Dr. Sarah Williams is taking a holistic approach to giving Nantucket a gut check.
Sarah Williams’ family was ravaged by cancer. Her mother, grandmother, great grandmother, aunt, sister, and cousin were each diagnosed with some form of cancer, all before the age of sixty. This sent Williams on a medical quest to get to the hereditary root of their disease. She ultimately discovered the Personal Genome Project and was able to identify the exact gene that was causing cancer to run rampant in her family. Empowered by the knowledge, Williams went on to become a medical professional specializing in genome sequencing, gut health and holistic, functional medicine. This summer, she’s opened a practice in her home on Nantucket and is on a mission to change the healthcare paradigm one patient at a time.
N MAGAZINE: Some people roll their eyes when they so much as hear the word “holistic.” What are some misconceptions regarding this form of medicine?
DR. WILLIAMS: Two of the main misconceptions that people have regarding holistic medicine are that it is not evidence-based and that it does not harness the latest breakthroughs in medicine and diagnostic technology to bring about healing. By maligning the holistic approach to health care, individuals may miss out on the opportunity to not only restore and maintain their health, but to gain control over their health by taking a more active role in it.
N MAGAZINE: You had first person experience with the power of genome sequencing in an effort to get to the bottom of the high cancer rates within your family. What were the most significant takeaways from that experience?
DR. WILLIAMS: One of the most significant takeaways is that knowledge truly is power. To know that you carry a gene for a life-threatening disease enables you to guide your health care and get appropriate screenings. Genomic testing can help by more specifically directing your attention, time, and money with regard to your unique state of health and associated health care. An example would be a colonoscopy. If one has the gene for hereditary colon cancer, this screening would be performed more frequently than is currently recommended and the frequent colonoscopy would provide early detection.
N MAGAZINE: Do you think everyone should be sequencing their genome, or just those with high rates of disease in their families?
DR. WILLIAMS: Sequencing is a very personal decision. Some people from high-risk families may not want to know if they carry the gene. There were a number of members in my extended family who declined to be tested to see if they were carriers. Others may be curious about what is in their “book of life” and want to be sequenced to gain insights into their health, lifestyle traits, family history, and inherited diseases. Couples starting a family may also want to learn if they are a carrier of a genetic condition, which would be passed on to their children.
N MAGAZINE: Isn’t genome sequencing expensive?
DR. WILLIAMS: In general, the cost of whole genome sequencing has dropped dramatically over the last five years and is now available for $999 at certain labs.
N MAGAZINE: What do most people not know about gut health?
DR. WILLIAMS: What’s in your gut has a major impact on your overall health. Your gut is home to trillions of microorganisms and their genes, referred to as your intestinal microbiome. The composition of your gut microorganisms—good bacteria, bad bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites—directly influences the health of your gut lining. Since over 70 percent of your immune system resides in your intestinal tract, having the right balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut is essential for good health. When your gut is healthy, the beneficial bacteria help you digest and absorb your food, synthesize vitamins, control your appetite and metabolism, influence your mood, train your immune system, and determine to an extent how your genes are expressed. The key to keeping your gut healthy is to cultivate a healthy intestinal microbiome. I can personally attest to the fact that a healthy gut can positively influence the health of individuals who suffer from asthma and allergies.
N MAGAZINE: Given how our health care system is structured, with billions of dollars pushing for the status quo, how can the paradigm realistically shift toward becoming more preventative and holistic?
DR. WILLIAMS: A paradigm shift in the direction of preventative care is taking place now. The “one-size-fits-all” approach to health care is changing as hospitals across the country are adding functional/integrative medicine to their patient care services. In Boston, the Osher Clinical Center for Integrative Medicine is a joint collaboration between Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Similarly, universities such as University of California at San Francisco, Northwestern University, and Vanderbilt University offer patients access to functional medicine through their own Osher Centers. The Cleveland Clinic also provides functional medicine services through its collaboration with the Institute for Functional Medicine. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America combine conventional cancer treatments with evidence-based supportive therapies to provide a unique, individualized approach to fighting cancer.
N MAGAZINE: How about on the patient level? How do we get people to think more about prevention than treatment?
DR. WILLIAMS: Patient education is an integral part of functional medicine. Patients who have experienced the healing that a functional medicine approach provides learn firsthand the impact that their lifestyle choices have on their current and future health. Knowledge is power. Once patients understand the extent to which they can influence their future health—and are equipped with the tools to promote wellness vis-á-vis targeted nutrition and genomic screening—they generally assume a much more active role in maintaining their health.
N MAGAZINE: How do you envision your practice evolving on Nantucket?
DR. WILLIAMS: My desire is to continue to bring health and wellness to the islanders. Many patients suffer with fatigue, foggy brain, and pain. I’d like to bring greater awareness to post-treatment Lyme syndrome and the importance of gut health. I’m also collaborating with Dr. Lepore to sequence the gut microbiome of patients at his suboxone clinic. Nantucket is the perfect place for rejuvenation. My vision is to establish a quarterly retreat on Nantucket where individuals have the opportunity to learn, reconnect with themselves, and, ultimately, experience a greater sense of well-being through a shift in their lifestyle.
STEPS TO HOLISTIC HEALTH
SUPPORT YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
Remove toxins from your diet and environment
Whenever possible, eat organic foods.
Avoid synthetic fragrances
Avoid using soaps with triclosan, a chemical that disturbs the normal balance of microbes on your skin. Avoid using detergents and household cleaners that contain harsh chemicals.
• Don’t skip meals. Skipping a meal is stressful for your body as it causes low blood sugar.
• Exercise regularly and spend time in nature.
• Get adequate sleep.
• Become more mindful of daily stressors so that you can catch and stop negative thought patterns.
• Find a healthy balance by scheduling downtime for enjoyable activities.
• Eat a balanced breakfast every morning.
• Make sure each meal incorporates fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as some form of protein, a good carbohydrate, and fat.
• To support healthy digestion, eat foods high in fiber like chickpeas & black beans.
• Drink plenty of water.
• Avoid excessive alcohol intake.