The following is a transcript of Season 1, Episode 4 of The ND Will See You Now, a podcast by the Institute for Natural Medicine.
As a young 22 year old athlete, Dr. Ashok Bhandari was told that his accumulation of injuries were expected for his age – he was “getting old” – and that his pain and performance were normal. In fact, they said, his circumstances were probably only going to become worse with time. Like many top athletes when faced with such an obstacle, Dr. Bhandari refused to give up and found a new goal: to feel and be better, to engage his body and mind to the fullest, and to show others they can do the same. In this interview, Ashok Bhandari, ND, MS(Ayu), once an athlete with numerous injuries and now the doctor helping prevent and treat them in others, shares how his comprehensive approach helps athletes level up their health care, preventive practices, performance, and ability to enjoy the activities they love for life.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions of the host and guests on this podcast are their own and do not represent INM. This podcast and its respective transcript and social media posts do not constitute medical advice; and, are not meant to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any conditions or diseases. This podcast and its respective content are for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor before implementing any changes to your care. If you would like to find a naturopathic doctor (ND), please see our Find an ND directory.
Anna-Liza Badaloo (AL): Hi there, and welcome to the Institute for Natural Medicine’s podcast, The ND Will See You Now. In this podcast, we speak to naturopathic doctors across North America about their whole person approach to health, what patients can expect, and why their work is so very vital to patients’ health.
I’m your host Anna-Liza, and today I am delighted to speak with naturopathic doctor Ashok Bhandari. Dr. Bhandari is a licensed naturopathic physician in Washington, practicing at the SageMED clinic in Bellevue. Hailing from beautiful Alberta, Canada, Dr. Bhandari got into sports and sports medicine at quite a young age. In fact, the very first sports medicine class he took was at the tender age of 13. Bringing us to the present day, Dr. Bhandari now combines naturopathic medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, and regenerative medicine to support athletes and help patients of all kinds with chronic pain and cardiometabolic issues. Thanks so much for joining us today, Dr. Bhandari. It’s such a pleasure to have you here!
Dr. Ashok Bhandari, ND, MS(Ayu) (AB): Thank you for having me. I’m always happy to chat about naturopathic medicine and my practice. It’s something that has been a big part of my life for so long. So happy to be here.
AL: We’re very happy to give you the opportunity! Speaking of that early life, why don’t we start there? I mentioned in the intro that you grew up in Alberta, Canada. While doing so, you loved being physically active. By no means were you limiting yourself to just one type of physical activity. There was soccer, you were doing track and field, you were involved with martial arts. And on the martial arts front, you won awards when you were in high school for your particular style of kung fu. But while all these accolades were being racked up, the injuries were piling up as well. And that had a part to play in your later transition from athlete to coach. Dr. Bhandari, if I can take you back to that time; from those perspectives as both an athlete and a coach, what gaps were you seeing in the healthcare system that influenced your current focus, one of them being sports medicine?
AB: I think it was a couple of different things. As an athlete, I was constantly pushing myself physically and injuries were just part of that process. I assumed it was normal, like everyone else around me. I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure to the idea that preventative care could be a part of the training experience, just the athlete experience. Once I had racked up enough injuries, I was basically told, “You’re getting old now. Your body isn’t going to do what you used to be able to do, that’s just that’s the way it’s going to be.”
I was 22 at the time. I was made to believe that there’s nothing to do about these injuries, you just do what you can, and you move forward. I was trying to do physical therapy and chiropractic and different types of modalities. But, there was something missing. You couple that with other health struggles I had with general health (especially my digestive health, that was a big part of it), and you’ve got this young athlete really struggling to stay feeling well, despite eating really clean and training seven, eight, nine times a week at times, trying to get good sleep and all that.
Enter my first exposure to a naturopathic doctor in Calgary where I grew up. That completely changed my digestive health literally in one month and simultaneously kick-started my journey to naturopathic medicine. I realized that there’s something different here. There’s a way to approach medicine in a way that is more preventative and more holistic. And things like my digestive health can affect how well I recover from my athletic endeavors. That was very interesting to me.
I was in my exercise physiology training at the time. I was training to be a strength and conditioning coach for professional athletes. I felt like I had lived both sides of that. And I felt that it clearly was not enough. I didn’t know enough [just] being an athlete. I feel like there’s so much more to know from the coaching side. Meeting that naturopathic doctor really felt like, “Hey, there’s more here to learn.” Once I arrived at naturopathic medical school, I realized that the ND scope is just so wide. I could continue my sports medicine journey and I didn’t have to just focus on primary care. It really evolved my sports medicine journey in a different way. I was able to create the kind of experience that I’ve had now, to fill a void that I feel is very much needed.
