Coastlines, culture, cuisine – and medical mecca? Thailand has emerged as a health-care hub with a blend of genetic science, progressive treatments and personalized care. Viia Beaumanis signs up
Why Thailand has emerged as a medi-tourism hub
I’M IN BANGKOK hooked up to a machine that’s revealing the health of my blood. My finger pricked, a drop smeared on glass, the results are projected onto a large screen. Dr. Kwon Han Jin sits across the desk in his crisp white lab coat, scrutinizing clusters of magnified cells for abnormalities.
“You’re deficient in iron,” he says, eyeing the monitor. “Borderline anemic.” This is true. Over the past year I’ve been plagued with extreme estrogen spikes and thus super-amped cycles that include fun things like hyperpigmentation and periods that last 90 days. Yes, you read that right. As well, I’m among the 20 per cent of the population that doesn’t absorb vitamin B12 properly, which exacerbates the symptoms: fatigue, dizziness, brain fog. Kwon then informs me that I’m not consuming “anywhere near enough” water. Also true – my enduring hydration regimen being coffee, then wine. A friend recently passed me a full glass with this advice: “Water. It’s for drinking.”
Next, I’m attached to the Oberon, a biofeedback device (not licensed for sale in Canada) that surveys my whole body, a process invented decades ago by the Russians to observe the effects of space travel on the organs of cosmonauts. Various sectors are scanned and imaged – brain, heart, lungs, stomach, kidney, diaphragm, spleen, liver, pancreas, intestines, gallbladder, bladder. The system has steadily advanced over the years, thanks to wellness-obsessed Germans, innovations in computer science and the integration of traditional Chinese medi- cine (TCM), which quantifies the qi (energy) of various organs into the analysis for precise, comprehensive assessments. With this methodology that skeptics would dismiss as modern snake oil the scan results flag my lungs for pending emphysema, even though I hadn’t revealed anything of my medical history. Like that I’ve smoked a pack a day for the last three decades. Or how my great-grandfather expired from that disease, thanks to a lifelong penchant for Bull Durham roll-ups.
Welcome to the Brio Clinic, staffed with board-certified specialists who target the body at a cellular level, tailoring individual programs for each client. Opened in 2014, it treats 5,000 clients annually with a comprehensive menu of genetic tests and alternative therapies. The wellness centre targets everything from diabetes, cancer and autoimmune disorders (MS, lupus, fibromyalgia, arthritis) to glaucoma, herpes and plain old aging. Emblematic of Thailand’s upmarket medical facilities, it’s glossy and beige as a luxury spa. Tucked into the InterContinental, where its clientele can relax in fivestar comfort while, say, having their blood chelated via a cycle of intravenous injections of ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (ETDA), a chemical that binds to mercury, lead, arsenic and other harmful metals in the bloodstream, which are then excreted through urination. Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a treatment for metal poisoning, alternative medical clinics, like the Brio, also direct chelation at off-label use, even asserting that ETDA tethers to artery-blocking plaque as well, to reduce the risk for heart disease.
Launched by Thai businessman Bobby Kittichaiwong, the Brio is the first of several clinics slated for worldwide openings from Bangladesh to the Philippines. Each will act as a satellite clinic to Villa Medica, a German retreat at the forefront of fresh cell therapy (FCT) for five decades. The practice, pioneered in the 1930s, is the process of extracting organs from sheep embryos for injectable solutions of “restorative” live cells. Evangelized by the treatment after he believed
it cured his mother of blood cancer, Kittichaiwong purchased the German clinic for $22 million in 2009, then poured seven more into its expansion. Five years later, he launched the Brio in Bangkok.
Improbably, it was the collapse of Thailand’s economy in 1997 that led to its rise as a global medical mecca. With Westerners keen for services comparatively cheap abroad, Thailand became a go-to hub for an array of procedures: dental, plastic surgery, hip replacements, IVF, organ transplants. Bumrungrad International, Southeast Asia’s lar- gest private hospital, priced bypass surgery and a week’s stay at US$19,000 compared to at least US$80,000 in the United States. Equipped with translators, a travel desk, VIP suites and an international patient centre, in 2002 the Bumrungrad was the first hospital in Asia to be accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI), an association that endorses rigorous standards of care in more than 90 countries. Thailand now has 64 JCI-approved facilities. By 2014, Bangkok was receiving almost one million medi-tourists annually.
