Episode 49 | Dr. John Day | Still Thriving at 100!
Kathy Smith: John, welcome to the show.
John Day: Thank you so much for having me on. I’m a big fan of your podcast, and I love the work that you’re doing.
Kathy Smith: Well, thank you. I think the genius about your book is that it tells the story about life in these tiny villages and the lessons that you learned from the people. Tell me, when you walked into the town–when you’re heading there, kind of put us in that place. You’re heading to China. You’ve now, from what I understand–I’m sure the audience is going to want to hear this–how you convinced your wife to go with you. Or maybe she convinced you, but you had to get to this small community. Give us your first impressions. What was it like on the way over there and when you got there?
John Day: I regularly travel to China. I’m one of the few Caucasian physicians who is able to give his cardiac lectures in China and, so, I’m frequently there representing medical societies at the big meetings. They shared with me about this place – this longevity belt in China, which is in the southwest portion of the country very near the Vietnam border, where they just live this remarkably long, healthy lives free of chronic diseases.
In fact, at the epicenter of this longevity belt is this village – the Longevity Village, or Bapan, which has the highest known percentage of centenarians in the world. As the colleagues in China shared this with me on many journeys and being a western physician, western trained scientifically trained, I had to try to dig down deeper and see if it was really true and read through all the medical studies and the Chinese medical literature and the English medical literature.
As I learned more and I felt like I wanted to go there, I shared this with my wife and not knowing what I was going to hear. She basically said, “Well, let’s go.” Then, I proceeded to give her reasons why it’s hard to leave, etc. So, we packed up our whole family and we went on many journeys as a family every summer over this five-year project of this research, looking into this. We’d take our families to this remote part of China and live there and interact with the people and live among them and learn of their ways.
Kathy Smith: When you went to this village, did you think that there was going to be one special herb or a food or a magic elixir or something that they were taking that would extend life and increase their energy and improve brain health? Did you think it was the one magic pill?
John Day: I certainly was very curious. What’s their secret sauce? Personally, I thought they probably had some special gene, a magic gene that somehow it was all in their genes that allowed them to live these remarkable lives. So, that was my initial assumption. When we went there–and certainly we were looking. Was it in the water? Was it in the food? Was it here or there? We looked at all their genes and over this five-year course of time, we analyzed the genes of all the centenarians and you know what, Kathy? We have that they have the same genes that we have. Many of them had genes that would have predicted cancer or dementia or cardiovascular disease. But they didn’t get it.
There was something about the lifestyle that silenced those genes. And there wasn’t any special food. There wasn’t anything secret about it. It really just came with living the way our bodies were designed to live.
Kathy Smith: Basically, it means that your DNA is not your destiny, that you do have a choice in the matter of turning your genes on and off, which is a good message for all of us. Because I think so many of us go back to, “Oh, my. We have heart disease in my family,” or “I have cancer in my family and, so, I’m destined to get it.” So, this is good news for all of us if we follow some of the lessons that you learned there.
So, why don’t we jump in? I have the lesson–there are seven of them in your book. You have a fascinating book. I love the layout. It reads like a novel, but it has textbook material in there. Of the seven, I have ones that I want to focus on. Do you have a preference on where you want to start on the seven?
John Day: I think wherever you want to jump in, I’m good with it. So, wherever you’d like to start.
Kathy Smith: I want to start with food, because I found a really interesting story about how you set down with the oldest gentleman of the village. I think he was about 114 years at the time. Bapan or something? No.
John Day: Boxin was his name. Bapan was the village.
Kathy Smith: That’s right. He says, “Let’s eat.” So, you sit down and, then, on the table there is a soup of some sort. It doesn’t sound that appetizing the way you talk about it in the book, because it’s a grayish, milkish tone or something like that. But this is the soup that they supposedly eat every day or frequently. So, tell us about the soup.
