neurotransmitter. I think about L-theanine, which is a calming amino acid. You do get some L-theanine and green tea and other types of teas. I do think about adaptogenic herbs, if appropriate, you know, things you can add to your regimen like holy basil tea, which is generally uncaffeinated. I think about ashwagandha. Obviously, really fine-tuning based on what your needs are.

 

I think when I’m also thinking about biohacking pieces, I like to start simple and then kind of add things in. So I know I started the conversation talking about glucometers and CGMs and Oura Rings, but I do find that, you know, some type of mental health outlet is something that’s really important. Doing something that brings you joy. It doesn’t have to be expensive.

 

It could be that you set aside 20 minutes every day to binge some type of show on your iPad that no one else wants to watch, or maybe you’re listening to a great podcast, or maybe you are learning something new. Maybe you’re learning a new language. But I think it’s important for us to irrespective of where you are in life stage to do something that brings us joy every day that doesn’t feel like work because we want to do things that are gonna buffer that cortisol response.

 

We wanna do things that keep us more in the parasympathetic. So we have the autonomic nervous system, parasympathetic, and sympathetic. And most of us are in like the stress mode, so we’re sympathetic-dominant, but I remind people, even just breathwork, like I’m a huge proponent and when I’m like nervous or excited, I will do box breathing. So it’s just as simple as breathing in, you know, on a count of four, holding for four, exhaling on four, and I will do that four or five times, sometimes if I wake up in the middle of the night with my mind racing.

 

So finding strategies, starting conservatively, finding strategies that work really well for you. And then from there, kind of determining on the continuum, what is reasonable for you to do? Because I don’t ever want to introduce a strategy that I myself am not doing, or I am not willing to do because realistically I think we all wanna be examples to our followers and our listeners. And so I always say if I’ve recommended something, it’s more than likely because I’ve done it and I’ve found it successful. And it’s something that has been successful and helpful for a lot of other women.

 

Katie: And recap out some of the points we’ve talked about so far, it seems like kind of a highlight reel would be to make sure we’re getting enough sleep, get morning sunlight, eat enough food, enough calories, enough protein, but not after dark. And then make sure we like have the basic hormones kind of in range. And then that’s the foundational pieces.

 

And then beyond that, I know that in today’s world, especially there are endless biohacks and supplements and additional things we can do. And often it can seem tough to wade through what the most effective ones are. And certainly, when we start talking about biohacks, these are not in everybody’s budget. I also very much believe you can get 95% of the way there with just those foundational free things. And I encourage everybody to do that before they even think about any of these.

 

But for people who have already done some of those foundational things and wanna get even more nuanced and granular, what are some biohacks that you think are especially effective for women? Like, for instance, I’ve done a lot of research into sauna use and the data is really, really impressive. So this was the thing that I prioritized in my family budget. I also have been experimenting with cold exposure and I have a ChiliPad on my bed, have used red light therapy for years. What are some of your go-tos and why do they work for women, especially?

 

Cynthia: Yeah. Well, I would say probably the cheapest biohack of all would probably be, you know, 15 to 30 seconds of a cold shower. So you’ve done your shower, you’ve washed your hair, you’ve washed your body, turning that on for 15 to 30 seconds and understanding…and, of course, it’s easier as the weather’s getting warmer, but understanding what that does. You know, we are creating a degree of hormetic stress in the body.

 

Remember, I might have already mentioned, hormesis or hormetic stress is the right amount of stress at the right time. And so we know that this can be beneficial, because it makes us stronger. You know, if you’re sitting underneath a cold shower head and you’re doing that for a minute or two minutes, it’s building you up. It’s making you more resilient. We know it can help with beigeing fat. So white fat is the fat that we think of. It can help beige white fat, meaning it can make it more mitochondrial dense kind of creating brown fat.

 

Obviously, you know, the next level up might be cold exposure. So, cryotherapy, this is something I actually really enjoy. You know, to me, you know, doing two and a half minutes in a cryo tank is awesome, but you start with baby steps. Start with the shower, make sure…you know, slowly increase it by 15 seconds maybe every week until you build up to a minute or 2. And then if you wanna take it to another level, all of us can definitely benefit from cold exposure.

 

Obviously, I always say to my husband, not this time of the year because it’s getting really hot and humid where we live, but when it was wintertime, instead of pulling out, you know, your heavy parka, maybe you wear lighter one. Instead of wearing a hat, maybe you’re not wearing a hat because you’re creating a degree of hormesis. You’re making your body work a little harder to stay warm. Maybe you walk outside and it feels a little bit brisk, but then you’re actually…remember I mentioned beneficial stress in the right amount at the right time.

