Q&A with Daphne Miller, MD, author of Farmacology: Total Health From the Ground Up
By Jeanne Rosner, MD
Daphne Miller, MD, is a family medicine physician and professor at the University of California and the author of two books. The Jungle Effect explores Dr. Miller’s nutrition adventures while traveling to traditional communities around the globe. Farmacology describes the principles of best farming practices and considers how to apply this knowledge to the practice of medicine.
Jeanne Rosner, MD, a pediatric anesthesiologist with a passion for teaching about better health, wellness and nutrition, heard Dr. Miller speak on a panel at a nutrition conference hosted by Dr. Andrew Weil. She was eager to hear more from Dr. Miller and had the fortunate opportunity for this interview.
Jeanne Rosner: I love how you stress in your book the importance of the soil and farming techniques for better health and how you juxtaposed a clinical situation with one of your patients who can benefit from this new knowledge.
Daphne Miller: I enjoyed bringing the message home that way. It is a perspective that I can offer as a physician who is also a science writer. This is important to me.
JR: Are you finding the knowledge that you gained in researching Farmacology useful in your daily practice?
DM: Yes, absolutely. It is all incredibly clinically relevant, from thinking about new ways to view cancer to raising more resilient kids, with stronger immune systems; how to imprint dietary choices on kids; and thinking about gut health. All of my work looks at how much our internal ecosystem is connected with our external one. If we can create healthier external ecosystems, this will likely have a positive impact on our internal health.
JR: Can you explain the importance of soil health being directly related to animal and human health?
DM: This is really emerging data. I don’t want to misrepresent it as it being well understood. What is clear is that what is happening in the soil mirrors what happens in our gut: There is an intricate dance between our own tissues and these microbes—the same way that there is an intricate dance in the soil between the roots of plants, the organic matter, and the microbes in the soil. You need a nice symbiosis of these three things—the nutrients, roots and microbes—in order to be healthy. There is also some evidence to suggest that there is an exchange of information between these two ecosystems between the gut microbes and the soil microbes, but also between our gut microbes and the microbes in the water, the food, the air—between us and all these other ecosystems. And, by the way, we don’t just have a microbiome in our intestines, but in our skin, bronchus, ears … all our mucosa.
The bottom line: We are constantly exchanging invisible information with the world around us. This information has very important implications for our health. It can be positive information, for example, to help us metabolically with processing our food or to help strengthen our immune system. Or it can be negative information. For example researchers from Washington University showed that when soil has been mistreated, it can develop antibiotic-resistant genes. These genes can be transferred to our gut, thus giving our “microbiome” these antibiotic-resistant properties.
JR: What advice can you give us about how to get the most nutrients from our food?
DM: It turns out that nature is a pretty savvy nutritionist and I would definitely look to her for how to optimize your nutrient intake. Over and over again, I have discovered that recipes that include a variety of in-season foods usually provide an excellent balance of nutrients. The example I always give is when researchers tried to identify the “super foods” on Crete that were responsible for the low rates of heart disease documented among elders on that island, they were amazed to discover that all their analyses did not produce a single rock-star food. What seems to be responsible for their impressive longevity is the combination of foods (the traditional recipes). If you look at a table covered with traditional Greek mezze you begin to imagine all these health-giving combinations: how the olive oil interacts with the tomatoes to increase your intake of lycopene, how the citrus from the lemons increases the iron bioavailability in the barley and so on.
JR: How should we navigate the food system we are faced with?
DM: This question is a pretty broad one. What I encourage people to do is reconnect with farms, soil and food stories or to food outlets that are making these connections. We get very fixated on food labels (organic, free range, fair trade, non-GMO) and while these are good proxies they don’t replace actually knowing the narrative of your food. That being said, any whole foods that need to be chopped, assembled, cooked, etc. are going to be much better for you than highly processed ones that come to you from a package, a can, a 7-Eleven, a fast-food chain or that have ingredients that you cannot pronounce—so don’t be too obsessive and just try and get it right most of the time.
JR: At the end of Farmacology you discuss what we can do to implement the strategies that you learned during your research. Can you please summarize this approach—the personal health map?
DM: I consider a health map to be about relationships and the interconnections of our various body systems. First there is our internal web, and then how this relates to the external web or our external environment. It is a more integrative way to think about our body and our health. For example, how does our digestive system relate to our emotions or how does our reproductive system relate to our digestion? Then expanding to the external environment to look at how one’s relationships in life affect health. The way that you interact with your environment—specifically, where your food is grown, the places that you work, you sleep—these are all very integral to your well-being. When I give this exercise to my patients it is very eye-opening for them. It helps them see resources that they haven’t used or tapped into. It makes my work much easier and gives the patients a new perspective.
It is an ecosystem approach to personal health.
You can hear more from Daphne Miller, MD, at the 2015 Wallace Stegner Lecture Series at 8pm on May 11 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
Jeanne Rosner, M.D. is trained as a pediatric anesthesiologist with a passion for teaching about better health, wellness and nutrition. For the past few years she has been a nutrition educator at Woodside Elementary School, Menlo School, the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula and Peninsula Bridge. She teaches middle school children the importance of eating food closest to the source, making good food choices and eating in a balanced and moderate way.