Saray Stancic, MD FACN, Lifestyle Medicine

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Stancic-SaraySaray Stancic, MD, a graduate of UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School and a board certified Infectious Disease specialist since 1999, is the founder of Stancic Health and Wellness in Ramsey NJ. The mission of this innovative medical practice is to educate and empower patients for achieving optimal health via lifestyle modification, while shedding light on the large and mounting body of scientific data supporting the importance of optimal nutrition in disease prevention. She seeks a highly personalized doctor-patient relationship, pursuing individual health related goals which may include weight loss, and improved control of blood sugars, lipid profiles and/or blood pressure with an eye towards reducing dependency on medication.

In 1995, Dr. Stancic, a third-year medical resident working long hospital hours, was abruptly stricken with a severe and disabling case of multiple sclerosis. After 8 years of impaired and disrupted work and daily life, complicated by side effects of intensive pharmaceutical therapies, she stumbled upon a medical journal study reporting some beneficial reduction in MS symptom severity associated with one particular food: blueberries. This triggered an exhaustive exploration of the medical literature, revealing plentiful evidence in respectable peer-reviewed journals that dietary choices do play a key role in the development of chronic illness…. a topic that had eluded the medical school curriculum she knew so well.

Dr. Stancic concluded that the power of prevention/healing offered by a whole-food, plant-based diet for many chronic conditions is enormous and unquestionable. Inspired, she saw it as imperative to adopt this lifestyle personally, and she discontinued all medications and focused upon optimizing diet. Remarkably, after years of difficulty walking unassisted, she found her neurological deficits gradually improving, and felt renewed and infused with a great sense of hope. She decided to take up jogging, which evolved to running, and in the spring of 2010 ran a marathon. She followed through on a pledge to walk 2,015 miles in 2015, 20 years after being struck down by multiple sclerosis. These experiences laid the foundation for a personal crusade to prevent chronic illness by helping patients modify their lifestyles.

Opportunities for physicians within their usual practices and specialties to advocate for improved patient nutrition have long seemed very limited. Earlier in her career as a chief and director of infectious disease and virology clinics, Dr. Stancic did serve as Co-Director of the Dept. Of Veterans Affairs’ successful national “MOVE Program” (Optimizing Nutrition and Disease Prevention Program)…. leading a multidisciplinary team of nutritionists, psychologists, physical therapists and physicians in educating veterans about incorporating physical activity and greater attention toward nutrition into daily life. As the years went by, she shared with other physicians her insights from the research literature and personal experience about potential chronic disease prevention/remediation using plant-based whole-foods diets…. But she found regrettably that not many colleagues shared her enthusiasm or accepted that this approach could be valid.

As a physician observing unnecessary suffering and loss, Dr. Stancic had felt compelled to spread the word of this seemingly untapped therapeutic resource. The physician of today is relegated to symptom management via treatment plans highly dependent on prescription medications and invasive procedures…. with little time devoted to uncovering and addressing the underlying causes of disease, and little time available for counseling, support and education, interventions that have been proven to circumvent the need for drugs and surgery. Therefore Dr. Stancic concluded that she would establish her own small medical practice as a model for lifestyle based personal wellness promotion, where the primary intervention is educating patients on the importance of food choices and how these simple decisions affect our complicated health outcomes.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody! Hi everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass and it’s time for It’s All About Food. Thanks for joining me, I’m really looking forward to this. I look forward to a lot of my shows, but I have to admit that this one is going to be extra special. It’s difficult when people get diagnosed with a difficult disease and, more and more, we have mountains of evidence talking about the power of a whole foods plant-based diet. We talked a few months ago with doctors Dean and Ayesha Sherzai about The Alzheimer’s Solution. That was so exciting to find out that we could actually reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 90% (I still can’t get over that number) with a healthy diet and lifestyle. And that’s a whole foods and plant-based diet. And we’ve been talking for years about how heart disease and diabetes can be prevented and often reversed. This is really wonderful information and, unfortunately, it’s taken a long time to get out there. Well, we’re going to learn about one of the other debilitating diseases that can also be positively impacted by a whole foods plant-based diet and I’ll get into that in just a little bit.

