When Dr. Akil Palanisamy recounts his recovery from a debilitating illness during medical school, he says it began with two words: "bone broth." In hindsight, this may not sound so surprising, because Akil (or "Dr. Akil," as his patients know him) has been a doctor, author, and educator at the forefront of the food-as-medicine movement for the past 20 years. Dr. Akil has been described by leading integrative doctor Mark Hyman as "a unique triple threat in the field," combining expertise in functional medicine, Ayurveda, and the Paleo diet and ancestral lifestyles.
At the time that bone broth was given to him as a "prescription," however, Dr. Akil was a vegetarian. He had renounced meat a few years earlier "for ethical, environmental, and spiritual reasons" and had become an active member of the San Francisco Vegetarian Society while in medical school there, having completed his undergraduate work at Harvard. The Ayurvedic practitioner he had sought out for his ailment -- because conventional medicine and physical therapy did not help -- was well aware of this. But she saw it as a necessary means to nourish his depleted body and rebalance his excess "vata" (or "air" energy).
Dr. Akil was torn. What had started out as a repetitive stress injury to his wrist -- while writing his senior thesis in biochemistry at Harvard University -- had now escalated into chronic pain, severe fatigue, and a weight loss of 30 pounds (from his already lean baseline of 138). He had to take a prolonged leave of absence from medical school.
In his desperation, he turned to the story of the Buddha. After practicing an extreme form of asceticism that left the Buddha weak and near death, he was visited by a milkmaid who offered some milk. Despite the taboos, he accepted the offer and eventually regained his health. The Buddha would go on to teach about "The Middle Way," living by neither indulgence nor deprivation. Dr. Akil reached a similar turning point. He started with bone broth, which he could rationalize as being "animal bones that were to be discarded." Eventually, after more stalled periods of healing, he decided to experiment with eating meat again. "I could not fulfill my dream of becoming a doctor without a healthy body."
With a nutrient-dense diet that supported his individual constitution, Dr. Akil tried other alternative and complementary therapies, including a holistic chiropractor who practiced functional medicine -- or root-cause medicine. He would heal his gut, regain his weight, and eliminate the pain for a full recovery, allowing him to graduate from the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, then complete a residency program at Stanford Medical Center. He went on to receive a fellowship in integrative medicine with Dr. Andrew Weil at the University of Arizona, study Ayurveda in Southern India at the Arya Vaisya Chikitsalayam, and certify in mind-body medicine from the Georgetown University Center.
With this breadth and depth of knowledge, Dr. Akil has treated thousands of people living with chronic diseases and conducts clinical research studies. He serves as the Department Chair for Integrative Medicine at the Sutter Health Institute for Health and Healing (IHH) and as IHH Physician Director for Community Education. Dr. Akil has also served as a consultant with the Medical Board of California for many years.
A widely known speaker and educator, he is the author of two books, The Paleovedic Diet: A Complete Program to Burn Fat, Increase Energy, and Reverse Disease -- a customized Paleo diet that incorporates spices, specific fruits and vegetables, intermittent fasting, and an Ayurvedic lifestyle -- and most recently, The Tiger Protocol: An Integrative 5-Step Program to Treat and Heal Your Autoimmunity.
Dr. Akil lives in Sacramento, CA. In his free time, he enjoys playing tennis, traveling, and spending time with his wife and daughter. Originally from India, he grew up in Singapore before immigrating to America.
Join us in conversation with this "Middle Way" practitioner of medicine and healing who is skillfully weaving East and West, ancestral and novel.
My passion is really integrative medicine, blending East and West and integrating ancient science with modern wisdom. I am especially passionate about raising awareness about autoimmune disease, which is the fastest growing category of disease.In fact, one out of every five Americans suffers from some form of autoimmune condition. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are struggling with autoimmunity. The prevalence and cost of autoimmune disease are greater than heart disease, cancer, and diabetescombined. Most people I speak with are completely unaware of these sobering statistics.There are more than 100 autoimmune conditions affecting people today, including Hashimoto's thyroiditis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Sadly, the list continues to grow. What really makes me come alive is talking about the diet, vitamin, supplement, and lifestyle changes that people can make to empower them to have an impact on these diseases.
