Warrior Monk Conversations 004: Free Medicine, Radical Choice, and the Secret to Life
Updated: Jun 17
Warrior Monk Conversations 004: Free Medicine, Radical Choice, and the Secret to Life with Dr. Ara Suppiah
Dr. Ara is a highly sought after personal physician on the PGA and LPGA Tour, a practicing ER Physician & Chief Wellness Officer for Florida Emergency Physician and an Assistant Professor in Clinical Medicine at the University of Central Florida Medical School. He is also the Chief Medical Analyst on the NBC Sports Golf Channel.
In this episode, Dr. Ara Suppiah shares his story—growing up in Malaysia, losing his dad at an early age, aspiring to become a professional tennis player, getting a scholarship to Liverpool University in the United Kingdom, struggling during the first year in medical school, working in Burger King while studying at the same time, deciding between being a cardiac surgeon and an ER doctor, meeting a patient who eventually motivated him to study sports medicine, and what he learned from his most recent trip in Tanzania while studying the Hadza tribe.
He also provides insight about the ultimate medicine (find out what it is in this episode), gives tips for recovery, and shares the secret to his infectious optimism.
Intro and Outro Music: Hearts on Fire by Immersive Music
Read more about the Warrior Monk mission here: www.thewarriormonk.com
Warrior Monk Conversations 004: Free Medicine, Radical Choice, and the Secret to Life with Dr. Ara Suppiah
Welcome to Warrior Monk Conversations, a treasure trove of inspirational discussions in personal and professional development.
I am Poonacha Machaiah. Join me on this journey where I have immersive conversations with the most thought-provoking leaders and everyday heroes from our communities to inspire, educate, and empower you to build resilience and reach your highest potential. Join me on this mission to create a positive societal shift through the compassionate transformation of humankind.
Dr. Ara is a highly sought after personal physician on the PGA and LPGA Tour, a practicing ER physician and chief wellness officer for Florida Emergency Physicians, and an assistant professor in clinical medicine at the University of Central Florida Medical School. As a chief medical analyst on the NBC Sports Golf Channel, he shares his knowledge on various player injuries, ailments, and how they can be avoided and remedied by the viewers at home. This very practice ensures his knowledge remains at the forefront in his field.
Poonacha: Morning, Ara.
Ara: Good morning, my man. How are you?
Poonacha: Finally! Good to have you here.
Ara: Yeah. Oh, my God.
Poonacha: You're a fun guy, you know. Typical, like, you were like a celebrity this morning, got off the Golf Channel. And, and thank you for making it over here.
Ara: Oh, my God, listen. I was gonna be on time, but you know, TV. That's what it---that's what happened!
Poonacha: That's when you're famous, that's what happens. (both chuckle)
Ara: I don't know about that, but I do.
Poonacha: So I want to kind of talk to you about your recent trip to Tanzania.
Poonacha: In Hadza tribe. Tell me, what was it like? What are some of the highlights? What are the moments?
Ara: Ah, God! It was, you know, I spent two days with them last year, and honestly, I came back and I had time to ponder and reflect over things. And I honestly felt totally different when I came back. And, you know, I realized that there was just a level of belonging, a level of identity, a level of peace that came when I was with them, you know, and I was trying to figure out why.
And on this particular visit, we went there to shoot a documentary, and we really wanted to embrace and adopt their lifestyle the best we could. So three of us, a buddy of mine who's an attorney in LA, and another guy who's done a lot of anthropology work, Eric, we went there. We lived with them. We, you know, I had a backpack. That's it. And that was, you know---slept on the ground. The clothes I wore were the clothes I wore. No showering. We hunted with them. We gathered with them. It was tough to eat what they ate because I just couldn't do that. I couldn't get myself to do it.
But that was the plan. And it was shocking to see how much work they did, the hunters, to get even a little bit of food. Like one day we tracked this wild pig. We walked like four or five miles, we got to where the pigs were. And then they identified that, you know, the footprints. And then they tracked it, and we were going in and out of bushes, thick thorn bushes, you know, crawling in spaces, running, walking fast, I mean, they walked incredibly fast, and it was tough to keep up with them. And think about it. Russia. You're in the middle of a bush, two turns, and they're gone, and I would not know how to come back. Like, I'd be dead there. I would die! (both laugh)
Poonacha: Your GPS wouldn't help you a whole lot.
Ara: No! Nothing. Nothing! Like, so part of me is worried, right? Because, like, oh, my God! But they were, they were also mindful. They, they kind of-
Poonacha: Slowed down.
Poonacha: They were like these urban guys.
Ara: Yeah. Like these idiots will die.
Poonacha: From Orlando. (both laugh)
Ara: Yeah. They probably thought, "You know what? If they die, we'll leave them anyway." (both chuckle) So, but, uh, and we did this, and we tracked the pig for, you know, the best part of 15 miles, up and down, valleys, hills, didn't catch anything. You know. And on the way back, they shot a couple of birds, a squirrel, and we were not going to eat anything. And then, they identified the tree that had some honey in it. They chopped the bark, got the honey, we all ate the honey. And that's it. We came back. Now, there were seven of us.