 

Back from California. And it was an interesting time to be away in California and now to be back home. It’s always kind of surreal to spend time in one place and then come back to another place that you know so well, but you’ve been away from for a while. It’s familiar but not familiar. But what’s really familiar and the parts that I love is coming home and coming home to my kitchen. Coming home to my herbs and spices. Coming home to my raw nuts and seeds and my… Just all the things that I love to have to put together fantastic dishes. And I’m at responsibleeatingandliving.com. I hope you’ve been there but that’s where we house so many of our great recipes along with my daily blog, What Vegans Eat, so you can see real food that vegans are eating every day.

Now, one more thing I wanted to talk about before I bring on my guest is tonight we begin another Plant Powered and Thriving course. Have you heard about Plant Powered and Thriving? Have you taken Plant Powered and Thriving? Have you thought about taking Plant Powered and Thriving? This is a 6-week online course that I co-created with John Robbins and his son, Ocean Robbins. We’ve been doing it for about three years, maybe longer, and I really love it. I get really excited when we get started doing this. We have wonderful participants, it’s once a week, we answer questions on the first course, and after the last course there’s a very active Facebook page. And if you’re having any challenges transitioning or you want to take your diet up a notch or you just want to learn the latest and greatest when it comes to food and nutritional science, this is a great course and it’s fun. And I find that John and Ocean and I… We all bring something different to the party. It’s a very different balance. So, if you’re interested – have I sold you on it yet? If you’re interested, you can go to… I’m going to give you the web address: thriving.foodrevolution.org/join. Have you got that? Very good.

All right, so now that you’ve got all that important information, I’m going to bring on my first guest. Dr. Saray Stancic, MD, a graduate of UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School and a board-certified Infectious Disease specialist since 1999, is the founder of Stancic Health and Wellness in Ramsey, New Jersey. The mission of this innovative medical practice is to educate and empower patients for achieving optimal health via lifestyle modification, while shedding light on the large and mounting body of scientific data supporting the importance of optimal nutrition in disease prevention. She seeks a highly personalized doctor-patient relationship, pursuing individual health related goals which may include weight loss and improved control of blood sugars, lipid profiles and/or blood pressure with an eye towards reducing dependency on medication. And there’s so much more we’re going to be learning about Dr. Stancic right now. Welcome to It’s All About Food, thank you for joining me.

Dr. Stancic: Thank you so much, Caryn. It’s a great pleasure to be with you this afternoon.

Caryn Hartglass: I’ve been trying to get you on this program for a long time. As soon as I read your story, I thought “I have to meet this person” even if it’s just meeting you like this. I loved your story.

Dr. Stancic: I know, I wish I was with you in the studio. It would be nice to speak in person, but my schedule has been so hectic. Nonetheless, I’m happy to be here and I’m happy to have an opportunity to chat with you.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, I want to hear your story and you have a few stories. When I first read about you, it was about your journey with multiple sclerosis and it’s such an important story to share and I was hoping that you might tell us a little about it.

Dr. Stancic: Sure. So, my story begins 22 years ago. On October 11th, 1995, I was at the time a third-year medical resident and I was on call at Beth Israel Medical Center. And it was one of those really busy nights where my pager just wouldn’t stop ringing and I was literally running from the ICU to the emergency room and back to the general ward all night. And it wasn’t until sometime between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning in which I found a window to make it back to my on-call room to take a brief nap and, Caryn, I remember making my way there and feeling this deep-seated sense of fatigue, something I had never experienced before, and the minute my head hit that pillow, lights out. Shortly thereafter, as you might imagine in the midst of that very busy call, I was paged yet again to address another urgent patient matter, but this time when I tried to get up out of that sleeping position, I couldn’t feel my legs, and I remember reaching down to touch them and it felt like they were someone else’s legs. Panic set in; I was terrified. I didn’t know what was happening. Next thing I knew, I was in the emergency room undergoing an MRI of my brain and spinal cord, and those studies confirmed a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis with multiple lesions in both my brain and spinal cord.

