5 Questions With Leading Functional Medicine Specialist And Founder Of Organic Pharmer Dr. Susan Blum
Five Questions with Dr. Susan Blum, Leading Preventive Medicine, Functional Medicine, and Integrative and Holistic Medicine Specialist
By Chloe Cornell
Susan Blum, MD, MPH an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, has been treating, healing and preventing chronic diseases for nearly two decades. A Preventive Medicine and Chronic Disease Specialist, Dr. Blum is the Founder and Director of Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York, where she leads a large, multi-specialty team who provide cutting edge Functional and Integrative Medicine services. She is also the founder of Organic Pharmer which sells organic food and juices that are anti-inflammatory and high in nutrition and antioxidants.
Dr. Blum is the author of two best-selling books, The Immune System Recovery Plan and Healing Arthritis. She is Board Certified in Preventive Medicine, Certified in Functional Medicine, and in Integrative and Holistic Medicine. She is a member of the Medical Advisory Board for The Dr. Oz Show, the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and is Senior Teaching Faculty with the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. and teaches throughout the world in their training programs. Dr. Blum is also on the Board of Directors for the American College of Lifestyle Medicine’s True Health Initiative.
Functional medicine is a relatively new concept in Western medicine, but has become increasingly popular in light of the increased occurrence of chronic disease in this country. Dr. Blum was an early subscriber to functional medicine and has been a trailblazer in the industry. I was very excited to talk with her to learn about her journey and to get her insight on the best food and lifestyle choices that young women can make to stay healthy, lean and acne free!
Chloe: You are a real trailblazer in the medical/nutrition community. It seems that most people in western medicine still don’t connect that food and nutrition directly relate to a person’s health. How did you decide to pursue a career in functional medicine? What educational and work experience did you receive for it? Do you see the field growing and the world becoming more aware of the food/health connection?
Dr. Blum: There are two main factors that drove me towards looking at the field of functional medicine and looking at food as medicine and nutrition. The first thing was that I became very interested in looking at nutrition in my medical training and there really wasn’t anything to learn about nutrition in medicine. You took nutrition as an elective, but in medical school there really wasn’t a connection between nutrition and health. I became very interested in preventive medicine and made that my specialty so I became board certified in preventive medicine. And within the field of preventive medicine there is another sub area called lifestyle medicine and that’s where the whole idea of lifestyle, nutrition, exercise, and stress lives in the medical community. When I was going through my medical training, I was really interested in prevention. Looking at people in the hospital and thinking “but how did they get here?” Just giving them a pill to treat their symptoms is just futile – to really make a difference in the health of people’s lives you really want to go all the way – we call it go upstream. At the end of the river is where you have symptoms, but upstream is where it all begins. Like up in the mountains it’s a little trickle and then it becomes a stream, and then it becomes a river, and then it goes to the ocean. With conventional medicine, when I was in medical school and doing my training in internal medicine, I felt that all of what I was learning was all the way downstream and I wanted to really understand what was upstream and so I wanted to learn more about nutrition. That was something that always interested me because I was frustrated that in the medical field, all we cared about was treating symptoms, so I wanted to go to root cause and figure it out, which led me to learn about nutrition. But I didn’t find it in the conventional places so I started asking around to see where I could get training in nutritional medicine – in medicine that would look at the root causes, upstream. And I was referred to the Institute of Functional Medicine.
Right around this time I was diagnosed with a thyroid problem. I was told I needed thyroid medicine and it was an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s. This was the second main thing that got me to look into a different way of practicing medicine, nutritional medicine and functional medicine – my own health condition because I wanted to understand why I got this. I was thinking ‘I’m really healthy – I’m doing all the right things – I’m working out and eating healthy’ and I wanted to learn more about the connection between food and health as well as other things. I asked around and I decided to go learn about functional medicine. So my personal interest and my professional interest aligned and I ended up finding out this field of medicine called functional medicine. The training started out as a week long immersion conference and I learned all about the science of it. You also learn different kinds of tests you can do, different kinds of treatment, and about different types of supplements. So I went home and started using the functional medicine principles on myself to heal my thyroid and that’s how I started learning about the role of food, in addition to healing the gut and detoxing and things like that. That was the initial training. And I loved it! I felt like I won the lottery! I felt like I was the luckiest person in the world that I discovered the way I wanted to practice medicine – it felt so right and when I started practicing all the principles on myself, I felt so much better. And so I decided to change my practice and start practicing medicine this way. And then the way that you continue training in functional medicine, as there is no residency training, but you have your own medical practice and you go to different training modules and you come home and start practicing it on yourself and your patients. I kept practicing on myself and my family and then I started using functional medicine on my patients and people started getting better and it was working to help them. And I felt so happy and grateful. I kept going back for more and more training. Functional medicine offers a certification program and there are six advanced practice modules. So I went back for the additional courses on all of the topics; one was on the GI system/gut, one was on hormones, one was on detoxification, one was on the immune system, etc. And then you have to be practicing this way for five years and then you can take this certification test. So I did all that. I was really one of the earlier people that started this training – I went in 2001 for my first training, before it became ‘sexy!’ I’ve been practicing this way for 17 years.
