Jill Carnahan’s Story of Overcoming Cancer and Autoimmune Disease

Content By: Ari Whitten & Jill Carnahan, MD

In this episode, I’m speaking with Jill Carnahan, MD – a functional medicine expert duly board certified in family medicine for 10 years, and in integrative medicine since 2015. As a survivor of breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, and toxic mold illness, she brings a unique perspective to treating patients in the midst of chronic and complex illnesses. 

She co-authored the Personalized and Precision Integrative Cardiovascular Medicine textbook with Dr. Mark Houston and her new book, which is what we’re talking about in this interview, just came out in March 2023, is called Unexpected: Finding Resilience Through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith

Table of Contents

In this podcast, Dr. Carnahan and I discuss:

  • Dr. Carnahan’s personal journey overcoming two life-threatening diseases
  • The connection between chemo, gut permeability and Crohn’s disease 
  • Proactively avoiding toxins without becoming fearful and paranoid
  • How dietary changes can dramatically impact recovery
  • How to recover from chronic mold
  • Practical strategies to reduce exposure to common environmental toxins

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Ari Whitten: In this episode, I’m speaking with Dr. Jill Carnahan, who is a functional medicine expert duly board certified in family medicine for 10 years, and in integrative medicine since 2015. As a survivor of breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, and toxic mold illness, she brings a unique perspective to treating patients in the midst of chronic and complex illness. She’s the Medical Director of Flatiron Functional Medicine, a widely sought-after practice with a broad range of clinical services including functional medical protocols, nutritional consultations, chiropractic therapy, naturopathic medicine, acupuncture, and massage therapy.

She co-authored the Personalized and Precision Integrative Cardiovascular Medicine textbook with Dr. Mark Houston and her new book, which is what we’re talking about in this interview, just came out in March 2023, is called Unexpected: Finding Resilience Through Functional Medicine, Science and Faith. Enjoy this episode. I think you’re going to get a lot of value from it.

Ari: Welcome to the show, Dr. Carnahan. Such a pleasure to have you.

Dr. Carnahan: Thank you for having me. Excited to be here today.

Dr. Carnahan’s personal health journey

Ari: You have a new book coming out shortly. I don’t know if it’s going to be days before or days after we release this podcast, but right around the release of this podcast. The book is called Unexpected. This is an unusual book. This is not a run-in-the-mill, typical, let’s say, diet book, How to Lose 10 Pounds in a Month and blah, blah, blah. This is a different thing and it’s very much centered around your own personal journey. Tell us what inspired this book and what it’s all about.

Dr. Carnahan: I love that framework because I’ve got wonderful, wonderful colleagues’ books here, How to Fix Autoimmunity in 30 days or whatever else, and I knew that those have been so helpful in my journey. Again, I have a whole library full of them here, and there’s a place for that. What I wanted to do is bring practical information in that way, but what I’ve learned over the years is story is our powerful human connection. It’s the connective tissue between each of us. I am not unique, we all have a story. I envision this really telling, I’ve been through a lot of illness and overcome a lot of things myself, and I really felt strongly that I needed to tell my story and my journey.

The hope is that as I tell that story and that journey, that the reader would actually just see themselves. It’s more of a mirror than really about me. The trick is that it’s actually hopefully reflecting something in your journey that resonates or something in your life or illness or whatever journey that you’ve been through, where you can take some of the hope or healing or practical advice. It’s like two in one. It’s a prescriptive memoir, which means I tell my story pretty in depth. I’m very vulnerable and raw about what I’ve learned. I had this idea that environmental toxicity is such a big deal.

We need to go and talk about the environment and how it affects our health, but as I went through my journey and my own experiences, I realized there’s relational toxicity, there’s childhood trauma, there’s toxicity on so many levels. This book really dives into all the levels of not only environmental toxicity, mold-related illness, cancer, autoimmunity, et cetera, but also how are we in relationships? How are we in relationship to ourself? Or how do we deal with childhood trauma? I share my own journey and healing from these things, but then on the sidebars, we have really practical tips like, how do you know if you have mold exposure? What are the top labs to get by the time you’re 30? Really practical tips that are woven in there as well.

Ari: Let’s dig into some of the specifics. First of all, tell us about your story. What is the story that you wrote about in this book about your life?