I think that the biggest turning point in my life was actually my own illness experience. Even though this occurred about 20 years ago I still remember it vividly. This experience set me on the path towards integrative medicine which is currently my passion.It started when I was still in college. I was a senior at Harvard University and had been accepted to medical school to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. That's 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. I went to student health services 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. I was used to working hard, and had a lot of energy to fuel that work. The previous year I had become vegetarian. Certainly, I was under stress but managed it with a daily meditation practice. I had a regular routine of gym workouts and yoga. The reason for my illness puzzled me.I was prescribed anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy, and was given extra time for writing during exams and help with typing my thesis. My symptoms abated but did not disappear. I was able to finish college and graduate with honors.I then began medical school at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). My top choice, UCSF was considered the top medical school on the west coast and I was excited to begin. After eight years in Boston I was eager to escape the snow as well, although the cool climate in San Francisco surprised me. I began to understand the quote attributed to Mark Twain, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."I completed my first year and was happy, although I was in class all day and studied several hours each night. My symptoms had been manageable with physical therapy but began to worsen when I started my second year. The wrist pain was intolerable at times and was accompanied by back pain that made it impossible to sit for more than fifteen minutes.Also, a heavy and onerous fatigue began to set in, which I attributed to stress. 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.I adapted. I began intensive hand and wrist therapy. I learned to use voice recognition software. The University provided a foot-operated mouse. I dictated papers and class assignments. I studied at home using textbooks. Eventually I began to study lying down on my side, the only position that was comfortable for my back. This unfortunately led to neck and shoulder pain.After completing my Board exams (8 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. This entailed long hours caring for patients in the hospital, being on overnight calls without sleep every few days and studying intensely without much time off.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 was causing a problem. I believed this was not 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 an active member of the San Francisco vegetarian society, had organized vegetarian events for the University, and was a strong advocate for vegetarianism. I 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 in San Francisco. She 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 could not eat animal products. 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% 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 questioned everything I thought I knew about health and disease. 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, visiting three different acupuncturists for 10-12 sessions each. I didn't see much improvement. I tried Qigong. I visited energy healers and reiki practitioners. I deepened my yoga practice. I continued taking herbs. I improved another 20%.Four months of my year off had passed and I was still not feeling much better. I was becoming desperate. I decided to experiment with eating meat again. I was deeply conflicted about this after three years of vegetarianism. However, 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.One day I stopped by the UCSF cafeteria and bought a chicken sandwich. I went to an empty classroom where I could eat mindfully. Before eating, I prayed for some sort of sign or clue to let me know if I was doing the right thing.Eating the sandwich was uneventful. But, as I was chewing the last mouthful of chicken, I bit into something hard. Surprised, I pulled the morsel out of my mouth and realized that it was a tiny rolled-up piece of paper. I unfurled it and saw that it had a word on it. The word was "RATION".I was puzzled. I decided to try to make some sense of this and just think about what the word might mean. To me, a ration was something scarce and valuable consumed during a time of need. Perhaps the message was that I needed a small amount of meat in my diet to get better. To this day, I don't know how that piece of paper got into my sandwich. It's a mystery.I then 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. In fact, she had wanted me to eat meat after our first visit. However, she started me initially with bone broths because she sensed I would be more open to that at the beginning, based on my strong ethical convictions.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, more energy and had regained some of the weight I had lost.I then met a holistic chiropractor in Oakland 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. I responded well to holistic chiropractic treatment.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. Interestingly, I did not notice any adverse impact from meat consumption on my meditation and spiritual practice, which was something I had been afraid of. I still had reservations about eating meat but tried to purchase high-quality, organic meats.I was able to complete 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 how it had impacted my life. I learned firsthand about the capacity of the body to heal itself and recover from disease, no matter how bleak things are looking. 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 20 years later, having helped thousands of patients using these principles, I continue to live my dream of helping people to 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 the world.
There are many, and it is hard to choose just one. I have been very fortunate to experience a great deal of kindness. I think what I will remember the best is my medical school teacher, Dr Margarita Loinaz. During my first year of medical school she organized a course on Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction for medical students. I had not had much exposure previously to mindfulness but found it remarkably powerful. In fact, it made a huge difference in my experience of medical school over the next several years.Her kindness to me during the course, and her valuable instructions on mind-body techniques, have remained with me to this day. In fact, she became a good friend and mentor with whom I am still in contact, and I'm always grateful for presence in my life.
Climbing Mount Everest
Let's raise awareness about autoimmune disease so we can stem the tide of this epidemic