Chloe: Wow. Very impressive. All of your foods at Organic Pharmer are gluten, dairy, corn, soy and egg free. Are there any other foods that you would recommend people (specifically our young female readers) avoid? We know you encourage plant based menus, why? And if that’s not possible, what are the healthiest animal products?
Dr. Blum: I have a functional medicine practice and one of the things we work on with patients – the underlying causes of chronic disease is inflammation. There is a lot of research connecting inflammation in the body with many health issues including having a bad period. Any kind of inflammation in the body can increase pain, cramps, affect your hormone balance, but it can also cause heart disease, and other disease. So inflammation is the enemy. What we know about food is to figure out if any food is causing inflammation in the body. What does it mean to eat an anti-inflammatory diet? It is the number one strategy for how we work with food in the world of functional medicine. The way you eat an anti-inflammatory diet, there are specific foods that can be inflammatory in a diet, so we eliminate gluten, dairy, corn, soy and eggs because those five things are the biggest culprits for causing symptoms. Sometimes it is something like digestive issues, stomach, constipation, so food is always the first thing that you want to take a look at. These are the five foods that are the most common that cause problems for people. Sometimes it causes headaches, feeling sleepy, having trouble concentrating – not always obvious stomach issues. There is something called an elimination diet, a classic technique where you remove all of these foods from your diet, and then you eat them again and see if they give you symptoms. So those five foods are the foods that I remove the most for my patients in my medical practice. And I discovered that people feel really good when they don’t eat those foods or a lot of people have a problem with one of those foods. So when I built the Blum Center for health, I had this idea to build a center that had a kitchen in it so that I could teach people how to cook food, have pantry makeovers, and teach people how to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. We decided to always have food in our cooking classes without those five ingredients. A chef was teaching the cooking classes, and our patients were coming up to me and our chef and saying ‘I don’t want to learn how to cook the food. Can’t you just make the food and I’ll buy it?’ So we started making food and called it Blum Kitchen and sold the food at the health center. It got out of control because that’s not my specialty! My landlord came up to me and said ‘we have this great space that is available next to Soul Cycle, can’t you take the space and open up the food store there?’ So at that point, I got my whole family involved to go into business with me and we created Organic Pharmer. That list of foods that we don’t use came from the medical practice and I discovered that those are the foods that trigger the most symptoms in people.
If you want to lower inflammation in your body, think about the quality of your food choice. When you are going to eat grains and carbs, chose whole grain bread instead of white bread. Choose healthy fats like olive oil and not a lot of fried foods or too much butter and saturated fat.
I’m not anti-animal, but I think plant based is really important b/c when you eat a lot of plants you support your gut microbiome which is important for low inflammation and when you eat a lot of plants, you also help your body’s detoxification system which means you are removing all of the environmental toxins that you are exposed to everyday. Your body is doing a good job of that if you are feeding yourself plants because plants provide all those nutrients that your body needs for all these purposes. To keep your body humming well you need all these antioxidants so that’s why I say a plant based, but most people want to eat some animal and that’s OK. So what I tell people is to aim for 70% plants and 30% animal – so when you look at your plate you should have a salad with a little piece of chicken or salmon, or vegetables with a little piece of meat. But it should be mostly plants that you are eating, not mostly a steak with a few stringbeans. It’s really about the quality of the animal. You want to choose animals that are organic and grass fed as much as possible. The quality of our food has gotten so bad with food dyes and preservatives so cleaning up the food choices that you are making will help keep the inflammation down.
All of our food at organic pharmer is organic so that the toxins from the herbicides and pesticides that are used are not getting on the plants that you are eating. It reduces the toxins. And the food and juices are really rich in antioxidants which are really good to support all of your body functions.
