Our lead digital editor Brenna Lilly sat down with functional medicine practitioner Dr. Will Cole to talk about his new book Gut Feelings, and got his thoughts on everything from “shameflammation” to telehealth to intergenerational trauma.
S+H: What inspired you to write a book about healing the relationship between food and emotions when publishing a book on a specific diet might have been flashier?
Dr. Will Cole: Like everything that I write, it was born out of my clinical experience with patients. We started one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers over 13 years ago, and you can't really spend 13-plus years looking at cases like this and not see the science play out in these people's lives. What I got to talk about in Gut Feelings is the interconnectedness between mental health and physical health, and how mental health is not separate from physical health, specifically with the concept of “shameflammation,” or shame-based body inflammation.
I’ve felt intuitively that, as a society, we are approaching a point in time where it’s important to have this collective conversation. There’s a lot of conversation about mental health, but there aren’t a lot of conversations happening about the physiological side of it and what precipitates mental health problems. We’re having a mental health crisis, but why? We’re just scratching the surface in the mainstream conversation, and we get way beyond the surface in the book.
How did having a pre-existing functional medicine telehealth practice prior to COVID prepare you for what we're experiencing now, where more people are able to (and want to) attend virtual doctor’s visits and therapy sessions?
Thirteen years ago, functional medicine practitioners were really few and far between, and my practice was really born out of necessity. I like living in the country in the middle of nowhere, and a lot of people aren't where I was at. I’m really lucky that, during the height of the pandemic, I didn't have to pivot. I did the same thing I always did: I came to work, I was in my room by myself, and I got to talk to people all around the world.
Globally, people have gained an understanding of what we can actually accomplish virtually. We didn't have to drive, get stuck in traffic, and find parking, and we learned what was superfluous to the actual substance of our lives. And this is something I learned in those 13 years of telehealth practice prior to the pandemic.
While there are definitely in-person practices that can’t be replaced by a virtual visit, like acupuncture or chiropractic or a yearly physical check-up, there are a lot of things within healthcare that people can do remotely. More people are realizing that it's actually a lot more convenient. You could be anywhere.
I have patients logging onto our visit in their pajamas, and I also see people that are so sick they can't even get out of bed, but they're still able to get access to amazing support through the internet. So that's huge. When you have an autoimmune disease and chronic fatigue, telehealth can be essential. And now more people are being helped because more people realize that it's actually a great way to practice healthcare.
"When you have an autoimmune disease and chronic fatigue, telehealth can be essential. And now more people are being helped because more people realize that it's actually a great way to practice healthcare."
In Gut Feelings, you mention that someone’s disconnection with their intuition could be a sign of illness. Can you tell us more about intuition as an indicator of health?
So many people in the West are disconnected from their body, their roots, nature, and the greater Self. And on a more scientific and physiological level, researchers call it an evolutionary mismatch. Researchers estimate that our genetics as a human species haven’t really changed in 10,000-plus years, yet our world has changed so much in such a dramatic way in such a finite period of time, whether you're looking at the foods we're eating (or not eating), our exposure to toxins, collective trauma, personal trauma, distraction and numbing, and cheap dopamine hits.
This is such an elementary example, but I like to think of the movie WALL-E, which came out 15 or 16 years ago. My son was little at the time. And now, I look back, and that movie was prophetic. In that movie, people are stuck sitting down, screens in front of them, not moving, and don’t even have the physical strength to get up out of their floating chairs. And when all the screens are shut off, there’s no life left around them. That's a good cartoonist example of where we're headed as a species.
Another form of disconnection from intuition is the polarity between diet culture and anti-diet culture. In the book, we have this discussion. I hear this very often from my patients: They feel like their bodies are rejecting them and they’re sick of diets, but when they try intuitive eating, they feel horrible because they are eating foods that make them feel sick.
I have to work with them to discern: Is that really just intuition, or is it improper hormonal signaling that’s causing them to be "hangry" and develop insatiable cravings for inflammatory, sugary foods? That's a big conversation to have, and I know this is on the hearts and minds of many people.
Throughout the book, what I noticed most was a deep sense of optimism. Have you always been optimistic? And how has optimism helped you personally?
I'm glad it comes across like that! Maybe that's just the way God made me. I would say I'm overall optimistic. I'm just constantly encouraged by my patients’ achievements. I see very difficult things overcome all the time, and I can't come to work over ten hours a day for 13 years and see what I see and not be optimistic. I have to see and hold space for very heavy things, but the overwhelming undercurrent of my day is achieving the seemingly impossible.