John Day: This is what’s called Longevity Soup. When I first saw it, you’re right, it’s kind of a milky, brownish type color. They would serve this to us frequently at lunch time. I thought it was strange and I asked them about it and they said, “Yes, this is called Longevity Soup,” and it was part of their regular diet. I was fascinated with it.
By about our third or fourth journey to this village, we had to learn how to make it. So, they taught us how to make it. The interesting thing is that it’s very simple. That is really a metaphor for health and our lives. It really comes down to simplicity.
With this, the ingredients are really quite simple. It has ground up hemp seeds and there are pumpkin greens. That milky substance that we saw is really just from the hemp seeds. And it’s a beautiful thing. While I have learned to acquire a taste for it, that’s really what life comes down to. It’s just making a few simple decisions. Simple habits can yield tremendous results.
Kathy Smith: What do you think it is about the hemp that was so–what nutrients are in it that make it so special, so unique?
John Day: With the soup, you do get some great nutrition. Hemps seeds, for example, are high in the plant-based Omega 3s. So, you’re getting the healthy fats, you’re getting a complete protein, you’re getting that. You’re also getting greens. We all know how important greens are for optimal health. But it wasn’t just the soup. It’s so much more. The food that they ate, it’s real food. Nothing was processed. There was no sugar and, so, consequently, their [no audio 12:37 to 12:45].
Kathy Smith: Another aspect that you talk about in the book that’s very popular right now–it’s in the media. Everybody’s talking about intermittent fasting and this idea of having periods of time where you’re not eating. I found it fascinating that this is something that you found that they practice on a regular basis there. Can you tell us about it?
John Day: Intermittent fasting, there are two ways that it came about here in this village. One is not by choice. These people are poor, hand farmers in remote China. They had to deal with over 20 years of the Chinese revolution, over 20 years of failed Chairman Mao economic policies that starved most of the countryside nearly to death. And, so, there were periods where just wasn’t enough food. So, in some cases, it was forced upon them.
Fortunately, there were a lot of wild fruits, wild vegetables that they could forage but, still, they had periods of intermittent fasting not by choice. But, then also, their natural ways – they would have an early, light dinner and, then, they would go through the night. They wouldn’t have that pre-bedtime snack and they would eat again the next morning. That is their way.
So, even during times of plenty, like today, they will go 12, 14, 15, 16 hours naturally without food to allow their body that chance to reset and a lot of the repair genes to kick in place.
Kathy Smith: Yeah, I actually had the opportunity to interview Dr. Valter Longo on the show on his research on intermittent fasting. I think it’s really quite fascinating, this idea of how the body, if left to its own devices, will go in and clean up things if you just give it a chance. Part of giving it a chance is shutting down that digestive system, that process.
You have an interesting way of explaining it in your book, and I hope you can share it with our viewers. I read it again last night because it makes so much sense. You said something and I won’t say the whole thing, but you put something in your mouth and whatever. It’s one food you put in your mouth, a lot of enzymes, a lot of processes have to start occurring as it goes down into your stomach and you start to digest. Now, when you’re putting a lot of things in–now I’m going to turn it over to you–because I find that fascinating.
John Day: Food is so much more than just nutrients, but it’s really information or sending messages to the myriad of enzyme metabolic pathways, hormonal pathways, genetic links and structures. So, what we eat can set off a cascade of events either for our healing or to take us down the path of which so many Americans, unfortunately, suffer with these chronic medical conditions. So, food is really where it all starts. That’s why we started with it in the first chapter, because that’s also the area where most people struggle with. There’s so many shoulds, coulds, woulds, guilt and shame around it. It doesn’t have to be that way. Food is a beautiful thing, and by eating real, we can get that desired effect to our bodies.
Kathy Smith: Was their diet mainly plant-based?
John Day: It was. The interesting thing is vegetables were a part of everything. Even their breakfast, you would see greens. They would have greens as part of their breakfast and lunch and dinner. But it was more than that. There were a lot of nuts and seeds, and there are these small, oily fish which are high in Omega 3s that they would eat once or twice a week.