Caryn Hartglass: A very very scary diagnosis which you must have understood right away studying medicine.

Dr. Stancic: Oh, absolutely. Studying medicine and obviously caring for patients with this disease. I knew what it was capable of doing and so immediately it was obviously a very dark period in my life and there were obviously many concerns: I was a young woman, I had just turned 28 years old, and now I was being told by my physicians that I had this chronic disease and there was a very good chance that in 20 years, I might be in a wheelchair. And so, hearing those words at that age, those were extraordinarily difficult moments for me, and I was admitted to the hospital at that time and started on multiple medications to treat that acute event and then other medicines to slow the progression of this chronic disabling disorder. And that’s really when things became extraordinarily difficult for me because the medications, particularly the one medication that I was on. There was only one medicine approved by the FDA in 1995 for multiple sclerosis and that was a drug called Betaseron and it is a drug that has a significant side-effect profile that includes fever, chills, muscle aches and pains, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia, insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts. Really really significant side-effects and these drugs really took a toll on me. And what ended up happening is, the side-effects of that medication led to prescriptions of other drugs to treat those side-effects. So, when I couldn’t sleep at night, I was given Ambien. When I couldn’t wake up in the morning, I was given Provigil, an amphetamine-like drug. And so, by the time I was in my early thirties, I was dependent on nearly a dozen drugs. So, I had a pill box and despite all these medicines, my disease progressed and my quality of life suffered immensely.

Caryn Hartglass: But there’s a happy ending to this, right?

Dr. Stancic: There is a happy ending [laughs]. About eight years into the diagnosis and I’ll tell you, this is around 2003, and at this point I was dependent on a crutch or a cane and not doing well. I came across, just by chance, an article that discussed diet in MS and this was extraordinary to me. I was struck by this because I had never… I mean, here I was a physician: four years of medical school, four years of residency, and then another two years as a subspecialist. So, ten years of my life dedicated to higher education in the field of medicine and I had never… None of my educators, professors, or mentors had ever connected these two dots: diet and disease. And so, this was an extraordinary finding for me and, of course, that small article in that throwaway journal really sparked a great interest in me. It was what I call my “Aha” moment because for the first time in my life, I connected these two possibilities and, of course, I turned to the scientific literature looking for answers: Could this in fact be true? And what I found was extraordinary; that there was indeed ample evidence in the scientific literature that diet and disease were closely affiliated. I began to study literature very very carefully and at the end of the day, what I learned was that changing not only my diet but also my lifestyle. And that is exercise, stress-management, effective sleep hygiene, avoidance of tobacco, and reduction or near elimination of alcohol. That’s what we call this discipline called lifestyle medicine. When you apply all these parameters we know, the scientific literature tells us, that we can indeed prevent nearly 80% of chronic disease and even manage or reverse many diseases by applying these principles. To me this was an extraordinary treasure that I had come across and I was struck because why wasn’t I taught this in medical school? But nonetheless, I applied these things in my own life, Caryn, and yes, there is a happy ending. It didn’t happen in a month or two months or even six months, but over the following period over the years, I regained control of my life. I came off all of those medications and I went from a woman that was at one time dependent on a cane to one that crossed a finish line at the New Jersey Marathon in 2010. So, for me, it’s been an extraordinary journey and it’s largely why today… Although I’m very proud of the work that I did in the field of infectious disease in the early part of my career. Today, I have fully dedicated my profession to the idea of lifestyle medicine because I want to spread this message. I want to share this empowerment with patients and communities and, truthfully, other physicians because we need to change the way we train doctors in medical schools. The structure of academia needs to evolve to reflect the environment that we live in today. We live in a world that is struggling with chronic disease. Diabetes and obesity are exploding in our country and patients are suffering. And although medicines are important and all the innovation and advances we have acquired in medicine are extraordinary. Really, the most important aspect, the foundation of medical care must be prevention. It must be these variables that is lifestyle medicine: food movement, of stress management, sleep hygiene. These are really very important and they really need to be built into the constraint of medical education.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, I’m sorry that you had to go through this, but, and I’m not saying that it was a good thing that it happened, but it’s a wonderful thing what came out of all of it because we really need doctors like you so desperately with this message.

