Welcome to Pushing the Limits, the show that helps you reach your full potential with your host, Lisa Tamati. Brought to you by lisatamati.com.
Lisa Tamati: Well, hey everyone! And welcome to Pushing The Limits. This week, I have another amazing guest for you. I managed to get some incredible people. I have Dr Kirk Parsley with me. He is an ex-Navy SEAL, and also a medical doctor. A little bit of an overachiever, this one. He spent many years in the SEALs, an incredible man. He also was involved with the first sports medicine rehabilitation centre that was working with the SEALs, an incredible expert on sleep. And that's what we do a deep dive into today. We also talk about hyperbaric oxygen therapy. We also go into areas about the current state of the medical system, one of my favourite topics. And I hope you enjoy this episode. It’s really, the most important thing is around sleep.
Sleep is something that all of us, I think, are underestimating its importance. And that this is the biggest lever, not food, not exercise, not meditation, not mindfulness, not anything else. Number one of all leverage points is sleep. So how the heck do you get enough sleep? What is enough sleep, and how to get it is what this episode is about.
Before we head over, I just want to remind you we have Boost Camp coming up. This is our eight-week live online program. There, Neil Wagstaff and I, my business partner and longtime friend and coach are doing. And we're going to, if you want to come and hang out with us live every week and learn everything about upgrading your life, basically, your performance, how to optimise all areas of your life, then we would love you to check the information out, head over to peakwellnessco.nz/boostcamp.
On that point, if you're also interested, come and check out our flagship program, which is our epigenetics program, where we look at your genetics, and how to optimise those specifically, all the areas of your life: your food, your nutrition, your exercise, your mood, and behaviour, your hormones, all these important areas, specifically to your genetics. One-on-one time with us and help us to understand everything about your genetics. It's an incredible platform and amazing AI technology behind us. And we'd love you to check that out.
Go to peakwellnessco.nz/epigenetics. Or reach out to me if you didn't get that. We will also have the links down in the show notes, if you want to just click over to that. Or you can just head over to my website, www.lisatamati.com. And hit the work with us button for our programs listed on there as well. So without further ado, now over to Dr Kirk Parsley.
Well, hi, everybody! And welcome to Pushing the Limits. This week, I have a superstar, who is a good friend of Commander Mark Divine, you may have heard previous weeks on my podcast. We have Dr Kirk Parsley with us today. Welcome to the show.
Dr Kirk Parsley: Thank you. I feel very welcome and happy to be here. I'm still here. I’m happy to be sharing this airspace with you or whatever it is sharing.
Lisa: I’m really super excited. I've heard you a number of times on Mark’s show and just thought how hefty you're on because you're such an expert. We're gonna dive into a little bit into your background, but you're an absolute sleep expert. So I'm really keen to help my audience with their sleep, and their sleep patterns, and all of that good stuff. But before we get into that, we were just chatting about genetics and endurance. So, give us a little background. You've been a Navy SEAL. You've been in the military, in the naval military. So give us a bit of background on yourself, personally.
Dr Kirk: Yes. So ironically, I actually dropped out of high school. I was a terrible student my whole life, didn't have any interest in school. And after you don't do well for long enough, you just convince yourself that you can't do well. And so you're just, ‘I'm just done. I can’t do it’. I was always very physical, very athletic. Just fortunately, genetic lottery, I won, just be an athletic and strong guy. And it came pretty easy to me. But I worked hard at it because I didn't do school work. So when I dropped out of high school, to join the military and do the hardest training in the world. And that was what the SEAL training was supposed to be, as the toughest training in the world like, ‘Well, I'm gonna go do that.’ So I went to do that.
This was a way long time ago. This is 1988. So, it was long before anybody knew what SEALs were. They didn't have the notoriety they have now for sure. And when I would come home from the Navy and tell people as I was a Sealer, like, ‘What do you mean, you work for SeaWorld or something? What do you do?’ Kinda. So, I went through SEAL training, I would say I made it through SEAL training, I became a SEAL. That was pre-9/11, obviously. So we didn't have the combat that the SEALs of this generation do. So it's not really comparable. We were still mainly working in Southeast Asia doing police work and training other militaries.
I did three deployments. It was really the same thing over, and over, and over again because there was no combat. So you just did the same training, and then you deployed, and then came home, and you did the same training. And of course, I was like, ‘Maybe, I'll go do something else.’ And I thought I would be—I was dating a woman who would become my wife. She was getting a master's in physical therapy. And I was reading her textbooks on deployment to make myself a better athlete. And I thought, maybe I could be a physical therapist. And so I started working, I started volunteering in a physical therapy facility in San Diego, called San Diego Sports Medicine Center. And it had every kind of health care provider you could possibly imagine. And this building, it’s just this healthcare Mecca. It’s the most holistic thing I've ever seen to this day.
I decided pretty quickly, I didn't want to be a physical therapist, but I don’t know what else I wanted to do. But I got to follow the podiatrist around, and acupuncturist, and massage therapists, and athletic trainers, and conditioning coaches, and the orthopedist, and the family practice, and the sportsmen. I just got to follow them around and see how everybody worked. And a group of young doctors there, who were probably only five or six years older than me, and they were saying, ‘Well, you should go to medical school.’ And I was like, ‘Pump the brakes, kiddo. I didn't even graduate high school. I'm not getting into medical school.’ And then the senior doctor overhears the conversation. He comes out of the office. And he says, ‘Kirk, the question isn't, “Can you get in?” The question is, “Would you go if you've got in?”’ And I said, ‘Of course, I’d go.’ So, well, there you have it. So, he sort of shamed me into it.
I studied hard and got really good grades. And then when it came time to apply for medical school, this was pre-Internet, so you had to go to the bookstore and get your book review and look and see what schools are competitive for. And when I was going through one of those books, I found out that the military had their medical school. The military was a closed chapter in my mind. I'd done that. That’s something that I figured I'd always do in my life. But it was never meant to be my whole life. And so I had done that. I was, I figured I was done. But I was already married and had kids. And I was like, ‘Well, the military will pay me to go to medical school. Or I can pay someone else to go to medical school and my wife can work while we're in medical school.’
