How My Great-Grandmother Influenced My Functional Medicine Practice

integrative medicine, sara gottfriedMy great-grandmother embodied healthy living. She was a whole foodist and yoga practitioner—way before these things were trendy. When she visited us, she came armed not with candies and gum like my friends’ grandmothers, but with kale, carob, and wheat-berry cookies. She drank hot water with lemon every morning and evening. She extolled the virtues of fish oil to me at the breakfast table when I was a mere five years old. She slept on a board. Needless to say, I didn’t know what to make of her. But as I grew up, I understood that she looked and acted ten years younger than women her age. She moved with impressive vitality and impeccable grace, and her face glowed. She captivated me. Her advice, actions, and self-care introduced me to the idea that prevention, healing, and repair can happen simply based on how we choose to live. Lifestyle redesign. All told, it was her inspirational approaches that guided my trajectory as a physician.

From Conventional Medicine to Integrative Medicine

When I graduated from Harvard Medical School, I knew I had received the most rigorous medical training I could ever ask for, and gained such robust knowledge to help people medically.  After finishing my medical studies, I worked in an HMO for a few years, squeezing patients into seven-minute appointments, and racing through the paperwork between appointments. The HMO ran like a factory, and frankly, sometimes it was easier to prescribe a pill than to take on the thornier and more time-consuming issues that underly disease. Take a vaginal yeast infection, as an example. The standard of care is to confirm the diagnosis by looking at the discharge under the microscope, and prescribe diflucan. But I wanted to understand the patient’s diet and how it could be creating fungal overgrowth. I wanted to discuss the anti-candida diet, and how to stabilize blood sugar so that yeast doesn’t overgrow again after treatment. I wanted to review the supplements like lauricidin and herbs that reduce fungal load. After nine years, I discovered that I could no longer practice conventional medicine: it’s not personalized, and the goal of optimizing health is too often at odds with the competing demands of “access” (i.e., cram as many patients into your day as possible). I knew that I wanted to delve into root causes rather than to prescribe one pill after another.

I left McMedicine and opened a boutique functional medicine practice with a focus on natural hormone balancing. In order to get to the heart of the problem, I perform root-cause analysis. I dig deep to determine what leads to the symptoms in the first place. Then, I seek out how to encourage the healthiest platform for a patient’s body to function optimally, ultimately preventing most health problems. The tenets of functional medicine are root cause analysis, adding what improves health (micronutrients, meditation, etc.), and removing obstacles to health (a lousy marriage, other toxins, addiction to drama or stress, etc.). Modeling my great-grandmother’s lifestyle, and backed with my medical knowledge, I implement a comprehensive approach to health, so I can treat the symptoms while naturally altering the imbalances that caused them.

Determining Root Cause

If you feel like you have chronic or recurring symptoms, you’re in good company. Most people do. For example, are you always tired? Do you have repeated strep throat? Are you constantly spraining your ankle? Have you been trying to conceive for a while? Conventionally, health issues like those are treated after the fact with a drug or a therapy. It is not the doctor’s role, nor training, to research the causes for the symptoms. But if symptoms recur, what then? After all, how many pills can you take?

Once I started helping patients in this fashion, I myself slowed down, specifically practicing what I preach about keeping the stress hormone cortisol in check. That is to say, I eat dinner nightly with my family; I do yoga daily and run once a week with a girlfriend; I eat nutrient-packed, anti-inflammatory foods; I take health-enhancing supplements; and I use nontoxic beauty and hygiene products. All of these lifestyle habits help me maintain a healthy weight, have smoother skin, and feel energized.

Most of the root causes for health problems stem from lacking a suitable regimen in four lifestyle areas: Nutrition, exercise, sleep, and mindful spiritual practice. Each of these impacts our hormonal balance, without which our health suffers. By looking at hormonal imbalance, I gain insights about changes that will reduce or eliminate chronic or recurring symptoms. And more to the point: You feel energized, you get to your ideal weight, and your libido rises—all without drugs.

While medicines are lifesavers in many cases, they are not a solution in and of themselves. To heal chronic or recurring illnesses, we have to get to the root cause. The next time you need a doctor, look for a functional or integrative physician in your area. He or she will take the best of conventional medicine with an investigative approach. They will review the seven main systems of the body to see what is out of balance. My great-grandmother would tell you the same.

Interested in learning how to prevent illness and create a healthy, balanced life? Read my new book Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years (HarperOne, 2017 – available now for preorder). It explores the way your DNA changes in response to your surroundings, particularly with regard to weight loss, hormone balance, and aging—and how to turn off and on the right genes for healthspan.