Homeo Q&A with Acupuncturist Eric Schmidt: A Man Who Listens to Your Gut
You know in A Beautiful Mind when Russell Crowe makes that OCD string map on his wall searching for clues to a Soviet conspiracy plot? That’s basically what Eric Schmidt did for my digestive system, only he’s not crazy, and nobody will ever make a movie about it. Eric is an LA-based acupuncturist, herbalist, and practitioner of functional medicine. He holds a Masters in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, as well as California (L.Ac.) and National (Dipl. O.M.) Acupuncture Board Certifications. At his Santa Monica clinic, Eric uses an integrative approach (which means a combo of Eastern and Western modalities) to treat the whole patient and address the underlying causes behind symptoms. He also speaks Mandarin and happens to be a super nice dude. Okay let’s talk about our insides…
H: Why is digestive health so integral to your practice?
ES: The simple answer is that the digestive system is the first step in life. If digestion doesn’t work effectively then all other down-stream body systems are affected. Because the digestive process is the starting point for nourishing the body, other organ systems (kidney, heart, lungs, brain or muscles) can actually be repaired by simply healing the gut. In addition, Food is the most basic form of medicine that everyone has access to (you know, the whole cliché “let food be thy medicine”). No special tools are required, just an interest in experimentation and listening to how you feel after eating certain foods. Actually, part of the reason that I ended up practicing medicine is that I saw such a great benefit in finding foods that work for me. As a side-note, I’m particularly fascinated with current research on the gut microbiome, which is the collective community of “good” and “bad” microorganisms that inhabit our digestive tract. It has even been suggested that the microbiome is a “newly discovered organ” since its existence and health impact was not specifically recognized until about 20 years ago. Amazing research on the microbiome is currently underway by the Human Microbiome Project, which will hopefully give us additional insight into what constitutes healthy or unhealthy gut.
H: Based on your clinical experience, what are some of the most common indicators that a patient suffers from a digestive imbalance?
ES: Digestive indicators include all of the stuff nobody likes to talk about: gas, bloating, acid reflux (GERD), belching, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea and undigested food in the stool. And then there are the secondary effects of poor digestion to watch out for (which may or may not be cause by poor digestion): fatigue, headaches, skin conditions, body or joint pain, brain fog, etc.
H: What are some of the most common digestive diagnoses you see in your patient population?
ES: Some of the most common conditions include:
c) Stomach Acid Deficiency
d) Pancreatic Enzyme Deficiency
e) Gallbladder (Bile) Deficiency or Blockage
f) Dysbiosis (Bacterial Imbalance)
g) Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES) Dysfunction
Note that some of the conditions above are not standardized medical diagnoses. However, they are specific disorders with defined action steps to correct them.
When I’m working with patients, I will generally make both a Western and Eastern diagnosis. Neither system alone gives the full picture. Anyone who’s been through the Western system with a digestive complaint knows that a diagnosis like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) does not describe the root cause of the problem, nor does it accurately account for the patient’s specific symptoms.
In my clinic, an example of a diagnosis might look like:
a) Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
b) Stomach acid deficiency
c) Sub-clinical Hypothyroidism
d) Dampness and Cold in the Stomach/Spleen (TCM Diagnosis)
Here, developing a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Diagnosis is critical to determining the appropriate acupuncture and herbal formula. These treatments will help patients see improvements as quickly as possible, without requiring any lab testing to get started. Just as important, the Western diagnosis can be critical in finding a long-term solution and addressing any underlying factors (infections, nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, etc).
H: A lot of people I know think chronic gas or bloating or GERD or acid reflux is normal, and that they can just chug some Pepto or pop some Beano. How does someone know when it’s time to see a professional?
ES: A bit of gas and bloating is not ideal, but it may not be a major cause for concern if it is linked to certain foods and seems to go away if you make better food choices or manage stress better. Some other chronic conditions like acid reflux, diarrhea, or abdominal pain could be a signs of a serious problem. Some of these symptoms could increase the risk of developing other life-threatening diseases. Acid reflux (GERD), for example, may cause esophageal bleeding or ulcers and can increase the risk of esophageal cancer.