I made enough to support my family and go to medical school for free. And then to pay off in the military’s, they'll train you to do anything. You have to give them years of service and your job. So once you finish your medical training, you have to be a doctor for the military for eight years. And so I figured, ‘I'll get back to the SEAL teams, I'll go pay something back to the community that helped me, was hugely formidable in who I became in my life.’ And went back to the SEAL teams, really well-prepped to do sports medicine and orthopedics. And I knew quite a bit about nutrition, and performance, and strength and conditioning. I was pretty sure I had the exact pedigree.
When I got there, they had just gotten the money to build a sports medicine facility, which was actually their vision was exactly what I told you that I worked in in college. That's exactly what they wanted to build. I'm like, ‘I got this.’ So they put me in charge of building this out. And I was a significant part of us hiring everyone we hired. So we hired our first strength and conditioning coach, our first nutritionist, our first PT, our first everything.
We built our own sports medicine facility. And then orthopedics was coming through every week, and they had to do rounds there. And we'd have pain rounds, pain management rounds come through. We had an acupuncturist coming through. And we hired all these people from the Olympic Training Center, and professional sports teams, and the best colleges. And so, we had all these brilliant people who knew way more than I did about what they do.
Lisa: So you went from there to there.
Dr Kirk: Yeah. And so at that point, I was the dumbest person around, right? Because we had all these experts in every little niche that I knew this much about. We hired experts who knew that much about. And so in the military, when you're the dumbest guy, they put you in charge, right and say, ‘Well, you manage this,’ right? And so, I’m managing all these people who know more than I do, however that works. But my office was in this facility that we built.
The SEALs are a lot like professional athletes in that you put them on a bench, so to speak, right? Because they're injured, they need some help. So they can't work. It's the worst thing. Worst thing. So when they see a health care provider, they just lie because they don't want to be—
Lisa: They don’t wanna be taken out.
Dr Kirk Parsley: They will take money out of their pocket, and go into the city, and find a doctor to treat them so that the doctor at work doesn't know, so they don't get put on the sideline. But because I was a SEAL, and there were still a lot of SEALs at the SEAL team. It was close enough to my time. There are still a lot of SEALs at the team who I worked with, and I trained with, and deployed with. And so they knew me. And I had a good reputation. And so they trusted me, and they come in my office and they say, ‘Let me tell you what's going on with me.’
They reported this litany of symptoms that didn't have any pattern that I could recognise. And so they were saying that their motivation was low, that they're very moody, that they couldn't concentrate. They're super forgetful. Their energy was low. Their body composition was shifting. They felt slower, and dumber, and colder. None of them were sleeping very well. They're all taking sleep drugs. They had low sex drive. They had a lot of joint pain, a lot of inflammation. And I didn't have the slightest idea. I’m like, ‘And I know it sounds like you're obese and 65. But I’m looking at you and you’re not. So I don't know what's going on.’
I just started testing everything I could possibly test. I tested literally 98 blood markers. They were giving 17 vials of blood. Now just shotgun approaches, test everything, and see what's abnormal. And I started seeing some patterns. And they had really low anabolic hormones, so the DBTA, and testosterone, and dihydrotestosterone, pregnenolone. All of that was low. They really have high inflammatory markers. They really had poor insulin sensitivity for how healthy I knew they were, and how well they ate, and how much they exercised. But it's still within the normal range. But it wasn't. Everything was in the normal range. But everything that should be really high was just like barely in the normal range. And everything that should be really low, it's just barely inside of that range.
They didn't have a disease. And I was a medical doctor, so I had learned how to treat disease, then they didn't have disease. So I was like, ‘I don’t know. What am I going to do?’ So that led me to having to train with outside providers. And fortunately, at that time, the SEALs did have the reputation. They'd already done all these amazing things. This was in 2009. So, I think they'd already shot Bin Laden and at that point. So I could call anybody, right? I'd watch somebody’s TED Talk, read their book, I'd see them lecture. And I’ll just call them and say, ‘I’m a doctor for the West Coast SEAL team. Could I come train with you? Can I consult with you? Can I ask you some questions?’ And everybody was generous and said, ‘Absolutely’. So I get to learn a lot really quickly.
I take a lot of leave from work and just go sit in these guys’ clinics for four or five days. And just pick their brain, go see patients with them, and take notes, and learn. And then I just call them every time I have a question. And I just got to learn really quickly. It’s like this team of experts who knew everything about the alternative world.
I was trying to treat people for adrenal fatigue. And I was trying to treat people for vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which are obvious from what was going on. And I couldn't quite figure out what it was. And about 100 patients into it, and probably after 30 guys came in, I could have told everybody, they could just sit down. I'll tell you what you're going to tell me. I could have just just route it off; it's so similar. And about 100 guys into it, embarrassing that it took so long, but I remember this guy telling me that he took Ambien every night. What do you guys call it? Stilnox, I think, right?
I was married to an Aussie, so I know a lot. I mean, I know you're not an Aussie, but I know a little bit about your world, as in your language. And I remember putting a note in the margin, ‘Seems like a lot of guys take an Ambien.’ Then I go back through everybody's records, 100% of the guys who had been in my office were taking Ambien. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe that's an issue, right?’ So, let me go look at the side effects of Ambien. And it was a fairly new drug. And the pharmaceutical industry, they get to cherry-pick their data. So they were like, ‘Oh, it's the safest drug ever. There's nothing, no problems.’ And I'm like, ‘I don’t quite believe that.’
Unfortunately, like every other doctor in America, I didn't know anything about sleep. I never had a single class on sleep in medical school, didn't have the foggiest idea what should be happening. I knew what you called a mechanism of action on this drug, which means molecularly what does it do. Well, it binds GABA receptors and has an effect called GABA analog, and benzodiazepines are the same, things like Valium. And so that's about as much as I knew, Well, what is GABA doing? What is GABA supposed to do? And then you can't really understand that without understanding what's actually going on in sleep.
