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January 16, 2012

US Doctor Prescribes Food as Medicine

Daphne Miller focuses on nutrition to treat modern diseases

When patients go to see Dr. Daphne Miller, they are more likely to leave with a recipe for a wholesome meal than a drug prescription.

In 2000, Ronnie Sampson, 52, was diagnosed with neurosarcoidosis, a disease that tricks the immune system into attacking certain parts of the body.

Sampson’s doctor put him on prednisone, a corticosteroid that helps to suppress the immune system.

But while the drug helped eliminate symptoms of his disease, the self-employed graphic artist started having headaches, gained weight, developed insomnia and even became diabetic.

“The regular physician wasn’t really spending much time with me, so I wanted to get away from my regular physician and find somebody who was more attuned to a combination of western medicine and alternative medicine," Sampson says, "and my acupuncturist recommended Dr. Miller.”

Combination healing approach

Sampson started seeing Miller in late 2001. The family physician combines conventional and alternative healing approaches in her San Francisco medical practice.

After taking an in-depth look at Sampson’s medical history and lifestyle, Miller designed a customized regimen of nutrition and exercise she believed would improve his health and make him less dependent on medication.

Sampson says it's done both. “My regular doctor had been focusing on making sure that I take my medication, and I think that Dr. Miller’s approach of combining medicine and lifestyle is really what turned things around for me.”

Miller originally pursued traditional medical training. She studied at the prestigious Harvard Medical School and did a two-year research fellowship, funded by the National Institutes of Health, at the University of California, San Francisco.

Filling the gaps

But after she finally opened her own practice in 2000, she recognized significant gaps in her training.

“I got into my private practice and suddenly realized that I really did not have the proper training to take care of the most salient issues that I was seeing every day," Miller says, "which were issues related to heart disease and diabetes and cancer, all of which in some way could be traced back to nutrition and lifestyle issues.”

Motivated by a desire to offer her patients more holistic medical treatment, Miller set out on a three-year journey around the globe to study the traditional diets of her patients’ ancestors - time-tested food combinations which, in many cases, had demonstrable health benefits.

“I really was surprised to see how different different cultures were in their approach to food," she says. "From Iceland, which really had a fairly high animal product-based diet, to a place like Okinawa in Japan, where it really was a lot of vegetables, to a place like Copper Canyon in Mexico where it was a lot of whole-grain carbohydrates.”

For example, Miller found that Icelanders use their traditional fish diet, rich in omega-3 oils, to fight depression. Impressed by this kind of indigenous medical knowledge, she decided to organize it and use it in her practice. She started modifying traditional recipes with easy-to-find local ingredients to help her patients eat more nutritiously.

The Jungle Effect

She also chronicled her journey in a book called "The Jungle Effect," which serves as both a nutrition cookbook and a personal travelogue.

But while Miller uses food for the prevention and treatment of modern illnesses, she believes that drugs can still play an important role in her patients’ lives.  

“In some instances, I feel that diet can absolutely replace medication, and then there are other times where medication is necessary and diet is there to enhance or augment it. And that is the art of medicine.”

According to Miller, many medical studies have shown the important role nutrition plays in overall well-being.

“So, for example, there are studies showing that nutrition, in particular within Japan, has a lot to do with the lower rates of breast cancer amongst the elderly female population, and that nutrition, in particular in western South Africa, has a lot to do with the low rates of colon cancer amongst the rural, traditional African populations.”

Food as medicine

A growing number of physicians agrees with Miller’s approach, including Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and associate professor at Brigham Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School.

“There’s lots of research which has come together to tell us that our focus should be on healthy foods, and those overall healthy, food-based dietary patterns should really be the focus of our priorities in the U.S. and globally,” says Mozaffarian.  

Ronnie Sampson would certainly agree. After a short time on his personalized nutrition and exercise program, the San Francisco native started feeling better. And although his neurosarcoidosis is not cured, Sampson has been able to reduce his reliance on prednisone by half, and has essentially reversed his diabetes.

“I feel better than I’ve felt in many, many years," he says. "At 52, I feel healthier than I did at 40.”

Sampson continues to see Miller about twice a year for checkups. He believes everyone could benefit from her holistic, integrated approach, in which food is often the best medicine.