Ara: Right? Four hunters, like, three of us. And that's all the food they had, to take back to the tribe. So we didn't want to eat any of that, you know. I wasn't going to eat the squirrel anyway. But there wasn't much food, and think about the amount of work they spent to get the food, you know.
So a, I real, and then the next day, I woke up, and I was like, tired. And they were off again, same speed, you know. And so I realized one thing that a---we don't need as much food as we think we do. Just because food is in abundance, we assume we need more, you know. We're so used to huge portions, we're used to food coming regularly. And both of which doesn't need to be the case. Was I hungry? Yeah, for the first two days, I felt hungry. Then I got used to it.
And you know, the first two days were really the hardest two days because I was really tired. But then you kind of adapt, and you kind of pace yourself, and you, you get on with it, you know. So a food, you don't need as much. You don't need it as frequently. And there's a, there's a famous saying, actually. Gary Player quoted this person when he was---a person that he met in India. And apparently the guy told Gary, "secret to life? Eat less, live longer" you know?
Poonacha: True. It's been, fasting is part of every ancient tradition.
Poonacha: It was regularly practiced.
Poonacha: We've just forgotten. We got some fancy names. We're calling too many fancy names related to that.
Ara: Yeah! I know, and all this other stuff. But yeah, and again, you know, this ketosis, and this movement of fasting, and all this kind of stuff, if you're spending time with them, it wasn't planned. It---fasting came about because there was no food. It wasn't like they were saying, "Oh, you know, I'm going to do a 16 hour window," and like they-
Poonacha: They had to work towards it.
Poonacha: And it was part of the journey.
Ara: Correct. And so that was number one. Number two, I realized very quickly, that, you know, they would come back with the hunt, right? So they have to be back before it gets dark, for safety, right? And then they will get together, and whatever food they had, they would eat, the tribes will eat, the women will see and say, "No, there's not enough meat." And they will go gather, like, roots and stuff, and they'll throw in the fire, like make a fire, they eat. And then they eat, and they are done by, like, I had a watch on, so it's like 4pm, and then the sun gets dark there around 5:30, 6, the sun goes down, and it gets dark. Then they make a fire. And there's no more eating. Their social activity is not based around food. It's based around singing and telling stories and laughing at each other and reciting old stories, and, and I realized like, you know, that's how the tribe has survived. They've passed on stories and information to one another because every night there was this gathering.
Poonacha: I see. I saw your post the other day, that there is a, that is their social media.
Ara: Yeah. That is their social media, and it's the oldest form of social media, but it's too totally social.
Poonacha: You know, this is really getting me thinking on one topic, I think Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general-
Ara: Yes, yes.
Poonacha: -talked about loneliness epidemic.
Poonacha: Right? And I think we as social beings,
Poonacha: Designed to live together, hunt, gather, and even sleep. Because I was reading a research, I think it said that when you get isolated or when you're lonely, and when you sleep, we have this thing called micro-awakening. Your central nervous system is actually optimized for safety. So when you actually when, I imagine, thousands of years ago, when we were in the tundra, and the saber toothed tiger, so when we walked together, we hung, we walked in the group, in a pack,
Ara: And you felt safe.
Poonacha: And you felt safe. Then we hunt, and then tell me then to sleep. Somebody watched over the fire.
Poonacha: Somebody watched out for the wild animals coming.
Poonacha: Now, let's say we got isolated, and one of the, one of us got isolated. Now, what happened? Our body went into hyper vigilant mode. Right? So it was basically optimized to look for threats.
Ara: The subconscious mind never switched off.
Poonacha: Yeah. So, say, there's a twig that broke. You're like, "Oh, my God. Is it a, what's going on?" Right?
Poonacha: But if everybody was walking behind, you know that they were there. So what happens if you actually go through extended periods of time of hyper vigilance, your body goes into depletion mode. You can only do this for a couple of times.
Poonacha: This is what we call chronic stress, right?
Ara: Yes. Correct.
Poonacha: This is amazing. This is what, when listening to your story, it's, it's a social connection.
Ara: And that's the point, like, they are connected by touch and laughter and visibility, like, they, you can feel the person there, you know. This replacement with digital technology, look, there is good and bad there. I think the total dependence on it is not the way to go. And, and it's, you know, this, from what I read about them, they are pretty much, you know, with a little bit of clothing here and there, then like, like tools, like knives, they are pretty much unchanged from the Stone Age.
Ara: And they do this every, every night. And then, you know, I learned a few things, like, I spent time with the ladies, and I asked one of them, I said, you know, "do you guys get sick?" And she goes, "Yeah, every now and again, you know, we get sick." And I said, "Well, what do you do?" And she goes, "we go to the, we go to the bush, and we get our medicine, we get the plants." And so I said, "Okay," you know, and I said, like, "Do you all know which plants to get?" And she's like, "Yeah!"