Dr. Stancic: Thanks. You know, I…

Caryn Hartglass: I wanted to share… The reason why your particular story resonated with me so much is a couple of reasons. One, when I was a young girl, my aunt was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This was in the ‘60s and there really wasn’t much for her and she had two young children and I watched her just dissolve physically and we couldn’t understand her. She was in a nursing home, it smelled like urine, it wasn’t a place that a young child wanted to be in, and it wasn’t until my later years that I really felt the pain of what she went through. And when my best friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis around 1999, it all came back to me and I thought, this is not going to happen to her. And I did to some extent what you did. I don’t have a medical degree so I didn’t have access to all kinds of literature, but I did find out about Dr. Swank’s work and a variety of other things, and I put her… She was a vegetarian who was eating bagels, pasta and cheese and pretzels. That was her diet!

Dr. Stancic: Not a good diet!

Caryn Hartglass: No! I mean, even though she wasn’t eating meat, she was eating white flour food and dairy. And anyway, I put her on a very healthy diet and her doctor, ten years later said, “You’re one of the lucky 10%.”

Dr. Stancic: Yeah? That’s a great story, thank you for sharing that with me and it’s so true. It’s interesting in 1952, Roy Swank published the first article in the New England Journal of Medicine speaking to this diet and disease and at that point, he had hypothesized that it was saturated fat that was playing a role in MS. And he went on to treat patients in the ‘50s/’60s. He actually published a data in the Archives of Neurology in 1970 after following 140 plus patients over twenty years. But he didn’t stop there, Caryn, he followed them another fourteen years and reported on them in The Lancet journal in 1990. And at the end of the day, what he concluded was: those patients that maintained a low-fat/plant-based diet had a lower rate of mortality and 95% of them remained disability free. That’s extraordinary and yet that body of data, regrettably today, modern neurology doesn’t give much attention to.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s insane! That’s insane!

Dr. Stancic: Yeah

Caryn Hartglass: They come up with these reasons that there wasn’t a control group to compare. The control group is everybody!

Dr. Stancic: Right, that’s the major criticism that Swank received was; that he did not have a control. What he had was a historical control and, yes, the study wasn’t as perfect or the perfect design that we would like to see as scientists, but certainly the data was revealing, and it’s interesting that just as the story that you just shared with us, I hear stories like this all the time. I have so many patients of mine with multiple sclerosis that will similarly tell stories of improvement and this at some point needs to be acknowledged and recognized by mainstream neurology because I think we’re doing a disservice to MS patients. And by the way, it’s not that I’m saying that disease modifying therapies are not important. They may very well be and today we have many more than we did back in 1995. I think we have more than a dozen that are approved today, but with that said, each drug has a side-effect profile. There is a… it’s a double-edged sword. So, we have to weigh out the risk benefit of any decision we make in health care and, by the way, optimizing our diet and exercising and addressing all these parameters that I speak to in lifestyle medicine will serve us regardless whether we have MS or not, right? Because just because you have MS doesn’t mean that you’re not at risk of developing breast cancer or heart disease or diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease. And we know that diet and exercise and optimal lifestyle will help to prevent those other chronic diseases from happening and we’re now building a body of evidence that, yeah, lifestyle in MS. We know, for example, that patients who maintain a healthy weight reduce their risk of developing multiple sclerosis. We know that patients who do not smoke reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis. So, all of these are tied in and are correlated. We just don’t have that really impressive study that, I think, most mainstream neurologists want to have as something that they can point to, but these anecdotal cases are valuable, and we need to stop ignoring them.

Caryn Hartglass: What about reducing the amount of Pepsi we drink? My aunt, back in the ‘60s, drank a lot of Pepsi. That was the one thing I really remembered about her. She was really slim but she drank a lot of Pepsi.

Dr. Stancic: Right. It’s an important topic to discuss and what’s interesting: that more and more physicians are becoming aware and they’re accepting this and introducing this into their clinical practice. I can tell you that, here’s an extraordinary thing. That I when I first started my practice in 2013, that I could have never predicted… I have more than 20 patients in my practice that are also physicians and that’s extraordinary. And it happened…

Caryn Hartglass: Wow.