Dr. Carnahan: I grew up on a farm, one of five children, pretty idyllic childhood, and was surrounded by brothers, a hardworking German farm family. I loved life, was happy and healthy, and I decided to go into medicine. I knew I wanted to be a healer, and I actually was much more of the heart of a naturopath, so I knew that there was natural ways and methods, but I ended up going to conventional medical school. I just felt like right now the reimbursable system in the US is still primarily allopathic medicine. I wanted to really learn that model well so that if I needed a shift or change or do something bringing in integrative medicine, I could do that.

I went into medicine knowing that I had a much more holistic approach, but that I still wanted to learn the best that the conventional system had to offer. In my third year of medical school, just a week after my 25th birthday, I found a lump on my left breast. I probably would’ve ignored it. Just 25, 25-year-olds don’t get cancer, probably know where the story is going, but I ended up having mammogram, ultrasound, all the workup. It was suspicious, and I had a biopsy, and my surgeon called me a week after my biopsy and she said, “Jill, I don’t even know how to tell you this, but you have aggressive breast cancer.”

At that time, Loyola University was my medical school, that’s where I was diagnosed, and my teachers actually treated and assessed me. I was the youngest one, this is 20 years ago, that was ever diagnosed at that time at Loyola. It was a very big of an outlier and surprise for everyone, and I was in the battle of my life. I knew as a young woman, my chances of survival were very grim. All of us know people who have breast cancer, family, friends, we’ve all been touched by this disease, but a woman in their 60 to 70s, it’s a whole different disease. It’s usually very slow growing. It can be life-threatening, but in a 20-year-old, it’s a death sentence.

It’s such a death sentence that I often share I was in a group of young women under 40 in Chicago at the time that [unintelligible 00:04:30] breast cancer diagnosis, and I am literally the only one still living. I went in for the battle of my life. I ended up doing three-drug, very toxic doses of chemotherapy to treat the breast cancer in multiple surgeries, I had a radiation. Nine months later I came out and I was bald, I was malnourished, I was so sick from the chemo, but I had overcome cancer. I went right back into my rotations. I learned a fun word for bald called glabrous. I thought that was so much nicer than saying I was bald. It means hairless. [laughs]

It was much more fun to say I’m glabrous than bald, and I was completely hairless after the chemo and went right back into my rotations. Again, I told you the story on the farm. I grew up in the stoic, hardworking German pull it by your bootstraps, don’t complain, work hard, all great stuff. It helped me become who I am, but I had no idea of really understanding my body, what I needed, and even being kind to myself. It was like, no, screw that body, you’re going right back to work. I went right back into rotations, actually incredibly sick from the chemo and the medicines.

Those next six months I was so sick, I don’t even have a lot of memories of that, but I was right in rotations and working my butt off. I had started having fevers, started having worse weight loss, abdominal pain. One of the things that chemotherapy does is that it attacks rapidly dividing cells, so cancer as well as the gut lining, so my gut was pretty much destroyed. I remember one night in the ER, I’m on ER rotation, I literally passed out in the ER as I’m taking a patient’s blood pressure. I ended up in the hospital that night for emergency surgery for an abscess that they found.

The next morning I wake up, the surgeon’s coming in to check on me, and he said, “Jill, you have Crohn’s disease.” I was like, “What?” Six months after the cancer. Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks its own gut lining. It can cause granulomas, you can have weight loss and pain and fevers, and that was me. I didn’t know that I had it, but all of a sudden I’m facing the second of life-threatening conditions still in my 25th year of life. I was like, “What in the world? What happened here?” Now, the story is so interesting because it makes sense.

I had a genetic predisposition that I didn’t know about called NOD2 that made me more susceptible to basically the microbial inhabitants of my gut triggering autoimmunity, and then some of the drugs I had for chemo actually induced intestinal permeability, so they caused more leaky gut, so all of a sudden the bacterial content started dumping into my bloodstream after chemo. My Crohn’s became active and all of a sudden my body was attacking the gut lining. It makes sense. It was a perfect storm. Also, unbeknownst to me, I had celiac disease, I didn’t know it. I was eating gluten, and I went to the gastroenterologist after my diagnosis to talk, “What’s the deal here? What do I do?”

He said, “This is lifelong. It’s incurable. You’re going to need steroids, immune-modulating drugs, and you’re probably going to have part of your colon removed over your lifetime at some point.” It was pretty dismal, and there’s no cure. In my heart and mind, this is where I started to go from my scientific bioengineering background to going into that heart space and be like, “That can’t be right.” Right before I left, I literally said, “Doc, I’m willing to do anything it takes. Does diet have anything to do with this? Is there anything I do with my diet?” He did not pause for a second, he said, “Jill, diet has nothing to do with this.”