Then, I had to learn about sleep physiology. And what's supposed to happen during sleep? And what are the normal shifts and changes? And what does that do? And if that doesn't happen, what effects do you get? So after studying quite a bit, I figured out the general Occam's razor principle of the thing with the least assumptions is, literally, every single symptom that these men told me about, could be explained by poor sleep.
Now, I didn't think that it would be, right? I wasn't naive, but it could have, then, right? So if this was definitely the most powerful thing, because being a Western doctor I wanted to give them Cortef and raise their cortisol. I wanted to give them testosterone and raise their testosterone. I wanted to get like, I wanted to give them medication to improve their insulin sensitivity. I wanted to just go in there and do it. But I couldn't do that, right? Because you can't give SEALs medication that they're dependent upon. Because then, what if they go out on the field, and they don't have their medication, they can't do their job and it’s a waste. So that puts people on the bench, that disqualifies people. So I couldn't do that.
I had to figure out, well, what else can I do? So like I said, sleep seemed like the unifying theory. So let me see about that. And this was right around the time that everybody was catching on to the important vitamin B3. And that was associated with poor sleep. So, I tested all my guys. Every one of them had low vitamin B3. So I'm like, ‘Yeah, I'm going to give them vitamin B3. I'm going to be a hero. Everyone is gonna love me. I'm the best doctor ever.’ And it helped a little bit. But it wasn't everything.
Like I said, I had this epiphany with this sleep drug. And once I learned enough about the sleep drug, you aren't actually sleeping when you're on sleep drugs. You're just unconscious. Your brain is dissociated, but it's not sleep. Because sleep has to have, as one of its criteria, you have to have this predictable sleep architecture. You have to be going through these sleep cycles that take you through these different stages. And a particular pattern is repetitive, and it's primarily deep sleep in the beginning of the night, and almost exclusively REM sleep by morning, and you have to do that transition.
If you don't do that, then it's not sleep. It can be partially sleep, if you're just getting poor sleep. But I was having these guys do sleep studies. And they were coming back with 99.9% of their sleep study being stage 2 sleep, which is just the transition. It’s what we call a transitional sleep phase. So it's not deep sleep or REM. So they weren't really getting any of the benefits of sleep. And of course, that's an oversimplification. They're obviously getting something, or they'd be dead. But we don't know what they're getting.
That’s all we know is that healthy sleep does this, and when you go through these cycles, we know these things happen. Like when you're in deep sleep, we know that's when you're the most anabolic, and you're secreting your anabolic hormones like growth hormone, and testosterone, and DHEA is being ramped up, your immune system’s being ramped up. We know this happens. And then we know in REM sleep, what's going on in the brain: the physiological changes, forming more durable neural tracks, that neurological memories, shifting things from working memory into long term memory, pruning off useless information, these little buttons that grow on the side of your nerves that are starting to bud new information. You're like, ‘I don't need that.’ You clean up all that. You get rid of weak products and you get the brain working better.
The whole purpose of going to sleep tonight is to prepare myself for tomorrow, right? Whatever I do today, that's what my brain and body are gonna think it needs to do tomorrow. It's gonna use today as a template to try to make me better tomorrow at doing what I did today. And if I don't get enough sleep, if I don't get to restore, I still have to do tomorrow. And how do I do that? Well, I do it the same way you do anything. I’m stressed out. I use Marinol and a bunch of cortisol and DHEA. And I start robbing all my nutrients for my cells. My blood glucose is going up, I'm getting fuel sources that way, epinephrine and norepinephrine stimulate my brain and my tissues to be able to get energy where there’s really no energy there. And then I'm going to bed with these really high stress hormones, which are supposed to be low when I sleep, and then I'm trying to sleep with high stress hormones. Then, I get worse sleep. Then, I need more stress hormones tomorrow. And that's what breaks people.
In fact, when you see somebody who doesn't sleep well for even six months, they look so much older. ‘Why does he look old? That doesn't make sense. Is it just because they're tired? Is it tired old?’ But if you think about it, you're born into this contract. You're born into this contract; you can't get around. It's just like you're born knowing you're going to die, 100% certain you're going to die. There's also this other contract that certainly is your body ideally worked for about 16 hours, and it needs eight hours to recover. That's the way it works. That's what you're born into. There's small variations there. But obviously, you can't get around that.
If you don't get those 8 hours, you didn't recover from those 16 hours. And so if you think about it logically, obviously, when you're a kid, you need more sleep. So it's not a great example, when you're really young. Kids actually sleep a lot more than eight hours by and large, but you see them actually getting better every day, right? They're growing. They're getting smarter. They're getting more coordinated. You can see that every day. But if you think about, say, like, once you hit 25, and your brain’s fully formed, and everything's static. If you could recover 100% every night, and wake up the next morning as good as you were that other morning, you wouldn't age, right? There would be no aging because you would have recovered 100%.
Lisa: It’s very important, yep.
Dr Kirk: Everything that you're deficient in, if you're missing 10%, you're going to age that 10%. And if you're missing a little more, you're going to age faster. So when you see people who haven't been sleeping well for a year, they are literally older because they've been recovering less and less every night. So yeah, there's a breakdown in their protein structure. There's decrease in their blood supply, their peripheral vascularisation. Their tissues are aging. There’s a buildup of waste products that aren't getting out, and that's toxic. And that’s damaging the mitochondria and forming more senescent cells, and all these other things, they're building up. And every marker that we have, even genetic marker, when you look at your children and linked methylation on the genes. Every marker, they look older. And then when you look at them, they look older. That’s why.
That's really what aging is. It's really just the absence of being able to recover 100% every night. And as we get older, we just don't repair as fast. And that's, unfortunately, when most people quit sleeping as much. And now that's double whammy there. You're getting twice the aging effects that way. And there's no reason to sleep less when you’re old. It’s typical, but it's not something you have to do. I've had 84-year-old women who haven't slept more than 4 or 5 hours in 20 years, and I get them to sleep eight hours a night.
