TV doctor who avoided heart surgery by eating his way back to health
I was a junior doctor, 24 years old, fresh out of medical school and adjusting to the stresses and strains of working in a busy A&E department when my heart began to behave erratically.
It was hammering away at 200 beats a minute, to the point where I felt sick and dizzy, with chest pains so bad I couldn’t stand up.
I felt as if I couldn’t breathe and was filled with an odd sense of impending doom.
It was extremely frightening, and at first I thought it was some kind of panic attack.
I’d always been fit and active, playing tennis regularly and eating reasonably well.
At that age, I didn’t expect to be having problems with my heart.
Thankfully, I was on duty at the time, and asked a consultant to check my pulse.
A healthy heart should beat at 60-100 beats per minute, but mine was more than double that.
She sent me for an ECG immediately.
It was the first time I’d ever been an inpatient, and I’ll never forget the feeling of embarrassment at being wheeled along through busy corridors in a surgical gown.
I felt so vulnerable, which is something that’s stayed with me – even now, I think about that feeling when treating my own patients.
Within half an hour, I was lying in bed in a ward, with a heart monitor beeping beside me.
It turned out to be atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes an irregular and often fast heartbeat.
I began to suffer from 2-3 episodes a week, which lasted anything from 12-24 hours.
The impact on my life was enormous.
I had to stop playing tennis, and was in and out of hospital having a whole host of investigations, like cardio MRIs.
The condition isn’t usually fatal, but it does greatly increase the chances of having a heart attack or stroke.
It also causes blood to become turbulent and sticky, increasing the risk of blood clots – these can block the blood supply to the intestines and lead to parts of your gut dying off, or even the loss of limbs.
My cardiologist recommended a treatment called ablation, where part of the heart around the pulmonary vein is burnt with a laser.
It’s a very effective procedure, and as a conventionally trained doctor, I was fully on-board with having the treatment.
I was willing to do whatever it took to get better.
My mum, however, had other ideas.
She was keen for me to take a look at my diet and lifestyle before I underwent the operation.
As a busy junior doctor, she knew I hadn’t been sleeping as well as I could, and I’d been relying on grab-and-go food from the hospital canteen, rather than the healthy
home-cooked meals I’d grown up with.
I was very dismissive of the idea that diet and lifestyle could have an effect like this, and
it caused a lot of arguments.
We came to blows, but eventually, to appease her, I agreed to try overhauling my lifestyle before I had the treatment.
I didn’t think I led a particularly unhealthy life and ate what most people would consider a normal diet.
When I was a student, I loved experimenting in the kitchen with different world cuisines.
But after graduating, I ate things that were quick and easy – sandwiches and cereal, with the occasional chocolate bar thrown in.
I wasn’t a big drinker, and wasn’t at all overweight.
But for my new regime, I took time to cook healthy meals that featured a rainbow of colours and plenty of good fats.
I crammed my plate with veggies and massively increased the amount of pulses and wholegrains I was consuming.
At the same time, I began to meditate, something my mum had taught me to do as a kid, and I felt my stress levels decrease drastically.
I made sure I was getting to bed earlier when I wasn’t doing night shifts, and I introduced gentle types of exercise back into my life.
What happened next not only baffled me, but also my cardiologists.
I went from having up to three episodes of atrial fibrillation a week to having none at all.
To this day, I haven’t had another episode.
There are several reasons why this could have happened.
Eating more vegetables might have replenished a deficiency that wasn’t shown in my blood tests, or the huge increased fibre in my diet could have improved my gut health.
Or perhaps the improvement was due to my decreased stress levels.
I became passionate about eating well and wanted to encourage my patients to do the same.
But I felt nervous about a backlash from the medical community.
The focus of conventional medicine is about treating the disease, rather than looking
at preventive lifestyle choices – in the NHS, just 5% of the budget is spent on disease prevention.
But in 2015, I posted a cooking video online because I was determined to spread my message.
The next day, I went into work nervously, but I needn’t have worried – several consultants took me aside to tell me how much they loved what I was doing.
Four years later, I’ve written two recipe books and amassed 145,000 followers on Instagram , where I share healthy recipes.
I’m currently studying for a masters in nutritional medicine alongside working in A&E, and I’m in the process of creating the UK’s first accredited ‘Culinary Medicine’ course, which teaches doctors and health professionals about nutrition and how to cook.
I’m trying to create a new generation of medics who appreciate the importance of eating well for health.
It might sound strange, but I’m glad I had the illness, because without it I wouldn’t be doing what I do today.
And my mum?
She’s pleased with herself for setting me on this journey, and I really have come round to the idea that Mum does know best.
Dr Rupy's principles for eating
● Count the colours on your plate, not the calories. The more varieties of fruit and veg you can consume, the better – don’t just stick to staples.
● Bulk up your meal with fibre. I can’t understate the importance of making sure you’re hitting at least 30-50g of fibre a day. Chickpeas and legumes are very cheap and a brilliant way to get lots of fibre.
● Don’t become fixated on clean eating. People can become obsessed with counting macro nutrients and calories, but this can be unhealthy too. Try to focus on consuming lots of healthy foods, rather than cutting out whole food groups.’
The Doctor's Kitchen: Eat To Beat Illness by Dr Rupy Aujla, £16.99, published by Harper Thorsons. Follow on Instagram @doctor_kitchen
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