Berberine, a Chinese herb, is another one of my favorites. Clinical research shows that berberine may reduce bad cholesterol (LDL and triglycerides) and increase “good” cholesterol (HDL). Some doctors use it for antibacterial effects, when patients’ stool tests show elevated levels of potential pathogens that are sensitive to berberine. It has also been clinically studied in diabetes as well.
In an era dominated by pharmaceutical solutions, there is a rising consciousness about the incredible healing and preventive powers of food. As the age-old saying goes, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” But how does this translate in today’s world? Can we really use nutrition as a potent tool against sickness and disease? How does one curate a diet that supports health, longevity, and wellness? In this series, we are talking to nutritionists, dietitians, medical professionals, holistic health experts, and anyone with authoritative knowledge on the subject. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Noelle Patno.
Noelle Patno holds a PhD and MS from the University of Chicago in molecular metabolism, nutrition, and translational sciences, along with a BA in chemical engineering from Stanford University. Her main work has focused on digestive health, the microbiome, and immune health, and she has designed and monitored clinical trials resulting in publications on probiotics and prebiotics and has presented on a myriad of topics including microbiome, digestive health, and probiotics and prebiotics. Patno is currently the Chief Science Officer at Bened Life.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Many people encouraged me in math and science, and these strengths led me to an engineering career. While I was working as an engineer and at the same time considering graduate school, I discovered that my intestine had stopped working for 10 days.
Emergency surgery and pathology revealed that a cancerous tumor had blocked my colon. Surviving that led me to feel I was “meant to be alive” and I wanted to live the purposes of my life. Committed to taking care of my health, I researched nutritional options to remain cancer-free. I wanted to find stronger evidence for nutritional approaches to disease.
My career shifted from working in the medical device industry to looking for a PhD program where I could investigate the foundation of molecular nutrition and discover new findings. At the University of Chicago, Dr. Eugene Chang shared his passion for the gut microbiome and encouraged me to seek nutritional treatments for disease in his lab. I joined his lab and defended my thesis, which involved microbial components in an intestinal epithelial model.
I wanted to find practical ways to provide nutritional solutions to patients. By sharing my vision of patients learning nutritional and lifestyle changes for their diseases, I found out about an opportunity to promote nutritional therapies, including medical foods and probiotics. I’ve been working in the probiotic and microbiome space since then, now focusing on gut-brain science with Bened Life. So, I followed my strengths and talents, and I trusted my gut to get where I am today.
It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think the funniest thing I can think of is a fact I found while testing my hypothesis on flatulence. People don’t typically talk or even study flatulence that much. My audience told me that my review was the funniest piece I’ve produced. I hypothesized that people only pass gas (aka, “fart”) a few times a day. But the reality, according to published literature, is that it’s normal to pass gas 10–14 times a day! Don’t assume you know what’s normal.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I believe in the servant leadership model, serving the greater good. I’ll offer three character traits for successful leadership: Integrity, Accountability (or Responsibility) and Adaptability.
Integrity is about honesty and having strong principles, doing the right thing, and being consistent. Recently, I communicated to colleagues a finding in a scientific publication, but I mixed up the order of results, so I went back and reported the mistake and corrected the communication. Additionally, I pay attention to people’s privacy concerns and ethics and incorporate that into the research I have done and continue to do.
Accountability and Responsibility involve focusing on task completion and making sure tasks get done. While people think differently, work differently, and produce differently, we also need to communicate with one another about these differences so we can work together and complete group goals together. One small example is that I proposed a different way of tracking meeting minutes and action items to clarify responsibilities. With my own way of using meeting minutes, I transfer the action items to the next meeting to keep tasks moving forward.
Adaptability is about being flexible when the external environment changes. For example, we needed to move a deadline for a project, move work meetings, or change the way we work (use new software systems for example). Moving with the changing needs of the business, a customer or a coworker is critical for leadership.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I have three major projects of interest to help people.
Number one, Bened Life is working on expanding its offerings and reaching a wider audience. I’m excited to be playing an integral role in the science portion of it!
Second, I’m working on a personal project, to share my cancer survivor story, which is about making my treatment decision. I hope it will help others make their treatment decisions.