Lisa: I've got one over there who's rustling around, walking around behind me. She’s 80 years old, nearly. Hey, mum. And she's struggling with sleep in the early morning hours. And therefore, you know her memory and things. So I want to pick your brain on that. Can I just slow you down a little bit because we just covered a ton of ground here.
Dr Kirk: You just asked me about myself, and I just couldn't stop.
Lisa: No, but you were on an absolute roll. So I didn't want to interrupt you because there was so many things, but my brain’s just going like, ‘There's so many questions!’
Dr Kirk: That was just meant to be an overview.
Lisa: That was an overview. Now can we dive deeper into some of the weeds because now I understand why you've become, classically, the sleep expert because obviously that was the biggest leverage. In other words, this is the biggest leverage point that you see. When we think of the SEALs, we think of the SEALs as being these gods of amazingness that can do everything. But what you're saying is like these guys are pushing their limits: endurance, and in fatigue, and all things like that. And so they're going to be the Canaries in the Gold Mines in a way because they're going to be coming up against the limits of everything.
For you to say, as an ultra marathon, so I’ve come up against the limits in certain ways, like with sleep deprivation. And I sort of understand some of the things now that you were talking about. So you've ended up finding out that this is probably the biggest leverage point in anybody's life, basically, for their health is their sleep. So people, take a bit of a grip on that one. It's not necessarily the food or nutrition, it's the sleep. Would you agree?
Dr Kirk: When I first started lecturing, I used to say there were four pillars of health: sleep, nutrition, exercise. And then the fourth pillar is audience dependent. It could be mindfulness, stress medication, it could be community, whatever it is that controls your stress hormones, and your emotions, and your mood, and all that stuff. Then after a while, I shift to there's three pillars sitting on the foundation of sleep. Because if you take the sleep away, none of those are going to work. There’s nothing you can do. In fact, if you exercise when you're sleep deprived, it's counterproductive because you're not recovering. And we all know that you don't actually get better when you exercise. You damage yourself when you exercise.
Then when you sleep, you recover, and you come back stronger. When you deprive yourself of sleep, you change your entire gut biome, you change your insulin sensitivity. You change everything here. And now your nutritional status doesn't work anymore. And when you don't sleep well, as I said, you increase your stress hormones. So you can do the mindfulness training and all of that stuff, meditate and all that, but you're just going to bring yourself down maybe to where you would have been if you just slept well and didn't do any kind of training.
It's really the foundation for everything. And I say that all the time. It sounds hyperbolic, but I'm 100% convinced it’s true. There's nothing that you can do that will, nothing that will break you faster than poor sleep, and poor and insufficient sleep. There's a reason we use it as an interrogation technique.
Lisa: Exactly. Yeah.
Dr Kirk: There's a reason we break people down, intentionally, this way because it depletes all your resources. It interferes with your brain function, your willpower, your problem solving, your speech, your ability to formulate plans, your motivation, your mood. Everything goes almost instantaneously with one night of lack of asleep. Never mind keeping somebody up for three or four days in a row. They're just a mess. They’re just in input mode. They just want you to just, ‘Tell me whatever I have to do. I’d do it. Then I'll sleep. Anything I can do to get sleep, I'll do it.’ You don't have to rip people's fingernails out of stuff. You just deprive them from sleep.
Conversely, there's nothing that will improve the quality of your life and your performance faster than sleeping. Well, if you're an inadequate sleeper, which most people are. They don't even know they are. Everybody has these 30-day challenges and 60-day challenges. I'm like, ‘I only need seven days.’ Again, one week where sleep is your number one priority. And you do everything right, and you get eight hours of sleep, at least eight and a half hours in bed every night, and you're sleeping approximately eight hours a night. And give me that for a week. And then, if you're not convinced this the most powerful thing, go back to wherever you're going. But nobody's ever gone back.
Lisa: A lot of us, I can hear people saying, ‘Yeah, but I go to bed, and I can't sleep. And I wake up at 2 am. And my brain is racing and I've been told to do some meditation. And maybe it's my cortisol.’ Let's look now because if we haven't got the message across now that sleep is the number one thing that you should be prioritising about everything that you do, we haven't done very well for the last half an hour.
How do we sleep? What foods do we need to eat before we go to bed or not eat? What supplements can we take? You've got your sleep remedy that we'll get into a little bit. What routine can I do to optimise? What light-dark cycles? All of these things that can be leveraged points for us in optimising our sleep. And how do we test that we're actually in that deep-sleep phase? What are one of the best tools that you've found to work that out? So that was a mouthful, but yeah.
Dr Kirk: So the first thing we need to do is get away from that phonetic question right there, which is what everybody's going through in their heads up like, ‘What about this? What about that?’ And so my job is to make this really simple. Because simple things we can do, and the more nuanced your plan is around sleep, the more likely it is to fail. And we're doing big, macro movements here. So the very first thing is, what you said, I think we've already covered. The very first thing is to convince yourself that sleep is the most important thing. And to make it your priority for at least one week to get everything going.
Now, when I say your priority, I mean the true meaning of that word. There's only one thing there's nothing else, that’s the one, including raising your kids, and your dog, and your exercise routine, and everything else. The most important thing is to sleep. The most important thing for winning. If you aren't quite convinced yet go to PubMed, or go to Google Scholar, or something like this, then put in sleep and anything else you care about: being a parent, mood, dating, sex drive, athleticism, strength, endurance, concentration, memory, I don't care. Whatever it is you care about—strength and this, strength and business, strength and I don't care. Anything you want.
Read to your heart's content. It will convince you that the one good thing about sleep, in the sleep sciences, it’s not actually controversial. There's no one out there saying, ‘Oh, you don't really need to sleep.’ Everybody agrees. There's nuances and people are different. Everybody agrees you need about eight hours of sleep a night. And just convince yourself that is the most important thing. Once you're there, that's the most important thing.