H: As an integrative health practitioner, how do you treat a patient’s digestive issues differently than say, a traditional gastroenterologist? Do you use specific tests? Is acupuncture always the involved?
ES: At its philosophical core, the Functional Medicine approach is different from the accepted Western approach. Specifically, the Western approach looks at the body’s organs as a series of discrete parts that can be examined, measured and possibly surgically removed as needed. In a classic Western medical view, a person either: a) has a diagnosable disease or b) is healthy. Here, lab values are considered “fine” if they are anywhere within the standard lab ranges.
In contrast, the Functional Medicine approach considers the system as a whole and examines how organ systems relate to one-another. The Functional Medicine system considers how well certain organ systems are performing within a range of possibilities. If a lab value (thyroid hormone, for example) is within standard limits but at the very bottom of the range, then this low value would likely be part of the working diagnosis and taken into account when developing an action plan. This Functional approach accounts for the fact that humans are not machines with discrete states of being. Instead, our organ systems work on a continuum from very healthy to so-so, and then all the way down to an actual diagnosable disease.
Lastly, I wouldn’t say that acupuncture is always involved in the treatment of GI disorders, but I will say that the digestive tract is particularly responsive to acupuncture treatments. Acupuncture has been shown to increase gastric output (stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes) as well as improve digestive motility (peristalsis of the large intestine and the migrating motor complex of the small intestine).
H: Let’s say someone has digestive symptoms and wants to see an “alternative” healthcare professional. What do they Google? Functional Medicine? Acupuncturist? Are there any certifications they should look for?
ES: I cannot say if there is a magic google search that will give you the perfect acupuncturist. However, I would suggest looking for an acupuncturist who has some understanding of Western medicine lab testing. Ideally, find a practitioner who uses a Functional Medicine approach. There are a few different Functional Medicine programs out there, but currently the education system has not been standardized. I expect to see this change relatively soon.
H: Let’s say someone has digestive symptoms and can’t get in to see said alternative healthcare professional for a month. What are some things they can do or read or research right now?
ES: I encourage many of my patients to look at the most problematic foods and see how they are affecting digestive health. Over time, or during stressful times, the body can become more reactive to certain foods. Most often, this reactivity is to a small group of foods including: wheat, corn, dairy, soy, eggs, tree nuts, coffee, yeast, sugar, and nightshade vegetables. These foods are particularly problematic because:
a) They are eaten so often.
b) They are more “advanced” foods, meaning they have some aspect which is natively difficult for the body to digest or detoxify.
It’s always safe to experiment by taking out one or more of these foods for a month and see how you feel. This type of experimentation isn’t easy, but it’s completely free and generally offers valuable insights.
H: Obviously diet is a huge factor when it comes to digestive health. What do you eat/ not eat?
ES: First and foremost, I eat a vegetable-based diet. Most of my food is cooked, which essentially “pre-digests” it. After filling my plate with vegetables, I add high-quality fats and proteins—the emphasis being “high-quality”. I look for organic, pasture-raised, and local whenever possible. Pastured eggs, wild-caught salmon and grass-fed beef are some of my staples.
I love flavor. I don’t believe in bland food. My vegetables are prepared swimming in ghee or coconut oil and then smothered in an amazingly delicious sauce. I’m always playing with different spices and flavor combinations. Sometimes that means I have to find out the hard way that cumin powder doesn’t go well with teriyaki sauce.
Lastly, I have low-sugar fruits like berries in the morning. I eat fruit alone for better digestion. Wheat and dairy are my kryptonite, so I avoid them completely.
It should be noted that all of my food choices are the result of self-experimentation. I do not recommend that anyone should eat any specific diet. I do recommend that my patients experiment with their food choices to find an optimal diet, and as such, there are helpful dietary templates that can act as starting points to begin the process.
H: Okay. Awesome. Thank you for taking the time to answer all this stuff. I’ll come see you again as soon as I meet my deductible.
Eric Schmidt, LAc practices Acupuncture in Santa Monica, CA. In addition to using a Functional Medicine approach, Eric specializes in an anatomical style of acupuncture called Trigger Point Dry Needling.