Ari: [laughs]

Dr. Carnahan: Now we know better, and part of my story is how diet helped to cure me from Crohn’s disease, but in my intuition, I was just a 30 medical student. I didn’t have a lot of nutritional background, but I was like, “That doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t even make logical sense.” I went on a journey, did some research. I found specific carbohydrate diet, which at that time had been shown to reverse or help Crohn’s and colitis. I thought, “What do I have to lose?” I changed my diet and within two weeks, my fevers were gone, my pain was gone. I wasn’t cured, but I knew that I was dramatically altered by diet. I kept going on that journey and really learned how to heal my gut, and 20 years later, I don’t have Crohn’s disease.

Ari: Wow. Amazing. Diet does matter after all?

Dr. Carnahan: Yes. Crazy, right?


Ari: Who would’ve thought?

Dr. Carnahan: I can actually pull studies now that show diet and Crohn’s actually really does matter, so the science has come around 20 years later, but at that time, the science hadn’t caught up with what we thought could be true.

Ari: I’ve heard many similar stories of people with cancer, for example. I’ve heard actually a few horror stories of people with cancers asking their oncologist, “Doc, does diet matter at all to healing this cancer or my chances of recovery?” I remember one story in particular where the person told me something to the effect of the doctor told them, “Diet doesn’t matter at all. You could literally eat candy bars and McDonald’s, doesn’t make a difference.” Literally said so.

Dr. Carnahan: Wow. You’re like, “Are you kidding me?”

Ari: It’s pretty crazy. Hopefully, Crohn’s is an example of how things are starting to change in that regard.

Dr. Carnahan: Yes, and that really opened the door for me learning the gut, learning autoimmunity, because there’s a lot of similar patterns in autoimmune disease in general, and obviously the gut, the microbiome, and how it affects our whole body.

Ari: The chemo treatment for breast cancer, was it effective for you?

Dr. Carnahan: Yes. It’s interesting. This is actually relevant. Anyone listening, facing illness and they’re trying to decide decisions, here I am in medical school. I have access to the best medical libraries in the world, and I was faced with decisions about my treatment. First of all, I’m the youngest they’ve ever diagnosed and they have standard therapy for 50-year-olds, but not for 25-year-olds, what do we do with her? They gave me a plan, and what they did, they chose to be incredibly aggressive. One of the drugs they took actually to the maximum lifetime dose before you have heart failure.

I’ve had, so far, and I can never have that again because I had such a high dose that it was like right up to the threshold for your body weight that could cause heart failure. The second drug– so it was doxorubicin, Cytoxan, and 5-FU. The Cytoxan now, like I told you, we have studies that show Cytoxan or cyclophosphamide actually induces intestinal permeability, and that dumping of intestinal contents through the gut lumen into the bloodstream is one of the things that pokes the immune system and triggers cytokines that fights the cancer. Obviously, it makes sense of why they did that, but for me, it definitely contributed to the Crohn’s diagnosis, because all of a sudden my gut was permeable.

We had all this microbes and my body’s like, “What the heck,” and it started attacking itself. Now it makes perfect sense. What I was going to say in the beginning was I had to make a decision and there was no precedent for my age, my type of cancer, and what to do. I remember back then taking all the data and being overwhelmed and I was in medicine, so I can’t imagine those listeners, those people who are facing these treatment decisions. It’s a hard, hard thing. What I promised myself was, at that moment, at 25 I was going to make a decision.

No matter what I decided, whether it killed me or whether I survived or whether I had lifetime effects of the chemo, which I have, I would never, ever second guess my decision because I took the best information that I had at that time and made a decision and moved forward. I do believe it saved my life. It was so toxic, but I also have never regretted the fact I have an immune deficiency now, and it’s probably partially because of the chemotherapy. 20 years later, I’m still dealing with the side effects of that toxic drugs on my system, but I don’t have regret because I learned so much. I survived. There’s lots of good that came out of it.

Ari: Okay. Now is this where the list of medical problems ends or are there more to add to this story?

Dr. Carnahan: Oh, no. [chuckles] Ari, I’m like a guinea pig. I had to learn everything the hard way through experience. I was doing fine after that. I ended up moving to Colorado, starting my own functional medicine consulting practice. Started running, hiking, skiing, all the things I loved, my hair crew back, and 2013 there was a massive flood in Boulder. We’re starting to see all these climate change events all over the world. It was one of those kinds of things where it was like, they called it the 1,000-year flood. Massive, like literally billions of dollars of damage to the towns and the surrounding areas. I remember that day I actually went into work.