While bespoke DNA diagnostics tease with hopeful possibilities, studies find no evidence that chelation therapy benefits cardiac patients, and fresh cell therapy (FCT) is not without critics. However, new studies with stem cells, and now in the related field of blood cell treatments, are piquing a wave of interest. In 2014, Stanford University neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray found that elderly mice, following infusions of blood from young ones, presented increased neuron growth. Could plasma transfusions combat dementia? Grifols, a global phar-
maceutical conglomerate, is currently funding phase II clinical trials of young plasma as an Alzheimer’s stabilizer. Inspired by research that found aging could be reversed when old mice were flushed with youthful blood, the California start-up Ambrosia is now pumping customers full of plasma drained from healthy youngsters – a purported fountain of youth that’s become such a cult therapy in the affluent tech world that it’s been satirized on the HBO comedy, Silicon Valley.
Which all sounds great. Putting aside any creeping unease that, between cell therapy and plastic surgery, the planet is poised for a future populated by a master race of rich people who never get sick, age, or possibly even die while the lamentable poors wizen like old potatoes, cash-strapped and disease-ridden.
Back in Thailand, under the banner of functional medicine, a brand of integrative care rooted in naturopathy and TCM now turbo-charged by DNA sequencing, practitioners tackle physiologic performance. They decrypt an individual’s genetic code – one that, when functional, promotes health and when dysfunctional, causes illness. While Western tactics rely on drug therapy, functional medicine favours a holistic approach, predictive and preventative, that incorporates hereditary factors and cellular performance while stressing the connection between poor biological function, nutrition, lifestyle and chronic disease.
The essential cornerstone of functional medicine is easy to grasp and simple to apply. Diet is crucial. Recent research on the microscopic organisms of the gastrointestinal tract has borne out the doctrine’s long-held core thesis: nutrition is the lynchpin of wellness. Nurture healthy gut bacteria and you can sidestep checking into clinics to have your diabetes reversed via cell therapy, or battling cancers with ovine embryo injections. Yes, it’s heartening to know that 21st-century science now offers a range of dynamic new approaches to disease. But it’s equally comforting to realize that overall wellness and longevity looks to be as simple as what you eat.
JOHN STEWART’S BELIEF in alternative wellness is grounded in a life-changing personal crisis. A Vancouver native now in his 60s, Stewart co-founded Kamalaya, Thailand’s functional medicinebased retreat, on the coast of Koh Samui in 2005 after his business partner (and wife), a specialist in functional medicine and TCM, cured him of “fatal” liver disease after a specialist told him to put his life in order.
“The digestive system is connected to the brain. There are more nerve endings in your gut communicating with your body than in the entire nervous system,” explains Stewart. “The gut’s bacteria, four trillion cells collectively known as the microbiome, regulate hormone and neurological function. What we’re learning now will change medical science. It will be reclassified as an organ.”
Imbalances in the microbiome have now been linked to almost every illness – physical, emotional, and mental. Last year, researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre found that patients who respond to treatment for malignant melanoma have more diverse gut bacteria than non-responders. Studies at Japan’s Kumamoto University show that esophageal cancer patients who test positive for a certain bacteria have inferior survival rates. A study at Cornell University revealed that the weight of mice could be changed by more than 15 per cent simply by altering their intestinal bacteria. These imbalances are now being connected to everything from autism to depression, prompting the University of Michigan, for example, to run clinical trials on how diet alters gut microbiota and, possibly, influences bipolar disorder.
“The digestive system is considered the second brain in traditional Chinese medicine, which has always viewed digestive health as pivotal to our health and vitality for centuries,” says Karina Stewart, a Princeton graduate who pursued a master’s degree in TCM and additional training in functional medicine before co-founding Kamalaya with her husband. “Seventy to 80 per cent of our immune system is located in the digestive system, as this is where our bodies come in contact directly with the outside world, much like our skin on the surface of our bodies. When the intestines become inflamed, there’s a corresponding effect of inflammation in the nervous system and brain. Depression and mood swings, autoimmune disorders like arthritis, lupus, MS and Parkinson’s. What we eat, drink, breathe goes directly into our body so the immune system has to be strong.”
