Book Review: The Cancer Code

The Cancer Code by Jason Fung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Nobody loves codes as much as iconoclast physician Jason Fung. This is his third code so far. Though it’s easy to suppose they’d be spiritual successors the Robert Langdon trilogy of shitty mystery novels, Doc Fung instead focuses his energy on street-teaming for intermittent fasting and pushing low-carb paleo living without ever saying the word “paleo”, for which we’re all grateful.

Now, full disclosure, I haven’t read the Diabetes Code, but my high IQ and longtime Rick and Morty enjoyment makes me pretty good at recognizing patterns, so I’m still going to take a stab at cracking all three codes for you, right now, to save you the thousand or so pages it would take to assemble the whole picture of “the Wellness Code”, which apparently contains the cancer code, but neither the diabetes nor obesity code. Fung moves in mysterious ways. Coded ways.

Here’s the Konami code to health: Insulin is the devil. Minimize insulin exposure, maximize everything else from disease resilience to longevity to looking sleek and sexual at the beach.

Fung’s money is where his mouth is. I googled him, and he looks pretty ripped, especially for a doctor. He’s not massive or anything, not like that one doctor on Instagram who keeps trying to sell you special rubber bands to use in place of weights. All other things constant, I could beat up Dr. Fung, but I would never, as he inspires me.

The Cancer Code details the sordid history of attempting to treat cancer and its repeated, catastrophic failures. It’s implied that cancer is a disease of civilization, as outside of agrarian societies it’s rare to the point of mythical. Immunotherapy seems to be the most effective, if the least profitable, treatment option, but Jason Fung gently suggests (as most of my favorite practicing scientists, psychologists, and medical professionals tend to) that we don’t know shit about dick and consequently fall back on tried-and-true Hail Marys like radio- and chemotherapy, which poisons everything in hopes of killing the cancer.

Cancer is a disease of irregular cell growth. Normally, cell growth is a pretty good thing, but only if the cells cooperate with what is expected of them within the confines of the tissue they comprise. Cancer is the wires getting crossed and the cells in, say, the liver deciding that cooperation is too chancy and they’ll go it alone from here. The cells revert from eukaryotic function to a more primitive, prokaryotic function, remembered in the DNA from back in the days when each cell was fighting for its own life. And that’s what cancer is. These cells grow and propagate individually as fast as they can, sabotaging and consuming the surrounding cells (who are still being team players). The meme of cellular primeval psychopathy bounces all over the body, setting up satellite colonies, and that’s metastasis. Since these cells only care about individual survival now, the health of the organism isn’t taken into account, and it typically dies, taking the newly expanded cancer empire with it.

So how do we protect against cellular mutiny? As in most nutrition books, the message refines to Michael Pollan’s dietary dictum: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Doc Fung is always pushing intermittent fasting, so that’s step one. After that, low carb. Step 2. Get some exercise, the human body needs to move. Step 3. Voila. You’re… not quite cancerproof, but you just improved your chances enormously.

Here’s the why.

He repeatedly likens cancer to a sort of weed that grows in the garden of your body. The thing is, it needs specific soil conditions and nutrients to take root and strangle out the rest of the garden. The most important of these conditions, these specialized weed-foods, is IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor, released whenever we have an insulin response. The more insulin circulating in our system, the more IGF-1 comes with it. Insulin is pivotal for growth and development, especially for things like protein synthesis, testosterone production, and building muscle. We need some insulin, but we need it to serve its purpose.

Keeping the body perpetually inundated with insulin causes all sorts of stupid, avoidable problems, and it turns out cancer is a major one of them. A nonstop stream of IGF-1 keeps cells growing, and growing, and growing, and as soon as one flips the switch and decides it would do better on its own, baby, you a got a tumor goin’.

Caloric restriction, weight loss, and increased insulin sensitivity all help to shrink tumors, sometimes pushing them into full remission. Cancer needs insulin to grow. Burn the granaries and starve the empire.

Intermittent fasting becomes a magic bullet in this situation because not only does your insulin sensitivity improve when you phase out snacking, 16+ hours of fasting promotes increased autophagy, which is sort of like defragmenting your hard drive, if your hard drive was your body. Autophagy means “eating your own damn self” and it’s like a concerted effort within your body of looking for dying, damaged, or junk cells, then catabolizing them into component proteins and energy, potentially stopping fledgling cancer before it has a chance to foment rebellion.

It was a truly fascinating book, and a talisman against the 21st century’s answer to the Grim Reaper. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of ironic that he carried a wheat scythe.




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Book Review: Paleo for Beginners

Paleo for Beginners: Essentials to Get Started by John Chatham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


It could have been a pamphlet.