Third, I’m working on a large educational project to educate on the gut-brain axis, from the enteric nervous system to the brain, specifically focusing on how the gut microbiome communicates to the brain. I think it will help people understand more about how their bodies work and how important it is to take care of their diet and lifestyle, which impacts their gut microbiome, in order to also help their brain. There are some common misconceptions out there, and the reality is we have a lot to learn in this field. The goal is to summarize and keep updating the current research in this area, and you’ll be able to find it through Bened Life.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview about cultivating wellness through proper nutrition and diet. To begin, can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority on the topic of nutrition?
I have educational and research experience, as well as speaking experience, in the area of nutrition, more specifically the microbiome and probiotics. My PhD is in Molecular Metabolism and Nutrition, which involves a foundational education in metabolic processes in the body, biochemistry, and biomedical sciences. I researched microbial products interacting with intestinal cells in an inflammatory bowel disease model.
Later I worked on natural products with multiple health applications. I developed probiotic and prebiotic products, designed clinical research protocols, and executed research in probiotics and prebiotics on the microbiome.
Reading and writing about nutrition and critically analyzing the published literature is a part of my training and work experience. Research for my own health management due to my cancer history gives me an additional unique layer of experience.
We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
According to the behavioral scientific literature that I’ve read and a course I took from a Stanford professor, three things are necessary to make something happen (like a healthy behavior).
One — sufficient ability (you must know how to do it and be able to do it), two — motivation must be high enough (like you want it enough), and three — there must be a cue or prompt to do it (an alarm, a request, an environmental cue).
You can learn more by looking up BJ Fogg and his work. And based on the relationship of these factors, making something easier will require less motivation to do it. Creating systems that make it automatic for us to make the good choices not only involves loving what is good for us, and educating ourselves to love what is good for us, but also discipline, preparation and perseverance.
I like to have bottles of water next to my bed, at my work desk, in my car, and in my bags or backpacks so I don’t have to search for water — it makes it easy. Having a variety of options for working out, from simply adding squats into a household chore or different lengths of online video workouts, makes it easy to find some time to move each day.
From your professional perspective, do you believe that nutrition plays a pivotal role in supporting the body’s natural healing processes and overall well-being, particularly in cases of chronic diseases? We’re interested in hearing your insights on the connection between a holistic approach to diet and its benefits for individuals facing health challenges.
I believe that nutrition is critical to support the body’s natural healing processes, especially for chronic disease. A holistic approach to someone’s condition involves identifying what are the nutrients needed in that condition. For example, low vitamin D levels are often associated with diseases in multiple studies.
Molecular biochemistry is full of the usage of vitamins and minerals for critical metabolic functions. Cancer is a metabolic disease as well as an inflammatory disease. The Warburg effect, which is cancer’s preference for glucose, shows us how excess sugar can lead to uncontrolled proliferation, and of course, the involvement of excess sugar in type II diabetes is well known.
Since specific nutrients are required for different biochemical processes in the body, whether for metabolism or gut-to-brain signaling, specific nutrients (whether vitamins, minerals or probiotics) could be required to ensure that these processes function for people with specific kinds of diseases. Some people are given specific diets for their disease and some people are now turning to medical foods or medical probiotics, when applicable.
Based on your research or experience could you share with us five examples of foods or dietary patterns that have demonstrated remarkable potential in preventing, reducing, or managing specific health conditions? If you can, it would be insightful if you could provide real-life examples of their curative properties.
1 . The Mediterranean diet is beneficial for many conditions — from personal experience, I have reviewed literature showing it was associated with a reduction in colon cancer recurrence, which inspired me to eat more closely to that eating pattern over the last decade. Additionally, multiple randomized, placebo-controlled trials and other types of studies provide evidence that the Mediterranean diet supports cardiovascular health and reduces the risk of diabetes.
2 . The spice turmeric or its active ingredient curcumin is a very popular anti-inflammatory product. It’s been studied in many health conditions, some with strong evidence, others with weaker evidence. On the gut health side, there are studies in ulcerative colitis, and curcumin also can act like a prebiotic, modifying level of gut bacteria. A couple meta-analyses suggest curcumin may help with osteoarthritis.
3 . Vitamin D is so critical. I knew a person who recovered from vitamin D deficiency: she had hair loss and an extreme amount of fatigue. Extremely low energy was her main symptom. Vitamin D is involved in healthy bones and immune function, so it’s important for attacks on the immune system. I’ve heard of people taking 10,000 IU per day — which is the maximum upper limit per day from a safety perspective — when they have a cold and they believe it works. But from the literature, vitamin D levels have been associated with many health conditions, so it is important for people with any disease, I believe, to have their levels checked to make sure that it’s not just sufficient but on the high end of the healthy range because it can easily drop if you stop supplementing or don’t get sufficient sun exposure based on my personal experience.