Ara: There wasn't one dedicated person like you would have thought, like, you know, there'd be a medicine person, right? No! The others tend to know a little bit more,
Poonacha: But innate intelligence,
Ara: Yes! But it's passed on,
Poonacha: Yeah. Through narrative, storytelling at night.
Ara: By storytelling by the fire. And when someone says, so was---there was one person who was a little bit ill, and she was kept in a corner, and they were talking about her. And, you know, I asked them, I said, "Well, what happens if your medicine doesn't work?" And the lady was so, like, incredible. She just looked me straight in the face, and she knew I was working in a hospital, and she said to me, "Well, sometimes your medicine doesn't work." Right?
Ara: I said, "Yeah."
Poonacha: Most times our medicine doesn't work.
Ara: Yeah! So I looked at her, and I was like, "oh, my God." And then, and then, I said, "yeah." And she goes, "well, then, you know, somebody else might give us an idea of a different medicine. We try that, you know, but eventually find a way." And it was, it was so pure how information get transferred generation through generation through generation because a---the environment hadn't changed, so they could reliably predict, 'this time, this plant will be here, let's go get that."
Ara: You know, I think part of our problem is it's moving so fast that every day, it changes, right? You don't have a consistency. They have extreme consistency. Here's the extraordinary thing. Every night, I slept on the ground.
Poonacha: Grounding. It reduces inflammation, grounding.
Ara: Complete grounding, right? No mattress.
Ara: My body, like, if you think about it, if I did, you know, 20 mile runs here or hike here, I mean, I'd be in my bed, I'd be in a cryo chamber, in doing all this stuff, right? (laughs) I didn't even have food. They never shower. I slept under the stars at night, right there, slept so deeply every night, woke up the next day, felt great. And I was so fascinated looking at their postures, and the men especially, their strength to their body weight ratio was incredible. And it's because they use every small part of their body. They use their feet, like, they use their toes to
Ara: To grab, to hold on to pieces of wood while they're carving it, so that they can make bowls, and they can make arrows. You know, and I asked one of the guys, you know, I asked the chief. I had an interview with him, and I kind of asked him, I said, "listen, if, let's say, you know, do you plan to go hunt, say, a big animal that's further away, would you plan that?" And he goes, "yeah, sometimes you would." And I go, "Okay, so if you're planning on this thing, and it's like, uh, you know, two-day hike, would you eat a little bit more? Like, would you prepare for the---" I kind of asked him like, would you eat, like, you know, how, the carb load, and all this kind of stuff. And he looked at me as if it was the dumbest question, and he was like, "No! You just get up, and you just go!"
Poonacha: Said, 'Doctor Ara, what are you talking about?' (both laugh)
Ara: He literally looked at me, and he said, "No! You just get up, and you go!" And I go, "okay, so if it was a two-day hike, like, it doesn't matter?" He said, "No." Because along the way, they'll just grab a little bit of food, and they go. And this concept about, you know, getting, some days, you eat more than others, doesn't really fly with them.
Poonacha: So probably our biggest bane is this consistency, routine.
Poonacha: If we search, we become almost like robots, right? You get up in the morning. We have to grab a cup of coffee. We have to have the next ritual breakfast, and then we have to have our lunch. We have to have our tea, and then our dinner.
Poonacha: This kind of real rote, is almost, kind of, limited us from really maximizing the potential of which we have.
Ara: Yes. Correct. An I realized also not eating actually energizes you a lot.
Poonacha: So how do you integrate this back into, you know, today, with your background as one of the leaders in functional sports medicine, you're an ER physician, you're the advisor and coach of some of the leading elite athletes, and a celebrity on Golf Channel. How do you bring this intelligence back to everyday life now?
Ara: I thought a lot about this. And, you know, here's what I will tell you. Do I want to go and be a Hadza? No. There's so many beautiful things about where we live now, and how we live now, you know. My mom is in Malaysia. I can talk to her right now. I can be so far away and still see her.
Ara: And you know, it's a beautiful thing, like, that makes life so much better and more joyful. And we have convenience that we need to use. I think the key is to, we need to control the convenience rather than the convenience controlling us.
Ara: And there are two things I would absolutely build into our culture now. One is, we need to move away from, you know, like, think about it, every time we meet, we be like, "let's have dinner, let's have lunch." That's not what they did! When they met, they talked. Food was never part of the issue. It somehow becomes so pervasive. So one of the things I want to do is, I want to meet people, but I want to just meet and talk. Let's go for a walk.
Poonacha: When I go to India, I feel like I eat ten times a day. In every house I go to, I eat lunch or dinner.
Ara: Correct! In Malaysia it's the same thing! They don't want to just meet you, they want to feed you! And we've become, that's, I understand where it comes from. They want to show love through food. But I think that's harmful, long term. We need to show love by showing love. Not using food to show love. Go for a walk. Sit down in a corner, and just chat.