At no point is the paleo diet ever discussed in any detail, or any reasons provided why it’s a logical, or even sensical choice. This one’s like an arbitrary rulebook that makes vague, buzzwordy reference to things like “blood sugar” and “bad cholesterol” and expecting you to take that at face value, then condemning milk and beans without making any sort of explanation for why that isn’t on paleo.

And then, the “recipes”.

Cook a fish! And some vegetables! Delicious fish and vegetables, serves 4.

Craving steak? Grill a steak! And some vegetables! You won’t go back to eating anything other than meat and vegetables after you try THIS paleo classic!

Do you miss pancakes? Smash a bunch of bananas and eggs together! That’s “batter”, now. Just fry it up in olive oil because butter is dairy! Whatever! Just like the cavemen!

On some dumb.

Two stars because it made me hungry for trail mix, so I made my own trail mix, which rules.



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Book Review: Go Wild

Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization by John J. Ratey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


One of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. The idea is that humans are wild animals, and for all the trappings of civilization we wrap ourselves in, we’re still running the old jungle OS. We’re primitive creatures with primitive drives trying to force ourselves into the shape demanded by a modern world, and it’s making us fat, sick, and crazy.

The concept is a sort of natural expansion of Freud’s suggestion from Civilization and its Discontents, but less pseudoscientific and quacky. Freud said we’re animals. So did the Bloodhound Gang, in their seminal 1999 treatise “Bad Touch”. According to Siggy, the root of all neurosis is our superego trying to cram our id into the acceptable conduct box, so We might continue to Live In A Society.

Ratey says the same thing in more modern and empirical terms. Evolution programmed us over the last couple million years to exercise constantly, socialize constantly, eat huge quantities of fats, and maintain a state of mindfulness (which is just awareness of our surroundings so we don’t get eaten by bears). Our stress was immediate, and faded as soon as the danger was gone.

Flash forward to the present day. The most physically fit among us exercise seven or eight hours a week. We live in privacy boxes with immediate family or a couple roommates, who we tend to avoid because of how stressful talking to people at work or school is. Most of what we eat is corn and sugar. We don’t have time to be aware of our surroundings due to the constant hyperstimulus beaming a stream of shining blue data from the attention-hog computer we keep in our pockets, directly into our frontal lobes. We are mad at our computers because someone said something WRONG about VIDEO GAMES on the INTERNET, and we maintain a constant high-boil of cortisol because the tried and true tactic of “sprint until you escape” doesn’t work on student loan debt.

The answer? Knock it off.

The first book I read by Ratey was Spark, which changed the way I looked at exercise. I’ve always been obsessive about it (I tend to be hyperactive to a point just south of mania, Jackie Chan snap-kicking out of bed a few seconds before my alarm goes off), but I didn’t realize the effect it has on mental health and hormone profile. Most of what ails you, regular exercise will cure. Present research suggests that in trials for treatment of depression, anxiety, and ADHD, daily cardio worked as well or better than medication in terms of treatment. So naturally, that’s what they lead with in Go Wild: get off your ass and get your heart pumping, remind your body it’s alive.

Then comes groundbreaking life advice like “Zebra Cakes aren’t dinner”, “Sleep regularly”, and “Talk to people you like, in real life”.

I’m doing it a disservice with the pithy summary, but it’s an amazing book, and one I took my time reading because I didn’t want it to be over.

SECOND READ:
Read it again. I was right the first time, although now that I’m older and wiser I can recognize some of the reaching Ratey did in the last few chapters. A lot of the evidence was anecdotal there and instead of providing sources or studies he was like, “Try it! You’ll like it!”

I also found myself getting a little defensive when he talked about his other psychiatrist friend who insisted that PTSD therapy didn’t work and qualified it as “yakking”. So how do you resolve a lifetime of the collected, complex trauma from childhood physical and sexual abuse? Just go ahead and dance it right out. Join a Zumba and all those scars will evaporate. Oh, and slam down a handful of these super special drugs every day, of course.

I was going to write “get fucked, van der Kolk”, but in googling what the hell his name actually is I found out that he initially formulated the PTSD diagnosis and has been researching it for 50 years. He’s an authority, and pretending I know better based on my own anecdotal treatment experiences would be disingenuous, especially considering how often I push physically active coping skills on my clients.

The bleedover is van der Kolk tends to focus on ritualized movement methods within cultures like dancing, shamanic and wildly boolin’ religious practices (Shaker/Quaker style), and ancient Greek theater. A lot of these things included elements of psychotherapy right in them. Catholic confession is the most on-the-nose example, but exercises like shamanic soul retrieval have persisted largely unchanged into modern psychotherapeutic practice, so maybe our man has a point. I’ll give you this round, van der Kolk, and I’ll read The Body Keeps the Score someday.




