|Dr. Anil Bajnath, MD, IFMCP
Functional Medicine Doctor
Precision Medicine Expert
When people are on a wellness journey looking to improve how they feel and function in their daily lives, they often have a lot of questions. Should I become a vegan, or should I go paleo? How long should I sleep every night? Which supplements should I take?
It seems that the deeper you go on that path to health and wellness, the more questions you end up with. Many people are on an endless quest to find that ultimate blueprint for health. But does this holy grail of health even exist?
The truth is that the quest to find the “perfect” blueprint may not even be relevant. In reality, the ideal plan to optimize health and well-being is different for every person.
In this series of interviews, we spoke with Dr. Anil Bajnath, MD, IFMCP, a functional medicine doctor and a pioneer in the field of precision medicine. Dr. Bajnath shared some of the core principles of his personalized functional medicine approach, including some key lifestyle considerations we should all be aware of.
Why One size medicine doesn’t fit all
For far too long, modern medicine has tended to treat symptoms as though they were separated from the individual experiencing them. This is a “one size fits all” approach to medicine, in which there’s a particular protocol for each disease and it’s followed the same way for every patient.
But, as William Osler, who’s often considered the father of modern medicine, said:
“It is much more important to know what sort of patient has a disease, than what sort of disease a patient has.”
When doctors use a cookie-cutter approach, they’re failing to see that each person is different.
Increasingly, research in the field of genetics is showing us how important it is to consider the uniqueness of each patient when selecting a treatment plan. Even more so, epigenetics, which is the study of the interaction of the environment and genes, shows us how we can influence the expression of our genes through various environmental inputs like diet, exercise, sleep, and stress.
This means that if we truly want to help a person optimize their health, we need to consider exactly who that person is. Only then we can start to develop the right plan for them, which may be completely different from one person to another.
Let’s look at a few examples of this approach and how it can impact the way that we think about health and wellness.
What’s the best diet?
Questions about diet are particularly difficult to answer in scientific studies. First, it’s almost impossible to conduct randomized trials of different dietary approaches. This means we’re generally relying on observational studies, a study design with certain built-in flaws.
But even if we could randomize people in long-term dietary studies, we’d be looking at what works and doesn’t work for a large group. This would not provide any information on individual differences. Each person is unique and looking at the average effect that a diet has on a group can obscure significant individual differences between people.
Vegan vs. omnivore & longevity
Should you eliminate animal products or are they necessary for health? There have been many research studies looking at whether veganism is better for people’s health than eating animal products. The answers have sometimes been conflicting with many different opinions from nutrition experts.
One possible explanation of the mixed data on this subject, is because the answer is different for different people. Some people’s physiology responds very well to veganism, while others are better off being omnivores. The eating pattern that is better for you likely depends on both your genetics and your epigenetics.
Certain people’s genetic makeup might be more suited to veganism than others. Environmental factors (like how much athletic training they’re doing) could also impact whether it’s the best choice for that individual.
When we look at a large group of people and ask whether veganism is beneficial overall, we could easily miss the fact that it could be good for some and harmful for others.
Should I go low-carb or low-fat?
Another example, which many people find themselves debating with daily, is known as metabolic typing. This is an approach that recognizes the individuality of each person’s ability to utilize the different macronutrients. Some people benefit from eating a higher percentage of carbs, while for others, this will cause weight gain and sluggishness. Some people seem to gain weight just by thinking of high carb foods. The answer for them is reducing the carbs.
So, if you’re wondering whether you should go low-carb or low-fat for your health, the answer may depend on your individual physiology. The science of determining your ideal diet based on your genotype is still developing, but we know enough to understand the importance of personalization. We have enough tools to tailor the right diet for each individual.
How much should I sleep and when?
It’s clear that sleep is crucial for optimal health.
Getting enough high-quality sleep allows the brain and body to restore and repair., Sleep deprivation is strongly associated with almost every longevity-destroying disease, from diabetes to Alzheimer’s disease.
But how much sleep do we need and what time should we go to bed?
Chronobiology is an emerging field, which investigates how a person’s biology changes over the course of a day. Certain genes are turned on or off at different times of day and your unique chronobiology can influence the timing of this.
There are variants of at least a dozen genes that influence your circadian clock and the synchronization of the bodily rhythms involved with regulating sleep-wake cycles. If you live out of step with your natural circadian clock, the consequences could be devastating.
Night owls vs. early birds
Now, you may have heard that it is much better to wake up early than to stay up late. Before you start setting your alarm earlier, however, something to consider.
In truth, early waking might be better for some people, but harmful for others. Your individual chronobiology will influence that:
- Night owls. Some people naturally feel and perform their best in the evenings. For these people, waking up early in the morning will probably ultimately cause harm.
- Early birds. Other people are at their absolute best in the mornings. For them, staying up late is likely to be harmful, while waking up early will help them to achieve optimal health.
Now, most of us can adjust to some degree. Paying attention to your body’s natural rhythms, however, can bring your health to the next level. You can learn to align with your natural patterns instead of trying to work against them. This is the best way to optimize your health and create your own blueprint.
About genetic and DNA testing
I’m a huge advocate of testing. When we’re thinking about precision medicine, testing is the basis for making decisions about the best care. But we need to make sure that we’re doing the right types of testing. It’s important to be thoughtful about which tests you order and how you interpret the results of those tests.
There are literally thousands of medical tests currently on the market. Some of these can be extremely useful from a functional medicine standpoint. Others, however, may offer very little value or have no solid research to back them up.
This often seems a little overwhelming given the sheer number of options, but you don’t have to figure it all out alone. Working with a functional medicine doctor who’s experienced with precision medicine can help you get the right tests and interpret their results accurately. Your doctor then can personalize the approach to help you achieve your health objectives. Together you can create your personalized blueprint to health and wellness over many years to come.