Loneliness as a Social Toxin: Healing with Community Cure with James Maskell

by | Jun 26, 2024

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In this episode of the Modern Vital Podcast, Dr. Ben Reebs speaks with James Maskell, a pioneer in functional medicine and author, about the profound impact of loneliness on health. They discuss loneliness as an environmental toxin, emphasizing its role in chronic illnesses and high mortality rates. The conversation highlights the importance of social connections and community in promoting well-being. James shares insights from his experiences and advocates for a healthcare shift to address social determinants of health. They also explore the potential of group-based interventions and community initiatives in reversing chronic illnesses and fostering meaningful relationships.

Be sure to visit James Maskell’s website for more resources and information. Follow him on Instagram @mrjamesmaskell.

Don’t miss the video version—watch it here.


If you’re looking to dive deeper into understanding the intricacies of chronic disease and its impact on your overall well-being, consider checking out Dr. Reebs’ book, “The Serpent & The Butterfly: The Seven Laws of Healing.” In this book, he discusses the laws of healing essential to resolving chronic disease and much more to help you on your journey to optimal wellness. Click here to purchase your copy.

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Complete Transcript of Episode 15316165

Loneliness as a Social Toxin: Healing with Community Cure with James Maskell

James Maskell: Loneliness is the biggest driver of high social stress, and is the biggest driver of all causes of mortality and death more than food, more than smoking, more than drinking. And, you know, it was so profound to me that that was the case. And yet, you know, so few public health dollars, you know, were being spent on really addressing this issue compared to those other ones that I just mentioned. And I came to see it as an environmental toxin. Right? It’s certainly part of your environment, and it’s either healthy or not healthy or somewhere in between.

[Show Intro] Welcome to the Modern Vital podcast, where we delve into the dynamic interplay between environmental factors and human health. I’m your host, Dr. Ben Reebs, founder of Portland Clinic of Natural Health, guiding you through a journey that merges ancient wisdom with the latest in scientific understanding. Each week, I’ll discuss topics of interest in health, offering insights to optimize your well-being and prevent chronic disease through naturopathic and functional medicine approaches.

Dr. Ben Reebs: On today’s episode of the Modern Vital podcast, we’re going to talk a little bit about loneliness as an environmental toxin. And today’s special guest is James Maskell. James has spent the last decade and then some, innovating at the cross section of functional medicine and community. He grew up in an intentional community, and lived in South Africa, the UK, and America, of course. He’s originally trained in health economics, and he’s on a mission to flatten the curve of healthcare costs, building companies along the way, and creating content as well.

Author of a couple of best-selling books such as The Evolution of Medicine and The Community Cure, which is a lot about this topic we’re going to discuss today. And then also the creator of the functional form, James has spoken to people on six continents, and he’s a true pioneer in functional medicine. James, welcome to the show.

James Maskell: Very great to be with you, doc. Thanks for having me.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Thank you so much for hopping on. So why is loneliness so toxic?

James Maskell: Yeah, it’s interesting because I was sitting in a conference in 2015 and heard a lecture on what they called human social genomics, and it was a researcher out of UCLA and essentially showed that loneliness is the biggest driver of high social stress, is the biggest driver of all-cause mortality and death more than food, more than smoking, more than drinking. And, you know, it was so profound to me that that was the case. And yet, you know, so few public health dollars, you know, were being spent on really addressing this issue compared to those other ones that I just mentioned.

And I came to see it as an environmental toxin. Right? It’s certainly part of your environment, and it’s either healthy or not healthy or somewhere in between. And it acts like a toxin. And that if you are lonely and have high social stress, it affects your all-cause mortality. It increases the chances that you have any number of chronic illnesses, especially some of the biggest killers in society like cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes. And so I just thought like, this is something that I understand from just the way that I grew up. And here’s something that I can help to get the word out about.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Absolutely. Yeah. And I mean, I really believe that environmental medicine is kind of the future of integrative medicine and functional medicine, you know, post-pandemic. And this is really a missing piece. We’re not talking about, you know, we talk about socioeconomic status. We talk about lack of financial funds, you know, as part of environmental medicine. But rarely are we talking about social isolation and loneliness.

And it certainly does all the things that a toxin does. It damages our cells, it damages our organs, it weakens our immune system, you name it.

James Maskell: Absolutely. Yeah. And so, you know, we really have to think about that if we understand it as a toxin, you know, what do we do in order to solve that in the work that you do, you would identify the toxin, and then you’d work out a way to remove it from your environment, and then to move it out from how it’s affecting the body right now. And I’d say it’s the same playbook. It’s just that we really have to think about how you prescribe social connection. How do you facilitate people to bring meaningful relationships into their lives? And in some ways, it’s harder than ever because of, you know, what happened in the pandemic and so forth. But in some ways, it’s actually easier than ever because there’s such a desire for it. We’ve seen efforts that have been made to create a community around certain healthy new behaviors, gain traction very quickly because people are calling out for this kind of thing.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s it’s ironic, you know, that we’re more connected than ever before on social media and so on. And yet, wouldn’t you argue that it’s even worse now than it was, you know, 4 or 5 years ago?