Ara: You know, like, why can't we do that? So that's, that's principle number one. Principle number two, I think this concept about earning your food, like I'm, you know, I see every great athlete, and I know they paid the price for their stardom and their greatness and everything! Like you yourself, I mean, the sacrifices you made to get to your point in life, it's huge. You paid the price. We need to pay the price to eat. I think this business of just walking into the fridge and getting a bunch of food, and then, not earning it, we need to kind of tweak that, and especially with childhood obesity, the way it is, we need to fix that. You know, there was not one obese child out there.
Poonacha: There wasn't a Gold's Gym in the middle of the-
Ara: No! Nothing. They're you know what I mean? Like, like-
Poonacha: The world was their gym.
Ara: Correct. Correct.
Poonacha: They moved.
Ara: They moved.
Poonacha: Right? The Blue Zones talks about everybody kind of moving, there's a sense of purpose.
Poonacha: Ikigai. Right?
Ara: Yes. And, and you know, coming back to, like, I have a phrase, you know, I call it free medicine. You know. Sunlight. Being out in the sunlight is free medicine. Moving is free medicine. Watching what you eat, and now saying, like, don't eat unnecessarily is free medicine, and connecting with another person, and being part of a tribe, in---
Poonacha: Part of a tribe.
Ara: Not a Facebook group. And I'm not bashing this. Like, don't get me wrong.
Poonacha: True. True. I get that.
Ara: I'm part of many Facebook groups.
Ara: But nothing replaces what we are doing right now.
Poonacha: Who is your tribe? Like truly? Like.
Poonacha: Who is the, my dad always says, "Hey, you think you got a lot of friends? I want to ask you this question: 'at three o'clock in the morning, I want you to make five phone calls, and they want to just show up at your doorstep without asking you why.' "
Poonacha: That's your true friend.
Ara: That's your true friend.
Poonacha: 'Who are those five people in your life?' Right? And I understand that today, the importance of having a tribe.
Ara: Yeah. And you know, it really there are two things that hit home for me because I've heard of this, you know, and I became so blasé about it, like, you know, it takes a village to bring up a child, I saw that! People would have kids, but other people developed that kid, you know. They took him and taught him how to do things—throw, hunt, like, the whole tribe took care of that. And the second thing I asked in an interview with the chief, I said, you know, "do people in your tribe ever get, like, depressed?" And it was difficult to find the word for him, he finally kind of understood, and he said, "Yeah, you know, sometimes we have hardship, and then we get down, but then we get over it." So then I asked him the next question, and I said, "This is there ever been a case in the tribe where someone takes their own life?" And he literally looked at me and went "ha?!"
Ara: "What?!" And I said, "Yeah," Like, and he goes, "no, why would they do that?" And then he looked at me, and he said, "They do that, where you come from?" And I said, "Yeah, unfortunately, yeah."
Poonacha: Every, every 40 seconds.
Ara: And I didn't even, turned out, I think he would have first started, by doing that, you know.
Poonacha: And it's tragic, right?
Ara: And I told him, "It's the younger generation," and he just shook his head! He just shook his head, and you could see the disbelief, and almost the disappointment, like, 'What are you guys doing?!'
Poonacha: In fact, if you don't mind, I'm going to actually use this story.
Ara: Yeah, absolutely. I'll send you the video clip I did of the interview with him.
Poonacha: That is, you know, that is truly--'That's something we have to take back, for somebody like him who doesn't even understand why it's even happening.
Ara: No! Because their tribe, think about it, why would someone kill themselves in the tribe?
Poonacha: Why would the tribe bully each other?
Ara: No. There's no bullying.
Ara: You know.
Poonacha: Nobody's nurturing.
Ara: No. We went hunting, and there's one guy, he wasn't a good shot, and they were laughing at him. That evening, at the fire, you know, they were laughing at him, and the chief told him, and then the chief literally took him aside, and showed him, like, how to shoot, pull the bow back. And the next day, when we went hunting, he walked with the chief, and the chief made him hit birds and everything over and over again. So it wasn't ridiculing.
Poonacha: Like, there's mentoring. It's amazing.
Ara: Correct. Because if he's a good hunter, it's better for the tribe. That's how they all work. They look at it on a global perspective, and they go, 'if this person is good and becomes better, it's only going to be good for us.' There's no jealousy. That, that concept doesn't seem to be there, you know.
Poonacha: You know, the one thing, when you were speaking about, you said you went to sleep around 4:30 and you woke up, so this whole thing about rising with the sun and then setting with the sun, the Circadian rhythm, and as a physician, you have spent a lot of time, and I know one of your core pillars is recovery.
Ara: Sleep is free medicine.
Poonacha: What is, what is the something, can you share some insights on that, and you've worked with your athletes, you know, on this-
Ara: Yeah. To me, sleep, you know, has become more and more popular now.
Ara: But 20 years ago, I was telling people, like, 'sleep is the ultimate free medicine'. Between the hours when you are in deep sleep, right? So if you don't do night shift, general person's physiology, and this is based on Ayurvedic principles and Chinese medicine principles, the most amount of physical and psychological recovery, meaning, you know, your, your, your ability to reduce stress, lay down new memories, physically repair, replenish, occurs between the hours of 2am and 4am, when you're in deep sleep. Okay? And if the rest of the time in the day, like, it happens, but not to that extent.