And that is so rewarding to me and my team. My team has all different personalities, all different Enneagram types, all different backgrounds, and they're all optimistic. I don't know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but I bet if you asked my team, they would say that what we do is fueling us up. It’s the human-to-human result of seeing good things.
On Day 9 of the 21-Day Gut-Feeling Plan, you say that the one hot tip you want people to take away from the nutrition portion of Gut Feelings is that there's a strong association between protein and stability, both physical and emotional. Can you talk a little bit more about the link between protein and anxiety?
Sure. That’s true for two different reasons. Talking about the quality of the protein and the type of protein is important when you're talking about brain health and emotional health. Grams of protein are listed on drink bottles and food packages as marketing jargon. But the reality is, we have to ask ourselves: What type of protein are we talking about? What does the amino acid profile look like? What are these building blocks? Is it a complete protein or not?
And then, how bioavailable is this protein? How does this protein work with your biochemistry? Because I see people eating protein sources that they're having reactions to. It's causing a lot of digestive distress or different inflammatory problems, and it's not working for them. I think that finding the right protein source that loves you back is important, because protein is needed for two main things when it comes to emotional and mental health.
One is blood sugar regulation. If your blood sugar is all over the place, if you're on that proverbial glucose rollercoaster, that's going to create a lot of anxiety, a lot of fatigue, a lot of cravings, and fuel that incessant cycle that many people find themselves in: feeling both wired and tired, anxious and exhausted, and bound by the next meal or snack.
But also, as I mentioned in the book, proteins are the building blocks for neurotransmitters. So, from a nutrient density standpoint, we need to be making sure that we are giving our body the raw materials it needs to produce things like serotonin and dopamine and acetylcholine, which are needed for focus and happiness and energy levels.
On Day 12 of the 21-Day Plan, you emphasize that boundaries are medicine. As the doctor, do you have a prescription for S+H readers? How can we better practice boundaries as a way to maintain our health?
Along with the tips I offer in the book, one in particular comes to mind. Speaking for myself, my best boundary medicine is “Let no be your multivitamin.” Because “I don't want to” is good enough. I think that would help a lot of people—be okay with saying no when you know intuitively that it's not the right time, not the right thing, not the right season. “If I'm saying things in kindness, I am not responsible for your reaction.” You don't have to defend yourself.
What is the most interesting thing you learned while writing the book?
It's an easy answer! I actually started researching this topic before I started writing the book. The concept of the book was already present, but I hadn’t yet sat down and written the chapters when I started researching intergenerational trauma. It's without a doubt one of my favorite topics in the book.
The intergenerational trauma sidebar is so interesting to me. I quote studies about people who experienced the Ukrainian genocide of 1932 and 1933 and the Holocaust. The research showed that these extreme human events impacted not just the people who lived through the events, but also affected people one, two, or even three generations following. Some studies showed that things like hypervigilance, autoimmunity, metabolic issues, and different inflammatory problems can be passed on like heirlooms, cellularly. It's because of our ancestors and what they went through.
It might sound kind of depressing, but, as I say in the book, I see people all the time overcome the impossible, and just as trauma can be inherited, so can healing. You healing yourself is not just healing you—it's healing your children, and your children's children, and generations you'll never get to meet. I get to see that all the time, the ripple effect of people reclaiming their health. All of them didn’t experience genocide, but they went through family trauma. And these patients are really making some amazing changes in their families.
"...just as trauma can be inherited, so can healing. You healing yourself is not just healing you—it's healing your children, and your children's children, and generations you'll never get to meet."
And, lastly, what do you hope readers take away from Gut Feelings?
My hope with Gut Feelings is that readers grow in awareness of themselves and start to experiment with different things. Working with the book and learning more about yourself, you might start to move your health in a positive direction and get your head above water a little bit. Ultimately, I hope to spark curiosity in people so that they can ask themselves, “What are the tools that I've experienced over the 21 days of the Gut-Feeling Plan that I want to keep giving my time and attention to?”
It's more of a springboard for healing than anything else. While you can’t possibly heal intergenerational trauma with one 21-day plan, it can serve as an inspiration.
Listen to our podcast episode with Dr. Cole from 2020 here.