It just kept raining, and raining, and raining and the water started rising, and it ended up being this massive flood. I was in this older, probably 1970s building in South Boulder, that was my medical office, and there was a crawlspace right under my office that was never finished, had standing water, flood only made that worse. The basement where I was working also had water damage, and then I had this older office that had old carpet. When we came into remodel, we threw on beautiful bamboo flooring, and my contractor, now I look back and think, “What in the world?” he threw this beautiful new bamboo flooring right over old carpet that was like 20 years old.

Every step I took was like puffing up this old garbage and debris underneath me and then we had water damage, which led to mold growth. Bottom line is I started getting really, really sick the following year. I did not know what was happening. I would have red, puffy eyes, my eyes started bleeding around them, the skin, my scalp got really bad psoriasis, I was exhausted. I couldn’t just get my breath, and I’d been running marathons previously. My lungs, my skin, my immune system, I would get all kinds of infections, I was going downhill. I felt worse at work than at home, but I couldn’t quite put it all together.

I have so much compassion for those facing mold-related illness because there was a piece of me that was in denial in the beginning because I knew if I found there was mold in my office or in my home or somewhere, I had to change homes or move or remediate due to tune of thousands of dollars. There was cost involved. It took me a few months to actually be sick enough to face it head on. What I did at that time was I checked my urine and found there was some massive amounts of mycotoxins, especially the T2, it’s called trichothecene is a really black toxic mold, toxins. They’re now used as chemical warfare agents. They’re really toxic.

I had an inspector, we went down to the basement of the office building and found black toxic mold growing. I had enough knowledge at that point to know that was probably contributing to my illness, but I still didn’t know much about mold. When I found out the results of my urine and my bulk sampling, I literally never set foot again in that office. I got rid of 20 years of medical school box that were in that office and just started over. For a while, I worked out of my home and I had to learn, this is part of my journey is whether it’s learning how to cure Crohn’s or colitis, or learning how to deal with mold-related illness, it started with me.

As a healer, I was sick and I had to figure out how to get well. All of a sudden, by default, I became the mold expert and had to go deep and really learn about biotoxins in our environment, water-damaged buildings, and how profound they affect our health, and how many people are walking around with maybe early on onset cognitive decline or new onset autoimmunity or chronic fatigue or migraines. They think it’s just this label, this diagnosis, but the truth is underneath that there’s mold contributing to that illness.

Why Dr. Carnahan decided to write her book

Ari: Geez, it’s quite a laundry list of medical problems that you’ve been, I don’t want to say cursed with, but you’ve had to deal with in your life, and that were maybe temporarily a curse and have now turned into a blessing as far as transforming your own knowledge, and skills, and capacity to help others. At what point did this journey then culminate into writing this book? What’s the transition between all those sicknesses and now and what prompted you to write this book at this moment in time?

Dr. Carnahan: Interesting. First thing I want to mention is, the biggest theme of the book is what you just mentioned. It’s how do we– I am not unique. We all have suffering, we all have difficulty. Maybe you haven’t faced the huge illnesses I have, but you either have something else or maybe a family member that you love is sick or we all face these things. One of the bigger pictures is how do we take suffering, trauma, difficulty, life events, loss of job, loss of loved one, and now that we want these to be like Pollyanna beautiful things that we aren’t acknowledging the suffering, but if we can view them as what is this here to teach me?

Because on our soul’s journey, what happens is we all get struck with things that are unexpected, the title of the book. If we can view those as, “Yes, this sucks, it’s painful. I do not like this. I want to get out of the situation as soon as possible,” but if we can transform that view and say, “Okay, what is the lesson here? What is the teaching? What is the learning?” I started with my cancer and a profound thing happened in that beginning where I received a download, it was a radio podcast and it said the sickness won’t end in death, but it’s going to be a bigger purpose.

The bottom line was, it was a verse actually, but it gave me this framework that was like, “Oh, what if there’s something bigger, more important here to see,” and I started to look at it that way. Now looking back 20 years ago, that was the start of my success as a functional medicine doctor because I started sharing my story and how I overcame breast cancer. It gave me a platform and a compassion that united myself and patients and clients that I would’ve never had without that experience. When you’re on the other side of the gurney and you’re the patient and not the doctor, there is a whole nother level of training and understanding of the human body that you can never get in medical school.