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Book Review: The Furious Method

The Furious Method: Transform your Mind, Body and Goals by Tyson Fury

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Hands down, the best depression book I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot of depression books. Especially for being such a happy-go-lucky fella.

I picked this up expecting it to be a diet book. Tyson Fury lost 10 stone, which means 140 lbs in units used by real people. He mentioned in interviews he did so via “Dirty Keto” which meant a bunch of eggs, sausage, and Diet Coke, for some reason. Health and wellness book, written by a pro athlete who had just lost a manlet worth of weight in preparation for a championship match, it’s reasonable to assume the book would be about nutrition and exercise.

And in a way, it was, but only as a vehicle to battle depression. The Furious Method is the best compendium of practical coping skills I’ve found. It’s part self-help instruction manual, part mental health confessional, part autobiography, but the whole thing is done with a directness, an honesty, and a compassion I found totally disarming.

I didn’t know a lot about Tyson Fury before picking up this book. I knew he was a 270 lb British heavyweight champion who looked like an ogre but didn’t fight like one. I knew he stressed fundamentals and finesse. And I know he goes by “Gypsy King”, which I don’t think I’m even allowed to say, but I also know it’s a title earned by beating up all challengers within the traveller community. Yeah, you go ahead and tell him he’s cancelled.

So I naturally assumed this lumpy monolith was going to be a braying oaf. I was mistaken. He’s down-to-earth, eloquent, and a hell of a writer. The book is a forthright account of his struggle with bipolar depression and addiction, and exactly what was going through his mind at his highest highs and lowest lows. It’s a book that needed to be written, and a powerful blow against the stigma surrounding mental illness. There’s this lingering Puritanical boomer belief that if you got the depresso you suck it up and tough it out and you don’t talk about it. Don’t be a pussy. Well, Tyson Fury is the heavyweight champion of the world, and he’s a real piss-and-vinegar fighter, none of that slick cherrypicked Mayweather trash. If he struggles with mental illness, then it’s not strictly the purview of pussies, huh?

The advice is salt-of-the-earth, direct, and clinically accurate. Exercise. Eat well. Sleep enough. Get outside. Push yourself to do it. Reach out and get help. It’s the stuff we all know, but nobody really takes seriously, like mom telling you to make sure you wear a coat. Yeah, yeah.

Well, it’s fuckin cold out. Wear the coat.

If you’ve ever dealt with depression, I urge you to read this book, and do what it says. You can probably skip the My First Warmup sections of every chapter, but replace them with some other kind of functional cardiovascular exercise, because that is deadass THE way to beat depression. The studies have demonstrated, conclusively, that it works as well as or better than all those magic pills they keep heaving into our collective mouths like the Big Bertha arcade game.

Great book. Great fighter. Great dude. Yeah, okay, so he’s British. We all have our shortcomings.




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Book Review: Breath

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have a favorite class of book, which I refer to lovingly as “my ungabunga bullshit” that usually consists of nutritional or fitness claims drawing on shaky evolutionary science to advance an agenda that, ultimately and disappointingly, leads to pawning supplement placebos. Despite how insulting to the intelligence these tactics are, I can’t help but love the paleo quasi-science they’re pushing. Pull virtually anything from the Joe Rogan recommended reading list and you’ve got a 1 in 3 chance of stumbling on the kind of literature I’m talking about.

These books usually lean heavily on anecdotal evidence (like the entire Carnivore diet), or what we believe may have been how primitive man lived based on the fossil record and modern hunter-gatherer societies (like the Primal Blueprint or the Awakened Ape), and they universally reference our man Weston Price, peregrine dentist, and his discoveries on the miraculous effects of not eating carbohydrates (Good Calories, Bad Calories, the Obesity Code, anything keto or paleo related, et cetera ad nauseum).

I might sound dismissive, but it comes from a place of love. I like what they’re pushing, but I know the limitations of the science and I resent them trying to sucker me into buying “Primal Calm” sugar pills, especially with them saying, in the same breath, that sugar is the Great Western Devil.

In the same breath, bringing us back to the topic at hand. James Nestor is a journalist with disastrous dentition and a mouthbreathing habit that has left him, to hear him tell it, physically deformed. He looked like a normal dude to me, but maybe that’s the problem. Breath takes the same tone and theme as the rest of my ungabunga bullshit books, but rather than suggesting that the answer is “shit in a squatting position and deny the Demon Wheat”, Breath suggests that all of our problems, as highlighted by Price’s hundred year old tribal dentistry journals, are caused by the fact that we breathe through our mouths (and, to a lesser extent, don’t chew enough).

