My Journey In Health and Happiness - Chris Ashenden
I will always remember the day I hit a rock bottom. Actually, it happened twice.
The first time I was so unhealthy, my doctors were convinced I had cancer.
The second time, with 30 odd dollars to my name, and my accounts overdrawn… I took a screenshot of my bank balance and emailed it to myself with the words, “Remember this feeling”.
But let’s back up a bit.
Like most of us my health story begins in the womb…
My parents were active and healthy, and I was born naturally (no surgery), then breastfed for 18 months. Pretty rocking start.
But it only got me so far. Recurrent respiratory tract infections meant I was already accustomed to frequent antibiotics by the time I was a toddler.
As I got older, two or more courses of antibiotics a year never really struck me as crazy.
Being a frequently sick kid didn’t stop me though. By the time I was 13 I already had a list of highlights…
5 years in Japan
9 months backpacking with my family
3 countries called home
44 countries visited
It was mind-expanding to say the least.
The tummy bug to end all tummy bugs, in Turkey
3 months ejecting said tummy bug from both ends
Doing the above in toilets and rubbish bins across the third world
Finding out after the fact, that I’d had both giardia and hepatitis A
My family, who had enjoyed the same food and drink, were fine. My immunity it appeared, was not so hot.
This was my first major health challenge. It would not be my last.
In the meantime, I developed a passion for sport.
I won the high school swimming prize, the cross country running prize, was in the triathlon team, and in my last two years of high school, got heavily into rugby, martial arts and the gym.
I have to say I was pretty chuffed in my senior year to be voted most likely to be:
A professional athlete
A male stripper
I may have ticked a few of those off the list, but I’ll leave that open to interpretation…
By the time I graduated high school, I was obsessed with all things training and nutrition, and most of my birthday presents had something to do with my fitness hero, Bruce Lee.
My passion followed me to University where I studied for a Bachelor of Science in Sport and Exercise Science.
I took courses and gained certificates in personal training, nutrition, exercise for special populations (sick or injured people), and plyometrics.
Not quite ticking off that millionaire prediction yet, I also worked multiple part time jobs as a trainer for both martial arts and fitness training.
Nutrition Fail 1 - The Food Pyramid. Shocker.
By my second year at University, my nutrition mantra was the food pyramid, with cereal grains at the bottom as the base and foundation. At the time, I really thought this was the ideal diet.
Rugby and strength training in the gym became my main focus and I made the under 21 rugby team at Auckland’s North Shore Club.
Which is right when my next real health challenge came along…
Here’s how it looked:
Training between two and four hours a day, six days a week
Part time work
Fat burning stimulants as workout performance aids
The ECA stack - ephedrine, caffeine, aspirin
That stack was my go-to for pre-workout energy. Big mistake.
The double hit on my system of over-training and too many stimulants began to impact my sleep. I went from sleeping 9.5 hours a night like a baby, to barely sleeping four.
Not wanting to back off my training volume, I simply took more stimulants to train harder.
So began a list of symptoms that would become all too familiar…
Poor sleep became insomnia
I puffed up like a balloon from water retention and hormonal chaos
For the first time in my life, I got chubby
More respiratory tract infections requiring antibiotics
But wait for it… This wasn’t even close to rock bottom.
Nutrition Fail 2 - 35% Protein. 65% Carbs. 10% Fat.
I realized early on that nutrition was key for health and longevity, and based on the doctrine of the time, I ate in near perfect compliance while taking a bunch of “multivitamins”.
I couldn’t feel any of these working. Even though my urine was fluorescent, I took them religiously because I believed they were good for me.
But my symptoms and antibiotic use persisted.
At my training volume, there was nothing inherently wrong with my macro nutrient profile, but my food quality choices were poor…
Dairy for cheap protein (as in, waaaaay too much dairy)
Cereals and grains for carbohydrates (with more milk)
Whole grain bread because it was “healthier”
Pasta or rice, every day (oh the carbs)
Plenty of fruits and vegetables
Meat with every bit of fat trimmed off
I did not know what I did not know.
I had also spent my way into debt by age 25, and I wasn’t particularly happy.
I turned my focus to financial freedom and invested the next three years in developing as an entrepreneur and growing a small real estate business in New Zealand.
I gave up on competitive sport, though I kept training in the gym and continued reading voraciously on training and nutrition.
