Monday, August 13, 2012

Thoughts on the Ancestral Health Symposium 2012

Last year I missed the opportunity to attend the first AHS, in Los Angeles. I have a certain visceral opposition to LA, for no good reason (I once spent a night there when I missed a connecting flight, and that's my entire exposure to the place). I spent the rest of the year regretting that, especially after hearing what a great event it was.

AHS 2012
So this year I rectified my error, made easier by the fact that they held it at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, 140 miles from my house.

I was a little apprehensive heading up there as I was unsure how valuable this event would turn out to be, as I do spend a fair bit of time reading about all this stuff. What would I learn? Where would I eat dinner? All sorts of concerns...

All of which were totally unfounded. What a terrific event, what a terrific bunch of people. The event reminded me very much of the early meetings of the World Wide Web Artists' Consortium in 1994 and '95 in New York. The WWWAC helped to creat the Internet that we all take for granted today, as it was the focus of early web development in NYC. Just like then, at AHS you got the feeling that you were in on a Great Truth, and that all that remained was to let the world in on it, and thereby change everything. I don't doubt for a minute that AHS will help this to happen, just as the WWWAC did. It's a great feeling to be at the early stage of a revolution like this.

The symposium was organized into sessions, held in what seemed to be rapid-fire order. The first day only contained one track, but the second and third had dual tracks, which got annoying when you wanted to attend two simultaneously, or even worse, when you started chatting with someone and then realized you'd missed the first 10 minutes of your next session.

Dan Lieberman of Harvard was the keynote speaker, opening the symposium with a terrifically funny (as usual: he's wasted on Harvard, he should do stand-up comedy) overview of human evolution and evolutionary adaptation, setting the stage for all the sessions to follow. I understand the sessions are all to be posted on the 'net, I highly recommend watching them: access will be free. Some of them were breathtaking, some left me with tears in my eyes, like Joel Salatin's ringing cry to take back our freedom to feed ourselves, and Terry Wahls' account of her recovery from multiple sclerosis. A few annoyed me, like Dr. James O'Keefe's misconceived but well-meaning account of the cardiovascular dangers of marathon running, but all that I attended were very informative and led by intelligent and well-spoken presenters.

When Robb Wolf describes John Welbourn as large, he's wrong. The dude's enormous, and he gave a fascinating discussion of how some athletes he's working with have become world record holders while eating a low-carb paleo diet. Carbohydrates appear to be seriously over-rated...

Joel Salatin closed the first day. What a speaker! It felt like a revival meeting, and he was the preacher of real food and the good life. He also explained how much more productive his holistic approach to farming is, and touched on how impossible it is to do with government meddling. He got a resounding standing ovation.

Prof. Lieberman led a barefoot run along the Charles River the morning of the second day, which offered a rare opportunity to have a guided tour through Cambridge by a leading scientist. Lieberman's a fast runner! The easy, conversational portion of the run was at a quick pace, and at the end he announced that we were going to to "strides", "at the end, when they have the most benefit!" I kept up for a bit, but my poor aerobic fitness allowed the professor to leave me in the dust. Happily Ben Greenfield, a Maffetone disciple and triathlete, completely understood, and promised he'd never tell Phil that I exceeded my MAF HR. (I had to stop at the beginning of the run and turn off the audible alert on the Garmin.) Too funny.

The only negative thing about barefoot running is that the range of adaptation is narrow: the fact that I can run 6 miles around my roads didn't mean that I could run 6 miles on the rougher roads and paved trails of Cambridge, and my feet were tingling for the next two days.

Professor Lieberman was kind enough to offer me a tour of the Mecca of barefoot-running science: his lab at Harvard. I got to see the famous treadmill, some of his new gadgets for measuring runners, and an interesting explanation of how difficult it is to measure many of the things that may lead to running injury. Mathematical correction of jiggling is a major undertaking, it turns out. We also went looking for Eskimo teeth, but only found a few cavemen.

A few scientists and doctors recounted their research testing ketogenic diets on cancer progression (very promising) and epilepsy (the best treatment approach by far). Nevertheless, institutions are very reluctant to fund or even allow these studies; insurance companies are reluctant to pay for them, despite being more effective and less expensive; and one doctor described the need to refer to these diets as "therapies" to get them through the morass of bureaucracy...

Outside the sessions...

Oh, and God, I got to meet Stephan Guyenet and thank him for probably saving my life. I wouldn't be typing this, or enjoying a symptom-free existance right now, if it wasn't for his incredibly level-headed and well-reasoned blog, and for all the hard work he's done. Thanks again, Stephan. I had the additional pleasure of standing around with drinks in our hands talking with him and Prof. Lieberman about teeth. Moments like that made this whole thing worthwhile. And I'm really looking forward to what he produces in his professional career.

End P.S.

I met too many other people to recount here, but have a few thoughts in general. It was an incredibly healthy-looking crowd. But the game I played was to ask the people I met how they'd gotten into the paleo/ancestral health scene. Most recounted some story of health issues that the medical establishment had been unable to resolve, which abated once a healthy diet (meaning one in opposition to the government regulations) had been adopted. Terry Wahls is the most extreme, but many of the rest of us had similar experiences. Considering how many of these people have intractable, incurable conditions of one sort or another, they're looking terrific and acting like they're the happiest people on the planet. Oh, and a couple of years after getting out of her wheelchair poor Dr. Wahls showed up to AHS with her arm in a sling. She broke it falling off her bicycle.

I've also never seen so many people with minimalist, or no, shoes on. Lunas were a popular option (Prof. Lieberman and John Durant wore them for part of our run, as did I, Ben ran the whole thing in his bare feet.), Vibrams, VivoBarefoot, New Balance Minimi (suitable, since their HQ is in Boston), Skora, Merrel and again, too many others to recount, including some I didn't recognize. It's hard to believe that two years ago it was hard to find a minimalist option. Now I couldn't keep track of them all. Happily, there were many doctors in attendence. While one cardiologist did explain the many difficulties in changing the "standard of care" in our bureaucratic, sclerotic medical system, one hopes that a grass root effort like this one can upend the medical establishment's understanding of the relationship between diet and chronic illness, and offer help to the many people who are ill-served by the current regime.

Tower of low-carb power
Of course the closing ceremony was the Barefoot Banquet, held at the Charles Hotel just down the street from the law school. As with all the rest of the sessions, all the food was paleo, so folks like Dr. Wahls and me could eat without concern, and enjoy the famed NorCal Margarita. Some of us seemed to enjoy them a bit too much. ;) The funniest moment of the evening was when they brought out the grass-fed, gluten-free sliders. So many buns were left over that some enterprising folk built a fort out of them. What a terrific time.

And then, to top it off, I gave John Durant a ride back toward NYC to save him from a long bus ride, and got to hear all about the book he's working on. It sounds terrific, I'm quite excited to read the whole thing.

I think this alliance of scientists, doctors, patients, and athletes have a real chance to change the world. What exciting times.

And a side note: the conference was organized by volunteers. I've been to expensive, professional conferences that weren't this well organized, and certainly not this cheerful or thoughtful. Bravo to all involved.

P.S. Here's a roundup of recaps of AHS12 if you're interested.