The first thing is, if we can turn our view of suffering difficulty to find the pearl, to find the lesson to teaching, it transforms us, but we have to be looking for it. It’s like neurolinguistic programming when we’re changing our view of things, the things that we want to see. For example, this is a silly example, I always get good parking spots, but part of it is literally I’m like, “Oh, where’s my beautiful parking spot going to come?” I’m looking around, looking around and over and over and over again, I find the parking spot right in front of the building pulls up open.

I’m like, “How did this happen again,” but part of it’s because I’m viewing the world and expecting good things, expecting transformation and beauty and I see it every single day, so that’s that. Then the other part of this is I have had a lot of suffering and difficulty, but each framework has given me another depth of understanding to help patients, and I just now accept the fact that I’m going to have to go through some things and I happen to learn really well by experience, but what we can do is keep going to that next level of learning. Now I can honestly tell you, I think anything could come my way and I would be able to survive it like I have. That’s a resilience.

That’s the core of this book, is giving the reader the idea that they too can have this resilience. If we look at Viktor Frankl, he’s one of my favorites. Man’s Search for Meaning. He was in the holistic, he was in the concentration camps. Nothing could be– My life doesn’t compare to the suffering that man experienced, but he was able to take that and the unconditional love he showed the other prisoners and seen the ability of the soul to transform in even the most dire circumstances. That’s powerful. As we have that look on life, and Edith Eger has written about it too, and what she talks about is literally the human compassion.

Those were the people who survived the ones that were most kind, most compassionate, most loving in the most dire of circumstances. I’m off on a tangent, but I think it’s important because the reader, the listener anytime that we can build that idea that we have everything we need to overcome, that’s true resilience.

Is there too much focus on trauma?

Ari: This might be a bit of a digression, but I can’t help but notice in this moment in time that we’re living through right now within the wellness space, there’s a zeitgeist, like a spirit of the age of the current wellness culture that is very focused on trauma. Trauma is very in vogue. I’ve noticed, and I don’t want to come across as not being compassionate and empathetic to the actual traumas that people experience, but I’ve noticed that it has almost become popular for people to do what I would call self-traumatizing like to retell a version of their life that is hyper-focused on the relatively normal difficulties and stresses and parental challenges that most people experience and to frame them as traumas.

Then to see oneself as being the product of all of these accumulated traumas and to see all of these negative qualities in oneself as being the product, the result of these traumas and to focus on what I would consider almost like a victim narrative of one’s life. To some extent, it is actually the exact opposite of the self-narrative that you have just described, arriving through many, many actual really serious bouts of suffering and adversity to a place as you described, which is what I would define as real resilience. I’m expecting life to throw really hard stuff my way and I’m confident I can handle it. Not only that I can handle it, but I will be made stronger by it.

Again, I feel right now there’s so many people who are reinforcing and almost teaching a narrative that is almost the exact opposite of that. It’s like teaching people how to feel victimized and fragilized by all of the adversity and traumas, real or imagined, of their lives. I’m wondering if you maybe, maybe you don’t, but maybe you share a similar observation to me and if you have any thoughts on that.

Dr. Carnahan: I love that, Ari. I love what you just said because what I’ve learned in how we overcome illness is part of our identity. It’s funny because I have had cancer, but there’s times when someone will ask me and I’m not really paying a lot of attention, “Did you have cancer?” I almost will say no because I’ve never identified as a cancer victim or a cancer patient. Even when there’s fun drives for cancer research, whatever, often it goes to the pharmaceuticals and I almost don’t even identify as a cancer survivor because I’m not a victim, and that never defined me. I think that’s part of the healing because none of these things were permanently part of who I am.

They just happened to me, and that’s okay, things happen, but they never became my identity. You can take that as past I never identified with that, but what I talk about in the book is actually this is how we heal. We choose a new identity. I am not a sick person. I don’t have– Again, I don’t mean to deny the suffering because I know if you’re listening out there, you’ve had chronic fatigue for years, you maybe have trouble getting out of bed. That’s real, but– or I could say and, and there’s also another story to be told. One of my stories I tell is I realized in my history I was fighting cancer, I was fighting Crohn’s.

Again, I grew up on a pull-it-by-the-bootstraps, hardworking family, so that fight was in me, and I won, I overcame those illnesses. Then when it came to mold-related illness, how mold works is mold in someone who has trouble getting rid of the toxins out of their body, those mold toxins will trigger your innate immune system to cause cytokine production, kind of like we saw in COVID and this collateral damage in your own body that’s actually being instigated by your own immune system. The mold’s a trigger, but then your body goes in this vicious cycle trying to get rid of it and actually damages your own tissues because of its own activity.