Dr. Stancic: Yeah. It happened because at one point we had a patient in common. You know, a diabetic patient. An obese patient. A hypercholesterolemia patient. And that patient came to see me on several medications, still with the weight issues, and by addressing their lifestyle, addressing their diet… The weight came off, the medications came off. And when they go back to see their doctor, the doctor says Well, what have you been doing? Oh, I went to see Dr. Stancic. She’s a lifestyle medicine physician. And then they say Well, what is that? And then they call me and we have a conversation and I empower them by sharing the evidence in the literature. Lifestyle medicine, is important to point, is a discipline that is fully evidence based. So, everything we speak to is supported by a mounting body of literature in peer-reviewed medical journals, so that’s really… We’re not asking patients to do anything that isn’t. I’m not asking patients to take supplements or any… It’s all about addressing What is the construct of your plate? What is your exercise regime like? Again, are you sleeping 8 hours? What is your sleep hygiene like? All of these parameters that we tend to take for granted, we don’t pay much attention to. That’s really the key when we optimize these parameters to not only prevention, but also management and reversing disease.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, the few times I’ve contacted you, you’ve always been running here and there and been very busy, and one of the things I know in addition to your wonderful practice, you’ve been working on a wonderful documentary called Cold Blue. Can we hear a little bit about it?

Dr. Stancic: Sure. So, Cold Blue has been a labor of love for me over the past two years. I’ve partnered with a local filmmaker and the film is really about addressing this absurd lapse in medical education. Isn’t it absurd that doctors go through four years of medical school and learn little to nothing about nutrition? And nutrition is the most important aspect of health maintenance and preventing disease and we just don’t get this education. We don’t get any of these lifestyle matters discussed and so what we learn in medical school is we’re really good at diagnosing and then we’re really good at treating and we typically treat with drugs or with surgical intervention. We just don’t understand the value of this aspect of health care and, for me, this film is really about shedding light on that and then proposing a solution. What we need to do is take a look at that curricula and rebuild it to reflect the world that we live in today, which is a world of chronic disease. Obesity. Diabetes. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in this country. Do you know that by addressing these parameters, the literature tells us that we can prevent nearly 80% of heart disease? That’s the number one cause of death! 600,000 Americans die every year. We can save 480,000 lives by addressing these parameters. That’s extraordinary. I want the public to be aware of this. I want physicians to be aware of this because together we can do this and we can turn the tide of the chronic disease epidemic.

Caryn Hartglass: The public, the physicians, and the politicians because if we’ve got a public that’s a lot healthier, healthcare won’t be as outrageously expensive as it is today.

Dr. Stancic: Absolutely. But we have a long way to go. I just started a petition this past Saturday, Caryn, to address a matter that has been really bugging me for years. At the medical school from which I graduated, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in North New Jersey, in the cafeteria of that hospital, university hospital, sits a Burger King restaurant. Within the cafeteria of a university hospital. And that restaurant… it is absurd that a fast food eatery would be within the tertiary care center of our state. Do you not agree? Does it make sense? I mean, it would be…

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, absolutely. I signed that petition, by the way. I got your email and I signed it. And so please let people know where it is so that they can sign it too.

