13 Apr Health Hero interview: Dr Sidney Baker
Dr Sidney Baker is a rock star in the world of Functional Medicine, integrative health and nutrition.
Currently based in Sag Harbor in the US, he is a Yale University graduate who has been practicing medicine for more than 50 years. He is the author of Detoxification and Healing and The Circadian Prescription, and co-author of Autism: Effective Biomedical Treatments, amongst several other titles. He is one of the founding fathers of Functional Medicine: an approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease—rather than merely suppressing symptoms.
What better person, then, to kick off the new ‘Health Heroes’ series? This monthly feature showcases the people who are working to make the world a healthier, happier place. Their approach to health is realistic, joyful and rooted in science. What’s more, their advice is immediately actionable.
In this exclusive interview, Dr Sidney Baker shares the secret to his success with patients, reveals the thing he loves to eat the most, and explains why beetles might be the future of healthcare…
How would you describe your job?
As a doctor, I view medicine as a way of giving love.
I am a graduate of the Yale School of Medicine. During my residency training, I was joined by a resident from South America: Leandro Cordero. During one of our long discussions—as were waiting to see if someone would have an emergency that required one of us—the words came from his mouth that medicine is a way of giving love.
Now, that’s not the sort of thing one would hear about Yale. It’s kind of a starchy place; it would be more likely to hear your professors say, ‘Don’t love your patients. Keep a very good distance from them.’ Leandro, with his Argentinian background, had a softer view of this.
So now I describe my job as a way of giving love. I’m not ashamed about that. There is an emotional bond that develops between people. One may not even call it emotional, one might call it spiritual, but something happens that is part of the healing process. I think that doctors who subscribe to the stiffer view of these things miss a point.
What inspired you to work in this arena?
The driving force was quite specific. When I was 13, my dad died in a plane crash in Egypt. I felt that I was on my own; not that I didn’t have a wonderful mother but, as a man, I had to find my own way. It was time to get a job.
My dad had been a hiker and so I’d had a taste of the mountains. I’d heard of this Appalachian mountain club hut system and thought I’d try and get a job as a hut boy. I matured very early so, physically, I could pass as a 16-year-old in the summer in the year following my dad’s death.
I worked with a crew of young men and women who were older than I: college students, graduate school students, ski bums looking for something to do in the summer. Naturally as a 14-year-old, even though I looked mature, I had to jolly well fit in. I found that one skill that I had socially was knowing how to give back rubs. Having received back rubs from my mother as a child, I at least had the concept right! During that summer, my back rubs were in demand among my co-workers who were doing heavy, physical work.
Three years later, I was in London as a member of the Winant Volunteers—young Americans helping out in settlement houses, parishes and boys’ clubs in the East End of London where war damage repair was shifting from rubble to societal reconstruction. At rare social occasions attended by upper-class English people, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I thought, I’m good at giving massages, I should be a doctor! It gave me an acceptable response to get through these occasional parties. Then it got me thinking that, Yes, I guess a doctor would be a good thing to be.
A few years later I had a chance to ripen that decision. During a year out from Yale, I worked with a man called Dr Miller in Kathmandu. He would turn to me after each patient and say, ‘Sidney, have we done everything we can for this patient?’ When I went to medical school, it was, ‘Have we done everything we can for this disease?’
I’d been branded by Dr Miller, and I’m still quite involved in treating people as individuals, with all biochemistry, immunology and toxicology that goes with that. And that all came from learning how to give people massages!
What does your typical day look like?
I don’t have a typical day. Right now, I’ve pretty much stopped seeing new patients, but I still take care of my old patients. I’m 81 years old—you’re supposed to find something else to do!
I’m also involved in another project. When I was in Africa for two years [in the 1960s], I noticed that, even though I saw thousands of people, I never encountered anybody with autoimmune or allergic problems. In the 40 years going forward, it became scientific consensus that people living in the old-fashioned way don’t have autoimmune and allergic problems, as compared with people living the modern way with soap and water and toilets. Hygiene is a key feature of the difference.
Years later, a gastroenterologist in the Midwest, Dr Joel Weinstock, discovered that if you infected ulcerative colitis patients with pig whipworm eggs, more than 50% of them were cured. I got wind of this, used it with my patients for a few years and began lecturing about it. During one of these lectures I met a man named William Parker, who was a professor of surgery at Duke University. He said he was working on something similar, and later showed me how to cultivate an organism called hymenolepis diminuta cysterceroids, or HDC for short.
This organism now consumes some part of my time. I created a clean room with all the necessary precautions, I got some rats and some beetles, and I started production of our ‘little dudes’. They’re not worms, but intermediates in the life cycle of the rat tapeworm as it occurs in beetles. I call them Primobiotics because it’s like a probiotic, but better. They restore tolerance to a person’s immune system, and it works more than 50% of the time—we get to hear some pretty good stories about that. It’s the best thing I’ve learned how to do in 50 years of being a doctor.
