A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE
Dr Rangan Chatterjee, the star of Doctor In The House, is a GP with a difference. He believes that lifestyle interventions can solve most (if not all) the chronic diseases we’re trying to fight with medication – even mental illnesses such as depression.
Dr Rangan Chatterjee helps families change their dietary habits to improve their mental health
The premise of the documentary series on the BBC called Doctor In The House will resonate with anyone who has been in and out of their GP’s office in under 10 minutes. It explores a simple question: what would happen if GPs had more time with their patients? The notion definitely struck a nerve with Dr Rangan Chatterjee, who had long suspected that the traditional doctor-patient interaction was not quite cutting it. ‘I always got this nagging sense that I was just managing disease or just simply suppressing people’s symptoms,’ he says. The turning point came when his six-monthold son nearly died while the family was on holiday in France. His son had a fit and, after trying fruitlessly to revive him, they rushed him to hospital.
‘That night he had two lumbar punctures because they thought he might have meningitis,’ says Dr Chatterjee. The real cause was a low level of calcium in his blood caused by a low level of vitamin D. ‘My son nearly died from a preventable vitamin deficiency,’ he says, ‘and his father, a doctor, knew nothing about it.’
Dr Chatterjee started reading up on it, applying his new knowledge to help his family and his patients. ‘I started addressing the root cause of their problems rather than simply suppressing their symptoms,’ he says. The results were staggering, prompting him to audition for the TV show that explored this same technique.
In every episode of Doctor In The House Dr Chatterjee moves in with a different family for a month at a time, getting to know everyone and taking an in-depth look at the way they live, their eating and sleeping habits and their daily activities. Some family members have been struggling with health problems such as type-2 diabetes, menopause, headaches, joint pain, gut problems, stress and back pain for years – but Dr Chatterjee is not there to prescribe medication; his treatment plan is to help them implement lifestyle interventions. ‘I believe GPs need to learn more about a functional medicine approach, as well as nutritional science,’ he says. ‘We don’t get taught this stuff at medical school and
we don’t know how to engage people in behavioural change.’ Being healthy, he maintains, is not as difficult as most people think. ‘I always tell patients that most healthcare takes place in the home. It is based around what you put on a plate and how you use your feet.’
Many of Dr Chatterjee’s eating tips are in keeping with a low carb diet plan – he speaks out in particular against ‘beige food’ and ‘empty carbs’ such as pizzas, doughnuts and bread, and notes that eating ‘a whole-food diet containing a lot of fresh produce, oily fish, quality red meat, nuts and seeds’ can bring about changes in your health that are both swift and significant, as he has seen first-hand.
When it comes to chronic diseases you need to look at the root cause. One in five people will be affected by depression at some point in their lives. ‘What is depression?’ he asks. ‘There’s no blood test for depression. There’s no scan for depression. Depression is simply the name that we give to a collection of symptoms.’
Many cases of depression, says Dr Chatterjee, are associated with chronic inflammation. ‘This happens when your body thinks it is under constant attack.’ According to research by King’s College London, patients with depression who had high levels of inflammation in their bodies did not respond to antidepressants. ‘It sort of makes sense, doesn’t it, because an antidepressant is designed to raise the level of a chemical in your brain – but what if the cause of your depression is actually coming from your body?’
What causes this inflammation? ‘Well, your diet plays a part; your stress levels play a part; chronic sleep deprivation; physical inactivity; a lack of exposure to the sun, which gives you vitamin D; disruptions in the gut microbiome… If we never address the cause, we’ll never get rid of diseases,’ he says.
On his blog, Dr Chatterjee also quotes a landmark editorial published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. ‘Although the determinants of mental health are complex,’ it reads, ‘the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.’
Food, writes Dr Chatterjee, is ‘a very underutilised weapon in our armoury’ when it comes to fighting disease. ‘“What are you eating?” is the question I ask every patient who walks through my door. For mental health, the nutrients you put in your mouth have a profound impact on your brain.’