4 . Berberine, a Chinese herb, is another one of my favorites. Clinical research shows that berberine may reduce bad cholesterol (LDL and triglycerides) and increase “good” cholesterol (HDL). Some doctors use it for antibacterial effects, when patients’ stool tests show elevated levels of potential pathogens that are sensitive to berberine. It has also been clinically studied in diabetes as well.
5 . For the big finale, PROBIOTICS! Live microbes seem to be missing from our sterilized and pasteurized world. While you may receive beneficial microbes in fermented foods, probiotics are more specific with defined clinical research behind them. There are many types of probiotics, which are live microbes that, when taken at specific amounts, can provide a health benefit. Some have been studied to show immune benefits and others show specific gastrointestinal benefits. Psychobiotics are those that provide benefits for psychiatric illness. I was interested in the gut-brain probiotic L. plantarum PS128 for a few years before I started working at Bened Life and now I have the opportunity to talk about how providing these gut microbes, which are not available in the diet, can produce meaningful outcomes, such as supporting Autistic individuals with communication and other behaviors as well as people with anxiety and even some with Parkinson’s.
Do experts generally agree that merely choosing healthy foods isn’t sufficient, but that understanding how to consume them is key to unlocking their full health benefits? (For example, skins on/off, or cooked/raw, or whole grain/refined grain) Could you provide advice on how to approach this and sidestep common errors or misconceptions?”
There is more research coming out about how to prepare foods to ensure that you obtain nutrients and not the so-called “anti-nutrients.” Some of what we can gain from this research may be consistent with our own experience — few people enjoy raw broccoli for example. Broccoli and other crucifers are better cooked (steamed, often) to reduce the goitrogens that interfere with use of iodine and can impair thyroid function. So, for people with an underactive thyroid, it’s important to be careful with cruciferous vegetable intake and remember to steam broccoli and kale etc. If I’m a person with low thyroid function, I may want to have half a cup of steamed broccoli while a person with no risk factors for thyroid disease and normal function can take more broccoli to reduce the risk of cancer.
When I think of skin on or off, I typically think about the type of food and whether it’s organic — sometimes people talk about the “dirty dozen” you can look up to prioritize which foods to buy organic to avoid pesticides. So of course, you’re going to peel a banana and not eat the peel. Same for citrus through the zest works well in recipes and may have some benefits as well. There is a lot of fiber in many of the peels or skins, but if you suspect pesticides or it looks bad, it makes sense to remove it.
And as far as refined — that’s just like processed foods — they may lose some of the nutrients during the refining process. Refining the oil removes beneficial antioxidants (Phenols). But I also say trust your gut. There are taste differences and smell differences that also distinguish between virgin and refined oils. Our survival instincts can also help us pick how to eat our food.
With the recent prominence of nutrition’s integration into healthcare, what’s your perspective on the collaborative approach between medical professionals, health coaches, and nutrition experts when it comes to delivering holistic patient care? Can you please explain?
Integrative physicians, and functional physicians, seek to provide holistic care and often involve health coaches and nutritionists or dieticians to support that initiative. I consulted integrative physicians for my care after cancer diagnosis, for example. There are some institutions now that provide teaching kitchens for patients to learn how to support their health by cooking their own food. At the same time, patients may need specialists in each area, beyond the capacities of an integrative-based primary care physician.
Collaboration is required among a health care team much like the working together of the systems in the body. The immune system, cardiovascular system, digestive system, nervous system, and respiratory system are all interconnected — not to mention the musculoskeletal system. Nutrition is one major part of it, but lifestyle involves sleep and movement habits, and sometimes even a social worker or therapist may be needed. Human interactions impact health so much — loneliness and lack of social support are associated with worse health outcomes. Healthcare workers that specialize in each of these areas, or that cover multiple areas, need to work in collaboration with other medical professionals to ensure all the patient’s needs are met.
It’s been suggested that using ‘food as medicine’ has the potential to reduce healthcare costs by preventing disease severity. However, there’s concern about the affordability of healthier food options. What solutions do you believe could make nutritious choices accessible to everyone, ensuring that food truly becomes a form of medicine for all?