AL: Well, I can only imagine at the age of 22. What a young age to be told, ‘Well, looks like you’re done. That’s it for that. I hope you have another skill because I guess this is not a thing that’s going to continue for you.’ I imagine that many people may receive this advice and follow it to the letter. Good on you for continuing to do your own research and dig into other things that could actually support not only yourself, but as it turns out, support other people after you went on to do that as a coach, and then of course, as a naturopathic doctor.
Turning now to naturopathic medicine, you’ve given us quite a good sense of how it helped you, and not only strictly on the sports side. Sports [medicine] does not exist in a vacuum, right? There are digestive issues, there are countless other issues that may impact that performance. So now, the way that you practice, naturally naturopathic medicine is a focus. But you’re bringing in a couple of other approaches that are really very interesting. One of them is Ayurvedic medicine, which many people may know is a traditional medicine that’s been used for centuries in India, and you’re also bringing in regenerative medicine. And you’re using these three approaches combined for whole-person healing. Can you give us a sense of how patients are benefiting from your knowledge of all these modalities? And how are you actually using them together?
AB: All three of these approaches really complement each other, and they play very nicely with one another. One of the big benefits of having access to these modalities together is that you can fill in the gaps missed by one approach, by using the principles and tools available in one of the other ones.
To give an example: Ayurvedic medicine is a very traditional, constitutional medicine. It looks at the individual as a whole, individual person, from more of an energetic standpoint. It’s a very unique lens that I can use to look at the patient as a whole, as in, what’s their body type? What’s their energetic fingerprint, so to speak? What I’ve found is that it really helps to simplify the big picture of how to keep the patient balanced with everything else that I’m going to do with them.
Then you enter the naturopathic medicine approach. It complements this, because it provides a more nuanced look at optimizing function and health through diagnostic workups as well as traditional and modern therapeutics. So, I’ve got my herbal medicines and extracts and supplements that we have in the biochemical realm, I’ve got the nutraceuticals, and as well as modern medications, when we need them. It helps to bridge that gap from this traditional world medicine to our cutting-edge medicine. If you have the naturopathic and the Ayurvedic, the way I see it is, I get to start with this incredibly strong foundation.
On top of that, especially when I’m working with people in pain (whether it’s acute, chronic, athletic injuries and what have you), I get to add these targeted cutting-edge regenerative treatments and therapeutics that can directly heal damaged injured tissues and even reverse some of these disease processes like early arthritis, torn rotator cuffs, ligaments, tendons, and things like that.
Each of these approaches can work well on their own. But when you have the combination, it can provide patients with a better overall outcome than just a single one. That’s a big part of why some of the outcomes I see in clinical practice with my patients, might look a little better than what the research suggests they would offer to patients.
We hear all this information about athletes needing this much protein, to eat this much of that, and need this much sleep. But from a naturopathic standpoint, I can get a better idea. These are the general guidelines and approaches of foundational health. With the Ayurvedic lens, I can really look at a patient and say (and this happens regularly), I would say in practice, “Would you do better with a more plant-based diet or one that has more meat in it?” It doesn’t have to be one size fits all. Based on an energetic makeup or constitution of the person, some people will do better with one way or the other.
That gives me the tools to optimize either approach. Training schedules, level of intensity when they train, daily routines, how much sleep one person needs versus another, that can be simplified. I can get more of an insight, instead of just basing it off the general guidelines and rules that we have, by actually looking at that person’s individual, unique makeup. That really helps provide them with a more nuanced approach to their health.
AL: That’s well said and nuanced really is the word. There are constantly studies coming out about what’s the best exercise? When is the best time of day? What about the strength versus the aerobic and all of that? But ultimately, as you said, these are general guidelines. Will that work for some people? Absolutely. Will it work for every single person that reads these guidelines? Absolutely not. And with the approach that you’re talking about, not only is it patient-centered, you really are focusing on the person in front of you, as opposed to the disease states that they’re coming in with. This particular combination (using naturopathic, Ayurvedic and regenerative approaches), is giving you a unique lens, bringing the traditional into the modern scientific research, bridging that East and West. And your patients are greatly benefiting from this.
You mentioned a couple of things in that last question that really speak to some foundational aspects of health. When we’re looking at things like, how much sleep we’re getting and what we’re eating, it makes me think about what so many people have said over the centuries: health is not really just the absence of disease. We hear this and we know it, yet in North America, we don’t really live that way. I saw something on your website that I’d like to dig into a little bit because it gave some insight into this phenomenon.
Oftentimes, unless somebody’s coming in with something super specific, they may come in to see you and say, “Well, I feel fine. Not fantastic, but I’m feeling fine.” But then they work with you. And you help them to address some of these foundational aspects of health, some of which maybe they knew about beforehand, some of which may have been news to them, after they came to see you. And after working with you for a while, all of a sudden, they’re singing a different tune. And they’re saying things like, “Well, actually, I didn’t know that I could feel that good.” That word is a really important nuance, because if they don’t know that they could feel that good, then naturally, nobody’s trying to do it. Can you speak to this, Dr. Bhandari? What would you say to those patients who say that they feel ‘fine.’ How do you think that naturopathic medicine (and this combination of modalities that you’re working with), can help people move from that surviving, ‘fine’ state, to a really thriving state?
AB: This is a huge point, actually. This is absolutely central to my approach to medicine in general. I truly believe that very few of us feel as good in our daily lives as we potentially could. It’s not necessarily a fault of our own either.
We’re surrounded by essentially toxic environments and exposures. Toxic foods, certain things that we call food that really shouldn’t be called food, things that are nutritionally devoid of what we really require as humans to thrive. Our lifestyles, and specifically, like you had mentioned, the role that work plays in our daily lives is so dysfunctional, especially in this part of the world. Socially, we’re as disconnected as ever. You take that, and you’ve got all the foundations of health being disrupted. We’re constantly pushing people to do more in the waking hours we have. Naturally, we’re going to not feel good, right? It’s just not how we live well. When we spend so many years doing that, we forget what it’s like to feel mentally relaxed, to feel nutritionally replete, physically strong, and socially connected.
This is unfortunate, but this is normal, right? It’s that idea that common isn’t normal. What we call ‘normal’ is actually ‘common,’ but that’s not necessarily normal. So that feeling of, “I feel fine, good enough. I’m able to get to work and back and move through my day.” That’s common, but it’s not normal. People say, “I wake up tired, that’s normal.” No, it’s common. A lot of us wake up tired, but that’s not normal. We shouldn’t be waking up tired. Or, “I’m bloated after every meal.” That’s common, but it’s not normal, right? We accept the status quo.
By addressing just the foundations of health, building towards clean food and clean water, movement, exercise, good sleep, a clean environment, getting rid of the toxicities around us, and having healthy social engagement. Just that, people start to feel naturally so much better in ways that they didn’t even know or remember that they could. They remember that they were able to better socially connect when they had opportunities in life that allowed them to connect better.
When we’re in school and growing up, we have more opportunities to connect with more people. We get stuck in our day-to-day routines of work, come home, work, come home, work. We don’t have those same connections that we’re able to cultivate because we’re always so busy.
You put all these things together, and people aren’t tired 24/7. They’re not bloated from all their meals. They can actually digest them because they’re eating food that their body can digest. Neck and back pain (two of the most common complaints in primary care as far as pain goes), their achy joints are not regularly achy, they wake up and feel fine. These are some of the first few changes we see when addressing the foundational pieces of health.
Naturopathic medicine provides that perfect blend of that traditional knowledge of how we’re supposed to move through our day, the foods that we eat, the sleep that we should be getting, social engagement, water environment, all of that. It helps us use that as a foundation. It also offers that knowledge and research basis that we have for modern diagnostic testing, and then treatments to address these foundations when things need more work than just those basics.
One of those examples would be autoimmune disease. Often, patients with autoimmune disease come in and they’ve just been told, “You’ve got to be on a disease-modifying drug, or steroids or some sort of medication that stops this disease from moving.” Yes, there’s a time and a place for our advanced, modern medicine. But autoimmune disease, at its core, is the body not functioning appropriately with itself. Not being able to balance its most basic of functions, which is its immune system, its natural defense.
There is such a strong foundation of diet that’s related to our autoimmune disease. Our ability to sleep and regulate our hormones, our stress hormones, our ability to clean our environment. We now have the research that backs up this traditional knowledge, that heavy metals in our environment, water, bugs (whether that’s bacteria, viruses, fungus), these things that are in our environment affect our bodies. When those aren’t taken care of, when those are not addressed, they can cause our immune system to go left, right, center, anywhere. We don’t know. So much of this can be related to autoimmune conditions.
When people come in saying, “Well, that’s just what I have. That’s what I’ve been told: I have this, I am a person with this disease.” Then, it becomes a part of that identity. The longer you go with that, the more it becomes just you. But being able to address these foundations and start reversing and peeling back those layers, people start to realize, “Hey, I don’t have my flares anymore. I don’t need to be on those medications regularly. I don’t need to be on any medications.” And that is when people start to say, “I don’t have to just wake up, take my meds, go to work, come home and be like, yep, that’s my life.” They can say, “I feel great. I can actually go and do more. I get more work done in less time, and I have more energy and more time to do activities that I used to enjoy that I haven’t done in 10, 20, 30 years.” That’s where people start to thrive as we should. And that’s where I get those exclamations from people saying, “I didn’t realize that I could feel better. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t feeling good. I just thought that was the way I was supposed to feel.”
AL: I sure do. It’s such an important point that you brought up common versus normal. Because you’re right – we do tend to think of them on the same level. You gave some great examples. Should you be bloated after every meal? Should you be waking up tired every day, even most days? Goodness no. And to have people not only realize that it doesn’t have to be that way, but for you to be able to help them move that needle towards being more fully themselves, that really is such a gift.
It’s also very interesting what you mentioned about the identification with a disease. I think that happens quite a bit. That’s perhaps a bigger topic than we have time to go into here. But from an energetic standpoint, and a psychological and self-love standpoint, that has a really big impact.
Many years ago, a naturopathic doctor told me something that I’ve never forgotten. They listen very closely to see if patients give a possessive pronoun to what they’re experiencing. Do they say my Hashimoto’s disease, my headache, my IBS? And when you hear that, there is perhaps work to be done to help them realize that they are a person first. They have some difficulties, but they are not their disease.
AL: What a healing gift, indeed, you’re giving all of your patients. That’s about all the time that we have, as much as I would love to continue. Let me go over a couple of the points that you’ve mentioned, because you’ve made some very good ones.
In addition to the common versus normal point that you made, you did mention that the ability to combine different modalities and approaches, really does allow them to fill in the gaps, so to speak, for each other. And you end up with this really nice, holistic medicine. You’ve mentioned your own background and what that journey was like for you, when you were on the other side of that being told, “Well, this is now your life. This is now what you have to look forward to, or not to look forward to, as the case may be.” You’ve mentioned why feeling ‘fine’ is really not the goal, why life is so much more than that, and how naturopathic medicine can really help us to go beyond ‘fine’.
Listeners, if you’re wondering where the transcript will be, where the additional links will be, they will be in the podcast notes. Please check that out, and you can learn more about Dr. Bhandari’s work there. Dr. Bhandari, do you have any final words you’d like to leave us with today?
AB: Coming back to the last point, that we don’t know how good we can feel until we get there. We don’t know what’s missing, oftentimes, from our sense of wellbeing and our health and our function, until we actually get to experience it. You can’t know something until you experience it, often.
One of the big tenets of naturopathic medicine is that there’s always room for prevention. Even if we’re feeling fine, we can prevent, and be able to build up our foundation so that we can feel the same way we do in our 20s and 30s when we’re 40, 50, 60, 70 and onwards.
We don’t have to accept that disease is going to come around the corner and we’re just going to be a bystander to it. We can actively take a role in our health. That’s my biggest goal in practice. Finding what are the goals for people – what do they want to do? Then, educating them on being active and being the driver of their health.
If there’s anything that people can take away from this, it’s that there’s always an opportunity to be the driver of your own health. And it’s just about finding the right information.
Let’s all leave it at that.
AL: Well, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate place to leave it. We do not have to be bystanders in our own lives or with our own health. We can be the driver of our own he alth and we can be active participants as well, in our own health. Dr. Bhandari, thank you so much again, it’s been a pleasure to speak with you today.
AB: Thank you for having me, it’s been great.
AL: And listeners, thank you for joining us as well. We’ll see you next time!
To learn more from Dr. Bhandari, check out an INM e-book with advice from Olympic athletes and sports medicine specialists called Emerge Stronger: Natural Medicine for Sports Prehab, Rehab, and Performance.