Chloe: As students, our readers don’t get enough sleep, are constantly stressed, and have bad eating habits. Going into the holiday and flu season, what do you recommend we eat and not eat to stay healthy?
Dr. Blum: The most important thing that you can do for your immune system is to get a good night’s sleep. And the best strategy to stay healthy through the flu season and the winter and the holidays is to make sure that you are sleeping. You know your day starts the night before. Long term it is the best investment. So be sure you set a bedtime, don’t stay up too late, catch up on the weekends. A lot of this is a simple lifestyle choice, to really prioritize making sure that you are getting sleep. That is something that everyone at every age needs to try to do.
It’s important not to eat too much sugar. Suddenly there are sweets everywhere, and sugar can weaken your immune system and make you get sick easier. You really want to try to avoid sweets as much as you can and make sure that you have a fruit or a vegetable with every meal.
Chloe: In addition to the above mentioned poor lifestyle habits, our readers also have erratic hormones and menstrual cycles to deal with. What are the best things to eat to avoid breakouts during menstruation and support healthy skin the rest of the month?
Dr. Blum: The best thing for healthy skin is to not eat dairy. Dairy is poison for your skin. It really increases acne. Eliminating dairy will also help you with your period cramps. Another good thing to do to help with acne is to eat a probiotic or a non-dairy yogurt – coconut, almond or any nut milk yogurt, or take a probiotic. A probiotic is really good for reducing inflammation in the body, but it is also good for your skin. Your skin is covered with bacteria, and a probiotic supports your whole body’s biome. Inside your pores in your skin there are little bacteria, and when you eat dairy and sugar, it feeds the yeast and the bacteria in your skin and makes the acne worse. So avoid processed sugar, candies, cake, ice cream and all that stuff.
If you are looking for a snack, you can do apple and peanut butter as opposed to cookies, or veggies and hummus. But avoid cheese, milk products, yogurt, and the processed white flour food. That will help your acne and make you feel better.
Chloe: In this social media heavy world, many teens often go on diets to look their best in a bikini on spring break or outfits for a special event. What is the best method for eating healthy with the goal of getting leaner? And what would be the best cleanse for this goal?
Dr. Blum: For a long-term strategy, my favorite way to help people lose weight is to first clean up their diet to get rid of all the sugar, and do the elimination diet because if you reduce inflammation, that is a really healthy way to lose weight. First look at the quality of the food you are choosing. Then the way that I’ve been doing weight loss with my patients these days is time-restricting eating, so that you eat all of your food between 11:00am and 7:00pm every day, and you do not eat at night. So you fast for 16 hours. While you are eating, you choose really healthy food, eat a vegetable with every meal, you get rid of the sugar and the dairy and what we said before, but add the additional step of only eating during an 8 hour period and fasting for 16 hours. For young adults, that is hard b/c you are studying at night, but there is a lot of research on intermittent fasting. You can even do 12 hour fasting, just restrict the snacking, so even if you did it from 9:00am – 7:00pm but not snacking at night. You want to have a long period where you are not eating at night.
For a quick weight loss program, our office will do detox programs, but we created a juice cleanse at Organic Pharmer to help you do that. So the juice cleanses were created medically balanced in a way that will definitely make you feel lighter, lose weight, get your tummy flatter. A juice cleanse is a good way to go if you have something that week that you just want to feel a little lighter and get your stomach flat. A 3 to a 5-day cleanse is great. But the first time you do a juice cleanse, you should just do it for 1 to 2 days because you want to make sure that your body can tolerate it before you go for the longer amount of time. When you do a juice cleanse, it is a detox, your body is going to get rid of toxins which is really good for weight loss because the toxins are released from the body and the toxins hold on to body fat. Detox is a good way to lose weight. The first time you do it you might not feel that good because you might have a lot of toxins in your body. But each time you do it after that, it gets easier. If all goes well on a 2 day cleanse, then the next time you can do three days, and then build up to 5 days before an event. But I wouldn’t plan on doing 5 days for the first time you ever do one.
It is a process of cleaning out the toxins in your body. The great thing about a juice cleanse, it is like getting an IV of vitamins – you get such an intense level of vitamins – it’s awesome. You have energy, your brain is buzzing, you can think really clearly, and I think it is because you are getting so many vitamins and antioxidants that it helps you feel better.
You can learn more about Dr. Blum and her practice at https://blumcenterforhealth.com/medical-center/.