Now, dairy was largely absent mainly because they were such poor people, and if you had a cow, it would have been confiscated by marauding armies during the Chinese Revolution or corrupt communist officials in the early Chairman Mao days when the country was starving. And, then also, most of the Han Chinese–in fact, 94% of them are lactose deficient, so even if they did have it, it didn’t settle well with them.
Meat – they would have loved to have eaten a lot of meat but, unfortunately, because they were so poor, meat was really a celebration. Other than the fish which they can pull out of their river, they would eat a pig at Chinese New Year and if there was a festival or wedding.
The way they would eat pork is a lot different than we do. It’s nose to tail eating. They ate everything on the animal and I mean everything. So, it was a different way of eating, but it was mostly plant-based. The important thing is there was no added sugar, nothing was processed.
Kathy Smith: Hopefully, they can maintain that type of lifestyle. I know things are changing the village now. With more and more people coming to discover the ways of the village, they’re bringing in some of the Western ways of eating, and I would assume they probably have a little bit more access to sugar and some more of the processed foods now. Are you seeing them jumping in and eating these types of things or are they sticking with their traditional diet?
John Day: Sadly, they are following our pathway as well. It’s really a shame. This is something that we watch. For example, on our first visit to the village in 2012, Coca Cola didn’t exist there. By the following year, in 2013 on our visit, Coca Cola had invaded this village and they love the taste. Now, they’re getting processed foods.
Because these foods are designed to manipulate our dopamine response and all these other pathways and, so, they’re highly addictive. It’s hard for people to refuse these. What these people had that served them well for millennia is that they were geographically cut off from the rest of China and the rest of the world and, here, in the last 10 years and the recent highway that has come into the village, that’s all changed. As such, they are now going down our pathway, and it’s so sad.
As a cardiologist, I’m watching this heart attack, in slow motion, developing from the younger generation. Now, the older generations still follow the traditional way, but the younger generation is embracing this new Western diet.
Kathy Smith: It’s interesting when you go off anywhere, like when I went to Greece this year or on many of my travels. When people go away, they’re relaxed, they’re in stress-free zones. They can many times walk more, get into the rhythm of the city, but we live in a society where people are trying to accomplish, they’re trying to achieve, they’re juggling a lot of different things.
So, as I go through and we talk a little bit more about the seven principles, one of the things I want to focus on is how do you take something from a remote village and, then, bring it back to your hometown to your particular situation and personalize it–[echo correction 00:20:48 to 00:21:00]–and personalize it for your unique situation and, also, when you’re being pulled and tugged and being pulled in all sorts of different directions? Having said that, I know you also did a four-month program when you came back and you did take people in the United States through this program and, then, you have taken patients through it. What kind of success have you had?
John Day: That was initially a challenge, and many of your listeners may be thinking, “Wow, I would love to go to this Shangri-La and breathe the air and do what they do.” And, yes, you’re right. As you pull people out of their natural environment into healthier environments, changes will occur. Things are also changing in the village, not for the better, now as they’re becoming more and more modernized. But the principles are timeless.
And, yes, in my cardiology practice, at least 80% of the patients that I see every day, sadly they’re there to see me because of lifestyle-related complications. Our bodies can compensate when we’re younger, but once you get past your 40s, it all starts catching up with you. But it can be done.
I did, in fact, take a large group of patients, and for four months, I worked with them. I connected with them daily. We met weekly, encouraging, creating – if you will – a new environment even in the middle of their busy lives here in the U.S. And 92% of these patients were able to follow this. It was so gratifying to see how so many of my patients were getting off of their medications one by one, watching their heart disease and some of these other things go into remission. It was really, truly miraculous to watch this. But it can be done. How do you do it?
