Loneliness as a Social Toxin: Healing with Community Cure

by | Mar 25, 2024

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Synopsis

In this episode of The Modern Vital Podcast, Dr. Ben Reebs interviews James Maskell, a pioneer in functional medicine and community building. The conversation centers on the concept of loneliness as an environmental toxin and its profound impact on health. James discusses his realization after hearing a lecture on human social genomics that loneliness is a significant driver of all-cause mortality, surpassing factors like food, smoking, and drinking. He likens loneliness to an environmental toxin, emphasizing its role in increasing the risk of chronic illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes. Despite its significant implications, James notes the lack of attention and funding directed towards addressing loneliness in public health initiatives.

Furthermore, the discussion delves into practical approaches to combat loneliness and foster social connection. James advocates for a shift towards a holistic approach in healthcare, where addressing social isolation is as essential as treating physical ailments. He highlights the importance of community-driven solutions, citing examples like the Plant Based Nutrition Support Group, which started as a small initiative but grew into a thriving community supporting healthy lifestyle changes. James emphasizes the power of peer support and community involvement in promoting health and well-being, suggesting that individuals seek out or create local communities to address social isolation effectively. The episode concludes with insights into the role of healthcare providers, suggesting a paradigm shift towards community-centered care to tackle loneliness and its associated health risks effectively.

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: https://modernvital.com/products/the-serpent-and-the-butterfly-the-seven-laws-of-healing

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Complete Transcript of Episode 14764296

Dr. Ben: 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, lived in South Africa, UK, 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, creating content as well. Author of a couple of bestselling 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 forum. James has spoken to people on six continents and he’s a true pioneer in functional medicine. James, welcome to the show. 

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

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

James: Yeah, it’s interesting. So 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, or high social stress, is the biggest driver of all cause 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 like 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 in that if you are lonely and have a 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,  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: Absolutely. Yeah, and I mean, I really believe that uh 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: 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 do 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. You know, we’ve seen efforts that have been made to create community around certain healthy new behaviors, gain traction very quickly because people are calling out for this kind of thing.

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

James: Yeah, I think we’re at the all time record low. I think technology has a lot to do with that

I think, you know, just like if you look at even the statistics of younger people who, you know, it’s some, I saw some horrifying statistics that, you know, in the UK, one in four people under 25 doesn’t have a single friend, you know. 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 re-raveling 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 where 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.

One of the most empowering, 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, he 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, they worked together to start something called the Plant Based Nutrition Support Group, which started as just a group of men, you know, getting to the online started as a Facebook group, but within six months, they had 7000 people who signed up.

All men, pretty much. So, you know, ultimately that, that meant 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’s the most exciting and empowering part of this conversation is that if you’re listening to this, you could either, you know, join something that’s already happening or you could start something that could be meaningful for members of your community.

Dr. Ben: Yeah, we, and we certainly know that men are at. Higher risk of this, you know, than women, or other persons, interestingly to, I mean, this is just sort of a side thing, but you know, the UK has been called the loneliness capital of Europe. You know, I’m curious to hear your insights into that, but I wanted to ask, 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: You know, I didn’t really realize how valuable it was until later. I was really only in that community up until age like 13.

I would say part of my journey was recognizing that that was, that was healthy. And that the things that society seemed to value, like my first job out of university was 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 recognize 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 parents 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’s, it sort of becomes a way of thinking too, where you ultimately, you know, you 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: Yeah, you know, you touch on a really interesting piece too, just in terms of paradigms,  you know, cause we had this whole, cooperation paradigm that kind of emerged after competition, but now we kind of are moving into this co-creation paradigm, you know, in business and maybe in different societies, you know, but it’s like, you kind of brought it up.
It’s like, how, how can we co create this together? You know, rather than isolate more.

James: Absolutely. Yeah. You get a lot of good thinking. I mean, I’ve been involved with an education project that my daughter’s with. It kind of looks like a school, but it’s not a school.

And that organization is really 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 actually to participate in something where a group of people work on something together and make decisions as a community. And I’d be very grateful for that opportunity because it’s taught me a lot about leaderless decision making and how to really build communities that everyone feels invested in.

Dr. Ben: That’s awesome. Well, you know, I think you bring up a really important point about, you know, loneliness needing to be addressed, you know, as a naturopathic doctor, functional medicine doctor. Question for you, you know, cause you interface 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 naturopathic doctor, you know, because I’m lonely? 

James: Yeah, well, I would say there’s no reason not to go and see a naturopathic doctor for sure. Like I think it’s a good choice for your health, you know, for many reasons, you know, I’m, I’m, I believe that there’s a future standard of care where in the, where in any clinic, You know, there will be a, you know, that 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 in 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 that 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 in doing those new healthy behaviors. And then myself and the other clinicians are going to be there to, you know, individualize 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, do 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 on how to solve individual problems. And that’s not really the skill here. The skill here is to create a cohesive, coherent community that, you know, that learns together and, and, you know, 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: 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, cause it’s like, we think about, Oh, get in a sauna or, you know, do some hydrotherapy, take, you know, take some supplements, eat a, 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.

And, 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: Yeah, it really is, but like there’s, there’s never been a better time to, you know, get in the mix and, and, and make it happen.

And you’d be surprised. There’s a lot of groups. I mean, you know, just one other thing, Ben 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 kinds 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 to be that it needs to be in a clinic. So you could, you know, search out those kind 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: Yeah, well, 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: Yeah, absolutely.

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

James: Visit 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 was available to everyone.

So you can go to thecommunitycure.com/audiobook, and you can download the MP3 for free and you can listen to it. Or if you want it in chapters, you could find it on audible.

Dr. Ben: Great. Well, we’ll make sure to link to all of that in the show notes as well. So that concludes today’s episode of the Modern Vital Podcast. We’d love to hear from you. We value your feedback. If you have any questions or suggestions, please reach out to me at ben@modernvital.com. And please leave us a review. If you enjoyed this episode, we look forward to having you join us next week for another exciting episode of the Modern Vital Podcast.

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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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