Charles Elder, MD, MPH, has worked as a primary care internist with Kaiser Permanente for 29 years. For the past 20 years, he has been combining conventional and complementary medicine to treat his patients.
“When I’m in the clinic seeing patients, straight up internal medicine doesn’t always work,” he says. “A lot of times, patients couldn’t be properly or effectively treated using the conventional medicine toolbox. That left me with the choice of spending the rest of my career pounding a square peg into a round hole, or maybe I’ll expand my toolbox.”
To expand his toolbox, he started learning about complementary, integrative medicine, specifically Ayurvedic medicine (Ayurveda for short). Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest holistic (whole-body) healing systems. It was developed more than 3,000 years ago in India.
Why is that relevant to people in our culture? “It’s widely regarded as the oldest system of natural medicine in the world that’s been in continuous practice,” Dr. Elder explains. “That means that most of what we hear about naturopathic medicine will share a lot with, or will have borrowed a lot from, Ayurveda.”
With Ayurveda, things like diet, food as medicine, mind-body techniques, herbs and supplements are used to detect and treat imbalances in the physiology before they manifest into severe diseases like heart attacks, strokes, or cancer that then require allopathic treatment.
In 2017, Charles and his wife, Leslie, who is also a physician, took a sabbatical to Jerusalem, Israel, to work on their book, Picture of Health: Transform your self-care and health care through Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicine.
Gleaned from his work with patients at the clinic and the lifestyle that he and Leslie live, they created this “user-friendly manual.”
“It’s taking this really different way of thinking about health, prevention and disease management (Ayurveda) and translating it in a very practical way,” says Charles. “Distilling it down into something that people can use in this culture, and integrate with conventional medicine in a practical way.”
Dr. Leslie Elder, being an accomplished gourmet vegetarian cook and a talented visual artist, illustrated the book and created all the recipes. She is a member of the Oregon Society of Artists, and her work has been displayed in multiple venues through ORA: Northwest Jewish Artists and the Oregon Watercolor Society.
The book was released in the summer of 2019, and the Elders have received positive feedback both from patients and colleagues.
Dr. Elder has witnessed many positive results from people who have dealt with chronic fatigue, chronic pain, chronic intestinal challenges headaches, menstrual disorders, depression, or weight management when they start implementing Ayurvedic principles.
But where to start? “One of the main things we will tell people is that when and how you eat is as important as what you eat,” says Charles. “You need to have your main meal in the middle of the day and not overeat at night.”
The exact opposite of Western culture, Ayurveda says that your body is wired according to the sun’s movement, and your digestion is strongest when the sun is highest. Therefore, as the sun goes down, you should also gradually reduce your heavy food intake. Specific spices are also incorporated as they contain vital nutrients and are essential to the digestive process.
Digestion is key to overall health. “If we’re eating when we should, we digest the food, and it nourishes us – two thumbs up,” explains Dr. Elder. “But if we eat at the wrong time, or the foods are not wholesome, and the body doesn’t digest it properly, we absorb incompletely digested food particles – we call it intestinal hyperpermeability or ‘leaky gut’ syndrome.”
Problems with digestion can trigger autoimmune and inflammatory reactions that can lead to chronic disease.
Dr. Elder also recommends getting to bed by 10 pm, waking at 6 am and exercising in the morning.
“There are things that people should do and ways of living that are to be prescribed by the doctor because they’re good for you,” he says.
There are also behaviors and attitudes that Ayurveda supports like speech that uplifts people, charity and regular donation, respect towards elders, being positive and religious observance.
“We’re religious, and we find that Ayurveda is a way of helping my patients and doing tikkun olam,” says Charles. The Elders are long-time residents of Southwest Portland and members of the Mittleman Jewish Community Center and Congregation Kesser Israel.
“For the festivals, we’ll eat a little more at lunch and a little less in the evening, but we’ll still have the festive meal at night,” he says. Charles states that for Shabbat, they make an exception and eat on Friday night but do not “go overboard.”
Although Charles and Leslie have been practicing the traditions of Ayurveda for decades, he believes that it’s never too late to start benefitting from this ancient way of medicine.
“It’s never too late to start learning about how to maintain and protect our health,” he says. “Early to bed, early to rise; exercise in the morning; have your main meal at lunch; and if everybody did just that, there would be loads of unemployed doctors.”
To learn more about Ayurveda or to order Picture of Health: Transform your self-care and health care through Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicine, visit pictureofhealthmds.com, and learn more about Dr. Leslie Elder’s artwork at leslieelder.com.