After that, recognise, ‘Okay. I'm going to make this my number one priority.’ Recognise that you're born to sleep. You don't need to learn; you need to unlearn some stuff, right? You're designed to do this. And this should feel good. You should enjoy sleeping. You should usually look forward to going to bed and waking up in the morning, like, ‘Man, I feel so much better. I'm ready to go do my day.’ This should be as easy as selling sex but it's not. People resist this forever. I have no idea why. It's great. Why don't you like sleep? I’ve always liked sleep. So then you just think, ‘Okay, when did sleep go bad for humankind?’ Probably in the last seventy years.
Lisa: Yeah, when we got electric light.
Dr Kirk: That's about it, right? It's only been, really since rural electrification, right? Since they got electricity out to everybody. That's really when it started. When you look back in America just 100 years ago, look at people's journals in the winter, they spent like 14 hours a day in bed. That’s a certain thing they do. So if you think about it, and just say, ‘I know this is simple. I'm going to let myself fall into it.’ And then I'll tell you, there's all the sleep hygiene. You can get on the Internet, and you can find, ‘Oh, do this. Drink a hot cup of tea. Drink milk. Do this. Make your room really cold. Make your room really dark. Make your bed really soft. Make your bed really hard. And get a white noise machine. Get rid of all the EMF.’ A million people are going to tell you all sorts of different things to do. And I'll cut through all the BS, and then you can pick and choose.
The real answer is all of that stuff works, to some extent. All of that's important to some extent. The way I work with clients is at least 95% of all the successes is from lifestyle. And then all these little gadgets, and your mitigation tools, and supplements, and all this stuff back, that’s the other 5. It’s 95% behavioural. So you just look back, how did we evolve to sleep? Nobody teaches people how to sleep, right? You're born as a baby; you sleep. So how did we sleep as adults in cultures 100 years ago? Well, when the sun went down, we fell asleep about three hours later, and we woke up around the time the sun came up. It was pretty much that easy.
Okay, so let's reverse engineer that a little bit. I think most people know that blue light is a stimulus for being awake. We don't truly have a sleeping program. If you think of it like software, we don't have any sleeping software. We just have lack of awakening software. So we have things that go on in our brain and body that make us still awake and make us interact with our environment. And then when you take those things away, we're in what we call sleep.
The blue light, actually, has nothing to do with the vision. There's nerve cells in the back of your eyes. It senses blue light. That's all they do. And then they fire pathways back to the circadian pathway membrane, essentially. And then the pineal gland secretes melatonin. The melatonin is a hormone, the starter pistol. It initiates all these cascades. And then one of the cascades that it initiates is the production of this peptide called GABA, capital G-A-B-A, gamma-Aminobutyric acid. And what that does is it slows down the neocortex.
When you think of the human brain, the picture of the human brain, we all have that big, wrinkly, massive crescent shape. That's what we call the neocortex. And that is how we interact with the world, right? All of our senses get processed in that, and then all of our movement is processed from that, right? So when we're asleep, all that's really different with our sleep, about in a general sense, right? There's nuances in every neuron and every molecule. And then, in the neural sense, there's a barrier between us and our environment is how it's phrased. What it means is we aren't paying attention to our environment anymore. Our eyes obviously still work, right? You can turn the light and you can wake somebody up. Our ears still work, you can make your noise and wake somebody up. Our sense of touch still works. You can shake somebody. They can roll into something sharp, and their pain receptors will wake them up. Heat will wake them up. Cold will wake them. So we still work. Everything still works. We start processing it. We’re not paying attention to it.
What helps us do that is GABA. So GABA involves neurons. A neuron has what’s called a resting potential. So there's like an electrical current in here. And when you put in enough electrical current, it goes like this. And that neuron fires. And then, does whatever it does and forms pathways. Well, GABA lowers that. Now, it takes more energy to make that thing fire. And you can overcome this by just putting a lot of energy into the cells. So if you've ever been exhausted, woken up exhausted, didn't get enough sleep for whatever reason. Like, ‘I'm going to go to work. I’m gonna come home. I’m going straight to bed. I'm gonna sleep 12 hours a day.’ And then your friends talk you into going out or you get a cup of a drink. You stay up ‘til midnight, ‘I feel fine.’ And then you suffer again the next day, right? Because you just overcame that.
You can actually read about this because this still exists, believe it or not, they're still I think 35 or 45 pretty large communities around the globe that have never experienced electricity. And they just lived like hunters and gatherers. They go out. And the men go out and hunt. And the women pick, and nurture their kids, and weave. And just when you think of your caveman doing, they still live like that today. And we study these people. And we did actigraphy. So it's not true sleep, say. It's just movement to know when they're likely to be asleep. And what we find is, the sun goes down. Again, the blue light goes out of their eyes. It fires, the brain starts secreting melatonin that leads to a cascade of 365 billion other chemical changes in the brain, right? But that initiation has to happen. Once that initiation is going, one of the things it does is secrete GABA, increase GABA production in lots of regions of the brain that starts slowing the brain down.
The sun goes down. They don't have electricity, right? The best they have is a fire. So what else happens? Their body temperature goes down. So when the sun goes down and it is dark, we can't see well at night, we can't see very far. So there's way less stimulus, right? They don't have flashing lights. They don't have loud music. So there's not much to stimulate them. So they sit around a fire. Maybe if they're lucky, if not, they just stare around the dark, and they have some quiet, calm conversations, and then they drift off to sleep.
That's all sleep hygiene is. That's it. Those three things: decrease the blue light, decrease the stimulation to your brain, and drop your body temperature. You need a cool place to sleep. One of the things that you can do to speed these things up is to concentrate the right nutrients in your brain. If you are going to take melatonin and just take a very, very, very, very small amount. You just want to initiate. You don't want to put so much melatonin in your brain that your brain doesn't need to make melatonin because then you start running insensitivity to melatonin, and now when you take it away, you don't have, you're essentially melatonin deficient because you've downregulated the receptors, and your brain is not sensitive to melatonin anymore.