What does health mean to you?
The best answer to this, for various reasons, is rhythm.
Living things are rhythmic, and anybody who has listened to a symphony orchestra knows that any small departure from rhythm in a complex system is noticeable. The achievement of health, then, should be associated with the presence of rhythmic integration in the creature.
I wrote a book about this called The Circadian Prescription. There are people beginning to come up who will soon integrate this in a more delicate, more precise way. For now, ask yourself how well do you sleep? Do you have a bowel movement every day? Yes, if pooping and sleeping are all you can talk about, you’re not quite into the heart of the whole thing—but it’s a start.
What do you think are the biggest misperceptions about health today?
The biggest misperception—and it’s a misperception that almost rises to criminality—is that diseases cause symptoms. This is so deeply embedded in the culture in which we exist medically, and in the minds of doctors and everyone else, that it really is a serious challenge for us to be able to move ahead with common sense and a different way of thinking that does not confuse names, ideas, and things.
My medical focus on the individual can be summed up in one question: ‘Does this person have an unmet special need to get, avoid, or be rid of somethings that if taken care of would favour Nature’s buoyant impulse toward healing?’
In matters of acute illness, the medical concession to naming the problem and taming it with surgery, pills or reassurance makes sense. With chronic illness, the confusion of the name with the cause poisons the logic needed to solve the problem. Diseases are not things. A disease is an idea about similar patterns of symptoms found in different people. A disease is not the cause of symptoms that are chosen to define it.
It’s not so troublesome if you think this way about acute illness. If you say, ‘The reason my nose is dripping is because I have a cold’, I’m not going to argue with that.
But people have chronic illness due to a combination of factors getting out of balance; to attribute it to a simple name, that’s where it gets crazy. Once you have a label for something, you treat the label—and the treatment becomes the same for everybody with that label, which is nonsense.
What’s your favourite thing to eat?
Chocolate! There’s a particular one that is salted, and I’ll tell you…in moderation, it’s very important.
If you could give just one piece of advice concerning food, what would it be and why?
Say no to sugar. Even though I’ve been quite involved in nutrition for many years now, it’s only recently that I became more keenly aware that, for some individuals, very small amounts of sugar are very dangerous. It’s like the canary in the coal mine: it makes you wonder if there’s anybody who really can tolerate sugar.
For me, a vegetarian diet and no sugar are the core principles. I eat pretty close to a vegetarian diet now because the evidence for it is very strong and, at my age, one has to be more careful. You don’t have quite as much room to wiggle, and I want to keep my marbles.
Who do you look up to, and why?
The people whom I admire the most are the parents of autistic children who hang in there and try to get through it. They’re the minority.
I see mothers who have to disregard their regular doctor’s opinion (as he’s telling them to just find a special school), and instead go and see one of the people in my tribe. Then they have to avoid feeding the child gluten, casein and sugar, and maybe some other stuff. They have to engage in a process that is very different to any of their neighbours. And when they achieve success and their kid is OK, it’s simply ascribed to luck.
I’m quite aware that the majority of people haven’t really even caught on to the idea that autism is a problem that can be confronted with tremendous success. Sometimes it comes quite easily if you do the right things—but you have to do them.
It takes a great deal of fortitude. Obviously if you’re a mother, you’re willing to go to extremes but, in fact, normal mothers are not. A normal human being can only handle so much. To be smart enough to hang in there…it takes a lot. It’s very impressive when you see it in action, and I meet the most wonderful, intelligent women who do this.
Tell us something about you that people wouldn’t expect.
The one thing that people wouldn’t expect from knowing me casually is that I have a temper. It doesn’t get exercised very often, but it’s there, ready to be activated under the right circumstances. There’s nothing worse than losing your temper and then finding out that you were wrong!
Aside from good health, what do you cherish in your life?
I have a swing outside my practice. When a child comes to see me, he’s typically been to see four other doctors and he knows what it’s going to be like—not a lot of fun. He’s already been on a long car ride and he’s feeling cranky. So we get him out of the car and, after everybody’s had a chance to pee, we put him on the swing. I’m standing behind him, giving him a push, and pretty soon I can see from his parents’ faces that he’s smiling.
When he gets down from the swing I say, ‘You were great on the swing. I’m so proud of you.’ And he gets to hear something good about himself, after hearing doctors telling his parents over and over again all the things that are wrong with him.
That is one of the real sources of joy in my practice—to see kids light up, and then see how they do when they come in for a long, boring visit. They always know the swing is out there.
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