Four Key Takeaways from Our Convo with Deepak Chopra

Before wellness influencers, there was Deepak. Ahead of headlining the annual dinner for the local med-tech trade group Medical Alley, we got the unique opportunity to sit down with the world-renowned authority on mind-body medicine to talk about radical acceptance, hacking the code of life, eradicating stress for good, and more. Here are four takeaways from our speed sesh with the man himself. Plus, he answers burning questions from a few movers and shakers in our local wellness scene.

1. Genes are not your fate. 

Chopra suspects that what he’s about to say may be subsumed by controversy, thanks to our culture’s propensity for hot takes, but he stands by the stats: “Less than five percent of all illness—that means all types of cancers, heart disease, autoimmune illness, Alzheimer’s—is determined by what we call ‘fully penetrant genes,’ which means having a mutation that predicts the disease with 100 percent certainty.” The other 95 percent of our genes are modifiable through lifestyle and dietary choices, and so the idea that genes control our lives is seriously flawed, he says. 

“Any thought, any feeling, any emotion, any relationship … eating, breathing, digestion, metabolism, elimination—everything we experience is either turning a gene on or it’s turning it off,” he continues. “There are chemical markers, like methylation, that trigger the activity of switching genes on and off.” He goes on to reference the trauma of the Holocaust being passed down to the survivors’ descendants through cellular memory. 

“When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, the Jewish population suffered a lot of starvation, and now, three generations later, their descendants have diabetes,” he says. “That’s because the biological message is starvation and famine. The body has to prepare for famine so insulin gets regulated in a direction which is not appropriate, but the memory is there and that’s what has been transmitted—not a change of lifestyle.” All of this talk about genes ties back to one overarching topic that Chopra feels is glaringly missing from the overloaded wellness space: Epigenetics, or the control of gene expression. 

“The conversation that’s missing is epigenetics and understanding more about how we can harness experience to shift the activity of our genes,” he says. “This is where the lifestyle side comes in: sleep, exercise, nutrition, the role of micronutrients, biological rhythms, emotions, relationships, and how flexible we are in consciousness.” Not the yoga kind of flexible, he clarifies, but how we approach life in the present moment. 

2. Stress is a waste of the imagination. 

We’re all familiar with that silent, sneaky killer that shows up in various disguises, from heart palpitations to high blood pressure. When we’re in a prolonged state of fight or flight, chemical changes take place in the body, causing a full-body response that resembles inflammation caused by infection or trauma. Chopra, who has proudly sported a “stress-free” badge for over 45 years, says dwelling and obsessing obliterates the creative mind. While sensitive to the fact that there are individuals who can’t change their life circumstances, or may be stressed as a response to a traumatic event, learning the art of surrender goes the distance. 

“I think it’s a waste of imagination. Stress is the resistance to existence, period,” he says matter of factly. “It’s just such a waste of time.” If these words came from any other person, we would be collectively rolling our eyes right now, but this is a man who knows his stuff—he’s studied the effects of stress for years, and has even designed a six-week program for stress reduction. “Just thinking about stress makes you feel stressed, right?” he asks, somewhat cheekily, getting back to his point about how we’re in control of activating our genes. 

So, how do we unlock the genetic switch of our stress response? Chopra says he sinks all of the day’s bad or wasteful or fruitless energy into meditation, yoga, nutrient-dense foods, and sleep. “Those are practices I enjoy.” He’s also mastered the art of the power nap, squeezing in 15 minutes here and there when he can. But of course, what may work for one person doesn’t always translate to the next. Chopra has gone on record to say that something as small as watching funny videos can make a big, biological impact. Oh, and love. While it doesn’t happen through what he calls “conscious effort,” loving up on our partner, child, or pet can be one of the best destressors out there.

3. There is no such thing as individual wellness.

Achieving optimal health does not exist in a vacuum. You can eat all the greens, lift all the iron, pop all the vitamins, and have the best sleep hygiene, but doing this thing called Life without having people in your corner (IRL!) minimizes all of those efforts. Social wellness, Chopra says, is a central part of the human condition. And it’s more important than ever in these socially-distant times. 