Lisa: Can I just stop in the first, one second. Dr John Lieurance is his name and he was on the Ben Greenfield podcast, and he's written a book about melatonin. And he argued that melatonin, interesting work, doesn't downregulate when you take melatonin, and doesn't cause that downregulation. All the other hormones do. If we take testosterone, we're going to downregulate our own testosterone, if we take right whatever. He said that they didn't. And he was advocating in his book for actually, super-physiological doses of melatonin. Certainly when you're doing things like jetlag, or whatever you're trying to reset, but also for a raft of other ailments to help with many diseases. Have you heard of his work or?
Dr Kirk: I’m familiar with him and his work.
Lisa: Yeah. What's your take on that? Because I was like, ‘I don’t know.’
Dr Kirk: So, I disagree, obviously.
Lisa: Yeah. That’s what I want to know.
Dr Kirk: But specifically, so what he's talking about, 90% of his work is about the antioxidant.
Lisa: Yes. Is it an antioxidant? Yep.
Dr Kirk: The studies that he's quoting are saying that melatonin doesn't downregulate. We don't know for sure. It's like, maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. The only way we would know is if we could actually drop a catheter into somebody's brain and sample their fluid in their brain 24 hours a day and study this over months. And so we can't say for sure. We can do animal models. Again, it's hard to quantify because from the time the sun goes down, which is about three hours before you'll fall asleep, to the entire time you slept, until the sun comes up, you're looking at somewhere between 11 and 12 hours. That entire time your brain will only produce five to six micrograms of melatonin.
Lisa: Tiny amount.
Dr Kirk: So how do we study, right? It's really hard to study, and you think of it in a mouse model, how much smaller the quantities are we're looking at that point. And the concentration of melatonin in each region of the brain is not the same, it depends on some cells in the brain can actually be stimulated by melatonin. It's somewhere. It’s different. And same with GABA. GABA doesn't go to every region of the brain because it can stimulate regions of the brain. But what we do know, so first, I always go with, we don’t know anything. We have research that makes us believe certain things are likely to be true based on the best science we have right now. So we don't know anything. And I believe that to be true about everything in science. Just wait a week, it might change. But what we do know is that every other hormone does this.
Dr Kirk: But if it doesn't do this, it's the only hormone in the body that doesn't. Pretty unlikely. But what we do know with 100% certainty is that it does downregulate melatonin receptors.
Dr Kirk: It can take away melatonin receptors. If I normally have 10 melatonin receptors, and I go down to just having one, now even if I'm sprayed with melatonin, I only have one. And I have to have this supersaturation for this one receptor to do all this work. And if I go down to normal physiologic levels of melatonin and this one receptor, there's just getting an occasional melatonin coming by, I'm going to be, it's no different. It doesn't matter whether I'm not producing enough, or I don't have enough receptors, it's the same end result. You have to have melatonin binders stuffing pulled into the cell to have it function.
Lisa: So can I ask one question there like, so for elderly, who, from what I understand, in my basic research on melatonin, is that their melatonin production goes down with age, and, therefore, they could benefit from melatonin supplementation. Is that a thing or?
Dr Kirk: Yeah, I agree. And so what happens is that the pineal gland calcifies just like our arteries. And every vessel, everything in our body calcifies, right. That's sort of aging.
Lisa: One of the majors.
Dr Kirk: And so it calcifies, and you do almost certainly secrete less melatonin, right? And again, the only way we would know is to drop a catheter into somebody's brain. But I'm not saying that you shouldn't take melatonin at all. I'm just saying you shouldn't take super physiologic. So his example of when you're speaking about the melatonin work earlier, right? His example is, well, this is a great antioxidant. Now, if I do these super physiologic amounts, there's all these benefits to it. Well, if I give you 10 times the amount of testosterone that your body ordinarily has, you're gonna feel fantastic. If I give you something that secretes a bunch of epinephrine and norepinephrine, like cocaine. And you have this huge rush of norepinephrine; you feel fantastic. And you're super productive, and your brain’s really sharp. Does that make that a good idea? I don't think so. I don't deal with anything super physiologic.
Again, I'm the behaviourist, and 95% of all your health is going to come from re-approximating the way you revolt. This body takes hundreds of thousands of years to adapt to this planet. And now we're just like, ‘No, we're smarter. Like I’m a 35-year-old biohacker. I read a bunch of books. I know I can do it better than–” We know nothing about the body.
Lisa: Can we all mean for people–we also know that people tend to die. If we wanted to extend our healthspan and their lifespan, but healthspan mainly, can we, with hormone replacement therapy, there's a raging argument: should you be on hormone replacement therapy, should you not? If you’re wanting to optimise. Now, there's downsides. And you need to understand your genetics, and you need to understand all of those aspects.
There is benefits for us to taking testosterone or DHEA or all these things in the right physiological doses of, say, a 30-year-old, like, I'm 50 or 52, I want to be at the level that I was, say at 30–35. I understand my genetics, I know where my risk factors are. I can keep an eye on all of that sort of stuff. Can I all meet that so that I live and function longer? Because I think the core question here is how do we optimise? Yes, we've developed like cavemen but then they die at 70–80, as well. Can we extend that with the knowledge that we currently have?
Dr Kirk: Well, so I don't ever promise anybody that I can make them live longer. I say, ‘You might live longer from this.’ If you think about it, think about it this way: at first, we talk about what sleep does, right? And if we could catch up every night, we wouldn't age. So what are we doing when we're doing things like hormone-replacement therapy? We're doing metabolomics. And we're doing all sorts of supplementation around that, or we're doing artificial things like hyperbaric, and near-far IR sauna, and ice baths, and doing all these steps to stimulate the production of the thing.
Of course, now we have antibiotics, and we have all sorts of treatments to keep people from dying as young from certain diseases. So certainly, we should be able to either, probably add years to your life. But if not, definitely we can add life to your years, right? If you're going to die at 80 either way, one version of this, you could die hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, another one you're dying in a little chair in a nursing home. So I don't know.
