Rethinking Wellness
Rethinking Wellness
Andrew Huberman and the Problem with "Cutting-Edge" Research

Andrew Huberman and the Problem with "Cutting-Edge" Research

On the shaky evidence behind intermittent fasting and cold showers—and why following early-stage research can be such a waste of time

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Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash

It’s Q&A time! You can ask your own question here for a chance to have it answered in an upcoming edition.

Today’s question has three parts. The answer to the first part is available to all subscribers (about my thoughts on Andrew Huberman in general), and paid subscribers can also read the answers to the other parts (about intermittent fasting and cold showers). 

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My husband and I have been listening hard to Andrew Huberman. He seems like quite a credible person, being from Stanford. We have taken up a lot of his recommendations in the past 6 months, including intermittent fasting and cold showers, among others. What do you think about him and these recommendations? All of your information is so helpful, by the way! Thank you so much.

Just a reminder that these answers are for educational and informational purposes only, aren’t a substitute for medical or mental-health advice, and don’t constitute a provider-patient relationship.

Andrew Huberman does seem like a credible person, as you say. He’s an associate professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford University, whose research has focused on vision and the neuroscience of fear and anxiety. He’s also one of the most popular podcasters in the U.S., if not the world. In two- to four-hour-long episodes, he explains complex biological processes and recommends various diet and lifestyle “protocols,” making academic concepts accessible to a general audience. His podcast is interesting and engaging, and I can understand why you and your spouse (and countless other “Huberman Husbands”) would be drawn to his work. TIME credits him for “[getting] America to care about science.”

The problem is that he doesn’t seem very invested in getting his audience to think critically about science—at least not about the “protocols” he promotes, which should be looked at with a skeptical eye.

Take the dubious supplements he pushes in podcast episodes and ads from companies like Athletic Greens/AG1, Thorne, Momentous, and more. He claims that many supplements—including adaptogens, myo-inositol, and a host of other substances—are evidence-based, despite the fact that they’re largely untested and unregulated, and the existing evidence is of low or very low quality. And he uses his status as a respected academic to sell what in many cases amounts to snake oil. “Inside the walls of academia, there are guardrails,” writes McGill University science communicator Jonathan Jarry in his deep dive into Huberman’s relationship with supplements. “On a podcast, however, anything goes, and the credibility of academia goes a long way to lend authority to supplement endorsements.”

Or consider the supposedly “science-supported techniques” for cold and flu prevention that he shared in a recent episode. As immunologist

reports, in that episode he dismissed the need for flu shots despite the strong evidence in favor of them, then “exaggerated benefits of things that aren’t scientifically supported to prevent respiratory illnesses or reduce disease severity, including sauna, cold plunges, fermented foods, nasal breathing, and various supplements (and now, a message from his sponsor: AG1).”

Andrew Huberman spreads misinformation about influenza and flu vaccines
(Note: this is part one of a multi-piece segment, for the sake of length…
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The root of all these issues is that much of the science he uses to support his claims just isn’t very good.

Like many advocates of self-optimization and “biohacking,” Huberman often seizes on early-stage research that isn’t ready for prime time—studies in animals, cell cultures, and tiny groups of volunteers—and uses it to advocate making intensive changes in your diet and lifestyle. These kinds of studies can be useful as jumping-off points for *other scientists* to do further research, but they aren’t meant to guide clinical recommendations or everyday choices about our health—only well-designed, replicable, randomized controlled trials in large numbers of humans can do that. What’s good for a lab rat isn’t necessarily good for a person. 

Of course, people are free to experiment on themselves based on early-stage research if they want to. I wouldn’t recommend it because it can lead down some pretty obsessive and pseudoscience-strewn paths, and it’s especially risky if you have a history of disordered eating. But beyond that, I wouldn’t recommend it because in the majority of cases it ends up being a waste of time. Most of the preliminary research that gets touted as “cutting edge” in wellness culture never ends up amounting to anything when it’s subject to further scientific scrutiny.

Intermittent fasting is a great example. This diet has gotten a lot of airtime in recent years, mostly based on studies in mice and other early-stage research—but the hype doesn’t match the reality.

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