Would you trust a man who infects himself with tapeworms in the name of science? It sounds crazy, but science journalist and BBC TV presenter Dr Michael Mosley proudly proclaims himself a “Self Experimenter”, according to his Twitter account.
Speaking to Star2.com on the phone from Taiwan, he says that there are “lots of programmes I do things to myself to test out ideas and claims”, freely admitting that “I think it is partly because it makes better television, and partly because I’m also genuinely interested in finding out about this stuff”.
No surprise that he was inspired by Australian gastroenterologist and Nobel Prize laureate for medicine Prof Dr Barry Marshall, the original modern day self-experimenter who famously downed a broth filled with Helicobacter pylori bacteria in a bid to prove that the microorganism caused gastritis and peptic ulcers.
This was in 1984. Ten years later, Dr Mosley directed a Horizon episode on the work of Prof Marshall and his colleague, pathologist Prof Dr Robin Warren, which was still not widely accepted though it had proven that H. pylori did cause gastritis and peptic ulcers.
The documentary received tremendous response from viewers, including thousands of letters seeking help to treat their gastritis and ulcers (easily curable by a course of antibiotics that kills off the H. pylori). It also triggered an interest that led to Dr Mosley eventually becoming a presenter.
“At that time, I was a director – so I was behind the camera – and I started reading up all about the history of medicine and discovered that it is full of people who experimented on themselves. (For example) anaesthetics was discovered by people snorting and sniffing everything they could lay their hands on.
“And so I proposed a series that was all about the history of medicine told from the lives of self-experimenters. I pitched that idea for 20 years, until eventually, one of the commissioners at the BBC said they wanted it and they wanted me to present it – that’s how I became a presenter,” he shares.
It was, as he described, “his third career within the BBC”, having previously been an executive producer as well. Coincidentally, working with the BBC is actually indeed his third career.
Coming from a family that tended either towards banking or religious service – his maternal grandfather was a bishop of Hong Kong and his paternal family were bankers and traders in the East – a career in the media was certainly not on his radar.
In fact, after studying philosophy, politics and economics at University of Oxford, Dr Mosley followed the family tradition and went into banking. But after two years in the finance industry, he decided to make the leap into medicine.
“I was very interested in what makes people tick, what makes them behave the way they do – psychiatry is what I would have done,” he shares.
However, after qualifying as a doctor, the long hours got to him and he decided that he would take a break, and work for the BBC as a trainee assistant producer for a couple of years before going back to medicine. “That was 32 years ago, so I’m probably not going back,” he says wryly.
Diet For Diabetes
In over three decades that he’s been at the BBC, Dr Mosley has produced, directed and presented dozens of TV series, episodes and documentaries on various science and health topics. He is probably best known for popularising the 5:2 diet.
About six years ago, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes – something not altogether surprising, considering that his father had the disease and eventually died from its complications at the age of 72.
His doctor naturally wanted to start him on diabetes medication, but Dr Mosley wanted to see if there was something else he could try, as he knew that the drugs would be a lifelong commitment.
He explains: “The reason you develop type 2 diabetes in most cases, is because you have too much fat in your liver and in your pancreas, not talking to each other. And the best way to get the fat out is through rapid weight loss, and you can effectively reverse your diabetes in as little as eight weeks.”
After doing his research and speaking to various experts, Dr Mosley came up with the 5:2 diet, where you eat only around 700-800 calories for two days in a week, but normally for the remaining five.
He shares that, to his surprise: “I lost 10 kilos, which was about 15% of my body weight at that time, and my blood sugars went back to normal, where they have stayed.
“If you had spoken to me before that, I would have told you that fasting was good for religious people. That was because I didn’t know about all the scientific research, which had been going on for 20 years.”
His self-experiment with this diet, also known as intermittent fasting, was documented in the 2012 Horizon episode Eat, Fast And Live Longer. He also wrote The Fast Diet with Mimi Spencer.
Later, Dr Mosley refined the diet to become the eight-week blood sugar diet, which is specifically tailored to reverse diabetes and written about in his eponymous 2015 book.
“With the eight-week blood sugar diet, you are eating 800 calories seven days a week – it’s a much faster weight-loss diet. Particularly if you want to reverse type 2 diabetes, it is a good idea to do it rapidly,” he says.
He adds that UK-based studies have shown that those on this diet usually lose an average of 14kg after eight weeks, with 85% of those diagnosed with type 2 diabetes for less than five years managing to reverse their condition. For those who have had diabetes for more than five years, the reversal rate is about 50%.
Exploring Good Science
“What I love about the science programmes I do for the BBC is that we go out there and test things, and we do it in a vigorous and proper way, and sometimes, it can be really surprising,” he shares.
The ideas and inspirations for his shows come from a few sources. “In programmes like Trust Me, I’m A Doctor, there is a big research team behind the scenes with scientific PhDs, and we are in close contact with a lot of experts as well. Our viewers also send in ideas,” he explains.
In fact, one of the upcoming episodes in their latest season – in which Dr Mosley is one of five regular presenters – will feature coconut oil as suggested by a viewer. “They had read some claims about the benefits of coconut oil, but their doctor had said it was terrible, so they wanted to know what was the evidence behind it,” he says.
So the show contacted University of Cambridge professors Dr Kay-Tee Khaw and Dr Nita Forouhi to help conduct a study with 94 healthy adults aged 50-75, who were divided into three groups that ate 50g of extra virgin olive oil, 50g of extra virgin coconut oil and 50g of unsalted butter respectively every day for four weeks.
The prediction was that those consuming the coconut oil would have the worst effect on their cholesterol levels, thus increasing their heart disease risk. But, “To everyone’s surprise, coconut oil came out best,” says Dr Mosley.
“It raised the LDL levels, the bad cholesterol, a bit; also, it raised the HDL levels, the good cholesterol, more. In terms of heart disease risk, it appeared to lower it. And it was also the only one of the oils that lead to a reduction in what they call inflammatory factors, which plays an important part in heart disease.”
The study was significant enough to be published in the journal BMJ Open on Mac 6. Dr Mosley himself also throws in ideas that he finds interesting.
“Sometimes, I read things in the newspaper, and I think, is that really true? Then you start to investigate it. And many things you might think are a bit nonsense have a lot of science behind them.”
One of these, for him, was high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
“When I first heard that you could get many of the benefits of exercise from three-minutes-a-week of intense exercise, I thought that has to be nonsense. But it is true,” he says, adding that he has now incorporated the exercise into his life.
Not only did he try out HIIT on himself, but University of Nottingham researchers Dr Beth Phillips and Dr James Blackwell were also recruited to conduct a small study comparing different types of exercise – including HIIT – to see which was the most effective over a period of one month, for the fifth series of Trust Me, I’m A Doctor.
True enough, for the short period of the experiment, the two groups that did HIIT had the most improved fitness levels. Says Dr Mosley: “There’s a big body of scientific knowledge out there that needs to be more widespread, and that’s kind of one of the things we do on Trust Me, I’m A Doctor, which I’m very proud of.”
He adds that all their work is always double-checked by experts to ensure that it is based in good science. “BBC is very vigorous – journalism is very important, so we have to be able to support any claims we make, we have to be able to point to good, strong, robust evidence to back up what we say.”
Oh, and the reason he infected himself with tapeworms? That was to test the theory that these infestations somehow decrease allergies, and true enough, his hay fever episodes did decrease, as can been seen on his show Infested With Michael Mosley.
He recommends increasing our intake of fermented food for the same effect though, rather than ingesting tapeworms.