The question is, even with the longevity work that people are doing, really smart guys like Sinclair and all these guys are doing all these things, and they're doing all these things with clearing senescent cells, we're doing all these things with peptides. And now I give my patients peptides for certain things. I don't know nearly as much about the longevity stuff as I’d like to. And we and we're reversing aging genetically, right? We're going in there and saying, ‘Actually, over the course of a year, with a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of tries, a lot of modalities, really focusing on your lifestyle and doing everything. Ideally, we can actually, probably, reverse your genetic age a little bit.’ Are we actually reversing age? I don't know, we made your telomeres longer. The increased the methylation on your genes, and those are markers for age, does that reverse it? We don't really know, right?
Lisa: We haven’t been around long enough to work it out.
Dr Kirk: Right. It's like with omega-3s. If your omega-3s are this, then we know that certain things go this way. Well, but if we supplement your omega-3s, is that the same as you having that nutritionally. Or vitamin B3? Is that the same? We don't know. We're thinking that it probably is. And we're thinking if we're reversing the markers we know for genetic aging that's making you genetically younger. But maybe there's some totally different information in there on aging that we don't know anything about yet. That's possible, too.
I think from what I know about you, you probably agree with me. I think epigenetics is more important than genetics, anyway. You have certain genetics and you change half a dozen things about your day, and your epigenetics are totally different. If you short yourself 2 hours of sleep, you change 735 different epigenetic markers from just 2 hours. All your pro-inflammatory ones are the ones turning on, and all of your anabolic ones are the ones turning off. And again–
Lisa: That's still the biggest leverage point, isn't it?
Dr Kirk: It’s still a crazy complex to think that you can decipher what 735 changes in epigenetics mean. We have some ideas of what certain things, how does all that work in synchronicity, but even though we're the smartest animal on this planet, we still have a very feeble mind.
Lisa: We’re still dumb.
Dr Kirk: When it comes to understanding the complexity of our bodies, we can't understand the complexity of the planet, much less our bodies. And life is just this amazingly complex thing. We don't have systems in our body. We divide the body up in systems as a way to learn it so that we can systematically learn and we can test about the learning, but the body doesn't work in systems.
Lisa: I have such an issue with it, too. It's nothing like the way that the medical model breaks us all down.
Dr Kirk: The reductionist model doesn't work for life. And if you think about it, most of biology is purely descriptive. All of it is, we've come up with better and better ways to test things and look at things, and then we can describe what's going on. We don't know how to manipulate it most of the time. If we do, it's really clumsy. And it's causing 500 other changes because we wanted to flip this one switch this way. Then what are the downstream effects? We don't know. We'll find out in like 30 years after 100,000 people go through this. It's really clumsy.
I don't know if can I make somebody live longer. I'd never make that claim. But can I make people look, feel, and perform better? Absolutely. I can do it all the time. And me, personally, like you're saying, I just approximate use. Their arguments, there are people out there saying, ‘Well, these hormones will cause this or that.’ I’m like, ‘Okay. If high estrogen levels cause breast cancer, why don’t young women get breast cancer? Older women, they're the ones who are getting breast cancer, why?’ That thing with men and prostate cancer, giving them testosterone is gonna cause prostate. No, it's not. If that were true, then a 20-year-old would have prostate cancer, and a 60-year-old wouldn’t, right? It's a lack of this. And I think breast cancer is a lot like prostate cancer. What we know with prostate cancer now is that if you give somebody testosterone, and they already have prostate cancer, they’re sensitive to androgen, then you can expose them.
Lisa: You can ignite it.
Dr Kirk: Or women have found for 5 or 10 more years, maybe. I think breast cancer is the same way. And it just makes sense. And so–
Lisa: And how you clearing out your liver and all that strain, all of those things that those changes that happen, but yeah, totally.
Dr Kirk: And also, every single mechanism that I just talked about that is reversing aging, or slowing aging, or whatever the phrase you want to use. Every single one of those things is improving mitochondrial density, improving mitochondrial function, and doing– There’s a thing that’s called neovascularisation and angiogenesis. So it's improving blood supply. It's improving lymphatic flow, and it's improving mitochondrial density and mitochondrial functioning. That's pretty much health, right? I'm sorry, what was your question on—
Lisa: The mitochondrial aspect of it. I truly believe that's the core of so many of these diseases. If we can get our mitochondria, and it’s just not easy than that. And if we can get those working properly, and we can– that's the downstroke, the most lowest level where we can and again, sleep and things become the leverage point.
Dr Kirk: Right. And if you think about what all of the health crazes are moving towards, all those things are doing that, right? So the ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting, both of these things are increasing mitochondrial density. Both are increasing mitochondrial function. They’re both really anti-inflammatory. Anti-inflammatory leads to higher blood supply, better immune function. Immune function is anabolic, right? So that’s what’s repairing and building things back up. The near-far IR sauna’s doing same thing: mitochondrial density, mitochondrial functioning, hyperbaric oxygenation, decreasing cytokines, inflammatory cytokines, increasing the oxygen saturation throughout all the cells, causing new blood vessels to form, carrying more. And it's all mitochondrial density.
What else are we doing? Cold ice baths. I suppose it is trying to increase, they're going to increase your blood flow to save you from freezing, right? And how you're going to do that? It has to grow new blood vessels, and how's it got to do that? It's got to get more energy. Well, how's it going to do that? It’s got to make more mitochondria. All of this stuff. And the other thing that does is it increases things like BDNF, so it’s helping to repair and restore our brains and then that's leading to better hormone functions because our brain is the hormone master; it’s the orchestra leaders, the maestro. Your pineal gland, and pituitary, that's where everything's coming from.
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Can I ask you a little bit, because I know that you have done hyperbaric work in your naval days. And I've got a hyperbaric right behind me, there in the corner. And I'm very big on it. And it was a cornerstone of my mother's rehabilitation after a massive aneurysm and brain injury. What's your take on it in regards to brain injuries in regards to concussions, which is in epidemic levels in our world? And also for things like dementia and Alzheimer's? Without obviously, being your absolute area of expertise. But what is your take on hyperbaric for all of these things?