 

I do like red light therapy. I do enjoy infrared sauna. Again, we just moved to a new part of the country and we’ve been tossing back and forth ideas about where to put in infrared sauna. I do enjoy that, although I’m at the stage of life where I don’t like being hot. And so the infrared sauna has been one of those things where I do it at a local place and I definitely enjoy it. Infrared sauna is different than traditional Swedish sauna. There’s benefits to both. And I do encourage people like sweating if you’re doing like a traditional Swedish sauna is a good thing.

 

You know, when we sweat, we’re actually releasing toxins. We’re helping spot detoxification. Infrared sauna usually have to sit a little longer in it to actually start sweating. And I find for a lot of people, if they tell me they don’t sweat, I’m usually like, there’s probably some degree of impaired detoxification in the body. So sweating is certainly very helpful whether it’s in the infrared sauna or you’re doing it with exercise intensity.

 

Other things that I think are very helpful doing high-intensity interval training or Tabata, not so that you hurt yourself. It might be that you have a treadmill and maybe you go all out in a sprint on the treadmill for 30 seconds and then you take 30 seconds off. You’re walking very slowly. And so you’re doing these micro-intense movements to tax your body. You should be breathy. I think a lot of us are very conditioned to be comfortable.

 

You know, we’re in a hormetically sealed environment, you know, it’s warm in the winter, it’s cold in the summer. We like our hot showers. You know, we make ourselves too comfortable, but I would agree to your point about, you know, creating a haven in your bed and you mentioned you have a ChiliPad. I have an OOLER. We keep our temperature at 65 degrees at night and my whole family has kind of gotten accustomed to sleeping that cold. We all sleep better. And that’s another, you know, fairly easy thing to do.

 

So really creating an environment and, you know, based on your budget, not all these things actually are expensive and some of them are, I mean, obviously, if you have an infrared sauna in your house or you’re doing cryotherapy every week, that can get expensive. But I do find for a lot of women, in particular, they’re starting to deal with some weight loss resistance who are starting to see some middle-aged fluff, and I have a colleague who calls it fluff, which I think is such a benign way of referring to exactly what’s happening. There are definitely ways you want to create some hormesis. You want to definitely be pushing the envelope.

 

The other thing that I would add to that is eating less often. If people don’t wanna hear the word intermittent fasting, eating less often. So just eating less often can help reduce inflammation, can absolutely, you know, improve digestion, it’ll improve how efficient your digestive system is. It’ll help reduce oxidative stress. It’ll tap into autophagy, which is this waste and recycling process in the body.

 

So there’s lots of, you know, pretty, relatively benign things you can do that don’t cost anything that can definitely be impactful and very helpful. The other thing I would think about is, you know, everyone always asks me about supplements and I’m very supplement savvy, but I think it’s important for people to understand if you really look at the research, you know, what are some of the things that can be helpful?

 

Well, we want insulin sensitivity. So walking after a meal, that’s an inexpensive thing to do. But if you wanna take things up a notch, you can look at utilization of things like berberine, these are these insulin sensitizers. We know that if you do like a head-to-head with the diabetes drug Metformin or Glucophage and berberine, they work very similarly, a lot of the longevity experts actually use berberine on a daily basis. And so I think it’s fine as needed.

 

I don’t think necessarily you can…well, it’s interesting I just had a podcast with Dr. Sara Gottfried and I was asking her, you know, can people build up a tolerance to this? And she said, I like to cycle it on and off. So I personally just use berberine if I’ve had a meal that’s been a little higher on the carbohydrate and what I normally consume and that’ll help, you know, buffer the blood sugar response in response to that. But in terms of supplements, I always say things that are gonna buffer cortisol, I think are very important.

 

You know, as phosphasal staring, there’s a product called Seriphos that can be helpful for helping to buffer some of that cortisol. I also think about the blood sugar sensitizer in acetol is one that can be very helpful. I also think about chromium, although I don’t find chromium GTF to be as efficacious as berberine, but there’s a lot of good research on berberine.

 

Katie: Yeah. And I love her advice to cycle that, I actually do that with almost every supplement just because I don’t wanna downregulate my body’s natural ability to create if it’s something that I can endogenously create. So I cycle all supplements and I, as a rule, don’t typically take anything on the weekends just to give my body time on and off.

