Six years ago, after nine gruelling sessions of chemotherapy for Stage 3 ovarian cancer, I was half my size, without any hair on my body, and muscles so shrunk, a half-hour brisk walk left me sore. I consciously started seeking out what I could do to restore my health. After about a year of being free of cancer, I restarted life with new goals, and more importantly, a mental and emotional rewiring. What’s important and what’s inconsequential in life had changed. I was still getting used to the new me, and yet I feel a sense of freedom, forward movement and altered gaze on people, places and events. But my body wasn’t yet ready. I was still feeling exasperatingly sore. It felt as if every muscle and every bone was battling some bruise. The long-term effects of oppressive treatment regimes on our health are often what we aren’t prepared for.
The answer to a pain-free new normal, it appeared soon after consulting with a functional medicine expert, was in supplementing with magnesium. Chemotherapy had impaired my ability to absorb magnesium, one of the key minerals found in food (the human body doesn’t produce magnesium on its own), and the depleting numbers in my blood had caused inflammation, fibromyalgia, an acute pain condition that affects the whole body, and sleeplessness. After two months of taking a Magnesium Glycinate supplement, I started to feel the change.
Functional medicine is a relatively new field in India, and it is trying to fill some very crucial gaps in our health system, especially when it comes to chronic health conditions and lifestyle diseases.
One of the bigger functional medicine companies in India is iThrive, based in Pune, and working with patients from across the country. Mugdha Pradhan, 44, founder and CEO of iThrive, tells me she was depressed after her marriage fell apart in 2017. She started doing her own research, and discovered functional nutrition. She had a master's degree in nutrition from over a decade ago. “I lost 37 kgs and reversed all my health issues! I then began helping out people around me and helped many people experience remarkable health improvements.”
iThrive grew out of these efforts, into a functional nutrition and medicine platform. It has a root-cause analysis service where a patient’s complete blood panel is evaluated and discussed with them. iThrive's primary treatment plan, ALIVE, is a three-month program where you are guided by a functional nutritionist and health coach to transform your health—it costs Rs65,000. They hand-hold you through diet and lifestyle changes, supplementation and also any psychological challenges you may be facing. “The program is three months long because effective health transformation takes time and continued guidance. It can’t be done through a few consultations,” Pradhan says.
The ALIVE program also allows people to join a community support group where people help each other through their health journeys—sharing recipes, health tips, etc.
Much of iThirve’s medicines are usually supplements.
Anyone who has had serious illnesses and oppressive treatments, wherein the immune system and our cells take the worst collateral damage, is that supplements aren’t avoidable. But how much does a normal adult or child need supplements? Are supplements meant to only address deficiencies that blood reports show up? Certain supplements have become routine for urban living confined to indoors. According to a study published in 2022, approximately 490 million people are vitamin D deficient of which 31% are children and adolescents. A blood test to reveal Vitamin D3 levels has become routine in most doctor prescriptions today.
But doctors vary widely on the good that supplements can do. Most Western medicine or allopathy doctors don’t suggest a supplement unless a deficiency is proved. But even among non-allopathy doctors, the view on supplements is not unanimous. Dr Zubin Marolia, a Mumbai-based homeopathic physician, mistletoe therapy expert for cancer, and an integrative physician who insists on mind-body healing over simply treating symptoms for all kinds of illnesses, believes supplements can’t replace good dietary nutrition.
Are supplements necessary for good health?
Many doctors believe a balanced diet pretty much takes care of our nutritional needs?
Pradhan differs, much like functional medicine experts around the world: “We’d love to believe that a balanced whole foods diet takes care of all our nutrient needs but it’s simply not true. Most doctors don’t test for nutrient deficiencies and aren’t really familiar with the process of replacing depleted nutrients in patients and reversing their health issues. In today’s world where our soils are depleted of nutrients, and chemical farming practices have ruined natural food composition, supplementation is essential for optimal health for most people.”
After struggling to find high-quality supplement products in India, they recommended international brands initially, which needed to be shipped from overseas, and a couple of years later, launched their own line of supplements, formulated in-house to address this gap. (Full disclosure: I use iThrive Essential’s chelated Magnesium Biglycinate powder, which costs Rs 1,240— with utmost benefits to joints and muscles as well as my sleep cycle.)
To be sure, iThrive aren't the only functional medicine company in India. Dr Prashantt Wadhaawan, a functional medicine specialist trained in the US, heads the Indian Association of Functional Medicine (IAFM), a professional society representing Functional Medicine doctors and health coaches in India. He also has his own clinic in Mumbai, RH+. Dr Anjali Hooda in Delhi has made a mark as one of the earliest and leading functional medicine practitioners in India.
For most of the 20th century, conventional medicine worked on a single principle: Arrive at a diagnosis and treat it with drugs or surgery. Alternative medicine includes all medical or health services that offer an alternative option to the conventional allopathic medical practice that is offered in hospitals. Alternative medicine includes both sham practices as well as evidence-based practices such as functional medicine. Functional Medicine uses advanced testing and root-cause analysis to reverse hard-to-treat chronic health conditions permanently through a holistic treatment approach. It aims to use the best of modern medical research to tackle complex chronic conditions and optimize a person’s health.
The 1990s brought integrative medicine and functional medicine, a best-of-both-worlds approach. Dr Mark Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, whose new book, Young Forever: The Secrets to Living Your Longest, Healthiest Life, is already a bestseller after being launched last month, wrote in his earlier book, The Blood Sugar Solution, “I want to find the right treatment for each person, regardless of what that treatment might be. If a medicine is the best treatment, I will choose that; if a change in diet, supplements, herbs, or lifestyle works best, then I will choose that. We must learn to treat the person, not the disease; the system, not just the symptoms. This is personalized medicine, the medicine of the future.”
California-based wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh, also the wellness coach of tennis champion Novak Djokovic—the duo’s association and Novak following some of Jafarieh’s radical healing protocols including not taking the Covid-19 vaccine has been labelled “madness” by health writers and doctors across the world—started his company Cymbiotika in 2017. He sells his own supplements, which, a company statement says are made with “plant-based nutrients, combined with the most advanced bioavailable absorption technology, and never uses synthetics, GMOs, fillers, chemicals, preservatives, additives or sugars in any supplements.”
According to a study published in 2021, based on data gathered from 13 pharmaceutical companies worldwide, the global dietary supplements market size was valued at USD 151.9 billion. Buying supplements online is easy. Marketing of supplements on social media is growing exponentially. Some of these attractive bottles promise cures, and miracles. It is always the clever and sensible option to consult a physician before putting anything into our gut to process—including supplements. But it’s worth giving in to a functional medicine expert’s process—of tests, extensive questions about lifestyle, genetics and history of mental and physical traumas. It changed how I look at my own body and empowered me to own it for what it is.
A fortnightly column that helps you make sense of the new age of wellness.