Dr Kirk: So I think hyperbarics is actually going to turn out to be the most effective tool in the toolbox. I think you have to use all the tools. And I have all the tools at my house. Right? I don't have hyperbarics. So I just actually came back from doing a couple of months of hyperbarics in Tampa, and I have a great recommendation for guests if you want to talk to somebody who really knows hyperbarics, and he's a longtime friend of mine. I was in the Navy with him, who's a Navy master diver, and he's just got his PhD in biomedical engineering, and he has a hyperbarics facility. He did the first research paper on the long haulers for COVID, reversing all the long hauling syndromes. He's done a paper on Lyme disease. He's doing a paper right now on dysarthria from strokes and others, and he and I were investigating brain injuries, TBI.
Lisa: Wow. I definitely want to meet this guy.
Dr Kirk: Yeah, so I was the guinea pig. And then another SEAL friend of mine. Because SEALs my age have the most problems, right? They usually are at this age. But I have my best friend from SEAL training. So he’s just my best friend overall. He was in the SEAL teams for 26 years, nearly 26,27,28 combat deployments. So he’s been blown up with a grenade, he's been blind in one eye, he’s been, in the head, 20 plus surgeries. And that's the norm. That's the norm of how guys come out when they're my age, and they stay the whole time. I don't obviously have nearly the trauma that he does. So I wanted to bring him in, too.
Much like I do with the SEALs I just said, ‘We're just going to test everything, and we're just gonna test everything we can think of.’ So I did pre- and post-EEGs, I did pre- and post-PET scans for consumption. I did–what’s it called–psycho learning batteries of tests, testing to problem solve. I did a bunch of hormone stuff. I did genetic aging before. I did all this stuff. Then I just went and did a standard protocol, which is essentially one hour at depth. So one hour bottom time at 280, at 100% oxygen, five days a week. Take Saturday and Sunday off. I did that for eight weeks.
Lisa: Yep. That’s 40-odd or 50-odd sessions, yep.
Dr Kirk: Yeah, so 40 sessions. And it’s a big commitment. It’s a big time commitment. It's expensive. But I just want to see if we can use it for the SEALs because I still do a lot of work with guys who are getting out of the SEAL teams or are out of the SEAL teams. And they break down when things are– really, really hard life. And they can’t put it in the end, they don't have their community, and they don’t have their compensatory techniques anymore. They're going to new jobs where they don't know their way around as much in there. And plus, they've been gone most of their career. Now, they're home with their wives and their kids. And it's a new thing. It's hard for them, it's super stressful. And so I do everything I can to help these guys out. And anytime there's a new modality, anybody tells me, not that hyperbarics is new, but the partial results with TBI is that we're 5, 10, 15 years old. That's a new postulate. And so we're doing our best to test that, and we're about to do it again. I'm going to go to–
Lisa: I so wanna hear the results of that, please. Because I think it's the most underrated thing that I've ever come across. And you know, and I've been studying it or a couple of years.
Dr Kirk: Absolutely.
Lisa: I know what it did to my mum. My uom went from being like a baby. No, hardly any brain function to being full driver's license, full life, full everything. She's walking and training at the gym every day. And that thing there in the corner was the catalyst for it. It gave me that stuff to do. And I've got a family member with brain injuries, I can't give him the repeated brain injuries from sport. And can't you see what this is? How powerful this is? But it's a big time commitment. Even when it's sitting in your sister's house. But it's really important that people do this and get access to this.
We just had a Sunday program, which is our current affairs, a big current affairs program on TBIs. It’s from rugby players over here, professional rugby players and how many TBIs they get in a career. And they're coming out, ending up with dementia and Alzheimer's and brain injuries and mood changes, tossed around down the toilet, and all these sorts of things. And not once did anybody say hyperbaric. And I'm just like, ‘Oh, for God's sake.’ But what do we have to do?
Dr Kirk: I don't know why we're so bad at that. And under all of the royal colonies. The Israelis and the Russians–
Lisa: The Israelis are onto it. The Russians are onto it. The Russians, the Germans are onto it
Dr Kirk: The Russians, I think of, I say they have 180-some odd approved uses. Israelis are like 116. We’re 14, and then we just added one a few months ago. And half of ours are really the same thing. It's just nuances of the same thing. It's just we don't get to use it very much. And when I was in the SEAL teams, it was super hard for me to get it for wound healing, although it's the most obvious use for it. And I would want to put guys in there after surgery. And it was like pulling teeth every single time. I had to fight them. I had to fight the machine to get guys in there. And it's a huge difference, obviously.
Lisa: Are you aware of the work of Dr Paul Harch? hbot.com is his website. He's done a hell of a lot in the hyperbaric space. Check him out. H-a-r-c-h, Dr Paul Harch, real expert in this area. And just on that point on about the machine, the medical machinery that we have, in our Western world, in New Zealand, it’s very similar to the States. What the hell are they doing? Why are we still in this preventive, in this disease-based system? Where we are only, like you were talking about, ranges before and these guys are still in the normal ranges, but they were having symptoms. Thyroid is another classic example of people that have not been picked up.
I've just been through a journey, which my listeners know, with my father who developed sepsis after a massive operation, and I won't go into the details. But I was trying to get intravenous vitamin C, and he was dying. And I couldn't. They had no other options where I've got this. I've got scientist friends, doctors who have given me the clinical evidence to proceed these to the ethics committees and all these things while I'm fighting for his life, and he's dying in front of my eyes. And I'm not allowed to give him intravenous vitamin C, which has been shown in a number of clinical studies to drop the mortality rate by 40%–50%, and I wasn't allowed to do it.
I'm just like, ‘What the heck is going wrong with our system?’ I wonder, right? But it took me 15 days. And by the way, my dad had multiple organ failure, and I lost the battle for him. The system is just– I'm getting, I'll get off my soapbox in a minute. But why is somebody who's been through the medical, the standard medical, and then gone out and done your own? Where are they going wrong? And is there a paradigm shift coming? Can you see a change coming?