Dawn of a New Doctor
It’s not enough just to look good anymore. Most of us want to feel good. And for many, regenerative medicine—with its integrative approach—seems to be the answer. From high-frequency radio waves to music vibrations, we explore the latest therapies that, some claim, can slow down the aging process.
Dr. Prudence Hall, director and founder of The Hall Center in Santa Monica, just can’t wait to start using the center’s brand-new “consciousness portal”—her description for a technology called VibraSound, which according to its website uses music for relaxation and inspiration. The patient lies on a “vibrotactile mattress” that sends music as vibration to the body. A visual display device transmits music as light pulsations to the eyes. Headphones send music to the ears. Dr. Hall describes it as a “fun way to start to change how our brain is wired.” VibraSound is just one of many offerings that distinguishes The Hall Center—a self-described regenerative medicine clinic—from a traditional practice.
Another new, alternate technology: the Thyroflex, which uses a reflex hammer attached to a computer to diagnose thyroid imbalances. The diagnosis is based on reflex speed in a forearm muscle (used as an adjunct to more traditional blood and ultrasound tests). Or how about IV therapies and high-frequency radio waves for detoxifying, or chelation therapy aimed at cleansing toxic heavy metals from the bloodstream? Dr. Hall’s practice offers these treatments and more—along with hormone replacement therapy, dietary and lifestyle counseling, energy healers and a “health coaching concierge” to bring all the elements together.
Most patients opt for the center’s Core Program. It begins with a daylong visit that takes patients through various stations that address hormone balance, GI tract health, thyroid health and other issues. Trained as a gynecologist, Dr. Hall started her practice with all women patients but says that now 35% of her patients are men. Patients also consult Dr. Hall’s colleague, Dr. Nikki Arguinzoni-Gil, a doctor of naturopathic medicine who is licensed to practice in California and Washington. Also on staff is patient coordinator Susanna Barry, a self-described holistic healer and teacher of heart-centered wisdom who offers guidance based on her studies of Vedic astrology, ayurveda and tantra. Cost? Get out your credit card: $2,500 for that first day (insurance plans may cover some tests and treatments). There are usually two follow-up consultations within three months and annual follow-ups. Cost-conscious patients may seek consultation on just one element of the program, such as hormone balance or digestive problems.
Dr. Hall’s work has drawn much media attention, including TV interviews with Dr. Oz on Oprah and Suzanne Somers, a celebrity patient who interviewed Dr. Hall on her TV show.
Walk into the center, and you’ll feel like you’ve arrived at a high-end spa retreat with exposed brick, glowing wood floors, overstuffed furniture and exotic artifacts. While waiting, patients can sample a glass of “gem water” from a large glass carafe containing a vial of semi-precious stones thought to render the water more alkaline. There’s a shop filled with books, gifts, and natural health and beauty products. An aesthetics room may be used for company meetings as well as meditation, yoga or other pathways to fulfillment. Is this a doctor’s office of the future? After all, Prudence Hall is a graduate of USC’s prestigious Keck School of Medicine—not a New Age healer. Or is The Hall Center actually more of a relaxing visit to a day spa than the best place for an annual physical?
And really, is there any reason why a medical practice can’t be all of these things? Dr. Hall’s practice—as well as many others in the LA area—offers treatment blending multiple medical traditions. Call it regenerative medicine or integrative practice—many doctors are borrowing from Eastern medicine, using alternative treatments and tools and bringing nutrition into the diagnostic picture.
And it’s no surprise that it happens first in California, observes Dr. Michael Hirt, a Harvard-trained physician and founder of The Center for Integrative Medicine in Tarzana. “I think California has always been, for many decades now, on the cutting edge of health,” Dr. Hirt says. “California has maintained itself as the health leader, a health experimenter, breaking into new markets.”
“People are looking to take their health to another level,” he adds. “And since we’re a very populous state, there are very many people who are willing to put down some of their hard-earned capital to make their health better using natural means.”
Okay, Californians are game to try almost anything, but what exactly are they looking for? Baby boomers heading into their 60s and Generation-Xers facing their 40s and 50s want to feel younger. They want to be stronger and more productive. Mid-lifers can no longer count on lifelong job security that ends with a fat pension and a gold watch—they’re launching new businesses and careers.
Nurse practitioner Lauren Evans, 29, works with Dr. Miguel Gonzalez in his integrative practice in Thousand Oaks. “For the most part, people complain about being tired. My #1 complaint is fatigue,” Lauren says. “I really think a big part of that is our lifestyle, particularly in Los Angeles. People in the TV and film industry are always talking about long hours. They’re really stressed.”
Patients are also really demanding. “Most people tend to come in and say: ‘What can I do right now? I only have a two-hour time block,’” Lauren observes. Those patients are most attracted to IV therapies, receiving various intravenous “cocktails” containing amino acids and/or vitamins for quick relief.
The clinic has started administering such therapies by injection for people who don’t have time to spend an hour on an IV. Dr. Gonzalez also offers treatment with EVOX biofeedback technology, which Lauren describes as a guided meditation using the patient’s own voice to “reframe the subconscious” to break through barriers to better health. The stereotype of the LA woman seeking eternal youth through plastic surgery seems to be falling by the wayside in favor of those more concerned with feeling less exhausted. These women hope that dietary changes, hormone replacement and supplements might bring back that youthful glow—but beauty is no longer the main motivator. Dr. Hall says she has no problem with aesthetic procedures. The Hall Center offers nonsurgical face and body treatments using micro-current technology and “micro-needling” to stimulate the skin to regenerate. But “I never start there,” she insists. “Really what we do is beauty from the inside. It’s that energy, that feminine radiance. They could be 250 pounds and 80 years old—they just shine. They shimmer.”