In 2003 I was introduced to the so-called “caveman diet,” by friend and nutritionist, Cliff Harvey. He told me how he had largely cured his Crohn’s disease through nutrition.
This was my first introduction to a different paradigm…
Nutrition Fail 3 - The 90/10 Rule
I dropped all starches, including wheat, from my diet, using a 90/10 rule.
During the week, if it didn’t grow on a tree, in the ground, or come from an animal, I didn’t eat it.
Saturdays were my cheat day. I would eat whatever I wanted for two out of the three meals… Chinese dim sum for lunch, and a pizza or big carb meal like pasta, Thai, or Indian food for dinner.
My theory - this was the best mix between health and sanity.
If you do everything right the 90%, you can do what you want the other 10%. Right?
I never knew how wrong this could be, until I ended up in a medical clinic for three months a few years later. Cue: rock bottom take one.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
I’ll wind it back to how I got there in the first place.
I hit 28 and had finally achieved financial freedom, but was still frustrated in life and my career.
So I left it all behind and headed to Argentina, to play rugby and learn Spanish for six months.
Within three weeks of landing in Buenos Aires I was sick with acute bronchitis. It took 10 days of antibiotics and laying in bed to beat it.
It was mid Spanish lesson in a café in Buenos Aires that I saw a blond haired, obvious foreigner walk in and sit down.
I eventually wandered over and introduced myself. His name was Timothy Ferriss, and he was writing his very first book. We’ve been solid friends since.
I must have looked the part. I was lean and strong and ‘looked’ healthy.
But I still had the symptoms…
Uncontrollable weight and body fat fluctuations
A life reflection moment (read: crisis) as my 30th birthday approached made me realize I wanted to play rugby at a decent competitive level before the opportunity had passed.
I avoided alcohol, coffee and other stimulants for a year.
I performed my own off and pre-season training and was in the best performance condition of my life.
I could do 88 push ups a minute, front squat 160kg for reps, bench press 140kg, and run 40m in 4.9 seconds.
I began training with the prestigious Randwick Rugby Club based out of the beautiful Coogee Beach in Sydney.
My supplement regime included the most comprehensive multivitamin I could find, plus whey protein, creatine, and amino acids for recovery.
I should have been healthier than ever. But I got sick with bronchitis twice that season. Then a bigger nastier bug hit me, and I was out for five weeks with yet another bronchial infection.
And So My Downward Spiral Began…
I was called up for the quarterfinals, had one of the best games of my life, and was named most valued player, but couldn’t straighten my leg by the end of the game.
An MRI revealed I had torn a thumb-sized hole in my hamstring tendon, right where it joins your butt. Not good. I was seriously unhappy.
To add to my list of usual symptoms, I began to notice deteriorating digestion. I had diarrhoea multiple times a day.
I was still looking the absolute athlete on the outside, but was seriously fatigued and had continual sniffles.
I saw my first doctors then. They did standard blood work and took some stool samples for pathogens, all fine.
Eventually I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.
Feeling pretty down, I went to spend New Years in Punta del Este, Uruguay, with a group of friends. Within two days of landing I was in bed sick with a fever and nasty cough with horrid yellow-brown phlegm.
Lying in bed, feeling horrendous, I could hear my friends jokingly referring to me as “The Black Lung,” as they laughed their way out of the house to the beach.
That was it. That moment. I decided enough was enough.
The Biggest Shock Of My Life
I was going to fix the fatigue, fix the immune problems. I also wanted to stop the diarrhoea.
Mainly I was just tired of feeling sick and tired.
My hunt for a decent clinic was a long one, before I was put in touch with a specialized clinic in Phoenix, Arizona.
I decided an investment in my health was an investment in my future.
I had to go for it.
WARNING: Graphic descriptions ensue…
By this stage I was going to the bathroom nearly 20 times a day and my movements had mucous and undigested food in them. Occasionally blood.
My first week at the clinic was a week full of blood and needles. Literally, 58 different vials of blood were taken over the first five days.
It wasn’t long before the first results began to come back.
I had incredibly low levels of essential micronutrients, amino acids and neurotransmitters.
Immune boosting antioxidants such as glutathione were nearly non-existent.
In short, I had shockingly low levels of all the key vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and neurotransmitters necessary for health.
Then came the big one… Rock bottom version one…
“You have gut inflammatory markers that are extremely high. In fact, the only time we have seen a result this high has been in advanced bowel cancer. We would like to do more tests to rule out cancer.”