There was one day I sat in my chair in meditation, I had this massive aha and I realized my own fighting mentality, “I’m going to fight this, fight mold,” was killing me. I was like, “I have to change the narrative.” You’re talking about narrative here because trauma doesn’t define us, and it happens to everyone in some form whether it’s little “t” like you said, the problem is what we’re both seeing is the little “t” traumas are being– we’re owning those and all of a sudden they’re becoming our identity. “Oh, my father wasn’t as good to me as my sister.”

Now, I don’t want to diminish if you were abused or– There’s big “T” traumas, and trauma is real, but even the big “T” trauma, we have the ability to overcome and to change our mindset and to reprogram. What I dealt with this fight analogy was like, “This is killing me.” I went to work on meditation and this is a funny story, but what I chose is those little yellow Minions in Despicable Me movie. Those were my visual for my immune system. They’re happy, they’re whistling, they’re not fighting. I imagine them actually just whistling and grabbing the arm of the mold and escorting them out of my system. Happily friendly, whistling, no fight, but still getting them out of my body.

I started meditating on that daily in my walks and within six months things really turned the corner. I really believe, this goes back to your first thing about trauma and identification, I changed my story and I’ve changed my identity and I continue to every day change. Who am I? Who am I becoming? I just today looked back 2016, it was around the time that year prior, if I look at my journal I had written 2015, I wrote, “I’m going to write and publish a book next year.” That’s seven freaking years ago. I just am now publishing my book, but I had this idea way back then. What happened to me in the interim was I had to experience a lot more.

I went through a difficult divorce, I went through some other things in the mold-related illness and the divine knew I needed those seven years of more experiences. Each year has transformed me into a whole new person. I think what you and I are getting at is, yes, there’s suffering, yes, there’s trauma and there’s big “T” trauma, and some of you listening have suffered horrendous things and there’s no diminishing the pain, but you don’t have to identify with that. When we choose our new identity or change the story, the narrative in our brain, that’s about how we become resilient. Like I said, I don’t even think of myself as a cancer victim, which is crazy, or a cancer survivor. I don’t ever like to use that word. Sometimes I forget because that was never my identity.

Environmental toxins to keep an eye out for

Ari: So beautifully said. Okay, let’s switch gears and maybe talk about some other dimensions of environmental illness. Obviously, you’ve mentioned mold here, but what are some of the other big environmental toxicities that you think are worth discussing? I think in the beginning of this, you also mentioned that in your own journey, you discovered these other factors beyond the manmade toxins and the mycotoxins and things of this nature. Now expanding this to include things like relationship toxicity. Tell us about your paradigm around that.

Dr. Carnahan: Sure. Again, when I was journaling about writing the book, I had this idea that I would write an environmental toxicity guide, a book there. A couple of things happened. Number one, I realized it was not just environmental toxicity, but as you mentioned, relationships that were unhealthy, childhood trauma, big “T”, little “t”, and again, not identifying with that, but acknowledging that and doing the work around healing. Then really trauma on all levels and toxicity on all levels, we could call it that, but way more than just environmental.

I do want to talk about the environmental, but the important thing is when I looked at my journey like breast cancer at 25, okay, why in the world did I– I ask the question why a lot. For me, that’s the detective work of saying, “What happened? How can I reverse that? How can I learn from that?” If I look at 25-year-old breast cancer, there’s something that really went wrong for a 25-year-old to get aggressive breast cancer. Number one, I had some pretty poor detox genetics. When we deal with environmental toxic load or toxicity, I always teach that we have a bucket capacity to detox. We’re all born with a bucket. Some of us have a very small bucket, some of us have a much larger bucket.

That water level as it rises over our lifetime with the toxins and intoxicants that we get exposed to, when it starts to reach the legend spill over, we often present with autoimmunity, cancer, or neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or any sort of neurological disorder. Those are the most common. Other things can happen. When we think about that water level, when I’m seeing a patient, I’m always thinking about, “How much is in their toxic bucket and where is their load at?” Even if I can’t identify every last toxin in that bucket, if I can use basic principles of detoxification to bring that water level down, as soon as they have margin, they often recover and do better.

They don’t have to have no water in their bucket, they just have to have a lower level because when we have margin, we have the ability, our bodies are created to detox. For me, part of the aha was I looked back, and for young women and men too, the chemicals and things we put in our environment for cleaning on our faces and body with bath and body products, makeup, hair, styling products, so many of them contain parabens, phthalates, heavy metals, and toxins, and we’re literally putting them on our body. Especially with breast cancer, that’s one of the first things I’ll have people look at. If I look back, my dad has a handwritten journal where he recorded the chemicals he used on the farm.