So you have to allow the body to do that. See, training is a demolition job. It's when you're breaking everything down. When you're studying, you're laying down new things, but you need to consolidate that, and that consolidation happens when you are sleeping.
So it was interesting, you know, the Hadza tribe, you know, they're---they believe the sun is their god. So when the sun comes up, they're like, 'God is up', and then when the sun goes down, they go, 'God's going to sleep, we need to go to sleep, too.' Like, 'there's no point for us to be awake,' you know. And not having natural light, and just allowing the body to sleep with the time, and just using firewood light was interesting because you really got back to deep sleep, you know. And sleep is A ultimate free medicine and B the ultimate competitive edge. If you are struggling with this concept of 'I'll sleep when I'm dead', it's very true because you will die very soon. It's been shown.
Poonacha: So what are your, what are your hacks? I mean, what are some of the things you recommend as far as sleep optimization, you know? And I, it's obviously a challenge, we travel so much. I was in San Diego yesterday. Today, I'm in Orlando. My clock's off by three hours.
Poonacha: What are some of your---I know you speak a lot about this, what are your tips?
Ara: A few things. So first of all, do not have your phone anywhere near you. Your phone should be outside the room. Number one. And similarly, and especially with 5G coming out, if you can, unplug, and it's difficult to do in a hotel, but in your home, turn off the WiFi router. Don't sleep with EMF radiation around you, right? Those two things are very quick things you can do.
Poonacha: People are talking a lot about the wave pattern in 5G and how it is potentially damaging to our tissues and-
Ara: Poonacha, there's not been one study looking at the effects, the safety of 5G on humans. Not one. And if your readers or anybody listening to this, if you know, please, my Instagram is @draraoncall, please hit me up and send it to me because I couldn't find any. Then to roll this out nationwide, I think it's very dangerous. Number one.
The second thing I'll tell you, you want to sleep in a completely dark room. Okay? So that means no digital lights, your---if you have a digital alarm clock, put a blackout tape on it. Complete pitch black room.
Number three, you want the room to be cool. So ideally you want it to be around 67 degrees, 68 degrees at the most. Okay? And then, in order to help you do that, this may sound a bit harsh, but get a cold shower before you go to bed. So cool the body down, right? And if you just did those things, honestly, you would already be 90% better than where you are. Now, if you want to add a few additional things, I love magnesium as a, as a-
Ara: Supplement. You know. You can use it in liquid form, you can make a tea with it. I do like a small, like, our great grandparents were wrong, like, having a bedtime snack is actually good. So most of us, especially those who are working out hard, you need, you see, the important processes like digestion, repair, detoxification, I told you the other things, happen when you're asleep. Right? They are energy consuming. So, you don't want to run out of energy. So even having, you know, like, in India, it's very, very common to have a little tea.
Ara: Bedtime tea.
Ara: You know?
Poonacha: Before bed.
Ara: Yeah! Those things, they are designed to actually help you sleep because they give you a little bit of fat and a little bit of carbs just before you go to bed. And those things will soothe the nervous system down. So those are my, my big tips actually. They are very simple things to do. Very, very simple.
Poonacha: So walk me through, Ara, when you were---your journey from growing up in Malaysia, and now, there you are. Give me a quick rundown if you like.
Ara: I'll give you a very quick rundown. You know, I was born in Malaysia, Klang, a small town called Klang. My mom was a teacher. My dad was a teacher. And my dad was a huge role model for me. Unfortunately, you know, at the age of five, when I was five years old, he got killed in a car crash. So we lost him way, way too early, and my mom was really the bedrock of my life, you know, and to her, being educated and studying was a big deal. So, you know, I was also very good at sports. I played a lot of soccer, badminton, and then tennis eventually. And so, but I kept my grades up because otherwise my mom would cry. And the biggest thing was, she will say to me, "I'm disappointed in you." And I would rather be, than hear that, like---it was awful. So I was good and great, you know, then I got a, when I was 18, I did my A Levels, and then I had a spot in Liverpool University, but we didn't have money, and, to go there, you know. My mom was, you know, was a teacher. She didn't make much money, but I got a scholarship from the British government. And, funnily, happened the same week, I had a full sponsor to play professional tennis, and I wanted to play tennis, and my mom and I clashed, and so, it's not a, it's not an argument. You know, if you're Indian, like, there's only three jobs. (both chuckle)
Poonacha: Yeah. Doctor, lawyer, engineer.
Ara: That's it!
Poonacha: Everything else, 'What are you doing?'
