The Story Behind The World’s Leading Paleo Health Expert
By Eloise King | First published in Well Being Magazine
Evidence is mounting to suggest that Nora Gedgaudas is gaining rockstar status in holistic health, natural food and some medical circles. “I just can’t get used to this fan thing,” she says from her home in Portland, Oregon, as we reconnect on Skype. “We’ve just been down to the local farmers market this morning because I wanted to get my hands on some duck fat one of the grass-fed meat producers has there, and I got swarmed by people who have read my book. It’s just so weird.”
It’s not, however, just in her hometown markets that Nora is being swamped by fans who want to thank her for their new found health. Celebrity chefs like Pete Evans contact her with praise, and Ivy League institutions are inviting her to educate their intelligentsia. In fact, just one week prior to our interview, Nora talked to a packed audience at Harvard University’s Ancestral Health Symposium on the critical importance of fat in our diet.
At another recent conference in Philadelphia, there was standing room only at both her lectures on the relationship between nutrition and mental health. “By the time I’d arrived, my books had already sold out [right],” Nora says. “More than 500 people showed up for each and throughout the rest of the conference I couldn’t go anywhere without being swamped by doctors, medical students, naturopathic people, everyone and anyone.”
So why are people falling in love with Nora? She’s the best-selling author of Primal Body, Primal Mind, Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and Longer Life; and now one of the world’s leading experts on paleolithic nutrition. She is smart and generous with her information – true – but it’s her willingness to defy conventional beliefs, to question blind consumerism and pay out on politicians that has captured peoples attention.
Nora is a natural born leader – albeit, a reluctant one – value-driven and big-hearted enough to care about herself and others. Her book draws together more then 25 years of nutritional research and examines the decline in our health since the rise of agricultural farming practices which has seen a shift in our eating regimes to include high-grain, high-carb and low-fat.
Nora says this high-grain diet leads to lifelong weight gain as well as cravings, mood disorders, cognitive problems and diseases such as cancer, osteoperosis, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and mental illness. “Since we’ve adopted this post-agricultural diet, research shows we have experienced a significant decline in stature, bone density and dental health and an increase in birth defects, malnutrition, physical and mental disease,” she says.
Instead, Nora advocates a return to a modified version of the hunter-gatherer diet of our paleolithic ancestors consisting of high-fat, moderate-protein and low-carbohydrate.
FROM ROCKY BEGINNINGS
Nora’s nutritional work is making a splash on the world’s very public stage, but her contribution to the field developed out of her own deeply personal need for answers. The first 30 years of Nora’s life were tough, with her first memories of depression being as a little girl, aged 7. Later she was diagnosed with chronic dysthymia – a mood disorder defined by depressive symptoms that are less severe but longer lasting than a major depressive disorder – that was punctuated by severe bouts of full-blown depression.
Nora’s black dog hung around throughout her teens, twenties and early thirties but got blacker and more debilitating as the years wore on. “I think depression is so strongly misunderstood,” Nora says.
“People see it as a state where you’re moping around and doing nothing, but what people fail to grasp is that for many people it’s actually a state of anxiety that turns into exhaustion. The depression comes after a stage of chronic efforting, during which time you’re not getting anywhere, so you arrive instead at a place of learned helplessness. When I think of the amount of energy I used to put in to just get through a single day, it blows my mind.”
As Nora transitioned between her teens and twenties she also became aware of increasing levels of anxiety that, during her first year of college, blossomed into a series of panic attacks that would come at her almost daily. Desperate for relief, she spent years devouring self-help books, sitting with counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, an acupuncturist, a hypnotist, on Anthony Robbins Total Immersion course, engaged in deep inner spiritual work on mountain tops and alone on vision quests contemplating the universe.
Nora found great relief from her angst out in nature and, during the summer of 1991, worked as a wildlife scientist with renowned researcher and wolf biologist, Dr. L. David Mech. They lived with and studied a family of wolves on Ellesmere Island, just 500 miles from the North Pole. “Nature did wonderful things for me,” she says.
During another five-year chapter of her life, she made a living as a singer-songwriter. “Music was like therapy and a way I could express my angst, it was very cathartic,” Nora says. “But the work I did with one therapist allowed me, eventually, to develop a better relationship with myself and other people. We kept hitting a wall, that I now know to be physiological (not psychological), but she helped me get over the angst of wanting to crawl out of my own skin all the time.”
It was around the same time, following years of gigging as a guitarist/vocalist in various pubs, restaurants, college concerts and smoky clubs, that Nora was approached with an offer almost every artist yearns for – a recording contract. What was her response? “I turned it down,” she says. “Once I’d sorted things out psychologically, I no longer felt the need to express that angst musically. I just didn’t have the fire in my belly to keep singing anymore.”
Great change, it would seem, was on the horizon.
NUTRITION FOR HEALING AND HEALTH
That “phsyiological wall” Nora talks about hitting during her therapy concerned her diet and biochemistry. Her interest in nutrition started during her teens when she entered college early, aged 16, to study pre-med, and then a double major in nutrition and anthropology.
Noticing that certain substances had a profound effect on how she was feeling, Nora developed a keen interest in supplements and a sophisticated understanding of nutrients and what individual amino acids could do to impact certain neurotransmitters in the brain.