 

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I loved the talk about cold and sauna. One kind of middle ground I found that seems really helpful, there’s a brand of sauna called Creatrix that’s infrared, but it’s near infrared and it gets hot really, really fast. So the traditional saunas, the research is looking at the heat, which seems to be an important mechanism. And then there’s a lot of theories about additional benefit from the infrared. And this one seems to check both boxes and it’s less expensive. So that’s one I’ve recommended quite often.

 

And there’s a recent “Huberman Lab Podcast” that talked about this as well. And he kind of gave what he considers the thresholds based on the research of being if possible, 11 minutes of cold per week and 57 minutes of heat per week. And so I’ve been trying to sort of hit those targets and I’ve noticed, I know a lot of women are resistant to the cold and I get it because I certainly was too in the beginning, but it’s almost like a happy button when you get in the cold, as soon as you get out, all those hormones and that hormesis creates a mental state that’s super happy. So now it’s my go-to. If I’m grumpy or stressed with work, I just go state change in the cold for two minutes and it totally resets my brain. So that’s one hack I love to give women.

 

Cynthia: Oh, I love, I love Huberman. I think he’s brilliant. I think if I had all the time in the world, I would listen to like every single podcast, but I always say between Peter Attia and Huberman, it’s like four hours of my week and I have to be very deliberate. I’m like maybe I’m just listening in the car, but then I wanna go back and listen to take notes. And I love that, you know, he gave those parameters and I did see that and I was like, geez, I don’t think I’m doing 11 minutes a week. I need to work on this. So just know that all of us are constantly a work in progress. I think now that the weather has gotten so humid where we live, it won’t make it quite so arduous to get that timeframe in every week.

 

Katie: Absolutely. Yeah. And you do work up too because that one’s one that’s hard to jump straight into. And last topic I wanted to make sure we got time to talk about because this is a new one that I have not talked about on the podcast before is something called deuterium-depleted water and how that comes into play. And admittedly, before we jump into this, in the biohack category, it is somewhat pricey.

 

I think there’s a lot of really cool information, especially for people with specific conditions and even cancer patients. But I think, and you know more about this than I do, it can have benefit to a lot of people. And I would say I would prioritize it if I was in one of those categories where there’s specific benefit, especially with cancer. But I think it’s also something I’m curious to experiment with now. So I would love to hear you explain what it is and how it can be beneficial.

 

Cynthia: Yeah. When I first learned about this, it completely blew my mind. I was like, I’ve never thought about hydrogen in this capacity. So there are a couple of different types of hydrogen. There’s a they call it simple light hydrogen that’s like 99% of the hydrogen that we have. And then there is something called a heavier deuterium-related hydrogen. And this exposure over time, the more and more we’re exposed, and we get exposed to it in a number of ways, you know, one of the ways is in food. And so like grains and potatoes and fruits actually have more deuterium in them.

 

And what’s interesting and the big takeaway is that deuterium levels can damage mitochondria. So, obviously, this is one of like my nerdy things that I love learning as much as I can about the health of our mitochondria. And so if we think about the fact that over the age of 40, most of us have some degree of dysfunctional mitochondria, AKA, this is why intermittent fasting can be so effective. But I think it’s also important to understand there are certain types of macronutrients. So fat has the least amount of deuterium in it versus some of the carbohydrates and protein.

 

And one of the things I found really interesting is that when you think about disruption of the mitochondria, it impacts our energy. So when people are saying like, I’m always tired, I’m chronically tired, understanding that the higher our levels that are of deuterium, and it’s interesting I was reading Robert Slovak’s work and he was saying like, I don’t think per se people should get tested because you can just assume if you’re over a certain age, your levels are higher than ideally where they should be, but there are ways to kind of buffer and mitigate some of this mitochondrial damage.

 

And so, you know, the other thing that’s interesting, you know, I was listening to a podcast as I was learning about this a few years ago, was talking about one of the ways that we get rid of deuterium is a healthy gut microbiome. And so packaging it up and actually having a bowel movement. So making sure you’re having a bowel movement every day. So, obviously, this is a very non-techy way of ensuring that you’re creating some degree of balance.

 

And to me, the people that need to be most concerned about their deuterium levels are people, as you stated, cancer victims, people with, you know, chronic and significant health issues. It is not inexpensive to purchase these products, but it’s something to kind of talk into the back of your mind if you’re feeling like you’re doing all the right things and you’re interested in taking things to another level, that’s option number one.