I was shocked.
As a 30 year old health and fitness “expert,” who was playing sport at a very high level… How the hell did this happen to me?
I didn’t have cancer. A massive relief. But I was diagnosed as having either extremely severe Irritable Bowel Syndrome or ulcerative colitis.
They told me that looking at all my results, they were shocked I could even get out of bed in the morning.
Treatment began immediately.
An elimination diet. Daily intravenous injections. I did this for 6 weeks straight.
I was also placed on a comprehensive supplement regime, customized according to my blood chemistry.
It ran to just over $100 a day.
By the end of the six weeks, I was like a different person.
All my existing assumptions about what constituted good nutrition, and human health were in question.
Over the next few months I read 100’s of hours of books and blogs (I love you, Robb Wolf!), and began to realize that so much of what I had assumed was correct, was wrong wrong and wrong.
My number one learning…
Gut health, it turns out, is extremely important.
Not only is your gut the portal for all your nutrient absorption, it is also incredibly important for immune function, and controlling levels of deadly inflammation in your body.
Nutrition Fix - The Paleo Template
I adopted a paleo template as my foundation for nutrition.
This typically involves a diet where all non paleo foods are removed for a period of time, and then reintroduced at a later date very slowly, to assess tolerance.
When foods are reintroduced, you typically keep out the big nasties, like wheat/gluten permanently, and any type of frequency with other cereals, corn, rice, legumes, or dairy, forever.
By then I had read enough to realize that for true health, nutrition came down to:
Eating enough of the good things
Not eating the bad things (antinutrients, pro-inflammatory foods)
Ensuring your gut could absorb the good things
Ensuring your body can utilize the good things you put into it.
Whole food nutrition was key. Nature wins, hands down, every time.
We need nutrition in the form our bodies have been absorbing for millions of years - whole foods.
Micronutrients in a form our bodies understand and know how to use.
Enzymes and cofactors, vital for absorption and utilization. Whole food ratios of micronutrients is also important.
Remember. Nature is smarter than us.
Those synthetic “multivitamins” I had taken for years were just money flushed down the toilet.
I was on the $100 a day supplement regime for 3 months. That’s $9K, give or take. It was getting a bit ridiculous. But it was nothing compared to financial doom of rock bottom version 2. More on that later.
By now I knew that most of us needed nutritional support on a daily basis.
Modern lifestyle factors like stress make it difficult to maintain optimal nutrition. And because our food supplies have changed, as have our gut biomes, the perfect diet is virtually impossible.
I wanted a very comprehensive nutritional and gut health support program.
It had to be whole food based.
I didn’t want to be taking 50 pills a day, and I didn’t want to keep paying $100 for it.
In a perfect world, I would get this done in one serving a day. I knew it would be an epic challenge, but I was up for it.
And so my journey into health hacking began…
The One Supplement To Rule Them All
I put together my own daily regime, made up of multiple different products. All whole food based, with as much bang for my buck as possible.
I began to feel better, whole food nutrition rocks. But I knew I was still far away from a perfect set of ingredients.
As fortune so often has it, around that time I was meeting a wealthy business mentor of mine every few weeks to discuss life and business.
We talked about my experimentation with a whole food based “once a day” formula, designed to help make me, and hopefully other people feel awesome.
To use a line from the Lord of the Rings; I wanted ‘The One Supplement To Rule Them All’.
I couldn’t stand the supplement industry; most of it run by the modern version of snake oil salesmen out to fleece people, or large companies who pump confusing multiple products at folks, most of them just shoddy or synthetic.
My passion and excitement was contagious. He said he wanted in.
In hindsight, had either of us known just how much money and effort would be required to develop this product, let alone bring it to market, I doubt he would have signed up!
I went looking for the experts we needed to make this happen…
2 Naturopaths with combined 40 years of clinical experience
Medical doctors with an interest in functional medicine
Medical research PhDs with a focus on proven scientific studies
It was the perfect mix. It gave me access to experience, and years of research in and around health and nutritional supplementation.
I needed to create the world’s most complete all-in-one formula. It had to be taken once a day. I wouldn’t compromise on having:
A complete vitamin formula, with vital co-factors present and intact.
A complete mineral formula, using the most bioavailable and efficacious forms.
A full suite of antioxidants, all from whole food sources.