I grew up on a farm corn and soybeans in Central Illinois. Literally the year I was born, he has them written, I looked up the toxicity of every one of those. Every one of them. First of all, most of them are banned in Europe. Atrazine, for example. Atrazine is a known endocrine disruptor, meaning it causes hormone-like effects on the cells of both men and women and absolutely contributes to weirdness in the endocrine system like cancer, especially breast cancer. If that weren’t enough, this’ll tell you the story. I was 25, breast cancer, sudden aggressive. My sister, who’s 7 years younger at 28 was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, another endocrine– There’s two girls, same environment. There’s no doubt that environment and genetics had a play in it. We both have recovered, but that’s just like so telling in and of itself.

Ari: Also, for people listening, I’m sure this, Dr. Carnahan, but there’s so much research now that’s emerged around the exposures, the pesticide levels in the blood that are detectable in children that are growing up on or near farms and increased incidence of neurodevelopmental disorders, autism, and many, many other conditions that are linked with the proximity of your home to those kinds of farms.

Dr. Carnahan: That’s exactly, and of course, I grew up on a well water, so the runoff could have gone into the well. I don’t have the absolute proof to say this did this, did this, but the story is I was likely exposed in utero by my mother and then on the farm growing up. When we think about cancer in a 25-year-old, those cells started doing rogue, bad things 10 or 20 years before, which makes me 5 or 10 years old. This started when I was very young and then, of course, became a cancer at 25. That was really why I understood the toxicity to be such a big deal, and then even the gut.

Another chemical glyphosate or Roundup, which wasn’t when I was born, but then in the ’80s and ’90s, I think ’90s started to become more prevalent. They would create crops called genetically modified corn and soybeans that could resist the application of this herbicide. It wouldn’t kill the crop, but it would kill all the weeds around it. What that glyphosate does, is it’s a mineral chelator. It binds the minerals, keeps the plant from absorbing them, and the plant dies. When we get exposed, which now there’s literally traces of glyphosate in Organic California Wines. It’s everywhere, it’s ubiquitous. It’s in our environment.

This glyphosate in our gut will preferentially bind the minerals that our good bacteria need to survive, so we lose some of the species like lactobacillus, and we can have overgrowth of other harmful things like clostridia. Those are just those two examples of chemicals, but there’s many, many more and we’re all swimming in toxic soup. If weren’t actively detoxing, we’re behind the game.

How to mitigate toxin exposure

Ari: How do we mitigate this? Do you have any suggestions? I think there’s actually a couple of layers here worth speaking to. One is, of course, the practical strategies that one might use to mitigate their exposures to first of all minimize their exposures and then to ramp up detoxification and elimination excretion of these toxicants that are ubiquitous. Another dimension that I’d be curious to get your thoughts on kind of ties into what we were just talking about with regards to psychological and emotional trauma, which is how you are mentally framing this to yourself because, as we said, these things are ubiquitous, there is no avoiding them completely.

On one end of the spectrum you can have this attitude like, “Oh my God, I’m being exposed to this tiny amount of this and this tiny amount of that,” and then you can have so much stress and neuroticism and anxiety around it that I would argue that what you’re doing to yourself with the stress and anxiety is probably even objectively more toxic than the actual exposure to those trace amounts of those substances. How do you do things physically and what do you teach people to do mentally as far as how to frame their relationship to these ubiquitous toxins?

Dr. Carnahan: Love that. Years ago, my friend Dr. [unintelligible 00:33:19], he’s one of the king of functional medicine, and he would always teach and be like [unintelligible 00:33:23]. He was so funny, so he was great to listen to, but those lectures on environmental toxicity even 20 years ago, we were always like, “Oh, what do we do? We’re all swimming in toxic soup.” We can reframe that. The first thing is very simple. You could take all the supplements in the world, go to the biohacking labs, and do all this great stuff. Those are fine, I love those things, but it starts simple and it’s clean air, clean water, clean food.

Let’s go into that real briefly, because it’s not that hard to start simply. Air, 80% of the environmental toxic load that we experience is from the air that we breathe. That was a shocker for me when I learned that statistic. That means that if we’re by exhaust from fumes, from petroleum products, or off-gassing our homes from new countertops that the granite can off-gas uranium or the cabinets can off-gas formaldehyde. The air that we breathe is really toxic. I’m a big fan of getting standalone air filters in your home or your workplace that are not only HEPA filtration, having your furnace have a HEPA filtration, but those standalone ones can also have VOC.

