Dr Libby Weaver
“Are we living too short and dying too young?”
Leading Australian nutritional biochemist, author, speaker and businesswoman Dr Libby Weaver has devoted her career to helping her clients get to the core of their health issues. While most people will tell you that you have to lose weight to be healthy, Dr Libby will tell you the opposite – you have to be healthy to lose weight. It’s become her catch cry over the past 20 years, and helped countless patients achieve a healthier, happier, more biochemically balanced life.
Growing up in Tamworth, NSW, chasing chickens around the backyard, Dr Libby Weaver never imagined she would, as an adult, become an internationally acclaimed nutritional biochemist, speaker, best-selling author and expert on women’s health.
The truth is, her parents were unintentionally instilling in little Libby a life-long love and appreciation for nutrition. “I grew up very simply,” recalls Dr Libby. “We grew lots of our veggies. My mum used to talk to me about things like eating an orange because it’s full of vitamin C, and that’s really good for your immune system. My dad used to teach me about putting nutrients into the soil to get plants and the food to grow better. I sort of had an awareness of the impact of food from a pretty young age.”
Today, Dr Libby has a fierce following, of not just women but health professionals too. Her 102k followers on Instagram, and 206k followers on Facebook cannot get enough her aha-moment-inducing wisdom. She breaks down complex science talk to clearly communicate what’s happening to our bodies. She doesn’t hype it up (or make it up) like many health and wellbeing influencers on Instagram, she doesn’t use shock talk like aggressive fitness experts (go hard, or go home), and she doesn’t prescribe out-there diets or fitness crazes. Simply, she has developed a three-pillar approach based on her areas of expertise – the three pillars being biochemical, nutritional and emotional.
An eager student, Dr Libby first studied degrees in journalism and psychology, then nutrition and dietetics, before doing her PhD in biochemistry (hence, Dr); a total of 14 years at university. In the last 20 years, Dr Libby has successfully treated patients at her private practice, and at health retreats in Queensland, she has authored 12 books (and this month will start work on her thirteenth, likely to hit stores around August), runs seminars and online courses, and spends a significant chunk of the year touring internationally. In fact, she has shared the global speaking stage with some of the biggest names on the speaker circuit, think Richard Branson, Tony Robbins and Dr Oz. Basically, in the world of women’s health, she’s a big deal.
Interestingly, her focus on women’s health wasn’t deliberate. In those early years of seeing patients, Dr Libby noticed a pattern. “People didn’t come to me about their hormones 15 to 20 years ago,” she says. “They came predominantly for weight loss. Now, I’ve never weighed anyone; I’ve never even had a set of scales in my office, because I think, for women, you just weigh self-esteem. Energy is a much better marker of health, but that’s another story.
“Most people will tell you you’ve got to lose weight to be healthy, and I’ll tell you the opposite’s true. You’ve actually got to be healthy to lose weight,” she says. “That’s become my catch cry.”
Dr Libby would go through a slew of questions, enquiring whether her patient suffered headaches, sinus pressure or congestion, reflux, bowel problems, challenges with menstruation, and so on. She discovered the true issue almost always was never about weight. “I was seeing so much suffering, particularly with sex hormones, stress hormones, thyroid hormones in women who just felt like their body and their health was falling apart. That’s really how I came to focus on women’s health.”
Of course, 20 years ago, there were no coat-tails to ride when it came to women’s health. Dr Libby had to lead her own way, so she followed her eyes and not a textbook. “I was fortunate that when I was doing my PhD, my professors were pure scientists – a biochemist, an immunologist, a microbiologist… When you’re a pure scientist, you can see the wood for the trees, you can see what is a nutrition fad. The focus is on how the body works when it’s working well and what it does when it’s not working well.
“They didn’t tell me what to think, they taught me how to think, which I know is a bit of a cliché these days…. I did my PhD working with children with autism. That was the late ’90s. Back then, autism was considered to be a purely neurological condition. I was getting samples of urine and blood and faeces from the children, and looking for metabolic parameters and gut bacteria profiles in them… By 2008, there was really strong science published showing that gut bacteria influence what calories are worth. I’d already observed that in my patients. I listened to an individual’s body, what it was communicating, rather than always what a text book would tell me.”
This ability to think independently is what led Dr Libby to develop her three-pillar approach. Looking at the cases before her, Dr Libby would trace issues back to the first pillar, biochemistry. “If a woman is low in, say, progesterone, there will be reproductive system problems, but it has a lot of biological effects as well. It’s an antianxiety agent. It’s an antidepressant, it’s a diuretic. So, I would set about correcting the biochemistry, but then to do that you usually have to change nutrition [the second pillar], because, for example, the body won’t make the progesterone if you’re low in zinc.
“The third pillar [emotional] came because I noticed some of these intelligent and incredibly motivated women were not able to do 90% of what I suggested. They were suffering but it wasn’t a lack of knowledge holding them back.