A full suite of concentrated and freeze dried superfoods, a whopping bolus of high potency micronutrients.
Neural support. Mental clarity and happiness are vital to overall health.
Hormonal support and support for modern stressors, particularly via adaptogen herbs, which assist our bodies to withstand and cope with stress.
Liver and cellular detoxification support.
Comprehensive gastrointestinal support, including digestive enzymes, probiotics and prebiotics.
These are all crucial for good health. I had found this out the hard way.
People needed to feel it working, and there would need to be dozens, if not hundreds of scientific studies on each ingredient.
And for it to be safe for everyone, it had to have...
No common allergens such as gluten, corn, dairy etc
No GMO’s, period
Nothing artificial. No colorings, no flavorings
No nasty sweeteners or sugars.
No binders, no fillers, no gums or thickeners
The only way all of this would work was as a powder. It was out of the question to take 16-20 capsules just to get the same dosage.
My business partner and I were the lucky guinea pigs for the early prototypes.
My digestion improved. My gut health improved. I started sleeping longer and waking up with more energy. My hair and nails were growing like wildfire. My skin changed. My razor rash, gone. I was recovering from training faster.
I noticed when I travelled I didn’t get sniffles any more (let alone bronchitis!).
I could feel a difference in my body. We had done it… it was working!
Excited, I shared the early versions with friends.
My business partner’s cycling buddies reported feeling more energy on the bike within a few weeks, and that their post endurance training sniffles were gone.
My best friend’s girlfriend told me quietly that after years of constipation, she went to the toilet daily now, (but please don’t tell her boyfriend). On top of that, her energy was through the roof.
So much good. Rock bottom version 2 surely couldn’t have been just around the corner, right?
By now my business partner had invested far more money than either of us had ever anticipated.
Just the sourcing alone was brutal. Over 70 ingredients from all over the world don’t come easily or cheaply.
On top of that, we were making it in New Zealand, my home country, and one of the cleanest and greenest places on the planet. High quality production comes at a price.
Still, we believed it was worth it. Our green powder mixed into a drink that tasted good, wasn’t gritty, and delivered more than 70 ingredients without compromise.
I timed it frequently, 27 seconds was all it took to be done and dusted.
Timothy Ferriss was one of the first to try an early prototype of our formula. Now the best-selling author of his book ‘The Four-Hour Work Week’, he had also previously owned a supplement business and knew a heck of a lot about nutrition.
I sent him multiple early versions, curious for his opinion. He thought I was a bit nuts to put so much into one product, but was proud of me for attacking it.
At this point I made two decisions. First, to continue my love affair with the USA, and focus on the US market. Second, to call our formula Athletic Greens. I was an athletic guy, after all.
And here it comes, the tension is almost palpable.
The USA was a rude awakening.
I had no idea about selling anything online. I wasn’t a marketing genius. Our website was ugly. And it literally didn’t work.
Oh, and let’s not forget the fact none of our product had arrived in the USA.
Surely if I built it, customers would come?
It’s embarrassing to say this now…
But we had made three batches to ship to the USA, with no one to sell it to, no orders, no stores, no functioning website, and basically no idea.
Oh the optimism!
Customs froze our first shipment for FDA testing. Sure, we passed with flying colours in the end, but it took months.
On the bright side, we had no one to sell it to anyway.
I was pretty bummed out, and my partner was getting very stressed; he was out of money.
By now I had spoken to multiple experts in retail and online business. They all said the same thing: you don’t have the margin to make this work.
It became very apparent that we had the worst margin product in the supplement industry. Not the kind of award I was hoping to win.
Initially, I was very down. But I kept thinking about the positive reviews we’d had. I was determined to not dumb down our super supplement.
Then it came to me.
I would get Athletic Greens in the hands of the best health and fitness influencers in the USA, and let them fall in love with the product. Their referrals alone would be enough to get things started.
We forgot about retail and markups and sold directly to our customers. Why should they pay more than they needed to?
The list of influencers who loved Athletic Greens grew, and they offered to tell all their fans about it, as soon as I was ready.
There were just two problems.
One. I had burned up my savings. I had no money, and was living on a series of friends’ couches.
I had an inventory worth many 100’s of 1000’s of dollars sitting in a warehouse, and I owed money for the privilege.
Two. That website. Horrendously ugly, hard to use, let alone order from. What little traffic we had didn’t convert to orders.
