Find connection. The quality of your social relationships is one of the most fundamental determinants of health. With the recent COVID pandemic and many things shifting to online, an epidemic of isolation and loneliness has become greatly exacerbated. Remarkably, researchers have shown that the experience of loneliness can lead to changes in gene expression that increase inflammation and negatively impact the immune system. The ways in which we might find meaningful connection may differ greatly. I encourage you to try to enhance your social connections in multiple ways, to bring more richness and depth to your relationships, because a strong, diverse network of social integration is the best way to optimize your longevity and overall wellbeing.
The term Blue Zones has been used to describe places where people live long and healthy lives. What exactly does it take to live a long and healthy life? What is the science and the secret behind longevity and life extension? In this series, we are talking to medical experts, wellness experts, and longevity experts to share “5 Things You Need To Live A Long, Healthy, & Happy Life”. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Akil Palanisamy.
Akil Palanisamy, MD, “Dr. Akil,” is a Harvard-trained physician who practices integrative medicine, blending his conventional medical expertise with holistic approaches including functional medicine and Ayurveda. “Dr. Akil” attended Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in biochemical sciences. He earned an MD from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and completed family medicine residency training at Stanford University. He then graduated from a fellowship in integrative medicine with Dr. Andrew Weil at the University of Arizona, and received certification in mind-body medicine from the Georgetown University Center. He is the Department Chair for Integrative Medicine at the Sutter Health Institute for Health and Healing (IHH). He also serves as IHH Physician Director for Community Education and leads their educational initiatives and programs. Dr. Akil has been a consultant with the Medical Board of California for many years.
A widely known speaker and educator, he is the author of THE TIGER PROTOCOL and The Paleovedic Diet: A Complete Program to Burn Fat, Increase Energy, and Reverse Disease. As he has done for over two decades, Dr. Akil sees patients and conducts clinical research studies in the San Francisco Bay Area. In his free time, he enjoys playing tennis, traveling, and spending time with his wife and daughter.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
I grew up in India, Singapore, and then the United States in a middle-class family. Leaving Singapore at the age of 10 and transitioning to Texas was one of the most challenging experiences of my life, but it expanded my horizons and taught me the value of diversity and open-mindedness. This international upbringing has instilled in me a deep appreciation of different cultures (and cuisines!).
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I think that the story of my own illness — which strongly influenced my career — is perhaps the most interesting. When I was in medical school, I developed a mystery illness that no one could diagnose. It caused severe pain, fatigue, and weight loss. I was not able to sit up or use a computer and had to stop my medical training because conventional medicine was not able to help my symptoms. At that time, I began to explore integrative medicine and that was the key to turning my health around. I found that alternative modalities were critical to my recovery. I learned that a holistic, integrative protocol blending conventional and alternative therapies was the most effective strategy for my overall health and wellness — and decided that I would make this available to all my future patients.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think my father played a critical role. At an early age he taught me about the importance of a positive attitude. I only learned to appreciate the power of this after going through difficult experiences such as my own mystery illness. Many things that he taught me, I only understood when I was much older — in the moment, I did not think much of them — but I appreciate those lessons more now.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I believe that persistence, compassion, and kindness are crucial. Persistence was what enabled me to get through the odyssey of medical training. Compassion is what enables me to take care of patients in my office every day because I am deeply moved by the suffering that I observe and serve as a witness to. Kindness is one of my guiding values and I seek to use that to guide all of my interactions on a daily basis, both in my personal and professional life.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about health and longevity. To begin, can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fields of health, wellness, and longevity? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
As a Harvard-trained M.D., my approach involves a strong scientific background in biochemistry and Western medicine alongside my training in Ayurveda and alternative therapies. I have completed a Fellowship in Integrative Medicine and am board certified in both family medicine and integrative medicine. In my integrative medicine practice, I also utilize functional medicine — a modality that uses specialized lab testing to diagnose and treat imbalances in the function of different organ systems. I believe my unique contribution is synthesizing all these disparate fields and providing practical easy-to-understand advice for people. Over the past two decades, my comprehensive approach has helped tens of thousands of people to optimize their health and wellness.
Seekers throughout history have traveled great distances and embarked on mythical quests in search of the “elixir of life,” a mythical potion said to cure all diseases and give eternal youth. Has your search for health, vitality, and longevity taken you on any interesting paths or journeys? We’d love to hear the story.
