Holistic Survival
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An Elegant Defense – Understand Your Immune System with Matt Richtel

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Headshot of Matt Richet New York Times Journalist and Author

Jason Hartman welcomes Matt Richtel in this episode of Holistic Survival. Matt is a Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times reporter and author of the new book, An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System. He shares what started his journey into understanding the immune system and how we can help it. He also dispels some myths and gives solutions as to how we can best improve our health.

Announcer 0:01
This show is produced by the Hartman media company. For more information and links to all our great podcasts, visit Hartman media.com.

Announcer 0:11
Welcome to the holistic survival show with Jason Hartman. The economic storm brewing around the world is set to spill into all aspects of our lives. Are you prepared? Where are you going to turn for the critical life skills necessary to survive and prosper? The holistic survival show is your family’s insurance for a better life. Jason will teach you to think independently to understand threats and how to create the ultimate action plan. sudden change or worst case scenario, you’ll be ready. Welcome to ballistic survival, your key resource for protecting the people, places and profits you care about in uncertain times. Ladies and gentlemen, your host, Jason Hartman.

Jason Hartman 0:59
It’s my pleasure to welcome Matt recto. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter and New York Times bestselling author. His latest book is an elegant defense, the extraordinary new science of the immune system, and a tale of four lives. Matt, welcome. How are you?

Matt Richtel 1:17
I’m doing great. Thank you for having me.

Jason Hartman 1:19
Good to have you. Where are you located?

Matt Richtel 1:20
I’m located in San Francisco, one of the things you can I work for the New York Times that one of the best things you can do for your immune system is beat 3000 miles from your bosses.

Jason Hartman 1:31
That’s funny. Very good. Very good. Well, what else can you do for your immune system? You’ve got a pretty big broad look at it a lot of stuff in your table of contents here, as you profile these different people?

Matt Richtel 1:43
Well, I think in order to explain what you might do, could I start by defining the immune system and in the course of that, maybe dispelling some myths ology including mythology that I had before I started this project.

Jason Hartman 2:00
Absolutely. That sounds great. All right,

Matt Richtel 2:02
well, maybe we can come back to it. But this all began when a friend of mine who had cancer rose from the grave, thanks to some very modern medical techniques. But in the course of that happening, I decided to understand the immune system. And that meant confronting some misconceptions I had. And I’ll just begin with a misconception that I had that I think is fairly widely held, which is that inside of us is this immune system that is aimed at aggressively keeping out any foreign organisms, it’s kind of like a ever vigilant police state, always on the watch for things that threaten us. Now, big, full, deep stop, and say, that is only partly true. In fact, a good case can be made, that it is misleading in some respects. So let me just ask you, did I fairly characterize how maybe some people might see the immune system as this war machine?

Jason Hartman 3:09
Yeah. And I think that’s, it’s interesting. You say that, because it goes back to that ancient sci fi movie, and I can’t remember the name of it, but you know, where they journey and inside a body and yeah, the cells or do you know, the one I’m talking about? Right?

Matt Richtel 3:23
Yeah, the name of it.

Jason Hartman 3:25
But anyway, a lot of people have seen that. And that is how people think of it. That’s how I think of it.

Matt Richtel 3:30
What’s wrong. Yeah. And that’s how I thought of it and to explain where the misconception lies. I’m gonna actually bring in a more modern sci fi movie do remember, I’m surely you do the matrix. Oh, sure. Did you ever see that?

Jason Hartman 3:42
Yeah, yeah, I just never was into those matrix movies. Okay. Keanu Reeves is only the Worst Actor on the planet, you know, but I never understood why people love those movies so much. But But

Matt Richtel 3:54
yes, I’m, well, this is does not require you to like or dislike it. The only reason I make a reference to it is in that movie, there is an idea that we are surrounded by all these ones and zeros, all this digital information. I bring up the analogy because if you were listeners, or you were to look around your desk, or your the wheel of your car, your coffee cup or on your skin, just like there were ones and zeros in that movie. everywhere around you are microbes, there are virus and bacteria there are parasites there are things well below the microscopic level. And what’s interesting about it is most of those would do you no harm. So on the door handle when you touch it, there are lots of microbes you might be prone to squirting your hand with antibacterial so but what you’re killing isn’t of much harm to you. Now, why do I mention that? Because to understand the immune system, it is necessary to first Understand the environment that we function in. And that environment is filled with all these microbes. Now, the immune system, far from being a war machine that is aimed at destroying everything foreign, is actually tailored very, very delicately, very finely tuned to try to get along as cooperatively and harmoniously with all the foreign organisms around us and inside of us in our guts, as possible, and then and this is key. And then and only then when it confronts something dangerous to strike with extreme violence, extraordinary precision, but well doing as little collateral damage as possible to us and the world around us. Big full stop. Why is that so important? Well, if the immune system was tailored to just be a war machine, given all the foreign organisms around it in us, we would be scorched earth, it would be nuclear winter. So this is how I think of the immune system. This is how I define it. It is not a war machine. It is the combination of a bouncer and a ballet dancer. It is capable of doing terrible violence when necessary. But it seeks to tiptoe as lightly as possible in the world. Okay, so

Jason Hartman 6:34
very interesting understanding of that. Now, what does that mean to us, though? What, how do we use that in our daily life, so our immune system is not always this attack dog, or bouncer, as you put it?

