I like to talk to people who have truly lived the necessity is the mother of invention life path. It fascinates me when they find themselves in a situation where they need to get creative, and they just get to it because there is no other choice. In the case of author, podcaster and entrepreneur, Robb Wolf, necessity was the mother of survival because Robb’s genesis in his current career path began when he was faced with horrible health issues.
“From a pretty young age I was fairly certain I was going to do something science-related,” he says. “I’ve always been kind of a geek and I was a California State Powerlifting champion in high school. In the same year that I did that, I competed in the State Science Olympiad and got tenth place in anatomy and physiology. On the one hand, [I was a] 185-pound no-necked powerlifter, and then also [I was] competing in physics and physiology competitions. So that’s always been my wheelhouse of interest. I did an undergrad in biochemistry, was looking into medical school or potentially a research track, and I got really sick. I had ulcerative colitis so bad that I was facing a bowel resection. I’m about 170 pounds now, at the low ebb of my ulcerative colitis I was 120-125 pounds. I was in bad shape and nearly died from it. The standard medical offerings could do virtually nothing for me.”
Doctors suggested that Wolf have a long run of his digestive tract cut out or put him on immune-suppressant drugs, where a cold virus could end up being fatal, or his risk of developing cancer could skyrocket. Wolf felt that there must be another way, so he started to chart his own path towards health. During this time the ancestral way of eating, commonly known as the Paleo diet got on his radar. During his research, he discovered that so many of the health issues that we assume are normal today are abnormal for humans in our natural state. He tells me that most of what everyday people are going to see their doctors about these days are evolutionarily novel. In other words, we’re adapting towards being a sicker population.
“I altered my diet and lifestyle and put the ulcerative colitis into remission,” he says. “It was so profound that I knew I couldn’t go on and do medical school. It was going to be threading barbed wire through my ears to do that because I was going to spend another four years doing a basic medical degree and then another four to eight doing some sort of specialty, to finally arrive at this spot where I’m going to mainly talk to people about diet, lifestyle, exercise, circadian biology, sleep and all that. [Medical school] just seemed like an epic waste of time.”
Wolf looked for a graduate degree he might attain that would put him on this vary path but being the late 1990’s these were relatively new ideas. Up until that time, grains still sat proudly at the base of the food pyramid and most people’s dinner plates consisted of a meat, vegetable and starch of some kind. The idea of cutting grain out of your diet wasn’t something that was being widely talked about, and the wellness movement that is so ubiquitous today was barely beginning its journey into the mainstream zeitgeist.
In addition to changing his diet, Wolf focused on exercise as an additional way to maintain his health and he says that was when this “weird” new workout called CrossFit landed on his radar.
“I started doing that with a good friend of mine, Dave Warner who’s a retired Navy Seal,” he says. “We emptied his garage and converted it into a gym and within about four months we had like fifteen people training with us.”
Wolf says he was meeting a lot of people through CrossFit training who had gut issues and auto-immune issues and he could relate to their struggle. Through the CrossFit community, he was able to check in with them and help guide them towards a path that might offer them some relief.
“I was really able to help these folks,” he says. “I would see them three to five times a week for an hour a shot and I could talk to them. It was the type of medicine I really wanted to practice.”
The partners reached out to the founders of CrossFit and expressed their interest in opening a gym and with the blessing of Lauren and Greg Glassman, CrossFit North gym opened with Wolf and Dave Warner at the helm. Later Wolf moved to Chico, California, and opened another CrossFit gym and from there everything snowballed in a great way.
“This was the stuff I really enjoyed,” he said. “I liked science, I liked preventative medicine. I’ve had a saying for a long time, the gym is primary care medicine. It’s where you learn about sleep and food and exercise, and you have community. Once you hit your primary care doctor that’s secondary or tertiary.”
Wolf says that the community he found himself in allowed him to explore and try stuff out and it was that time that allowed him to write two New York Times bestselling books. The Paleo Solution, and Wired to Eat.