Examining 18 diverse cultures, including traditional ones in Africa that ingest zero refined sugar or
processed food, Stanford professors Justin and Erica Sonnenburg found that those furthest removed from a Western diet had the healthiest tummy microbes, including many that were completely missing from the Western stomach. Co-authors of 2015’s The Good Gut, they define this “mass extinction event” as one caused by poor diet, antibiotics and our First World obsession with oversterilization. In a 2017 interview with NPR, Jens Walter, a microbiologist at the University of Alberta, agreed that this explained, “all these diseases, you know, they have skyrocketed in the last 50 or 60 years.”
I’ve always been a healthy eater. I’d also viewed diet as a straightforward calories-in/calories-out affair, an indulgence here, rectified by restraint there. Educated about the microbiome, I have an instant paradigm shift in my thinking about food. A new understanding that whatever I ingest isn’t simply passing through but, in fact, has a lasting effect. I swear off factory-farmed meat of any kind, something I’d been leaning toward for a while. I still have meat on occasion, sourced from organic, free-range farms, and wild fish.
“Thailand has been investing in organic agriculture for over a decade,” says Karina of her adopted country, which began moving its food production to chem-free farming as official policy in 2006, although there is much more to ac- complish. “In the West, antibiotics are in the water, in factory-farmed meat, and they destroy your microbiome.” That said, even in the West, maintaining a fresh, organic, antibiotic-free diet has been simplified given the wave of healthy-eating outlets. From weekend farmers markets and Freshii cafés on every corner through the now agreeably discounted Whole Foods (thanks, Amazon!), pure food is not as costly or as tricky to source as it once was. Diet is critical to the gut-brain axis but, Karina adds, sleep and stressreduction are also essential: angst hormones like adrenalin and cortisol afflict gut bacteria.
CURIOUS TO SEE what’s behind Kamalaya, I check in to the lush compound spread across eight acres of flowering jungle, equipped with a state-of-the-art fitness facility, an array of pools, extensive spa and yoga pavilions. My first day begins with a visit to the naturopath. I itemize my issues for Marissa Brennan, who’s from Toronto of all places. I’m bloated, retain water, have puffy eyes. I’m flooded with estrogen. Assigning me an organic, plant-based detox diet, Brennan also advises omega-3 supplements and instructs me to drink no alcohol (organic wine is available in the restaurant) while flushing myself with mineral-rich rooibos tea and two litres of water a day. And a schedule: acupuncture, lymphat- ic drainage and Chinese abdominal massage, purifying sessions in the infrared sauna and steam room, daily yoga and meditation.
By Day 3, the jiggly-wiggly figure and puffy eyes have been banished. Pounds fall off – much of it water, now that my body isn’t hoarding what few drops it gets, but also thanks to a menu of organic super foods that’s so varied and delicious, I never feel deprived. A week later, I check out, lean and clean. Inspired, I add fermented fluids – miso soup, kombucha tea – to my post-Kamalaya routine to help reinforce healthy tummy bacteria.
Three months later, a once dedicated steak-and-martini girl, I’ve gone organic pescatarian, and also “consciously uncoupled” from gratuitous daily wine drinking. I start the day with fruit and hot lemon water or a shot of apple cider vinegar to get my enzymes going. I no longer have puffy eyes. I’m 12 pounds lighter though no change in exercise, just the usual brisk dog walks. My menstrual cycle has regulated. As have my moods. The dark patches on my face from surplus estrogen are fading. I don’t hit the snooze button three times. I’ve swapped yogurt for kefir, which has a bazillion more probiotics. I pop omega-3s. I down two litres of water every day.
But I am still smoking. Nobody’s perfect. thailandtourism.org
Meditate on this: Kamalaya Koh Samui
Treatment pods at upmarket Brio Clinic ( brio-clinic .com/en), located in the InterContinental Bangkok