The science is young, but the few studies he referenced seemed legit. A lot of the book was more of a memoir of him serving as guinea pigs in these breathing experiments alongside crazed foreigners who were likewise convinced that proper breathing was the key to immortality, with the craziest and most foreign being Wim Hof, just for context.

I was especially intrigued by the perfect sociopath with the damaged amygdala experiencing fear for the first time in her life when forced to breath carbon dioxide at greater concentrations than usual, which is an effect mimicked in the body by “overbreathing” or not fully pushing the air from your diaphragm on the exhale. The exercise studies suggesting greater athletic capacity when breathing properly (that is, through the nose and emptying the lungs) were interesting, but highly anecdotal, and relied too much on the emotional language of the participants for my own comfort.

There’s also the whole Mewing thing, the glue that holds this collection of yoga techniques and self-report questionnaires together, and that isn’t empirically tested either.

End of the day, there’s not much in Breath that qualifies as actual science. On the same token, “breathe deeply and close your mouth, you stupid animal” isn’t bad advice. It’s like that folk wisdom you hear so much about.



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Book Review: Deep Nutrition

Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional FoodDeep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food by Catherine Shanahan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A cute doctor’s lengthy exposition about how eating actual food will make you healthy and cute.

Well, maybe not cute, she clears that up in the beginning of the book when she talks about how she was a lanky teenage distance runner who subsisted entirely on spaghetti. It worked well enough to keep her crossing finish lines, right up until it didn’t, and her leg fell apart. Bedridden and busted-ass, she started tweaking her diet and noticed the more real food she ate – meat, vegetables, cheeses, the good stuff – and the less refined sugar and Demon Wheat she allowed into the gangly, crooked temple of her body, the faster her recovery.

Doc Cate threw herself full force into studying the effects of nutrition on the body and, by extension, genetics, and came up with some beautifully problematic conclusions that I will outline with great relish.

The human body was designed to eat a specific kind of diet, and that kind of diet, along with regular exercise and adequate sleep, allows it to grow tall, strong, and hardy, all of which it’s supposed to be. Failing to get the nutrition required by the human blueprint results in errors in genotype and more readily visible phenotype programming.

In utero, these errors can cause catastrophic physical deformity like limbs not working or babies born without eyes or whatever. Shanahan also suggests a causal factor between poor prenatal nutrition and functional/neurological disorders, like ADHD and autism. She justifies this with a quick crash course in genetics.

I’m not smart enough to know real genetics. A psychology degree gives you roughly the same credibility in pure scientific fields as having a Top Member badge on the I Fucking Love Science! facebook, so I was thankful Doc Shanahan laid it out in a way that slack-jawed layfolk like myself could understand.

Coded into your genetic schematics, you have the potential for genes that do virtually everything, and interact with each other to increase or decrease likelihood of things like red hair, height, a full and luscious beard, tig ol’ biddies, et cetera. The coding is there no matter what, but whether or not a particular trait is activated is dependent on environmental factors. She likens it to toggling a switch on and off.

So our genome is full of these on/off switches for things like green eyes, clubfeet, proneness to addiction, or heart disease. Depending on what we eat, how much we move, what kind of movement we do, how much we rest, and how we manage our stress, some of these switches get turned on and some of them get turned off.

In an ideal situation, which is always a hunter gatherer society in this type of books, assuming ready access to a dependable animal protein supply, the toggles for “tall, strong, and hot” are going to be switched on. Most of the toggles for most cancer and heart disease are going to be switched off, and the toggles for diseases like diabetes and arthritis are going to be virtually nonexistent.

Horrifying, right? She goes on about physical attractiveness for most of the book, arguing that it remains one of the most reliable markers for physical and genetic health. Wrongthink in the extreme. You can’t just say uggos are more likely to suffer physical and mental illnesses, rate themselves as less happy, and wind up in jail, no matter what kind of research you’ve got supporting it. It’s 2020, dude. We’re all equally beautiful at any size/shape/mineral deficit.

And for the rest of the book, she issues a throaty, sustained Valkyrie war cry leveled against shills like that vegan doctor (Dornish, I think his name is), the vegetable oil industry, Big Agriculture, and that son of a bitch Ancel Keys.

She’s pretty mad about sugar and grain, which is normal for these kind of books, but she is absolutely livid about vegetable oil. She talks about the effects the trans-fats have on the arterial walls, resembling proteins that we use but functionally serving as trojan horses for compounds we can’t (deadass, it’s just poison), then sticking that along our cell membranes and functionally “deep frying us” from the inside out. And then that gets blamed on healthy foods like butter and meat, because our entire country runs on corn subsidization.

I was going to give it four stars, but I bumped it up to five. She just got so angry about vegetable oil. It was incredible. Damn, queen, you look adequately nourished when you’re mad.

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