VOC is Volatile Organic Compounds. This is like formaldehyde, mycotoxins, viruses, and particulate as small as 2.5 microns, which is again the size of mold toxins and the size of viruses. These filters do a huge service to us by helping the air become more clean. Sadly, because our homes are much more environmentally conscious and more efficient, there’s less exchange from the outside, and that actually creates a more toxic problem if we have off-gassing of products or mold in our homes or things. The air quality number one, clean air.

Clean water is, like it sounds, trying to avoid any plastic water bottles. Making sure your water’s filtered at least at home. You can use something like a whole-house reverse osmosis system, which is amazing. It does create a more acidic product, so you want to replace minerals and keep that a little bit more alkaline, or you can use a fridge filter or a standalone countertop. I have all three. [chuckles] You can use any of those things. You want to make sure the water you’re drinking is clean and pure as possible. One little side note, I talked to Dan Buettner, who wrote The Blue Zones, and talked about all these centenarians that have lived over 100 in certain areas of the world.

One of the things at least in the Costa Rica area was their water is enriched with volcanic ash, and so it’s very, very rich in minerals. I’m a huge fan of, even if you have reverse osmosis, drinking purified mineral water from Europe or wherever you get clean water from.

Ari: I’ll mention just briefly, I live in that blue zone that you just described, in the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and I have well water here on my property, so I must be getting the magic water that you’re referring to.

Dr. Carnahan: I love that. Oh my gosh, I love, love, love. I want to come visit. Just drink [unintelligible 00:35:55].

Ari: You’re welcome to.

Dr. Carnahan: Clean water is super huge. Again, where you live matters. Just for example, Colorado last year came out, all of the water is contaminated with PFAS. This is those Gore-Tex and Teflon products. They are forever chemicals, which means scientists don’t even have the ability to calculate the half-life. They’re there for good in our water supply, so if you are drinking unfiltered water, you’re getting at the very least PFAS and probably a lot more. Clean food is going to be local, organic, I mean all the stuff we know to do, but we really have to put it into place, because all of these things are relative to the bigger toxic load, the bigger resilience.

If we are not actively daily making choices for clean air, clean water, clean food, and even clean minds, like all these other things, we’re behind the game and no amount of 21-day detox is going to do it. We have to make daily choices. Yes, it’s overwhelming, but the other side of this is we just need to put habits into place about what we drink, what we eat, where we go, how our houses having an air filter. Fairly simple things that can make a really big difference long term, but they have to be daily or weekly habits and not just something you do on a spa trip once a year.

Ari: Beautiful. I think this might be a good place to wrap up. What do you think Dr. Carnahan is there anything else you want to make sure that people are aware of as far as maybe what’s important for you to teach right now?

Dr. Carnahan: No, we have covered the gamut. Thank you for letting me share a little bit of my story. I think the biggest thing is there’s hope. The other bigger picture is whether it’s loving and accepting ourselves, where are we at in the journey and not attaching to an identity that’s not us, or whether it’s extending that love and gratitude to the people around us. They sound like woo-woo, but those are some of the most powerful healers, is this true being present with people, showing love and gratitude. That right there is some of the most profound healing that we can do for our planet.

Ari: Beautiful. I love that. Tell people when your book is coming out and where they should go to get it.

Dr. Carnahan: March 28th is the [unintelligible 00:37:59] date, so whether before or after you can get it. Read Unexpected is the landing page, but you can get this book anywhere where books are sold.

Ari: Wonderful. What can they expect to find in it? Obviously, like a more elaborate in-depth discussion with more practical tools, building on all the information you just gave everyone.

Dr. Carnahan: Yes. I share my journey in depth with authenticity, but my hope is that you’ll see yourself and you’ll be inspired and realize your own resilience, and then like I said, there’s very practical sidebars with tips and tools to recover from mold toxicity, heal from autoimmunity, have healthy relationships, so lots of practical advice as well.

Ari: Wonderful. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Dr. Carnahan, and best of luck with your upcoming book launch.

Dr. Carnahan: Thank you so much, Ari. Thanks for having me.

Show Notes

00:00 – Intro
00:46 – Guest intro
01:55 – Dr. Carnahan’s personal health journey
17:11 – Why Dr. Carnahan decided to write her book
21:32 – Is there too much focus on trauma?
28:05 – Environmental toxins to keep an eye out for
33:39 – How to mitigate toxin exposure


Get Dr. Carnahan’s book here: Unexpected Book 

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