Matt Richtel 6:46
Well, there are a variety of ways we use this in our daily lives. And in fact, our understanding of just how broad the application of this is, is growing by it’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much by the day. Because this conception is changing how we think about daily habit. And it’s changing how we think about everything up to cancer, immunotherapy, autoimmune disorder, all of the stuff that’s covered in this book, but let me give a specific example. How often have you heard someone say you should boost your immune system? Oh, yeah. Well, I

Jason Hartman 7:25
actually practiced that. Is that a? Is that just a mythology? Is that a placebo? Taking that it’s worth?

Matt Richtel 7:31
I hate to do this on the air? No, go for it to hash it out. Yeah. But it is a mistake. Okay, and here’s why. I’ve just described to you this bouncer and ballet dance, right? Even the better part of the immune system, I don’t mean the better like the superior part. But as much or more of the immune system is aimed at withholding it, as it is accelerating. Why? Because a boosted immune system is the same as saying an excessive inflammatory response. And inflammatory response is the kind of thing you feel when you’re under attack fatigue, fever, inflammation, pain in your joint shot. So

Jason Hartman 8:19
what what happens when you take the boost when you take the vitamin C or drink the juice, drinks or whatever?

Matt Richtel 8:24
Well, first of all, there is not a lot of evidence that even work. So I want to be really clear, many claims are made about boosting your immune system, that may not work. But if they do work, you may wind up with a response in excess of what your body would ordinarily generate, that is properly calibrated to the threat it faces. To put a fine point on it, you could feel worse than you otherwise would. Or you want to let your body do by contrast, is to support a balanced immune system. That is what we are increasingly learning as a way to get through the day, or a disease.

Jason Hartman 9:13
So it almost sounds to me, Matt, like you’re going to be saying that maybe probiotics do a better job of this balance than the vitamin C and the juice drinks.

Matt Richtel 9:25
So you are getting at one of the newest, most potent areas, potentially of medicine, and that’s the microbiome. And here again, I want to hold two truths for people at the same time. This book and science provides hope, and also some caution and the caution is, in many ways, we are still at the very embryonic stages of learning. One of the most clear examples is the microbiome and probiotics. You So what is the microbiome? I know you’ve got a number of listeners who know about it, and maybe some who are still learning. The microbiome is basically the biosphere, the body of bacteria that live on and in you and largely in your gut. About half the cells in your body are not human, they are bacterial, and they are largely in your gut. And those cells we once thought, those organisms we once thought, were largely separate from our overall health. In fact, we thought of them as these organisms that served a digestive purpose. And they sat in our gut, and they were walled off from the rest of our body, I think of it like a tire lining. But now we understand that the microbiome, this body, this mosh pit of bacteria, is playing a really key role in our immune system. Now, why would that be? The simple answer is, we are home to that bacteria we are that bacteria is planet Earth. They want us to survive and thrive. Here’s the catch. When people offer you magic bullets and say, eat this, eat that do this do that. We are not far enough along for the most part to say exactly what works. We know you want a healthy, diverse microbiome. But we don’t exactly know how to get there yet. This is all in the book in a much more specific fashion. But I would urge people to think about understanding the science and not falling for the magic bullet.

Jason Hartman 11:45
Is there any when we were talking about vitamin C and that whole thing, you know, I guess that would be the bouncer right? Not the ballet dancer? Yeah, exactly. Okay, so you need to be in balance bouncer ballet dancer, right? Right. So yes, it’s a balancing act of the to the heart and mind united and other words, right. But do you believe after all of your research, does our immune system function better? If we think it functions better? If we think taking via vitamin C is going to help? For example, you know, or whatever it is? Right? You

Matt Richtel 12:18
know? That’s a very, very good question. And the answer almost always is that the placebo effect is one of the most powerful effects in medicine. And it is, in particular, true with emotional issues. It’s actually one of the reasons why it can be very hard to study drugs, because people may think that they are getting a benefit that will impact if nothing else, how they feel. And how you feel in a way is the definition of health. The placebo effect is at its most powerful with issues like anxiety or sleep, that have deep emotional components. So I don’t want to dismiss the power of the placebo effect. It’s not the exact same thing as an actual effect. But sometimes it can be hard to tease apart.