Dr. Stancic: Thank you so much. It’s on my Facebook page and we’re trying to share it as best we can. I think we’ve collected somewhere around 600 signatures and we started on Saturday. We really want the administrators, the CEO, and the board of directors at University Hospital to understand that this is unacceptable, and it is absurd that we have this type of food environment in a place that is supposed to represent healing. I mean, what kind of message are we offering those that work, the employees of University Hospital, the medical students of Rutgers University Medical School, the residents, the physicians that work there, the community that entrusts University Hospital with their mission and their vision to offer optimal health care and offer an optimal environment. You know, when we know better, we have to do better. Back when I was in medical school, it was acceptable to smoke in the hospital. In fact… It’s true. My mentor who’s not so much older than I am, she told me when she was a resident, they used to smoke on rounds. So, imagine if you walked into a hospital today and you saw a physician smoking, you would find that unacceptable. Well today, selling cheeseburgers that are laden with saturated fat and sodium, fueling heart disease and cancer and chronic diseases. That’s unacceptable. So, now that we know better, we must do better, but it’s 2017 and there it sits, and enough is enough. We need to bring to it the attention of those that make decisions and we as a community need to ask better. And by the way, it’s not just Newark; it’s not just University Hospital. All across the country, there are McDonald’s and all types of different fast-food restaurants. And again, I’m all about freedom of choice, I’m an American, but listen. If it’s across the street and you decided to make that choice, that’s fine. But what bothers me is that it’s within the hospital setting. That’s unacceptable.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes and I totally agree with you and I think it’s not just that one hospital, but it’s all over the country. I know personally I’m a cancer survivor and I had advanced ovarian cancer in 2006 and I spent a lot of time in hospitals and I had to educate the dieticians and tell them you can’t keep feeding me cancer promoting foods.

Dr. Stancic: That’s extraordinary, yeah.

Caryn Hartglass: And they’re still doing it because I visit with other people that are diagnosed as well and I see the crap that they’re serving. It’s criminal or it should be.

Dr. Stancic: It is criminal. My medical students send me pictures all the time. There’s a patient that just had heart surgery and they’re eating bacon and eggs. It’s just unacceptable. Things need to change but we need to speak up because… It’s definitely moving in the right direction. We have some movement, but wow, when you see examples like this, it really infuriates one because we have the knowledge today. We know the significance of this and we can’t keep quiet any longer. We really have to assure that we do better as we move forward.

Caryn Hartglass: I just have one more question – have you received any negative feedback from this information that you’re giving out? I know you just spoke with T. Colin Campbell and his whole life he’s been given pushback from the information he’s tried to share on so many levels and he’s finally being heard, but you talk about physicians that come to you from their patients, but are some people rolling their eyes to you.

Dr. Stancic: Oh, absolutely. People roll their eyes and people say things and sometimes people post things on social media that are regrettable, but you know what? You have to grow a thick skin. I know even when this film comes out, I know that there’ll be criticisms, but I spoke to T. Colin Campbell yesterday and he told me all of his experiences and everything he’s gone through and thanks to him, we’ve made so many extraordinary leaps forward because of brave individuals like Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn and Dean Ornish and Neal Barnard. Just extraordinary individuals and we have to act. We have to speak up and, yes, what is that? There are those three stages of truth, right? First, you’re… I forget the shots. You know what I’m talking about?

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, Yes.

Dr. Stancic: First, you’re ridiculed; then you’re violently opposed; and then you’re self-evident, right? I think those are the three stages of truth and that’s okay and I’m willing to take that beating because I believe in this so passionately and I know that we can save lives and we can offer patients better quality of life. And, so, that’s a battle worth fighting for. So, I’m ready.

Caryn Hartglass: Dr. Stancic, it was delightful meeting you today here on It’s All About Food. Just let us know where we can find you and hear more about Code Blue.

Dr. Stancic: Sure. Our website is codebluedoc.com. So, doc is that double entendre. Doc for documentary. On that website, you’ll find… We are trying to raise a little bit of money to get us through post-production, so if anybody is willing to donate. It’s a tax-deductible donation. We’re running that into Go Go Campaign until November 17. Any little bit helps and we’re so grateful. We hope to premiere the film in the Fall of 2018 and I’m so excited. We will have a premiere in New York City, so Caryn, you’ll have to join us and then our hope is to have multiple premieres across the country in major cities. So, hopefully, many of your viewers will be able to join us.

Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely, I’ll be there. Thank you so much for joining me today on It’s All About Food.

Dr. Stancic: Have a great evening, thank you. Bye bye.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, bye bye. All right, let’s move on. Was that wonderful? That was Dr. Saray Stancic and I hope you’ll follow her and look for that documentary. Isn’t that wonderful news? Did you know that multiple sclerosis can actually be treated with whole plant foods with great success and how many people know that? Please share that news. Share this podcast.

Transcribed by Carol Mock 1/8/2018

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