“As a first-time author, my books have sold more than a million copies each which is an unheard-of thing. I’m very, very lucky. Something like 99.8% of books never sell more than two thousand copies and for a first-time author and new genre… there was no paleo diet genre in bookstores when I wrote this. It was an entirely new thing. But the reason why this stuff has been successful is that I learned really how to help people and this stuff has grown virally. If one person ends up having a lot of problems and a book, a seminar, or a podcast helps them they will move heaven and earth to spread that knowledge to other people. So I ended up with a really highly-engaged group of people that were being better advocates for my work than I ever could be.”
Wolf believes that all wellness is rooted in sleep, food, movement, and community and that if we can get a handle on those things we will need to see our doctors far less. The onus falls on us, but he’s doing his part to educate and help the masses not only with his books, but also with his LMNT Electrolyte supplements.
His story and his life’s mission is one that I personally vibe with and can relate to. I have had my own moments of experimenting with food and exercise and diet in my own search to deal with chronic headaches and sleep apnea. In my journey, I saw countless doctors who took educated guesses on how to fix what was ailing me, but in the end, I knew intuitively to a degree what was going to work and what was not. Neither Wolf nor I want to disparage doctors in any way. When something goes wrong, having a trusted physician is an incredible advocate to have, but when it comes to overall wellness, there are actions that we as people can take to advocate for ourselves that limit how much medical care we need.
“The victories of the twentieth century have been antibiotics, vaccines, and surgery. Those things absolutely transformed the world,” he says. “But what are those things? They’re totally prescriptive. As the medical consumer, if I need surgery I show up and you knock me out and you do whatever, and then I do some stuff with rehab. With a vaccine I go and get the vaccine and then I motor along and then on antibiotics, it’s kind of the same deal. It’s totally prescriptive and I am just kind of a passenger. Everything that related to chronic degenerative disease I actually have to get in and do something. Medicine will never fix diabetes. It will never fix neurodegenerative disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or cancer without an active participation of the individual involved. I’m as optimistic as anybody is about technology but these chronic, degenerative diseases are shockingly complex.”
For Wolf, the biggest healing tool he found for his own degenerative disease was cutting carbs, following a Paleo diet as well as working out, and while everyone is different and every single body is unique, I myself have found improved health by cutting carbs, sugar, and dairy. I do feel there is merit to what he’s written and speaks about, and you may remember that this isn’t the first time I have spoken with someone who has found physical relief in a Paleo way of eating. You might recall my interview with Mary Shenouda, The Paleo Chef, who healed herself from chronic auto-immune issues by shifting towards a Paleo diet as well. While I’m not a nutritional expert, I am a proponent of exploration and finding what works best for you and what leaves you feeling energized and well.
Wolf tells me that he believes that medicine going forward is going to necessitate greater interactivity between practitioners and patients. He sees health coaches being a much greater factor for people going forward because the relationship between a doctor and patient is usually brief and only occurs when something has already gone very wrong. Even though Wolf has written mostly about food, he has found in his research that sleep is truly the number one way to move towards a healthier life.
“Our bodies are very good at finding health if we give it the inputs that it needs,” he says. “Sleep is the big one, even though I’m the food guy… Sleep should be as easy as selling sex. It really should, because everything that you want to have that works well, whether it’s your physical performance, whether it’s being mentally on. If you want to be mentally sharp, you don’t sleep deprive yourself. If you want to maintain muscle mass, if you want to maintain a libido, if you don’t want to die early, it’s sleep. Most people need eight and a half, or nine hours of sleep. If you are sleeping poorly and we get you to sleep well it is like a 10X ROI on your life.”
Wolf says that he has a few tricks for getting better sleep. He likes to use blackout curtains to keep his room dark enough, he also installed dimmer switches throughout his home so that once the sun goes down he can mimic that natural reduction of light in his home environment. He likes his Sleep Number bed but says that as long as you find a bed that works for you then that’s great.
“If your blood sugar is too high or too low or you’re eating too many carbs or not enough protein it will reflect in your sleep. If you don’t go outside and get light on your skin to entrain your circadian biology it will affect your sleep. If you don’t move enough throughout the day it will affect your sleep. If you are unhappy and don’t have good social connections it will affect your sleep. So it’s a really interesting hub that we can use to orient all the rest of our life and it happens in a way that is very positive. Because if we sleep better our life is better. We feel better.”
More with Robb Wolf here: