What does it mean to eat healthy? For some, it means a breakfast of Greek yogurt topped with granola and whole wheat toast or a tofu stir-fry. For others, those same meals are poisonous. A trip to any modern supermarket, where consumers are confronted with labels such as all-natural, low-fat, whole-grain, gluten-free, vegan, organic, and so on, elicits the type of stress and second-guessing that leaves many people feeling confused and befuddled.
Dr. Amy Myers came to functional medicine as a result of several factors: her professional background in emergency medicine, her own medical struggles, and the two-and-a-half years she spent as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay. Myers worked as an ER physician at University Medical Center at Brackenridge and at Dell Children’s Medical Center. In that time, she encountered many patients whose repeated symptoms were troubling. She often wondered if anyone had considered that dairy or gluten might be the source of the problem.
Growing up in a family that prided itself on being healthy, she ate many of the things that are typically associated with good health—including homemade whole wheat bread and yogurt. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, she was poisoning her body. These days, Myers might have a shake in the morning with almond butter and fresh fruit and a salad of romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, and avocado for lunch.
During her first year of medical school at Louisiana State University (Myers is a fifth-generation New Orleanian), she began to experience what doctors told her were panic attacks. As she had gotten through her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, where she taught organic farming, nutrition, and cooking classes to the poor—while living in a remote area with no electricity—and survived the death of her mother, with whom Myers was very close, stress by itself was not a plausible factor.
Myers was raised by her mother from the age of 10, when her parents divorced and she was separated from her brother, who went to live with their father. Her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (there was no history of cancer in her family) and passed away 12 years ago at the age of 59. Myers started medical school in August 2001, but her health problems made their presence known the following year. “That was a big wake-up call: Here was someone who ran and jogged and taught yoga,” Myers said. “It’s far more complex than all of that. It’s the environmental factors, the stressors in our lives, the emotional things we’re telling ourselves—I talk to all of my patients about that. My mother literally was healthy one day and gone in four months.”
Although the experience of losing her mother, whom she characterized as her best friend, was very painful (Myers fought back tears as she described how her mother told her she “couldn’t get through this without you” after her diagnosis), it gave her further conviction that her interest in functional medicine, which began during her time in the Peace Corps, was worth pursuing.
After Myers demanded further studies, from her own doctors, she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease in which the thyroid is overactive, producing an excessive amount of thyroid hormones. The resulting imbalance can produce a dramatic number of neuropsychological and physical signs and symptoms.
Initially, Myers knew little about functional medicine— personalized medicine that focuses on primary prevention and underlying causes instead of symptoms for chronic diseases—and chose a conventional approach: medication and the eventual ablation of her thyroid with radioactive iodine. Although she regained her health, it wasn’t until she met Dr. Mark Hyman, a leader in functional medicine, at a conference in New York City in February 2009 that she officially discovered her true calling. She introduced herself to Hyman, expressing her interest in the practice of functional medicine, and ended up shadowing him for a week at his clinic in Massachusetts. After a full immersion into the practice and countless hours of training with the Institute of Functional Medicine, she was ready to put everything that she’d learned into practice.
“For me, it’s the most amazing gift,” said Myers, who opened her clinic in June 2011. “I work to transform your health and your whole life. I talk to you about environmental toxins, what you’re putting on your skin and in your body, what’s impacting you. It’s an investment of time and money— and if you’re willing to do that, it’s worth it.”
Indeed, her interaction with her patients is far from typical, especially when compared with negative doctor stereotypes. Before a patient even steps into her office, he or she has al- ready filled out a 30-page intake form, which Myers carefully reads before your appointment. She typically spends at least an hour or more during each visit listening to concerns and offering advice. Myers has each of her patients start by doing an elimination diet to remove toxic foods (caffeine, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and transfats) and inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, corn, and soy. She also gives the patient the option of doing food sensitivity testing for 155 foods at the first visit. The results will be used in combination with what is discovered while doing the elimination diet. As part of the treatment plan, she may also prescribe a range of supplements.
One of her patients, who had suffered from migraines for nine years, was on multiple medications, and had spent thousands of dollars on tests, saw his migraines disappear three days into his elimination diet after removing gluten and dairy. “He didn’t get another one until he reintroduced gluten and dairy,” Myers added. Since opening Austin UltraHealth, she said that she’s changed the lives of about 450 people through functional medicine. Her clients are about 80 percent women and 20 percent men.
In the future, Myers hopes to expand her space into a wellness center, with more staff and related services like massage and acupuncture. “I do practice a hundred percent of what I preach,” she said. “And I’ve seen it work in my own personal life.”