Though I am told time and time again not to refer to my own body this way, I have what I generally call a “bad stomach.” That’s as specific as the diagnosis really gets, anyway.
As a kid, I got carsick. When I experienced something upsetting, I got nauseous. As a college kid, I became lactose intolerant. In my twenties, things got progressively worse, and I developed reactions to everything from tomatoes to alcohol (which was a real bummer). Things progressed from there and continue to be an issue: If I don’t sleep enough, my stomach rebels. If I’m stressed, my stomach isn’t having it. Often, I feel sick for no discernible reason at all.
Over the years, I’ve seen doctors from acupuncturists and naturopaths to gastroenterologists and immunologists. I’ve been diagnosed—perhaps incorrectly—with everything from Crohn’s to bacterial overgrowth to ulcers to a partial IgA deficiency. I’ve taken antibiotics, probiotics, prebiotics and supplements (which also make my stomach hurt, by the way). At times, different tactics have helped—certain types of yoga, dietary choices, herbs (sort of ).
This is all to explain why, in recent years, I’ve become really fascinated with the idea of integrative medicine and how it might help me. After all, no one has yet been able to pinpoint the issue enough to actually treat the root cause, so much as attempt (with only moderate success) to Band-Aid symptoms.
So, when I heard about Dr. Richard Firshein, I was immediately intrigued. After all, he’s not only a leading expert in integrative medicine and the founder of New York’s Firshein Center, but he’s also all about precision-medicine—meaning he treats every single individual uniquely.
The first time we met, I spent a solid hour in his office, just discussing my history and symptoms and his philosophies and the tools at his disposal. He uses cutting-edge, DNA-based, nutritional, allergy and gut biome testing. The osteopathic physician and acupuncturist incorporates Eastern and Western modalities into his practice too. But that’s only the beginning: As the best-selling author of The Nutraceutical Revolution, Dr. Firshein was, apparently, the first physician to recommend a precision-based nutraceutical approach for treating patients with customized vitamin supplements and an individualized diet. He is largely concerned with chronic conditions—not only getting to their underlying causes, but also determining how to approach and ease them to extend longevity. That’s probably why he’s been named one of “The Leading Physicians of the World.”
I figure everyone deserves to benefit from his expertise. So, here, he explains how he himself has benefitted from this type of care and what we all can be doing to better our health:
Live The Process: What inspired you to become a doctor and, specifically, to take an integrative approach?
Dr. Richard Firshein: Growing up, I suffered from severe food allergies and asthma that later landed me in the hospital and the intensive care unit (ICU). In fact, my first memory is eating a peanut and ending up in the emergency room. For many years, I was seen by doctors who prescribed medications—and nothing helped. No one was trying to dissect or understand what was really wrong.
Throughout my early life, as I lost family and close friends to cancer, I believed there had to be a better way. By the time I was 15, I’d lost two of my best friends to cancer and was shocked by how little could be done to help them. During this time, my mother developed breast cancer and refused chemotherapy, changing her focus to the foods that she put in her body and beliefs she held about her mind. Her story was filled with hope because she believed cancer was something that you treat as a chronic condition and that changing to a healthier diet can change the natural course of the disease.
From this point on, I immersed myself in natural approaches to health and healing and knew that I had to approach healthcare in a different way. When I landed in the ICU again, this time as a medical doctor at the peak of my training, I knew this was the last straw. I had to completely change my life rituals. This was the final shift for me to becoming a true comprehensive integrative physician.
LTP: In your mind, what is integrative medicine at its best? And how do you combine that with your particular brand of precision care?
RF: Integrative medicine is about combining Eastern and Western approaches to improve patients’ health. It’s about using diagnostic modalities available with state-of-the-art testing, and combining that with natural approaches such as acupuncture, dietary interventions and vitamin supplements.
But that’s not enough. It then needs to be focused on the individual—that’s where precision-based medicine comes in. Beyond that, it needs to incorporate the best medical practices and the most comprehensive system of care available.
When you’re taking a comprehensive approach, you’re thinking about what process or program is best for each individual. That’s when I talk about precision-based medicine, or what I like to call “Me Medicine.” A “Me Medicine” approach looks not only at what treatment is going to work for a condition, but the best overall approach for that specific person. A key component of this approach is looking at a patient’s DNA. My approach is completely customized, personalized care.
LTP: One of the main pillars of your approach has to do with anti-aging. When we met, you talked about how ferreting out predispositions is one secret to longevity. Can you explain that concept here?
RF: When you think about health and the majority of reasons why people die, there are generally six problems: vascular, cancer, neurological, respiratory, accidents and diabetes. I look at natural ways to identify whether patients are at risk for these conditions and then prevent them from happening. Most of my patients come in not just wanting to live longer, but wanting to live healthier. So, I came up with the idea of “Health Extension And Longevity” (or HEAL). By evaluating underlying health issues and providing preventive solutions through the use of diet and supplements, we can prevent or delay these conditions from developing.
LTP: What’s one thing that we could all be doing to take better care of ourselves?
RF: One of the things people can do to take better care of themselves is to listen to and trust their symptoms and then act on them. An example is someone who suffers from migraines or irritable bowel, but doesn't evaluate the foods they eat. If you feel something, don’t ignore it. Get the right test done and start back on the road to health.
Health apps and wearables are very helpful in evaluating everything from blood sugar and sleep to fitness. I’ve also developed the Firshein Center app, through which my patients monitor their behavior, exercise regime, diet, etc. It allows me to monitor their activity in real-time. So, instead of just monitoring heart rate and blood sugar when you come in for a checkup, I can see it happening 24/7 and provide support right then and there. I’m with my patients every step of the way—in and out of the office.
LTP: What’s a topic that you’ve been compelled by lately—either new technology or approach or type of diet or whatever—some concept that’s at the cutting edge of integrative medicine currently?
RF: What’s exciting for the future really lies in being able to utilize tests and treat people by using the new technologies we have today. New approaches to treating chronic pain with PRP (platelet-rich plasma), using CBD for chronic anxiety or insomnia and utilizing genetic cancer markers to discover cancer before it becomes a problem. We have these sets of tools now that allow us to start thinking about what we need for (HEAL) Health Extension And Longevity. The technology that I’m using in my office goes along with this, as well. Even changing from using an old-fashioned stethoscope to one with an EKG built into it has been a game-changer.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
RF: In order for people to be happy, health is a prerequisite. I think happiness, to me, is being the healthiest I can be and then enjoying great food. But it’s also knowing how it’s working inside of me and for the people I love and care about around me. Happiness is being surrounded by loved ones—for me, that’s my son, my dog, Freddie, dear friends and family—and continuing to do work that is meaningful, helping others.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?
RF: To me, “living the process” means finding and fulfilling your own unique destiny. Once you find your “process,” you can outlast any adversity because you understand your true center. I think every person should take time to think these things through. It’s also important to know there are no shortcuts. It’s called a “process” for a reason. Everything great that’s been done, has been done with hard work. This is as true for health as it is for everything else.
Photo by Andrés Reisinger