Jason Hartman 13:17
Yeah, interesting. You’re sort of giving us a big question or saying like, Look, we don’t understand this yet. We’re, it’s in its infancy. Okay, great. But what do we do today? Is

Matt Richtel 13:28
there anything we know? And that’s fair in the book doesn’t just leave us with questions. So the book offers some very concrete answers with some very clear science behind them. And those answers have to do with how to create balance in your immune system. And they go back to some rather simple but oftentimes hard to maintain disciplines around sleep, exercise, stress, nutrition. And the thing about the book is it doesn’t just state those as polemics, but it provides the science and if if I might, I would give you a very concrete example around stress.

Jason Hartman 14:12
Would that be okay? Yeah, absolutely. stresses Okay, you know, that affects everybody. So it’s really important. Yeah,

Matt Richtel 14:17
it affects everybody and I can show you how it imbalances or weakens your immune system. So to illustrate, if you can picture yourself, a version of yourself 5000 years ago, so just think of yourself but a lot hairier. running across the savanna from a lion. In that moment, your body is firing off a whole bunch of chemicals and hormones that we kind of glorified fight or flight. Yep. Now when that happens, there’s a big shift of resources inside your body toward allowing you to survive the acute threat, but we now understand that these days going to starve your immune system or create imbalance. Why? Well, an elegant defense gets into why your defense becomes less elegant in that moment, but in a nutshell, your body’s resources are saying survive the lion, the head cold can wait. I don’t need to worry about the chronic threat, the bacteria or virus that could kill me in two weeks, I need to worry about the thing with teeth going 40 miles an hour. So in daily life today, when those fight or flight chemicals get kicked up, and sometimes we can’t even feel just how subtle that elevation is, they can shift the resources away from our immune system. I will offer you another specific example. Two weeks ago, this book launched to great fanfare from Harper Collins, it hits 16, on Amazon, I was on NPR. And I was really doing double duty. And even though as you might be able to tell, I’m fairly comfortable talking about this, it required a persistent notching up of my fighter flight. And I got the flu, no one else in my family, not my eight year old or 10 year old, not my wife, I became suddenly susceptible to a very serious virus that was around and that my body had been fighting effectively, because I had a balanced immune system. When all those resources went to Oh, my God, holy cow, I could make an ass of myself on the radio. And I just want to point that out because there was no lion there.

Jason Hartman 16:52
Right. Yeah. He created Yeah. Whether it’s that’s an ancient response we have. So is the takeaway here? Don’t let yourself get too stressed. Don’t allow the fight or flight response? I mean, he can’t say don’t but you know, your campaign. natural thing? Yeah, no, well, just an understanding that look, you know, the lion is not going to get you if you sound dumb on the radio. Right.

Matt Richtel 17:20
Right, right. And I actually created a much bigger threat to my own health and safety, then the accident experience. Yeah, yes. And that is from someone who understands. But what I did do was I think I may well have cut short, what could have been a worse illness by recognizing, I went back to the some court steps that work for me, and everybody’s got a different set of steps that they do. You know, for me, it’s some meditation and some other things, it might be prayer, I happen to be a avid tennis player. And when I got better, I began to use that because exercise, what exercise can do like sleep is cut off that adrenaline system, and diminish the adrenaline system. So what you do is you try to use the wisdom that science provides. To take the best steps you can you’re not going to change the primitive responses in your body, nor do you want to, they’re part of balance. But you do want to take the steps that you are capable of doing to balance your elegant defense.

Jason Hartman 18:26
Absolutely good points. Anything else you want people to know? Well, I

Matt Richtel 18:30
guess I want people to know when I started this, I mentioned a friend who had cancer. And in this book, I’m trying to provide both basic science but also hope for families that are dealing with these things. And in particular, I’d underscore one group. autoimmune disorders are widely misunderstood. They are also very common. And two of the characters in this book are women with autoimmune disorders, and I just like to say to them, or to their partners or spouses. I hope you will find some comfort and insight from this book, because it is a very vexing problem to have when your own body attacks itself.

Jason Hartman 19:13
Yeah, yeah. Really, really something. Matt, do you want to share a website?

Matt Richtel 19:17
My website is Matt richtel.com [email protected] And this book is at all your bookstores. And of course, Amazon and my contact info if you’d like to reach me is on my website as well.

Jason Hartman 19:35
Matt, thank you for joining us.

Matt Richtel 19:37
Thank you for having me.

Jason Hartman 19:40
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