On a personal note, I was also dealing with depression, though I didn’t know it.
This was it. My second experience of hitting rock bottom. I still have that email of my bank balance, and it worked, I remember the feeling.
The Sprint To The Finish Line
It took me 11 renditions and nearly 9 months to get a page people were comfortable ordering from.
The first 10 renditions did not work. The story behind the 11th is quite funny.
To cut an already long story short, I’ll summarise for you.
In return for a new website and readable copy, I offered two highly paid experts the only thing I had left - a long term supply of Athletic Greens.
It worked. Even to this day I’m amazed that happened. I didn’t have any cash, but I did have gumption.
I wish I could say it was all smooth sailing from that point on. It wasn’t, but it was the start of something that has allowed me to improve the health and happiness of thousands.
Timothy Ferris, without my knowledge, had recommended Athletic Greens in his new book ‘The 4-Hour Body.’
Then our new website went live. And just like that, conversions went up 500%.
With the enthusiastic support of other influencers, we grew our small business and achieved one of the highest customer retention rates in the industry.
Our customers loved us. They loved the quality. They stuck around and they told their friends.
I made many many mistakes along the way, but we now had 1000s of people who loved how they felt taking Athletic Greens every day.
I believed then, as I do now, that Athletic Greens could not have survived without the loyalty and support of our greatest customers.
50 Shades of Green…
Since that first batch in 2009, Athletic Greens has had 50 renditions to the formula, and will have many more.
We realize that our understanding of nutrition and science is an ongoing process, so we audit our ingredients annually using our team of PhD’s and naturopaths.
When science and studies show there may be better alternatives, we make changes to the formula.
That’s why I’m confident in saying Athletic Greens is easily the world’s most comprehensive whole food formula.
And having the world’s most comprehensive all in one whole food supplement is a work in progress!
Nutrition Success - Infinity And Beyond
As a freshly minted 40 year old, I continue to follow the paleo template.
I believe we should all start with this, and modify it to make it work for each of us. We are all different, there is no true one size fits all.
At 40 years old, I can deadlift 200kg, front squat 140kg for a nice fast double, and move pretty darn quickly up a hill.
I don’t look or feel like the 40 year olds I remember seeing in my youth. Keeping the aging clock moving very slowly is a lot less work than most people think.
Both my parents, now late 60’s and mid 70’s have deadlifts that are impressive.
They also follow the paleo template, take a daily dose of Athletic Greens and support this with Omega 3 and a Vitamin D3/K2 formula. There is nothing else you really need.
Side note: Omega3 DHA/EPA and D3/K2 are oil based, and cannot be put in our Athletic Greens formula - in case you were wondering.
We were late for a plane last year in Turkey, and a group of us had to run 1km to our gate. My parents kept up easily despite running with their carry-on and were not the ones puffing the hardest when we got there.
And here’s where I sum up my philosophy on health and happiness.
If you skipped to the end, this is the good stuff…
It’s so important to understand that food really is first. Get your food right people.
Do something every day to minimize stress. This could be a walk in the sun, some meditation, anything.
Try and get 30 mins of sun exposure on your skin every day where possible.
Socialize regularly, we are designed to be social creatures and it is vital for our happiness and health.
And sleep folks, gets lots and lots of sleep.
Intelligent exercise is a crucial element.
I recommend the following for everyone, particularly those over 40 chasing superior health and energy:
Lift weights 2 to 3 days a week, these can be just 20 to 30 minute workouts
Engage in mobility work every day
Move every day, walking is awesome. So is playing sports that have you moving around. Try to limit sitting.
Sprint every now and again. Or perform some form of high intensity but short duration interval work. Once a week or even once every ten days is plenty.
Once you’ve taken care of the basics of food, sleep, stress, sun and exercise/movement, consider smart, whole food supplementation.
Smart supplementation means a whole food based “nutritional insurance®” product like Athletic Greens, that also strongly addresses gut health and absorption of nutrients.
Next is Omega 3 to fight inflammation and assist in mental focus, and Vitamin D3/K2 (these should always be taken together) for optimal heart health and coverage for days we don’t get enough sun.
And that’s it.
I challenge everyone to attack their assumptions on what is possible, let alone what “normal” should be, as we get older.
I intend to go quietly into old age, but I will fight the whole way.
Follow my simple formula above, and happiness will ensue.