James Maskell: Yeah, I think we’re at the all-time record low. I think technology has a lot to do with that. You know, like if you look at even the statistics of younger people who, you know, in some I saw some horrifying statistics that, you know, in the UK, 1 in 4 people under 25 doesn’t have a single friend. You know, and I think that there’s just there’s something that’s unraveling the fabric of society. And ultimately we have to be in the business of traveling it, you know, one way or another. And so, you know, I’ve made my efforts really focused on the medical system because lonely people, sick people end up in the medical system, right? That’s why they end up. And secondly, there’s budget, you know, one way or another, there’s budget to support them with Medicare and Medicaid and commercial insurance and whatever.

But, you know, one of the most empowering and exciting things that I learned from writing the book was that many of the best structures that have, you know, recreated and rebuilt community around health are purely volunteer-like someone started an idea and ran with it, and it was transformational. I’ll just give you one example. So a doctor in Detroit had a patient who he was, you know, essentially realized that he had heart disease and was going to have to dramatically change his diet, but came to the recognition that if he did it by himself, it wouldn’t work because he just was not in a position to, like, make that kind of dramatic change with his own cooking skills and with his own connection, and that all of his social connections actually reinforced unhealthy behavior like beer and pizza and tailgating. And so, you know, he was able to work together to start something called the Plant Based Nutrition Support Group, which started as just a group of men, you know, getting online started as a Facebook group.

But within six months, they had 7000 people who signed up, old men, pretty much. So, you know, ultimately that created little pockets of men getting together, you know, regularly now, in some cases weekly groups of men cooking together and, you know, starting to learn how to cook healthy recipes together. And, you know, also like an annual conference where they fly in, you know, speakers to come and, you know, talk and so forth. So it just took one person’s ingenuity to start that group. And now it is meaningful in the lives of thousands and thousands of others. And I think that the most exciting and empowering part of this conversation is that if you’re listening to this, you could either join something that’s already happening, or you could start something that could be meaningful for members of your community.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Yeah, we, and we certainly know that men are at higher risk of this, you know, than women or other persons. Interestingly, too, I mean, this is just sort of a side thing, but, you know, the UK has been called the loneliness capital of Europe.

I’m curious to hear your insights into that, but I wanted to ask you if you grew up in an intentional community. I lived in an intentional community for a couple of years myself. Were there any lessons that you derived there just as a young man? You know, growing up in that, that we can bring into modern-day society.

James Maskell: You know, I didn’t really realize how valuable it was till later. I was really only in that community up until the age of 13. I would say part of my journey was recognizing that that was healthy and the things that society seemed to value. My first job out of university was as an investment banker making more money than any of my friends. But because of the lens that I grew up in, I realized that it was actually kind of unhealthy and not really that aspirational or cool. I think one of the things that I recognized in retrospect is that from an early age, I just had interactions with a lot more adults, and it made me more comfortable in, you know, connecting with other people.

I realized when I went to university that most of the other people that I was with there had never really, you know, connected or talked to any adults outside of their parents and a few of their parent’s friends, but even that very sparingly. And so I think that there is definitely something very healthy about, you know, having a broader range of healthy adult relationships. in order to, you know, to build some of that muscle. And I also think it sort of becomes a way of thinking to where you ultimately don’t just put decisions through one decision-making tree, which is like what’s best for me, but you actually gives you a little bit of more of a holistic view is like, is this good for me and the people around me? And I think that that is a way of thinking that doesn’t leave you. And I would broadly call that holism, I think.

Dr. Ben Reebs: You touched on a really interesting piece too, just in terms of paradigms, you know, because we had this whole, cooperation paradigm that kind of emerged after the competition.

Dr. Ben Reebs: But now we kind of are moving into this co-creation, you know, paradigm, you know, in business and maybe in different societies, you know, but it’s like, like you kind of brought it up. It’s like how can we co-create this together, you know, rather than isolate more?

James Maskell: Absolutely. Yeah. You get a lot of, you know, good thinking. I mean, I’ve been involved just recently and involved with an education project, but my daughter’s with it kind of looks like a school, but it’s not a school. And that organization is built around consensus, and it’s around groups of people working out how to make decisions that are good for everyone. And it takes a little bit to move into that system because ultimately no one’s in charge, you know? And that can be uncomfortable for people who are used to just having someone tell them what to do. But it’s been profound to participate in something where a group of people work on something together and make decisions as a community.

I’d be very grateful for that opportunity because it’s taught me a lot about leaderless decision-making and how to build communities in which everyone feels invested.

Dr. Ben Reebs: That’s awesome. Well, you know, I think you bring up a really important point about loneliness needing to be addressed, you know, as a naturopathy doctor, functional medicine doctor, you know, the question for you, you know, because you interfaced with so many thousands of them, do you see that we’re able to offer this, or do you think that there’s work we need to do around this in order to better prescribe it? And of course, also, you know, in terms of the people listening, you know, what do they do? You know, they’re like, should I go see a naturopathy doctor? You know, because I’m lonely.