“I feel like so much dysfunction comes from the belief that everybody develops, before they’re seven, that we’re not enough in some way – not good enough, not tall enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, just not enough the way that we are… The ‘not-enough-ness’ I think, is a part of so much including our inability to take great care of ourselves.”
What can we do? Dr Libby says the first step is to identify that your choices are contributing to how you feel and that the power to change that is in your hands. No one else can do it for you.
“We are so fortunate to be living at a time where we have access to such extraordinary medicine, to emergency medicine; it’s a massive reason why our life expectancy’s constantly increasing,” says Dr Libby. “But what I care about is the quality of people’s lives. A phrase I often say to people is: Are you living too short and dying too long?”
Fast track to burn out
When it comes to women’s health in 2019, what are the big issues we’re facing? In a word, says Dr Libby, stress.
“The whole endocrine system, which is our hormonal system, is governed by the hypothalamus, which lives in the middle of the brain. The hypothalamus is the ultimate control switch that then speaks to the pituitary gland, also in the brain. I call her the ‘mother gland’. She’s the one that then instructs ‘the big guns’ the ovaries, and the adrenal glands where we make our stress hormones, and she instructs the thyroid to work properly. She also instructs the pancreas, which regulates all sorts of processes within digestion and also blood glucose levels.
“One of the biggest challenges facing women’s health these days is, in a way, a type of system overload, because one of the hypothalamus’s jobs is to physically and emotionally ask the question, 24-7, ‘Am I safe?’ When the hypothalamus asks, ‘Am I safe?’ and we’ve got high circulating levels of adrenaline in our blood – because we’ve had caffeine which leads the human body to make adrenaline, or we might have high levels of adrenaline because we perceive urgency in our day, or we’re worried about what someone thinks of us – our body answers ‘no’. The hypothalamus then says to the pituitary, ‘We’re not safe, go to work.’ Pituitary then says to the adrenals, the ovaries, the thyroid, et cetera, ‘We’re not safe, make your stuff.’
“So, most women live in every minute of every day that their eyes are open, communicating a very inaccurate fact to their body, sending the message that they’re not safe. It’s ironic, because, relatively, these days, we’re very safe.”
Getting to the gut of it
Another hot topic in women’s health, and general medicine for that matter, and which is often related to stress is gut health.
“Gut health is so important because it’s the way we obtain the nutrients from the food we consume,” explains Dr Libby. “It’s how the nutrients then get across into our blood, and can then be utilised by the body. When we have poor digestion, our absorption, our assimilation and utilisation of nutrients is compromised, and then that has big consequences, because our ‘earth suit’ [our body] has a biological requirement for nutrients.
“Even beyond that, the bacteria that live predominantly in our large intestine are hugely responsible for our immune system function. The majority of the immune system in the body actually lines the digestive system,” says Dr Libby. “Gut bacteria also influence what calories are worth. We just don’t know yet, but they probably produce substances that we will eventually learn are vitamins. They’re so essential to our survival.”
Don’t snooze, you lose
Sleep too, or rather lack of quality sleep, is a huge health issue facing Australians. “There’s very strong science showing sleep deficit is linked to higher BMI,” says Dr Libby. “That’s not just because you’re awake for more hours, so you’ve got more time to access the fridge. It’s because there are hormonal changes that occur when we’re sleep deprived. The difference between five and eight hours a night is significant when it comes to the levels of hormones we make that help control satiety and appetite. They’re called leptin and ghrelin. With those two hormones, we’re much hungrier and less satiated when we’re sleep deprived.
“Also, during sleep is when all the repair work is supposed to happen inside our body. Aging and degeneration is more rapid when we’re not getting that restorative sleep, energy is compromised, sex hormone balance is compromised, the list is pretty much endless. Sleep is the basic foundation for health.”
For the love of our livers
While living in New Zealand for seven years, Dr Libby founded her plant-based supplement company Bio Blends which launched in 2016. “I wanted to make supplements from plants, from whole, real foods and herbs, because most supplements in the market are synthetic and made in a lab.
“My initial focus was on supporting the liver, because the liver is responsible for so much ill health when it’s not able to clear problematic substances from the body efficiently. We’re exposed to stupid amounts of problematic substances these days through what we eat and drink and put on our skin and what we breathe.
“A lot of people feel better with additional liver support. [Bio Blends’ top-selling product is Liver Love.] We need five serves of vegetables each day just for average basic health. That’s not amazing-kick-it-out-of-the-park health. Less than 10% of Australian adults eat five serves of vegetables a day. Without enough veggies, everything suffers inside of us, including the biochemical pathways responsible for detoxification. It’s a big deal.”
Dr Libby is looking to release two new Bio Blends products later this year, but is hesitant to reveal details until the ingredients are secured, “because anything can happen, you know? A swarm of grasshoppers go through and we’re done!”