During my year off when I was trying to heal my mystery illness, I explored a variety of alternative paths. Conventional treatments like physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications were not solving my health issues. Therefore, I began to learn about Ayurveda, and noticed a profound change in my well-being as I implemented Ayurvedic principles in my life. I also developed a deep understanding of the substantial impact that diet has on all aspects of our health.
Based on your research or experience, can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Live A Long & Healthy Life”? (Please share a story or an example for each)
1. Eat healthy. I have a slightly different take on diet because my view is that we should eat the way we need to in order to support our microbiome, the gut bacteria that are crucial for longevity. Studies of centenarians show that they have a much more robust and diverse microbiome than other adults. My life’s work has been to teach people about prebiotic foods, which are lesser-known foods that boost the health of your microbiome. Of course, I love fermented foods as well which are great — but more people seem to know about those than prebiotic superfoods such as chestnut, clove, elderberry, pomegranate, leeks, capers, olives, flax, peppermint, green tea, and many others that I teach people about.
2. Move daily. Exercise has been a game changer for me. Every day — try to find some way to move, whether it be yoga, walking, weight training, cardio, hiking, or something else. I was not always this way, because I did not have much time to exercise during my long years of medical training. This was a more recent change for me and now it is something I miss if I don’t do. If I can grow to love exercise, then anyone can.
3. Sleep well. Most people do not get enough sleep. While not everyone needs eight hours of sleep, many people do. Optimizing your sleep is indispensable. The way you will know that you are getting enough sleep is that you wake up feeling well-rested in the morning. Sleep is one of the most powerful things you can do for your health and reduces your risk of multiple diseases.
4. Manage stress. Everyone finds that a different approach works for them to relieve stress. You do not have to meditate for an hour every single day. Different approaches have been proven to be beneficial, such as gratitude practices, psychotherapy, counseling, yoga, prayer, or guided imagery. Find a practice that you enjoy so that you will be motivated to do it regularly.
5. Find connection. The quality of your social relationships is one of the most fundamental determinants of health. With the recent COVID pandemic and many things shifting to online, an epidemic of isolation and loneliness has become greatly exacerbated. Remarkably, researchers have shown that the experience of loneliness can lead to changes in gene expression that increase inflammation and negatively impact the immune system. The ways in which we might find meaningful connection may differ greatly. I encourage you to try to enhance your social connections in multiple ways, to bring more richness and depth to your relationships, because a strong, diverse network of social integration is the best way to optimize your longevity and overall wellbeing.
Can you suggest a few things needed to live a life filled with happiness, joy, and meaning?
I believe that having a sense of purpose or direction in life is essential. Life is about giving back or serving in some way, and every person has a unique contribution to make — introspect and think about what yours is. In addition, forgiveness is absolutely vital, so that we can let go of resentment and heal from the past.
Some argue that longevity is genetic, while others say that living a long life is simply a choice. What are your thoughts on this nature vs. nurture debate? Which is more important?
I believe that epigenetics, which refers to how our diet, lifestyle, and daily choices impact the expression of our genes, is more important than genetics. Therefore, I think the great majority of factors that affect longevity and chronic disease are within our control and not genetically determined.
Life sometimes takes us on paths that are challenging. How have you managed to bounce back from setbacks in order to cultivate physical, mental, and emotional health?
I learned the power of resilience from my own personal health setback that I struggled with for years during my medical training. Although it was the most challenging experience of my life, I am grateful for it because it made me who I am today, and was the catalyst for my journey into integrative medicine — which has been the most rewarding and fulfilling career for me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Whatever happens, don’t take things personally.” This insight was very helpful to me because for many years I used to believe that whatever other people did was because of me. Only after I really understood this quote did I come to realize that what other people do is largely because of them, and has very little or nothing to do with me. It was a humbling insight but also very freeing because I realized that I did not need to feel responsible for the actions or happiness of others.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am hoping to lead a revolution to help the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are now suffering from autoimmune conditions, the fastest growing category of disease. Our current treatments may help the symptoms of autoimmunity but do not address the causes. I found from my deep dive into the research literature that the five root causes of toxins, infections, gut health, eating, and rest/stress are the primary drivers of all autoimmune disorders, and this new understanding opens up many novel pathways to healing.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
Please visit doctorakil.com to join the movement and to learn more about tips and tools to boost your immune system, reduce inflammation, and achieve optimal wellness and longevity
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.