Health care and healthy food seem to be getting more expensive and make it challenging to make food as medicine more readily available. I love the urban farming movement, where communities use common land to grow food and share it. There was a plot of land being used for this purpose near the University of Chicago, and the vegetables and fruit they grew there were then distributed to communal kitchens in Chicago. Real fruits and vegetables growing in the middle of food deserts are needed. It was tragic to hear a doctor tell me of a mother and child coming to her with orange fingers from eating a diet of Cheetos and Arizona tea because that’s what was available in the vicinity of where they lived.
I’ve also seen other church and nonprofit organizations sharing food. I like the idea of school herb and vegetable gardens, and I’d love to see hospitals and healthcare institutions have their own gardens. If we use the land to produce nutritious food near our places of healing (houses of worship as well as medical centers), we can be more likely to create sustainable chains of food as medicine. I’ve also seen work done by students in Chicago to educate patients who live in these food deserts about where they can find places to buy healthy food or use their SNAP benefits on vegetables and fruits for example. This kind of education is critical to help people in these environments easily find what they need to support their health.
Everyone’s body is unique, and what works for one might not work for another. How does one navigate the vast array of nutritional advice available today to curate a diet tailored to individual needs, ensuring health and longevity?
Personalization of diet involves not only taking advice but also paying attention to your own body. Historically, people learned from their parents and ancestors — these are the people who have bodies most similar to you.
By knowing your family history, understanding your allergies if you have any, and considering how you were raised and how you react to foods, you can tailor your eating plan. At the same time, there are some simple universal guidelines — eating a variety of whole, natural foods, rich in vegetables and fruits, while avoiding processed foods. Essential proteins and fats from lean meats, fish, and oils like extra virgin olive oil are typical recommendations. The Mediterranean diet is a good place to start — but other people may be starting from their cultural diet, and that’s fine. Avoiding processed foods and eating according to your physical activity needs are two general guidelines everyone can use as a foundation. As for probiotics, because their effects are strain and disease-specific, choosing the appropriate probiotic can best be done with an informed healthcare practitioner.
As our understanding of the intricate link between food and health continues to evolve, we’re curious to know which emerging trends or breakthroughs in nutritional science excite you the most. How do you envision these advancements shaping the future of healthcare?
The gut-brain axis, epigenetics, and microbiome therapeutics are a few major areas captivating my attention. The more we can understand how to use nutrition to turn on healthy genetic expression the more we can personalize nutrition according to diet.
Some people, for example, metabolize caffeine more quickly than others. I would love to know more about genetic differences in enzyme expression in the gut and how that impacts digestion.
On the other hand, there is so much more to learn about the gut-brain axis. Many studies show a change in the gut microbiome or the addition of a probiotic and then a change in the brain, and sometimes a change in the blood or immune system. But there are so many steps between the gut and the brain — there is a lot of research to be done in this area, and we will likely see more treatments targeting epigenetics and the microbiome, from testing to treatment.
How can we better educate the public about the medicinal properties of food, and what role do professionals like you play in this educational journey?
Food as medicine not only involves what you eat, but the live microbes in that food — or missing from that food. When food has medicinal properties, medical professionals can use that food as medicine, which is to say we use it to manage a disease or support our health, to reduce the likelihood of disease. In some cases, patients are prescribed a diet when they have a certain condition. In other cases, there are medical foods, that don’t prevent or treat a disease, but provide nutritional requirements needed by the person with the condition. And in some cases, we may need specific microbes in our diet to support pathways relevant to diseases which result in meaningful outcomes for patients. More and more we are learning about which microbes perform different functions, and which microbes are probiotics or not. As a professional involved in education on the research of the microbiome and probiotics, I seek to educate on what probiotics are and how they work. I educate about how they can be added to a diet that is lacking in specific microbes that provide health benefits, whether for medical purposes or to promote health depending on how much and which probiotic is taken.
Disclaimer: The content here should not be taken as medical advice. The content here is for informational purposes only. For medical advice, consult a healthcare practitioner. The views expressed are the current opinions of Noelle Patno, PhD and not of Medium.com or Bened Life. Bened Life does not claim to sell products that diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find Noelle Patno, PhD, on LinkedIn here
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra, a Certified Health Coach and wellness entrepreneur with 28 years of experience, is the visionary founder behind Crunchy Mama Box, a Mission-driven Marketplace promoting healthier, sustainable living. Committed to social engagement, Wanda supports causes like environmental preservation, animal welfare, mental health, human rights, and social responsibility. Through her work, Wanda writes passionately about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact, and eco-friendly living. She shares valuable insights, advocating holistic health and sustainability, and aims to simplify wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com.