Dr. Akil Palanisamy, a Harvard-trained physician who now practices integrative medicine, didn't always believe in holistic approaches to health. But as he explains in this excerpt from his new book, The Paleovedic Diet: A Complete Program to Burn Fat, Increase Energy, and Reverse Disease, it was holistic medicine that finally healed him after years of struggling with his own health problems.
I was on top of the world. I was a senior at Harvard University and had been accepted to medical school to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a doctor when the trouble started. While working on my senior thesis, I noticed severe wrist pain with numbness and tingling in my arms. The pain got worse and began to interfere with my sleep. I could no longer type on a keyboard and was diagnosed with repetitive strain injury (RSI).
I had worked hard during my college years in classes and research activities but nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly, I was under stress but managed it with a daily meditation practice, and I had a regular routine of gym workouts and yoga. So the reason for my illness puzzled me.
I was prescribed anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy. My symptoms abated but did not disappear, and I was able to finish college and graduate with honors.
I then began medical school at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). I completed my first year but my symptoms began to worsen when I started my second. The wrist pain was intolerable at times and was accompanied by back pain that made it impossible to sit for more than 15 minutes.
At the same time, a heavy and onerous fatigue began to set in. Inexplicably, I lost 30 pounds over several months from my already lean baseline weight of 138. I could not attend lectures due to worsening back pain and fatigue. I was given extra time for exams, which helped me to pass my exams and not flunk out of medical school, but I began to struggle with severe anxiety, which had never bothered me before.
After completing my board exams (eight hours of sitting down and typing answers to questions on a computer), I was afflicted with excruciating pain for three days. Although school had been challenging until then, I was about to start the most difficult part of medical school, the third year.
I knew I couldn’t do it. I was in a state of deep despair. Here I was, after getting my degree at Harvard, pursuing my life’s passion of studying medicine at one of the top schools in the country, and I had to stop because my body was failing me. I had been in pain for so long that I wondered if it was even possible for me to get better. I had seen some of the top doctors in the country, gotten the best treatments, but continued to decline. I felt hopeless.
I asked for a leave of absence and was granted a year off. I decided I needed to get to the bottom of my illness. Three years of intensive physical therapy, doctor’s visits, and medications had not helped at all. Something was missing.
My parents thought diet was a factor. They thought my becoming vegetarian a few years earlier was causing a problem. I didn’t think this could be true because I ate a ton of fruits and vegetables and ate tofu and dairy products for protein.
I had given up eating meat for ethical, environmental, and spiritual reasons. I was a strong advocate for vegetarianism and thought that my spiritual growth and meditation practice would be deepened by avoiding meat.
I had been studying Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, for a while on the side. I decided to visit a practitioner, who diagnosed me with excess vata (air energy) and low ojas (vitality). She recommended some herbs and spices and dietary modifications. She suggested that I eat for my Ayurvedic body type and also incorporate some nourishing foods.
My path to recovery began with two words: bone broth. The Ayurvedic practitioner recommended it as one of the nourishing foods that could help restore vitality in my depleted body. But I was resistant. I went back and forth about this for a few weeks.
Finally, because I was using animal bones that were about to be discarded, I decided that this did not violate my principles. After a month of daily bone broth, I was about 10 percent better, which was the first time anything had helped in years. Bone broth is rich in minerals and gelatin, which support digestive health and help reduce inflammation. My recovery from illness began with healing and repair of my gut.
In the story of the Buddha, after practicing an extreme form of asceticism, the Buddha was weak and near death. He was visited by a milkmaid who offered him a little milk. Despite the taboos against this, he decided to accept and eventually recovered his health. He went on to teach about moderation and the Middle Way. I felt I had reached a similar turning point. I decided to keep an open mind. I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know about nutrition and alternative therapies.
Next, I explored acupuncture. I tried qigong. I visited energy healers and Reiki practitioners. I deepened my yoga practice. I continued taking herbs. And I improved another 20 percent.
Four months of my year off had passed, and I was still not feeling much better. I decided to experiment with eating meat again. I was willing to try anything to recover my health, because I knew that I could not fulfill my dream of becoming a doctor without a healthy body.
I meditated on the decision for several days. I realized that perhaps I should try eating meat for a while to see how I felt. My Ayurvedic practitioner agreed with this and explained that certain body types may do better with animal protein. The improvements were significant. I began eating more protein with each meal and consumed meat regularly. I also ate more eggs. Within two months, I had less pain, had more energy, and had regained some of the weight I had lost.
I then met a holistic chiropractor who practiced a form of functional medicine. Although I didn’t really understand or believe in what he was doing, at that point I was open to trying anything.
Remarkably, I began to improve right away. The imbalances identified and treated using a functional medicine approach were fundamental to helping me heal fully. Fixing these issues was the final piece of the puzzle.
At the end of my year off, all my pain had been resolved. My weight, energy, and mood had normalized. I was able to take a motorcycle trip that I had dreamed about for years. I felt at peace. I still had reservations about eating meat but tried to purchase high-quality, organic meats.
I finished medical school and eventually went on to residency at Stanford. I then completed a fellowship in integrative medicine and also decided to learn Ayurveda and functional medicine, the two modalities that helped me the most.
I studied healthy cultures around the world to see what traditional wisdom could teach me. I became a firm believer in the power of nutrition, knowing the impact it had on my life. Perhaps most important, I developed a strong sense of empathy for my patients, because I had felt the desperation, hopelessness, and despair that one experiences at the lowest points of fighting a chronic illness.
Now, more than 10 years later, having helped thousands of patients using these principles, I continue to live my dream of helping people achieve optimal health using integrative medicine. One of my colleagues, a Feldenkrais practitioner, defines health as the ability to live your dreams. My hope is that by sharing some of the knowledge I have learned from my training and life experience, I can help others gain the well-being and vitality necessary to pursue their dreams.