Dr. Joel Gator will be the first to sing the praises of conventional medicine: “I love conventional medicine,” he says. “We have the most unbelievable treatments that we never had in the past.” But he’ll also be the first to point you to its limitations, as well as its dangers. After years of practicing, he’s seen firsthand how the narrow perspective and overly aggressive approach of many doctors can harm patients, as well as the ways in which integrative medicine can solve problems conventional medicine can’t. The challenge now, he says, is to remove the divide between the two approaches — easier said than done, but well worth the effort.
Dr. Gator grew up eating fast food all the time. He would experience stomach issues frequently, especially when he was worried or stressed out, but, he says, “I just thought that was normal.” As he went through college, then med school, then residency, the stress — and the stomach problems — grew worse, but he never considered that changing his diet might make a difference. It wasn’t until he met his wife, who had a more holistic perspective, that he thought about changing his eating habits. The symptoms quickly subsided.
After that. Dr. Gator began to look at his patients through a new lens. One day during his residency, he was faced with a 10-year-old boy with juvenile arthritis. None of the doctors had any idea of the cause, and labeled it simply as idiopathic. But Dr. Gator, noticing that the boy was always snacking on junk food like chips and candy, brought up the possibility that his diet might be connected to the symptoms. “Everybody kind of just laughed it off,” he remembers. But after the child left the hospital, his family sought out Dr. Gator as a pediatrician, and they immediately began working on dietary changes, eliminating wheat and dairy and reducing sugar. The symptoms went away, and the child never came back to the hospital again. “That, to me, was a light bulb moment,” says Dr. Gator.
This incident led Dr. Gator to see the fact that, on a larger scale, conventional medicine puts the focus on treating disease, whereas more integrative and holistic approaches put the focus on preventing it. With training in functional and homeopathic medicine as well as conventional medicine, he sees the value in pulling from a number of different philosophies in order to best treat each individual patient. “My ethos and what I really believe in is that there shouldn’t be Eastern medicine, Western medicine, functional medicine, homeopathy,” he says. “It should just be medicine.”
Again and again, he’s seen the ways in which conventional medicine ignores the patient as a whole and jumps right to treating the symptoms. For instance, when a baby was having severe acid reflux at two months old, the doctors in his practice were quick to dole out prescriptions and order tests, and were about to order a scope (which would go down into the infant’s stomach). Only Dr. Gator considered asking about the baby’s diet, and learned that the parents had recently switched from breast milk to a formula with a lot of dairy; by switching to a different formula, the problem went away and they never needed to put a scope down into the infant’s stomach. “It was just as simple as thinking about things more holistically and thinking about the root cause,” says Dr. Gator.
Dr. Gator applies this holistic thinking to his practice by looking at each patient as an individual whose health is the result of many different factors. He takes a long history of every patient, looking for patterns and connections and thinking about basic lifestyle changes that can be made to address any issues. “I don’t think medicine should be the first thing. It should be the last thing,” he says, citing acupuncture, yoga, and naturopaths as avenues to explore before turning to a prescription. Sometimes, however, the right solution might be a conventional medicine, like steroids or antibiotics — but even in cases like that, after the acute episode has been cured, he makes sure to step back and understand why the issue occurred and what can be done to prevent it in the future. He knows that, while medicine can be incredibly helpful in the short-term, any medication taken over a long period of time can cause major problems, whether to the brain, the gut, hormones, or something else.
Watch our full interview with Dr. Gator to hear his thoughts on the troubling trends in chronic disease today, how diet may be connected to a rise in ADHD diagnoses, and why bridging the divide between Eastern and Western medicine is more important in today’s environment than it’s ever been.