We’ve already talked about food – eating real food. Being physically active is so much more than just going to [no audio 00:23:04 to 00:23:06] throughout the day. It’s having meaningful social connections with family and friends every day. It’s finding ways to embrace your stress, living more mindful, being grateful. These are simple things that we can all do that yield tremendous health benefits.
Kathy Smith: Yeah, it sounds like this idea of moving every day and not through group exercise but through just daily work activities, walking. It’s such an important lesson, because I do think we have this idea. My career is kind of built on it. Buy a video, go home, do an exercise plan or go to the gym and work out for 30 minutes. Then, we tend to go and sit in our chairs for the next eight hours and, then, maybe get off the chair and, then, go home and make dinner and watch a little TV and, then, go to bed.
The idea that I read in your book and this idea that you’re walking, you’re doing and you’re in the garden, you’re on the farm, you’re in the village, your caring and all those activities that keep us in motion. I like that concept.
There was another concept you talked about and I wanted you to elaborate. It’s “Find Your Rhythm” – one of your seven points. What does that mean – find your rhythm?
John Day: This is something you won’t see in most health books. Perhaps it’s coming from a cardiologist. As a cardiologist, I specialize in keeping hearts in rhythm. When I see patients, whose hearts are out of rhythm, hearts beating too fast, too slow, irregular, more often than not, it’s almost a metaphor to their lives. As their hearts have come out of rhythm, their lives, too, are in some aspect out of rhythm. There are natural rhythms of life that we need to honor, and our genes are designed around those.
For example, one such is circadian rhythm. In fact, the studies have shown that people who live outside of their circadian rhythm – shift workers, people who work the graveyard shift, traveling salespeople – they have some of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer anywhere. In fact, just one night of altered sleep can activate 711 genes, not in the direction you want them to go.
Also, mealtime. Eating regular meals on a regular basis at regular set times is huge. We’re just learning the data about that.
It’s getting natural light, real light during the day and cutting off the artificial light at night. Living the ways our lives were designed to live, living lives in rhythm can allow our hearts and all the other organ systems to our body to also follow that same natural rhythm of health.
Kathy Smith: That makes so much sense. I know for myself when I get off my cycle and I have to stay up late–for instance, in Park City right now, we have a festival called Sundance. It’s so much fun. I had six guests in town for Sundance. Can I tell you? I stayed up way past my bedtime, and I paid the price.
But at least, I learned from my holistic doctor years and years ago, if you’re going to step outside your circadian rhythms, give yourself permission. Then, almost honor that you have to get back in very quickly if you want to stay in the healthy zone. My body talks to me very quickly, and if I get tired, if I get rundown, I usually typically get sick.
I know we all push ourselves to keep going with caffeine and chocolate and all kinds of stimulants and, once again, when you erase that and when you get away from the computer, you get away from this unnatural light and just get into bed at a decent hour, man, does it make a difference in the way I feel the next day. So, it’s such a good lesson.
The other good lesson is about being social, and I know as we get older, I know it becomes a big problem, this idea of loneliness, feeling separated. Maybe you’re going into thinking of retiring, and retirement sounds great for about three months and, then, all of sudden, it’s, “What am I going to do with the rest of life?”
Also, with the divorce rate being so high, you find people living alone. I do see that that’s a problem here in the United States, and I notice that one of your principles is about being connected to the community and having this positive outlook or this positive outlook on life. I don’t know. Have you found that people get more positive or negative as they get older?
John Day: It depends. But it’s actually surprising. A lot of the research suggests that people become happier as they get older and, to many of us here in the West, it seems counterintuitive. Here, in this village, it’s such a natural thing.
I like what you said about retirement. We all dream of an early retirement and living, relaxing on the beach. You’re right. We will probably enjoy that for a period of time but, then, it gets old really fast. We have to have that reason, that purpose, that why. In fact, in my cardiology practice, I’ve noticed over the years that the most dangerous day in a man’s life is the day he retires.
