Frank Lipman: Alternative Medicine Man
Credit: Robbie Fimmano

Dr. Frank Lipman was working as a medical resident in the South Bronx when he first realized there was a better way to heal people. He'd walked into an acupuncture clinic a few blocks from his own chaotic hospital to find more than 100 crack and heroin addicts sitting quietly, with acupuncture needles in their ears. At the hospital, addicts didn't sit – they shouted, yanked out IVs, or were so sick that they lay sedate in beds. "It was obvious that, for the most part, Western medicine wasn't working – I wasn't helping patients," Lipman says. "At the hospital, we were more concerned with what the EKG or X-ray showed than with spending time with the patient to find out what was really wrong."

After that, Lipman started going regularly to the acupuncture clinic, where he learned Eastern-based alternative medicine while continuing to practice hospital-based Western medicine. It was a radical move at the time for a doctor in a profession that placed little value on preventive or holistic care. "I've always been a bit of a rebel at heart," says the South African native. "When you're brought up in apartheid, you learn to challenge everything. It's in my blood to question the system."

Thirty years of questioning have made Lipman a leading voice in functional medicine, which focuses more on balancing the body's systems than treating specific symptoms. At his Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in Manhattan, he primarily sees people whom he calls the "worried well" – those who aren't critically ill but aren't optimally healthy, either. Here, the 57-year-old shares what's the matter with our diets, why we live at less capacity, and what we can do to wake up feeling charged every morning.

What's wrong with Western medicine?
Rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and other diseases have skyrocketed in the past 50 years. We're seeing more autoimmune disease like chronic fatigue and hypothyroidism – we're even seeing these problems in kids. This is because we don't have a health-care system in the U.S. but a disease-care system. We treat diseases – we don't prevent them. Traditional doctors aren't trained in diet, supplements, exercise, meditation, and the other therapies you need to stay healthy. So if you want to prevent illness rather than only treat the times when you're sick, you have to go to an integrative doctor.

You've said that most people live at half capacity. What does that mean?
If you're not bouncing out of bed with energy every morning, you're not living at 100 percent capacity. If you feel tired during the day, your aches and pains are getting worse, you're putting on weight, you feel you're aging too quickly, or you're not as strong as you used to be – these are all signs you're not functioning at 100 percent. And you need only one or two of these symptoms to be living below optimum. These aren't just signs that you're getting old but that you might have an imbalance your traditional doctor isn't treating, you're eating foods that cause inflammation, you're not exercising enough, or you're living with too much stress. Basically, what we accept as normal is living at 60 to 70 percent of optimal function.

How do you live at 100 percent?
You have to ask yourself two questions. First, what are you putting into your body that may be harming you? This can include gluten, sugar, and chemicals like BPA and arsenic in your food, all of which are harmful to the body. Second, what are you not putting in your body that it needs? This includes tangible needs like certain nutrients as well as intangible needs like love in your life and community. Finding answers to these questions is much more important than getting a medical diagnosis. I can tell a patient he has irritable bowel syndrome, but that's just a name. But if I tell him he's eating too much gluten and dairy, or he's not getting enough fiber and probiotics, that's something actionable and helpful.

What about our great-grandfathers, who lived before the excess of sugar and chemicals in our food? Don't you think they had a hard time bouncing out of bed every morning?
It's hard to say what was happening 100 years ago. But I feel strongly that the conditions we live in today are more stressful and toxic than they've ever been. Everyone knows what emotional stress is, but environmental stress can be more overwhelming. There are so many toxins in our everyday environment that our natural detox systems are overloaded and our functioning decreases – our bodies can't process them. And when function declines, it presents itself as weight gain, fatigue, or aches and pains. Diet is a big part of that stress – if you're eating crap, you're putting a huge stress on your system.

Which foods are "crap"?
Gluten and sugar are the devil. I take all my patients off them, even if they don't have a wheat sensitivity, and everyone feels better. Sugar is obvious – most of us know that it stresses the body and creates inflammation. But I think gluten is worse. Gluten, especially wheat, acts the same way sugar does in the body: It triggers an immune response and creates inflammation, which can lead to illness and disease. The wheat our grandparents ate didn't do that. But the wheat today, even whole wheat, is a different grain – it's been so crossbred and hybridized to increase yields and resist weather and insects. It's a shorter, sturdier grain that we haven't evolved to eat. So when we do eat it, our bodies think it's a foreign antibody and create inflammation, which can lead to fatigue, disease, and autoimmune conditions.

How do you deal with emotional and environmental stress?
The ultimate answer to stress is meditation. Meditation stimulates the body's parasympathetic response, which is how your nervous system regulates your body's chemical and metabolic functions. While most men won't sit on a cushion or chair for 15 minutes a day, it's the best thing you can do. I try to get my patients to meditate daily for at least that long. Everyone should be able to find 15 minutes in the morning or night to do that.

Doesn't exercise relieve stress, too?
Exercise is a wonderful tool, but to use it to deal with stress, you have to get out of your head and into your body. So if you're running and thinking about what you have to do that day or your date last night, you're not relieving stress. You have to get out of your head and make it a physical experience, not a mental one. When you feel your feet on the pavement or feel your body moving, it becomes a form of meditation. That's why we teach breathing techniques – they're a way of getting out of your head. The beauty of yoga is that it's a moving meditation.

How much exercise do you tell your patients to do?
Think about moving every day rather than undertaking a rigid workout regimen, which can cause additional stress. How much should you move? That's difficult to say. I think people should move in a sustained way at least three times a week, but I also encourage people to move as much as possible every day of the week. For example, I always walk up the five flights of stairs to my office rather than take the elevator.

What about supplements?
I believe everyone should take at least four supplements: a multivitamin, vitamin D, omega-3s, and a probiotic. It's almost impossible to get all the nutrients you need in food today – and our needs are higher because there are so many toxins in the environment. Find a multi with a good amount of B vitamins. You'll have to take four to six tablets per day – you can't get all the nutrients you need in one tablet. Most people are deficient in vitamin D and should take about 2,000 IU per day. Most people are also deficient in omega-3s, unless you're eating tons of fish – and if you are, you're also eating tons of toxins and mercury. A probiotic is necessary to boost digestive and immune health.

How do you live a long, healthy life?
The four keys are exercise, diet, supplements, and stress reduction. Then there are also the intangibles: meaning in your life, love in your life. These are touchy-feely subjects that men don't seem to get, but when people feel passionate about what they do, they're healthier. When they're part of a community or go home to a loving family, they're healthier. You can't give a prescription for love or meaning, but they're crucial to good health. My life's meaning is to find out how to turn people on to the truth, how to help them see the light, how to show that they're being hoodwinked – maybe unconsciously by the hoodwinkers – and not getting the best care and medicine. I'm a preacher. I've seen what's worked and I want to turn the world on to it.