“Social wellbeing is what determines personal wellbeing, almost one hundred percent,” he says. “Actually, for the latest data on healthspan, social engagement is the number-one factor. And what does it mean? It means empathy, it means feeling what other people feel, compassion, the desire to alleviate suffering, and then some action—[like] love.” 

4. AI can have healing powers. 

During the pandemic, the Chopra Foundation created an emotional AI chatbot called PiWi, the nickname of a recording artist from England who died by suicide. “Everyone close to her missed that this [suicide] was going to happen, but it happened,” he says. 

PiWi the chatbot is an acronym that stands for Personalized Intervention With Intention, and engages in the four As: Attention (“she just listens to everything you say with no judgment”); affection (“she lets the person know that she cares and she’s always there”); appreciation (a showing of “deep gratitude on both sides”); and radical acceptance (“we are not here to change each other; the machine may change but the machine is not here to change you”). PIWI has already intervened in 6,000 suicide ideation deescalations, and has exchanged 25 million text messages with people so far.

“Teens love talking to her because they don’t feel judged. She checks [in and asks], ‘Did you sleep?’” he says. “‘Did your boyfriend or girlfriend call you back?’ ‘What did you eat for dinner?’ ‘How was the picnic?’ And no therapist is doing this for them.” Chopra states he’s aware that machines are not the solution; only part of it. But new technology (see: AI doomerism) gets a bad rap since society is quick to be alarmist. “If it can destroy the world, it can also heal the world,” he says. He adds that his foundation is exploring crypto and blockchain as a means to pay for counseling for people who don’t have the access. 

Questions from Local Wellness Pros to the Health Pioneer

“What do you think it will take from public and private sectors to realistically and functionally promote healthy lifestyles to decrease the burden of chronic disease?” —Amrit Devgun, naturopathic doctor and applied Ayurvedic practitioner at Northwestern Health Sciences University

Chopra: The shortest answer is that everything we do to motivate people to change lifestyle is based on fear. So we tell people, if you don’t stop smoking, you’ll get cancer. If you don’t try to lose weight, you get diabetes—and on and on. The entire lifestyle movement is based on fear and that doesn’t work, because then people stress about being stressed. People stress that they can’t change their lifestyle. So that is the number-one thing—I hate the word motivation because motivation is mental. People join [gyms] on New Year’s Day and after three months, they’re not going—and the fitness club is making money because they know motivation is not going to work. I believe in inspiration—inspiration is spiritual and I believe in education through inspiration, through example. So if [Amrit] is a good example, and she inspires people, then Ayurveda is the best lifestyle modification. Ayurveda is the original epigenetic science. 

“We lost a beloved food author, Raghavan Iyer, to cancer recently. He talked a lot about the healing power of food during illness. More generally, I’ve heard you talk about the power of diet/nutrition to change our health. Could you talk about that?” —Stephanie Meyer, author/founder of Project Vibrancy Meals

Chopra: A diet that has maximum diversity of plant-based foods, and is rich in micronutrients, which are nutrients derived directly from the energy of the sun, which means seven colors of the rainbow—this is very Ayurvedic, the six tastes of life—[adopting] that diet within three to four months should change the genetic population, which we call the microbiome in our body. So you have only 25,000 human genes, you have two million bacterial genes—you can fix them right away, okay? Just through diet. That means you change more than 90 percent of your genetic information right away. The 25,000 genes that you have respond to, you know, the fact that you’re eating a diet that is less inflammatory. Mediterranean diets, and diets in all cultures—Mexican, Italian, Ayurvedic, Chinese—they all have this. It’s only through industrial food production that we’ve screwed up the microbiome. Thirty percent of the microbiome has disappeared in urban Western societies, and many people think that the number-one cause of chronic illness is dysbiosis—inflamed by microbiome. What are we to do about it? If you go to a restaurant, you probably won’t get food that’s healthy for your microbiome. The only thing that we can recommend is for people to go to farmer’s markets and buy food that’s directly farm to table. And if we eat meat, make sure it’s not produced in a factory, because factory meat is full of steroids, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and substances as toxic as Agent Orange, which was used in the killing fields of Vietnam. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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