1. Tell us about yourself.
My story begins long before medical school. When I was a child, I had a “nervous stomach.” Whenever I had a test or a piano performance, I felt like I had swarm of “butterflies” doing somersaults inside my belly. I would feel so sick to my stomach that I had to eat hours before any tests or performances to avoid getting sick and vomiting. But it didn’t end at my belly. I would catch so many upper respiratory infections that often turned into a sinusitis or bronchitis (treated with multiple courses of antibiotics) the pediatrician was concerned about my immune system.
Back in the 1980’s, we did not understand as well as we do now how the foods we eat can affect how our immune system functions. Sadly, the milk, sugar-laden wheat cereals, and milkshakes that made up my diet were giving me more than just a sad gut. They were hurting my stomach, but they were also weakening my immune system.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I stopped getting sick all of the time, because I finally cut out cereal with milk for breakfast. All those years I had believed, like most of us do, that milk was good for me. My poor diet, high stress, lack of sleep, and years of repeated exposure to antibiotics had all contributed to what I was experiencing — gut inflammation, dysbiosis, and a leaky gut.
As I started experimenting with dietary changes to improve how I felt, I realized that I felt my best when eating lean, organic meats, lots of fresh raw or steamed vegetables, healthy fats, and complex carbs at the right time to fuel my workouts.
In early 2003, at 29 years old, I embarked on an entire health make-over. I got rid of all processed foods from my apartment, bought primarily organic produce, and cooked most of my meals at home. At the same time, I started an intensive yoga teacher training, and made it a habit to meditate every morning, sometimes twice a day. My energy improved, my depression lifted, and my friends even told me I looked completely refreshed. Within two weeks, the improvement in my energy levels and general sense of well-being was astonishing! Through this journey, I learned to eat right and how to heal my body from the inside out, starting with the gut. And now, as a doctor, I work with patients healing their guts.
2. Was there a special event that led you to this career path?
It seems that I was destined to practice integrative, holistic medicine. My grandfather in Cuba was a country doctor, who saw his patients via horseback and believed in using natural remedies to help his patients heal. My father was also obsessed with health, populating our refrigerator door with pages of lists of foods we should eat and ones we should avoid. He also took a variety of supplements, and was constantly concerned about not getting sick. So, as a teenager I became a bit of a hypochondriac—I was overly concerned with my health, but more from the point of view of scientific fascination. I was my own best experiment.
However, it took something more to propel me down the path of becoming an integrative physician. You could say the inciting event was a road bike accident I was in when I was 19 years old, knocking me unconscious for about 30 minutes. As a consequence, it beckoned me to question all my notions about life up until that moment. It opened my mind to looking into the alternatives, as I felt Western medicine only offered pills, but not much more. It began an exploration that has not stopped since then. I learned to meditate, first through tapes on guided imagery, and started doing yoga. By the time I went to medical school, I knew the type of doctor I would become would incorporate all of these healing modalities into the art of medicine.
3. What inspired you to start the book project "Happy Gut"?
Once I ultimately healed my own gut issues through Functional Medicine, I started working with patients that were having all types of digestive distress. The number of people that did not know that what they were eating or consuming was at the root of their health problems astounded me. I was inspired by the amazing reversal of chronic health issues some of my patients achieved after years of having lived with them. And I couldn’t believe that people didn’t know how to heal themselves, since the foundation of my program dates back to the origins of modern medicine. As Hippocrates said: “Let food by thy medicine.” And that’s where we start—with food.
On a broader scale, realizing that if I was seeing so many people with gut issues that needed help healing themselves, there had to be thousands more out there. Actually, the number of people estimated to suffer from digestive complaints in the U.S. is 1 in 5. And the number of people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is estimated to be 70 million Americans. With Western medicine offering very little more than a pill for IBS, I wanted to get the word out about how important diet is for managing these issues. Having grown up with IBS, and finding my healing through food inspired me to want to help many more people than I could ever possibly see in my clinical practice.
My Gut C.A.R.E.™ Program, featured in Happy Gut, is both a diet and lifestyle program. Often, we focus on one or the other, but I wanted to put everything together, bringing attention to issues like the toxic world we live in and the importance of drinking clean water, cooking on non-toxic surfaces, and using green utensils. This 360 degree approach to wellness also involves addressing the mind-body connection. That is why there is a whole chapter devoted to yoga, breathing and meditation as part of a daily routine to create a happy gut. And finally, many books do not include a section on how to individualize the approach to each person’s specific issues, so I also included a chapter describing very important, recommended tests that can help readers uncover the root causes of the symptoms they may be experiencing.
4. What do you want readers to get from this book?
While diet is very important in balancing the gut microbiome, it’s not just about diet. I wanted people to have the right tools to help them end their gut distress and improve their gut-related health issues. If you have an “unhappy” gut, you know it, but people may not realize other conditions—like allergies, asthma, fatigue, mental fog, and migraines—are all related to the health of their digestive system. I wanted to help people understand the connection between these health issues and their gut health.
Readers will learn why the gut is so central to our well-being. Gut health is connected to weight gain—eliminating food sensitivities on the Happy Gut Diet results in markedly reduced bloating and increased weight loss. Through my Gut C.A.R.E.™ Program, readers will make a four-week commitment to wellness and be guided through a twenty-eight–day cleanse. Recipes that appeal to all types of dietary preferences and meal plans are provided, in addition to yoga poses for gut health, meditation instruction, and breathing exercises. For those who need to look deeper, an entire chapter is devoted to uncovering the root causes of common and not-so-common gut ailments, providing suggested tests and treatment strategies. Happy Gut is a roadmap leading readers to total body wellness, providing tools to get back on course when your gut health gets off track.
5. How can people learn more about your book and pick up their own copies?
First of all, they should visit my website: www.happygutlife.com. They can learn about me, my philosophy, the Happy Gut Cleanse, and find additional recipes and learning resources. My book is available for purchase through all major retailers, like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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