Ara: Like, 'What are you doing?' you know. So off I went to medical school in England, and it was really tough because they paid, you know, that, they don't normally sponsor medical students. They rather give it to engineering or three, three year courses because they can send, like, they can send two students for the price of one medical student, right? But they took, I think they kind of took pity on me, and they gave me a scholarship but no living expenses. So my first year there was brutally hard. I stayed on a friend's floor, you know. I would eat, I had no money, so I'll wait till right at the end and have like one bag of chips a day, you know. And so I would wait like, you know, wait till right at the end, when the chip shop was closing, and run in and get my chips and, you know, whatever they were gonna throw away. I'll say, "Can you give that to me?" You know, one thing is, when you're broke, you can get very, very creative.
Ara: Yeah. Like, I would go, and I would, you know, I have no money for books. I relied on the hospital library, the bookstore, you know, and just got through medical school. First year was very tough. And I didn't really understand, I wasn't mature enough to understand what it took to live on my own because I was always at home with my mom, you know. And then, I kind of grew up, and then I started understanding the system, and then I got a job in Burger King, and got most secure, like, money was coming in, I could pay my rent.
And then I really blossomed, I, you know, aced my medical school, graduated, went to do surgery, and I trained and board certified in surgery. I practiced cardio-thoracic surgery, and I realized, like, that wasn't my calling, and I've done ER, so I was, like, changed. I started working in the ER, and then, during you know, ER has always been a love-
Poonacha: Passion for you.
Ara: Yeah. I guess it's just not-
Poonacha: Even today, right?
Ara: Oh, even today.
Poonacha: How many days a week do you do this?
Ara: Even now, like, I work five shifts a month now because of all my other endeavors, but 10 hours in the ER is not work for me. It's just like such a joy to be there, you know. And it's not, it's a very personality-dependent thing. Like, I thrive in chaos. You know, most people come and go, 'what are you doing here?', but it's an environment that energizes me. So I was very blessed. So I decided to, you know, pursue an ER career. And look what happened.
Like, during that time, you know, halfway through my training, one day I, I was working in, in a shift in London, and it was very busy, and the nurse from the other side, came up and said, 'cause I'm pretty fast, she said, "Come help us out." I was like, "No, that's not my side," you know. I said, "No." "Come on. Come help us out." So I said, "Go line up, like, 10 quick cases, and I'll kind of decompress if, you, you know, I'll make the room better for you." And you know, the ER, you know, a lot of people think it's always gunshots and---no! A lot of it is like, you know, medication refill. 'Hey, my blood pressure was high. Can I check it again? My blood sugar's high. Can I check it again? Can I get workers? No.' Stuff like that. And those are quick cases, right? So she lined it up, and one of them happened to be, you know, I saw the case, I saw the chart, and it said ankle sprain. X-ray was already done. So I looked at the X-ray, nothing broken. So, you know, having done this for a long time, you, as a doctor, you have a formula.
Ara: Yeah, you have a formula, what you're going to say to the person, depending on what you find. So I go, a young guy, examined his ankle, straightforward ankle sprain. So I said, "Hey, buddy, you know, you have an ankle sprain" blah blah. And I said, you know, usual thing, "elevate it, ice compression, you know, and take some anti-inflammatory, and start walking when you feel it feels better. You don't have a fracture, you should be fine." As I'm leaving, he, as I'm getting up, he goes to me, "hey, Doc, when can I play tennis again?" So I was like, "are you good? Are you any good? And he's like, "yeah. I'm the number two Junior in the country." And I was like, 'Oh, my God.' So I was like, well, here's, I'm going to give you a tip. Okay? Insider's secret.
Ara: In medicine, if you don't know what's going on, if you don't know the answer to a question, just say four to six weeks. (both laugh) So I looked at him and I said, "Ah, you know", I said, "Do you not have any physio, like, when you're that good?" He goes, "while I'm in university, and it's Christmas break, and as soon as we're done, when I get back, I'm going to work. I'm gonna play a tournament." So I said, "Well, you know, give it four to six weeks." And I left. But that day, like, walking back to the place I was staying, it really bothered me because I was like, how come I know how to deal with gunshots and heart attacks and strokes, and I kind of don't know a simple question, when can an athlete run again?
Ara: So the next day, I come back, I go to my boss, and I said, "Hey," you know, "I had this incident. It really bothers me. How come I don't know this?" And he says, ‘Cause it doesn't matter." I was like, "What do you mean it doesn't matter?" "Because it's not life-threatening. You know, a stroke is life-threatening, a heart attack is life-threatening. Ankle sprain. So what?" And I said, "But it matters to him! I was that kid. Like, boy, if I sprained my ankle, and I couldn't play tennis, you might as well have told me I had a stroke."
Ara: So he said, "Well, if it bothers you that much, go study sports medicine." I haven't even heard of sports medicine until this point, like, it wasn't a curriculum in my medical school. And so I looked into it, and I could study sports medicine remotely while sitting in the ER, which is what I did. And during that time, I got a, I contracted a deadly disease called golf. I was heavily addicted to golf. So I started looking at golf movements, and then, I started studying, you know, 'do back pain in golfers actually come from the back or could it be other things?' And then, I started working, you know, I wrote to the European Tour, and Ken Schofield eventually stopped writing 'No' to me, and said, "Alright. Come on on Tuesday."