James Maskell: Yeah. Well, I would say there’s no reason not to go and see a natural doctor for sure. Like, I think it’s a good choice for your health. You know, for many reasons, I believe that there’s a future standard of care where in any clinic, you know, there will be full support for someone to reverse their chronic illness, something that I’ve, you know, heard said by some of the pioneering clinics.

And here is that when a patient comes into that practice and this practice that I’m thinking of actually like takes insurance and integrates with Medicare and Medicaid, but they say something along the lines of, you know, in our clinic, you will never be better supported to get off, you know, get rid of the symptoms that you have to, you know, to get off medication and to get off all the supplements you’re on and you’ll never be better supported. And what does that look like? Well, the thrust of our care is if we’re going to put you in a cohort of other people that are just like you, and you’re going to learn new behaviors as a group, and you’re going to support each other and doing those new healthy behaviors. And then myself and the other clinicians are going to be there to, you know, individualized care how and where you need it. But the truth is, maybe not as many people need hyper-individualized care. If you have a consistent pathway for building new healthy behaviors as a group, like if the root cause of your condition is social isolation, loneliness, eating healthy, having low stress, sleeping well, exercising consistently if those are the root causes, which I think is the root cause for most chronic illness, that can be solved by that group, right? Which doesn’t actually require a doctor to be part of it.

In fact, we found it’s better when you have peer leaders like a health coach in there as opposed to a clinician because clinicians have been taught their whole lives how to solve individual problems. And that’s not the skill here. The skill here is to create a cohesive, coherent community that learns together and builds health as a unit. So that’s the standard of care that I’m hoping to enact in my lifetime. And I think we’re getting some momentum to it and starting to see we’ve got a couple of health systems that have adopted that as well as some private practices. So I would say until that becomes the standard of care and you’re listening to this, I think your best choice is to find a local community, join a local community, or ideally co-create a local community with other people you know, who you work with. And some of the most exciting things that I see cost nothing. A volunteer. People show up because they want it and it’s valuable to everyone.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Yeah, well, this is awesome. And I think that you know, you really kind of drive home the point for me just to look at this more deeply when I’m, when I’m talking to my patients, you know, because it’s like we think about, oh, get in a sauna or, you know, do some hydrotherapy, you know, take some supplements, eat a healthier diet, prioritize sleep, you know, but how often do we, like, look at people’s relationships? And I mean, you know, at least here on the West Coast, you know, in the Portland area, you know, it’s pretty grim, I’d say, with, with people just, you know, working themselves to the bone. The pandemic really took a toll on the city of Portland, you know, and I know that it’s not just the city of Portland, obviously. It’s just, you know, it’s the whole country and the whole world. Really?

James Maskell: It really is. But like, there’s there’s never been a better time to, you know, get in the mix and, and make it happen.

You know, you’d be surprised. There are a lot of groups. I mean, you know, just one other thing is that I’ve been part of a men’s group for the last four years and that men’s group is not a health group. It’s, you know, it’s about emotional maturity and it’s about having a peer of, you know, a peer group of men like, I’ve seen incredible health outcomes in that group, people quitting alcohol, quitting smoking, losing weight, doing new diets. And it’s really about the accountability of a group of men. So. There are these kind of structures. It’s not a health group, but yet great health outcomes have come from it. And that’s because empowerment, support, and accountability are all common factors in a group. But that doesn’t mean that it needs to be in a clinic. So you can, you know, search out those kinds of resources as well because, you know, it’s just it’s about finding the right support to make the kind of changes that you already know that you need to make the changes on.

It’s really closing the gap between your intention and action.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Yeah. Well, you know, you know, Dan Buettner wrote the book, The Blue Zones or whatever. And we do know that longevity is inversely correlated with social isolation and loneliness. And so people who have community, they live longer, you know, and probably much more deeply meaningful lives. I mean, I know it is for me and probably for you as well.

James Maskell: Yeah, absolutely.

Dr. Ben Reebs: Well, thanks so much for joining us, James. Where can people find you online?

James Maskell: www.jamesmaskell.com has a link to all the different projects that I’m currently involved in. If you want to check out, I maintained the rights to the book The Community Cure because I wanted to make sure it is available to everyone so you can go to thecommunitycure.com/audiobook and you can download the MP3 for free and listen to it. Or if you want it in chapters, you can find it on audible.Dr. Ben Reebs: Great. Well, we’ll make sure to link to all of that in the show notes as well.

That concludes today’s episode of the Modern Vital Podcast. We’d love to hear from you. We really value your feedback and if you have any questions or suggestions, please reach out to me at Ben@ModernVital.com. Also, please leave us a review if you enjoyed this episode, and we look forward to having you join us next week for another exciting episode of the Modern Vital podcast.

[Show Outro] And that’s a wrap for today’s episode of The Modern Vital Podcast. Your support fuels our mission to empower you on your quest for optimal health. Remember, our Modern Vital Store offers supplements to guide you on your path to wellness. And don’t forget to subscribe, leave a review, and share our podcast. Until next time, stay proactive on your health and wellness journey.


About Me

Dr. Ben Reebs, ND, is an award-winning, naturopathic physician with a focus in environmental medicine, which looks at how environmental factors can cause chronic disease. He specializes in chronic infections, autoimmune disease, and digestive health.

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