“It never occurred to me to pull it all together in a foundational way because new and conflicting information would come out and I’d end up feeling confused and jaded by the field like everybody else,” she says. “I even tried vegetarianism for a while, which was a disaster for me and led to an eating disorder and deeper depression.”
Another 30 years would pass before her book Primal Body, Primal Mind would land on people’s bookshelves to advocate a high fat, moderate protein and low carb diet. There were, however, a number of significant events that shaped Nora’s understanding of nutrition and its relationship to health and happiness along the way.
1) Eating Fat, Losing Weight
A big one was the time she spent living with the wolves in the High Arctic cold. By this time she was 30 years old, and even though her diet back home included loads of fresh vegetables, all she craved was fat. “The last thing I wanted to eat up there was a salad,” Nora says. “I just couldn’t understand why my body was insisting on something that I understood (wrongly) to be so bad for me. I would eat huge scoops of butter, salami, nuts and other fatty meat… and I still wanted more. I got very little physical exercise because we used four-wheelers to get around due to the very hummocky terrain. But by the end of that summer I’d lost close to 25 pounds of body fat weight after stuffing myself constantly. I never forgot that lesson.”
2) Discovering Weston A Price
It was her Arctic experience that opened Nora’s mind to the work of dentist Weston A Price (right) and paleo oriented dietary research. Price (1870–1948) studied the diets of various cultures and concluded that aspects of a modern Western diet cause nutritional deficiencies that result in dental issues and health problems. The main culprits were flour, sugar, and modern processed vegetable fats. Nora realised there was something in the traditional diets of our primitive ancestors we could learn from so started digging further back to look at things paleolithically.
3) Inflammation-Depression Connection Research
Depression is now emerging to be a neuro-inflammatory disorder. While the body’s inflammation response is natural and required for healing, it causes many undesirable health problems (including depression) if that response is constantly on. “If you fall and skin your knee, your body elicits an inflammatory response for the period its needed to heal,” Nora says. “The researchers now know, however, that people who have chronic infections and food intolerances (chronic inflammatory issues) are universally prone to depression.”
Post agricultural foods and gluten containing grains are the most widely recognised foods that can mount this inflammatory response. They contain proteins that many people’s bodies consider foreign. Proteins in dairy products can be profoundly inflammatory for some also, as can sugars (and things that readily turn into sugar, such as starches). “I grew up eating a lot of bread, potatoes and grains,” Nora says, “foods that I now know I have a strong immunological reaction to so had me in a chronic state of depression, all the time. It was just terrible. Psychotherapy was useful for some things but it wasn’t able to touch the physiological component of depression for me.”
NORA’S DIET – Fat based ketogenic
Nora’s diet looks very different these days. It’s a fat-based ketogenic diet which means fat has become the main source of fuel that her body is burning – not carbohydrates or sugar. “There is nothing more stabilising to the brain than natural dietary fat, and there is nothing more destabilising to the brain than sugar and starch,” Nora says. “A well adapted ketogenic diet is anti-inflammatory and it can even improve blood flow to the brain by up to 39 per cent.” It’s the same diet she recommends in her book.
Here are the rules:
1. Cut out all dietary gluten and grains in general
2. Remove all dairy (with the possible exception of grass-fed ghee).
3. Eliminate sugar
4. Eliminate starchy vegetables
5. Moderate your protein intake to be just enough to meet your needs
6. Eat enough animal fat to satisfy your appetite. Not just omega 3 fats, but all types of animal fats.
7. Omega 3. Get extra omega three fatty acids in high quality fish or krill oil.
8. Tumeric can do marvellous things for people with neuroinflammation (a real problem in depressive and cognitive disorders). It’s one of the few anti-inflammatory substances that crosses the blood brain barrier.
After adopting a paleolithic way of eating, Nora had healed a significant amount of her long-standing depression. Neurofeedback, however, is what synergised it all for her. Neurofeedback is a process by which people can improve their own state management by learning to exercise their brainwave activity in a highly specific way. It’s designed to give people better function and greater control over their brain and nervous system.
“After neurofeedback session number two, it was like a life time of helplessness and hopelessness just flew out the window,” she says. “I ended up doing a full 40 sessions to make sure it became a permanent part of my nervous system but suddenly I woke up and thought ‘I have a life to live’. It helped me become more of who I already was, because I was finally able to get out of my own way, and was freer to experience life.”
It’s now been more than 15 years since Nora adjusted her diet and discovered neurofeedback. “And it’s been 15 years since I’ve called myself a depressed person,” she says. “It completely shifted my paradigm.” Somewhat unsurprisingly, Nora trained to become a neurofeedback specialist and today spends her days brain training people with ADHD, depression, anxiety, chronic stress, Autism, migraines, trouble with sleep and numerous other symptoms/conditions.
“Neurofeedback is a powerful way of managing dysregulatory stress and enhancing brain fitness for people of all ages,” she says, “but all the best brain training in the world won’t put a nutrient there that’s not there.”
And what of her old love for music? “I rarely play anymore,” she says. “Occasionally, I’ll serenade my cat in the wee quiet hours of the night to his considerable delight… or indifference. ” But Nora is still a rockstar to her fans.
Click here to see Nora Gedgaudas’ Soul Sessions talk
A big thanks to the team at Well Being magazine for your inspired content and committment to holistic health, well being and support for Soul Sessions.