Your Grandparents Know More About Health Than Your Doctor

Doc's note: Today, I'm sharing an essay from my friend Dr. Param Dedhia. He's a physician trained at Johns Hopkins and he currently serves as the Weight Loss Program Leader and the Director of Sleep Medicine at Canyon Ranch, a wellness retreat in Tucson, Arizona.

In today's issue, Param explains an important lesson he learned from his elders... one that could help you start improving your health today.

I (Param) had a surreal experience while standing on the edge of the planet.

It wasn't the breathtaking landscape of the Kauri Cliffs on the North Island of New Zealand. It wasn't the lush land of vineyards and coastlines that left my head spinning.

It was meeting the great-grandson of a traditional Maori healer.

A handful of years ago, I was a doctor on call for a group of executives who liked to travel – especially to remote places. I'd been trained in integrative medicine, which comes from marrying modern medicine with the traditional. I spent years working at the world-renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital, but some of my favorite lessons in medicine come from the people I meet in these remote areas that I visit.

One night during this particular New Zealand trip, I found myself answering a "house call" by a couple who both had an "unsettled tummy" after a combination of long travel along with overindulgence in food and spirits. Given the darkness of the night and being new to the property—the hotel suggested that I have someone help me and my medical bags find the correct bungalow.

My guide was a local man, a gentle giant with shoulders like football pads and a soft smile. He carried my 40-pound medical bags with ease and asked me about my work.

As we talked about traditional medicine, I asked if he knew someone who could teach me the traditional healing methods of New Zealand. His eyes swelled with tears as he told me about how much he'd learned from his great-grandfather, a local healer who had recently passed away.

Then he asked me about growing up with my elders.

When I was young, I remember how my elders visiting from India would ask me odd questions whenever I was not feeling well. They would ask me if I had any belly pain, if I had vomited, and if I was pooping okay. It did not matter what was going on with me medically – unrelated or not – they always went straight to a review of the digestive tract. Then they would shout out to my mother, asking if she had ingredients to make a home remedy.

This kind of conversation isn't common in many households, but it taught me a lesson that I've carried with me to this day...

Sometimes, your grandparents' advice is the key to understanding your whole body's health... even if it takes decades and a medical degree and a trip to the wilds of New Zealand for you to realize it.

My new friend told that his great-grandfather, the healer, would always start with the belly, too. He explained to me that he and his family were Maori – the Polynesians indigenous to New Zealand – and they see health as having four parts: spiritual, family, physical, and mental. And in his learning of the body, digestion was one of the keys to understanding health.

We have all heard how important it is to eat well. Yet we rarely hear how important it is to digest well. Well, that is until we have symptoms.

In my experience, we look to cover up the symptoms or fight them with medicine.

However, it's the symptoms that are trying to get our attention. They prompt us to ask questions about the bigger issue in our health.

So, we need to pay attention to our gut. Our digestive process is giving us clues as to how we're doing and what changes we need to make for our health.

Something I recommend for all of my patients is very simple: Ask yourself the Maori questions. Keep a daily journal and write down your answers to the following questions, along with the time that a symptom occurs:

1. What foods are you eating? Include how quickly you eat and what you are doing while eating. (Are you watching TV? Reading? Enjoying a conversation with family?)

2. How does your stomach feel? Do you have bloating? Heartburn? Cramping? Indigestion?

3. How is your poop? Include things like whether you have constipation or diarrhea... how frequently you go and the consistency of your stool.

And finally – track any of the following symptoms. You might be surprised that these may also indicate problems with your digestion, which is hurting your overall health in ways you may not suspect:

  • Brain fog
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Allergy symptoms (e.g., postnasal drip, cough, eczema or any skin rash, etc.)
  • Headache
  • Anxiety 

I look at digestion as a clue to how the whole body is doing. "Digestion" is actually a three-part conversation: digestion, absorption, and elimination. To be more specific, it is about efficiently breaking down the food into nutrients, having a healthy lining to the digestive tract to allow for optimal absorption, and successfully removing waste products. (Yes, it is important to have a daily bowel movement.)

So while having my elders ask me questions about my bowels and stomach seemed odd, it was an important lesson in health – one we should all listen to.

In the future, I'll be writing more about these three steps of digestion and what to look for in your journal to help you improve your gut (and, therefore, your whole body)... so keep your eye on your inbox.

All the best,

Param Dedhia, MD