 

Option number two, I would say if you have a cancer diagnosis and you’re already probably doing a lot of lifestyle changes anyway to accommodate whether you’re doing a Gerson’s protocol, whether or not you’re, you know, eating a more plant-based diet, whatever it is that you’re choosing to do to address that, you may want to consider this deuterium-depleted water because the interesting thing and the thing that I found frustrating/fascinating is that, you know, most if not all of us have some degree of mitochondrial dysfunction, but we know that this deuterium aspect could also exacerbate that.

 

And so I’m certainly not an expert, but biggest takeaway is that this specific type of hydrogen, this heavier type of hydrogen, over time the exposure to it is like that bucket that we talk about. Like, you could have been exposed to endocrine disruptive chemicals your entire life and it’s not until 42 when you’re in perimenopause and maybe this is the time at which it’s going to become problematic. So deuterium water, the one resource that I think is, you know, fairly accessible is Litewater. And that’s Robert Slovak’s product. I have no affiliation with it. I just wanted to make sure I say this, that was the most interesting because you can actually get it in glass water bottles.

 

And the thought process is that you’re going to dilute the amount of deuterium that you have in your body. It’s not getting rid of all of it. But it’s with the understanding that having a lower threshold, maybe you go from 150 to 120, that’s going to improve the quality of your mitochondria, but this is absolutely positively one of those more advanced biohacking things. And certainly, if you talk to some of the big biohackers, some of them do this and some of them do not, but I found it so interesting that I wanted to make sure I included it in our discussion.

 

Katie: Yeah. I appreciate that. It’s a newer topic for me and one I haven’t gotten to talk about on here yet. So, like you said, it may not be something that everybody’s able to do, but for people who have specific need or are trying to hit very specific targets for some reason, I think it can be really fascinating. And I’m excited to keep seeing research on this and for this topic to be talked about more and more. And in the interest of protecting your time because I know how busy you are, a couple of last follow-up questions I love to ask, the first being any book or number of books that have profoundly influenced your life, and if so, what they are and why?

 

Cynthia: I would say the first book is Robyn O’Brien’s “The Unhealthy Truth.” I mean that book completely changed everything for me. I read that book and I got mad and sent me down a rabbit hole of looking at the world very differently in terms of what has been done to our food and how it has impacted our susceptibility to disease and chronic health issues.

 

I would say, you know, most recently, the book…oh, I love James Nestor’s book “Breath.” I’ve now read it twice. That is a book that definitely turned everything that I thought of in terms of our physiology, the way we breathe, the shape of our mouths, you know, how many of us have had orthodontic care, and how that’s impacted our health. I would say that was definitely a recent significant book although I’ve read it twice as I said.

 

But I would say, you know, more recently, there’s a book called “The XX Brain” by Dr. Lisa Mosconi. And so she’s a women’s brain-health expert and understanding the way that our brains are wired in terms of not only insulin signaling, but estradiol signaling, progesterone, testosterone, and the net impact of what happens to women and their brains or cognitive function transitioning from perimenopause into menopause was really interesting. You know, I think she’s head of Cornell’s Brain Health Research Center. She’s just an incredible resource, but that book completely changed everything for me, everything I had learned about HRT and, you know, whether or not I wanted to start those conversations with patients, that was definitely a book that, you know, shifted everything for me.

 

Katie: Awesome. I’ll put links to all of those in the show notes, as well as to your work, which I know you’ve been on here before, but I’ll make sure everybody can find your websites and all your books and work online. And lastly, any parting advice for the listeners today that could be related to what we talked about or entirely unrelated?

 

Cynthia: Yeah. So, you know, there might have been a lot of new concepts mentioned today, but just start with one at a time. I always remind people that I didn’t go from eating what I thought to be a healthy diet and changing a lot of things that I did in my personal and professional life. And I always tell people like start with one small thing and then move on to the next, so that you have small wins. Trying to change everything all at once will end up being incredibly overwhelming.

 

The other thing I would say is if you can do nothing else, really focus on sleep quality. You don’t need an Oura Ring to do that, but, you know, a lot of things that Katie and I talked about today are things that cost little to nothing if at all. And I always remind women, in particular, like you probably don’t think about your sleep until it starts becoming a challenge. And so if you’re, you know, north of 40 and you’re struggling with sleep, really dial in on the lifestyle choices first and then think about supplements and then possibly seeing your healthcare professional if you’re still struggling.

 

Katie: Awesome. That’s a perfect place to wrap up. Thank you so much for your time. I’m glad we got to go through so many fun topics and I think this was a really informative episode, and I’m really grateful to you for being here.

 

Cynthia: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

 

Katie: And thanks, as always, to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did, and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of “The Wellness Mama Podcast.”

 

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.



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