And I went there, started talking to players, and eventually started working with players. And from there, you know, it's interesting, you know, I've been trained in surgery, emergency medicine, sports medicine, you think like, you know, working with athletes, the number one question I would get, it like, you know, dealing with tendinitis, or you know, overusing injuries and blah, blah, blah, and it wasn't it! It was always, once they got familiar with me, and comfortable with me, it was three top questions. 'Why am I tired all the time? Hey, my allergies are so bad, like, what can I do?' And number three was, you know, 'is there anything you can do to help me with my jetlag?' And I will run bloodwork, and everything would come back normal, and it puzzled me, you know, because they were telling the truth, and I, and my allopathic training didn't prepare for that. So, you know, just by good fortune, I've worked with the team GB Cycling Team, and I met a very interesting gentleman there. So I ran into him again, I asked him a few questions, and he said, "Oh, look at the adrenals, you know. There's-
Ara: Adrenal fatigue." And that's something that was not taught in medical school. So I remember the first time I came back, and I actually called up a buddy of mine who was an endocrinologist, and I said, "Hey, what's adrenal fatigue?" And he was like, "what is adrenal fatigue? There's no such thing. Do you get hot fatigue? Do you get kidney fatigue? You don't. Like, it's nonsense." So I was like, "Huh." But something told me, like, it's got to be something true. Like, why would this gentleman say that? You know, he couldn't have made up that phrase. And then one day, I was walking past like a Chinese medicine shop, and I don't know why I did it, Poonacha. I walked in there, and I asked them, I said, "do you have anything for the adrenals?" And they, the Chinese guy, like, the two of them talking, he said, "Yeah, like, adrenal, low qi?" And I was like, "Yeah. Low qi in the adrenal. Yeah." And they go, "Yeah, we have a tonic."
Ara: And I was like, see, they knew, I was like, if they have something made for it, it's gotta be true. So I went down that line. And you know, this was a time when you know, you go to the library, and there was no Google search, and you found one article, like the 70s. You filled out this card, you gave it to Angela, the librarian. She will mail it off. And then, three weeks later, you will get the article, right? And I read my first article on adrenal fatigue? And I started working, reading the work of Hans Selye on, you know, how the body deals with stress.
Ara: And that kind of opened the whole world, and now, it's called functional medicine. But I've been doing it for 20 years, and, and that's why I realized, like, you know, nutrition is critical. Hydration is critical. The air you breathe is critical, you know. The sleep, you know. So many of the things that the athletes needed, if you maximize this little thing, because, you know, one of the things that, you know, it sounds very glamorous working with all these athletes, and it is. It's a huge blessing. But it's a double-edged sword. You know. If you take, you know, a Toyota Camry, and you said make this car go faster, I could do 50 things to it, right? A Ferrari is already maxed out, very difficult to make it go a little bit fast, and that's what you're trying to do with an athlete. It's very easy to take that Ferrari, and mess with it, and then it becomes slow.
Ara: So the key areas where you can actually make a huge impact in squeezing out half a percent, quarter percent here and there for performance is looking at nutrition, looking at sleep and recovery, and then, working out what's the best strategy for this individual to travel. And so, and that's the kind of, that's where I am now. Yeah. It's been a huge blessing. And I'm sitting here talking to you, having coffee.
Poonacha: Awesome. So I want to ask you one question. If you go back, and you look at your life, I mean, it's very interesting, you said, you went to Leeds, you had to give up your passion for tennis, and---basically, a tennis athlete kind of got you back into sports.
Poonacha: And then, you got into golf, right?
Ara: Yeah. And I live vicariously. Like, Poonacha, I, had I turned pro, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have done half the things I've done. Being a doctor, I have touched and lifted all major trophies in golf and tennis, including the Ryder Cup and the Davis Cup. Like, it would have never happened had I been an athlete! You know. It's crazy.
Poonacha: So the universe is, you know, I guess has his own story, right? How it kind of unfolds.
Poonacha: So one thing, which, I don't know if people have told you, about you is that you have a very infectious optimism. Right? You have this very contagious smile. You have this---but every time I've seen you, it doesn't matter where it was, you always have this very, where does Ara go to recharge?
Ara: Ah. Great question. You want to know my secret? You know, we talked about loneliness. So I am constantly surrounded by people. And I am introvert by nature. And you know what? I didn't understand the word introvert. I thought introverted people didn't like to socialize. No. Introvert and extrovert is how you energize.
Poonacha: Right. So solitude versus loneliness. Two different things, right?
Poonacha: Solitude recharges you.
Ara: Correct. So going alone, like, going away and just reading on my own, like, you know, even going to the library where it's complete quietness, I, like, I sit in the library, in the quiet room, and I put my earplugs on, and just letting my mind wander. You know, whether it's through just randomly opening 15 pages on Google, and just going around some rabbit hole or just doing nothing, and just, but I have to be on my own, with no connection. And then, within a very short time, I'm fully recharged.