Women seem to do a lot better, because they’re more socially connected. But for so many men, their purpose, their whole social circle all revolves around their work, their sense of identity. It has to be replaced.
Studies now show that when you look at your risk of premature death, that social isolation or loneliness is a bigger predictor of an early death than even smoking or obesity. There’s something there – having a group. We’re talking about real connection. We’re not talking about Facebook friends, but we’re talking about someone that if you’re having a struggle in life that you can confide in. It’s really a shame how so many Americans, now, if you look at studies, don’t even have somebody that they can confide in as they are struggling in life. So, whether it’s a family member, whether it’s a spouse, whether it’s a friend, whether it’s somebody at a church group, a social group, it doesn’t matter. We’re social creatures. There’s something about social connection that has a positive effect on our genes.
Kathy Smith: I find that over and over again with people that I’ve worked with through the years, one of the things that I do love about exercise, I’ve just signed up for a Mother’s Day half-marathon, which by the way, I haven’t done that kind of running in a long time.
But my daughter called me and said, “Why don’t we try to do this together? We’ll plan the training. We’ll plan the eating. We’ll plan the whole process.”
That in it itself, and it’s so funny, that little move of saying, “Oh, no. What am I signing up for?” to the, “Oh, yeah. I get to hang out with all these fun people and family and friends, and we’re going to train together for a common cause, for a common good.”
I think that’s the type of thing that I’m always suggesting to people. Find something that gives you a sense of purpose on a daily basis, on a weekly and a monthly basis. It sounds like this is one of your seven steps.
John Day: I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I love combining physical activity with family time. That’s something we try to do. It’s interesting your daughter said that to you, because just yesterday, my son told me, “Dad, I want to run the
Mid-Mountain Marathon again with you this year. When can we start training?”
It’s such a beautiful thing, because I’m now in my 50s and I’m doing this. But if my son had asked me to run a marathon with him in my mid-40s, there’s no way I could have done that with an autoimmune disease, with 10 other health conditions and I was overweight and all these other things. I couldn’t do that anymore. But that is the beautiful thing of living in tune of the way with our bodies. We can enjoy those things. There’s no limit, there’s no end to it. And that’s something that we enjoy doing. My boys love running the Mid-Mountain Marathon in Park City with me every summer. It’s something we look forward to now.
Kathy Smith: That’s so exciting. Of course, now you’ve one-upped me. I think I’m going to have to go from the half to–not that I’m competitive or anything, but the half to–no, that’s fantastic.
John Day: I can never keep up with you with what you do in the gym. My wife has your DVDs, so I’ve seen what you’re capable of.
Kathy Smith: Thank you so much for being with me today. I think the big take-away for me was that when you went to China, you weren’t looking for miracles that could extend life. Rather, you were just trying to figure out the wisdom and find out the wisdom of the people that live there. Along the way, you discovered and learned about these seven principles, which you put into the book, which you write about so eloquently in the book – The Longevity Plan. Once again, the seven principles are: eat good food, master your mindset, build your place in a positive community, be in motion, which I love, find your rhythm, make the most of your environment and proceed with purpose.
Obviously, these are all lessons that we can all incorporate. Now, regardless of your [no audio 00:33:28], you can start with [no audio 00:33:31] people, you can start with–I think it’s hard to start with all of them, but pick one and just start to incorporate them slowly over the course of months or years into your lifestyle. That’s how I feel, and I’ve seen people make big changes in their life. Don’t feel overwhelmed by trying to do it all at once.
Thank you so much. You’ve been delightful, wonderful and so informative. I can’t wait to hear your upcoming lecture that you’re going to be at the Liberal Center at Intermountain Hospital. So, we’ll talk more about that in the liner notes of where people can find you and how they can come to the lecture.
John Day: Excellent. I’m so looking forward to it and it’ll be great to connect with you in person again.
Kathy Smith: Ok. Thanks so much, John. Bye-bye now.
John Day: Bye-bye.