The other thing that I do religiously is, I work out, you know. And one of the things I love doing is to go on a very slow run, like, this is like 10 to 12 minute mile pace, very slow, you know, like you're just treading along, but I'll do five, six miles of that. And that really, really gives, because I'm doing it alone, with my earphones on, you know, completely in a world of my own, my mind wanders, and six miles passes by, and I come back, and I'm totally refreshed. So those two things.
Poonacha: So give me a moment in time when, you know, obviously, my passion, I talk about resilience. I believe resilience is a muscle everyone can build.
Poonacha: It's not a genetic thing. It's not a makeup. Grit is what life teaches you.
Poonacha: Other moments in your life when you were at a crossroad, and you had to make a radical choice, any moments you want to share?
Ara: Yeah, you know, that, that, I briefly told you when I went to medical school, and I dissected the heart and anatomy, you know, I fell in love with the human heart. And I thought it was such an amazing organ, and I wanted to be a heart surgeon, right? And when I did heart surgery, you know, I fulfilled that dream. And I was board certified, I was doing bypass surgery, and was there, and I didn't love it. And it was a real battle between an ego and the soul. And there's a saying that I love. 'A bad day for the ego is a great day for the soul.'
Ara: Right? And
Poonacha: 'A bad day for the ego is a great day for the soul.' Yeah. I'm going to quote that.
Ara: Yeah. Please do. I think it was Rumi who said that actually. And that was a poignant moment because I came there, I sat there, and I thought, my ego wants me to keep doing cardiac surgery because, I mean, think about it, to walk around and say I'm a heart surgeon, like, that's pretty big deal, right?
Poonacha: And the surgeons were all, you know, big egos, and you have to be, like, if you came to me, and I said, "Listen, Poonacha, I'm going to cut your chest open. I'm going to stop your heart. I'm going to put it on a pump. I'm going to repair your heart, and I'm going to start it again, and you'll walk out of the hospital in five days." I mean, you, you need ego to say that!
Poonacha: If you're wavering, I'm going to be like, “No. I'm not going to try it out!"
Ara: You can't say, like, you know, "I'll give it a shot." That's not gonna work. So you have to be like this person. Right? And, and I believe great athletes are the same, you know.
Ara: They have this inner belief, like, and that kind of, but it kind of permeates, and where I draw the line is like someone like Dalai Lama, or Deepak Chopra, for instance, has that same belief, but it doesn't govern them.
Ara: You know, it doesn't permeate your entire life. When they're doing certain things, they are untouchably great, but it doesn't become who they are, right? Sometimes with athletes, I see that. It permeates them. The identity becomes like, 'I need to be this god-like person, I cannot show any weakness,' right? So, I was at that point, and, and I had a real talk to myself, and I, and I realized, like, you know, 'I could do this, and I would be unhappy, but my ego would be very---I make a lot of money, I'd have a huge ego, but my soul would be miserable.'
And literally the other side was working in the ER, which wasn't a highly respected profession because they would call us the police officers of the hospital, right? Because we direct traffic. And it didn't pay that well. But I felt so alive there. And at that point, like, I decided, 'you know what? No. I'd rather make less money, and be so fulfilled going to work every day, than do it the other way around. And honestly, that one decision that day, and I remember vividly making---the way I made that decision, it was a cold day, I was at Albert Dock in Liverpool, and I was walking on my own, and I told myself, 'at the end of today, you're going to make a decision.' And I wait and wait, and by the end of the day, I came back, and I said, "No, I'm going to go pursue an ER career,' and it was tough because it's very difficult to even get a surgical board. So that one decision,
Poonacha: The radical choice you made.
Ara: Yeah. If you go back and look at that, you know, by working in the ER, I met the person that, that boy who like, who had a sprained ankle, and got me into sports medicine, and then took me down all this path. And the ER
Poonacha: And here we are.
Ara: And the ER is the reason I got to come to America. I didn't come to America because of sports medicine, I got here because of emergency medicine. I got to Orlando because of emergency medicine, and, and the reason I'm good with teams, and I get along with my athletes a lot, even now, is because I'm a really good ER doctor.
Poonacha: So on that note, I think even my relationship with you is always invigorating, and I'm inspired.
Ara: Yeah. Likewise. Likewise.
Poonacha: I'm going to kind of take this message, 'a bad day for the ego is a great day for the soul.'
Ara: Yeah, look, I think, I think it was Rumi who said that. Yeah. Don't, like, don't give me that credit.
Poonacha: No, I won't. But I just---as a message, it's, I think, it's a, it's a fantastic message. It's a message where I think everybody needs to be humbled, and then, through humility, you find the next next wave, right?
Ara: Yeah. It's a constant battle, like, a lot of our decisions, it's ego versus the soul.
Poonacha: Thanks, Doc.
Ara: Oh, my God. Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Poonacha: Thank you.
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Warrior Monk Conversations 004: Free Medicine, Radical Choice, and the Secret to Life with Dr. Ara Suppiah