She acknowledges that most patients seek a sort of regeneration. They’re tired. They’re depressed. Maybe they’ve gained weight or lost their sex drive. Maybe they just don’t feel like themselves anymore. Most of her female patients are between the ages of 40 and 60, but some younger women come in with similar concerns.
Dr. Hall makes bold claims, saying bioidentical (plant- or animal-derived, not synthetic) hormones can reverse early dementia, prevent 50% of heart attacks in women and decrease breast cancer by 50%. She says older men on testosterone-replacement therapy can “build as much muscle as a 20-year-old.” Dr. Hall adds that alarming information about hormone replacement increasing the risk of cancer and stroke only applies to synthetic hormones. “I’ve thought about this: I don’t think it’s our chronological age ,” she says. “I feel like I’m 30. I think as long as we keep away diseases and keep ourselves healthy, then we are unlimited. We have an unlimited life span. We can be 100 and still contributing. And that’s part of longevity … happy people tend to live 10 years longer.” Underscoring her point, Dr. Hall is 65 and looks about 20 years younger. One can’t help but think: Maybe this is just the way 65 is supposed to look.
Tamara King-Patten, 51, laughingly describes herself as a “Jesus freak.” But Tamara also believes in Dr. Prudence Hall and her colleagues at The Hall Center.
Tamara did not know what to expect when she walked into The Hall Center for the first time about two years ago. She only knew that she was desperate to feel better. For years she’d been visiting specialists who couldn’t find anything wrong with her. She describes her former physician as brilliant but working in a medical facility with limited resources. Heading into menopause, she was frightened things were only going to get worse.
“I was not even close to being optimal. I was barely functioning,” she says. Tamara sought self-help books about health, including Suzanne Somers’ I’m Too Young For This! The Natural Hormone Solution to Enjoy Perimenopause, with a foreword by Dr. Hall. She says The Hall Center represented a “whole other world.” Today Tamara bubbles with zest for life. She also quotes a whole glossary of new medical terms for the source of mysterious ailments that had plagued her throughout her life. She credits it all to Dr. Hall and “Dr. Nikki” (Arguinzoni-Gil). Tamara’s previous physician had already introduced her to a bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT). But she says The Hall Center diagnosed a host of other problems that needed to be solved for the hormone treatment to be effective.
Tamara says she took a turn for the worse on BHRT until Dr. Nikki found a deficiency in GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter) in her brain that needed to be addressed. The naturopath also discovered parasites and H. pylori bacteria affecting Tamara’s digestive tract, as well as diagnosing adrenal gland fatigue. Tamara, the product of a high-stress, alcoholic household, also suffered from anxiety and attention deficit issues before the hormone therapy, saying she was unable to focus well enough to read a book. She’s now on a low-glycemic, mostly organic diet that is dairy-free, gluten-free and sugar-free. “Today I am so hopeful. I have my life back,” she says.
Not everyone shares Tamara’s confidence in less traditional therapies. After recommendations from friends and reading glowing reviews on Yelp, a 49-year-old Manhattan Beach woman—who asked that her name not be used—tells us she sought a doctor in the South Bay area who promised “anti-aging” medicine, including natural hormone therapy, ozone therapy and IV therapies. “I’m almost 50, I have little kids and am constantly tired,” she says. She and her husband decided to visit the clinic together. Both were disappointed. She was suspicious when the doctor told her, “You could be more youthful” and wanted to bring her hormone levels—normal for her age—to levels found in much younger females.
The doctor also wanted her to switch her thyroid medication from Synthroid (a man-made product) to a hormone derived from a pig’s ear. He recommended a low dose of testosterone to increase sex drive (not an uncommon therapy for women). Then there was the dizzying array of supplements and vitamins. Her husband was also put on testosterone therapy.
“They want to beef up your levels to youth, completely out of the normal range—it’s ridiculous,” this patient says. Hundreds of dollars later, she and her husband have stopped seeing the South Bay doctor. She has quit taking testosterone but continues to take a low level of melatonin for insomnia (which she says works for her).
The patient was so confused by everything on the treatment menu that she asked a physician she knew to offer his opinion on some of the treatments recommended by the clinic. To put it mildly, he was unimpressed.
In his opinion, many of the treatments were harmless but ineffective. Those include ozone therapy, micro-current devices and magnetic therapy. He calls the intravenous vitamin industry “a sideshow to science-based health care.” (He acknowledges that there is an “established medical role” for injectable vitamins but says they are not “an energy-boosting cure-all.”)
The only treatment offered by the clinic that this doctor considers risky is testosterone therapy. He agrees with a recent caution from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that testosterone is approved only for men whose low levels of the hormone are caused by “certain medical conditions,” not by aging.
He believes patients should consider the possibility that hormone treatment—bioidentical and synthetic—can raise the risk of cancer or stroke. Many doctors would disagree.
RULE OF THUMB
So maybe you’re not looking for the fountain of youth. But if there are safe options for looking and feeling better as you age and you can afford them, why not use them? At the same time, the choices can be so dizzying you may be tempted to give up, get yourself a generous slice of pie (ice cream optional) and then treat your fatigue with a nap.
There are no easy answers, but Dr. Hirt suggests this rule of thumb: “In general, my philosophy is you don’t want to be the first in line or the last in line for any kind of medical therapy, and that applies to regenerative medicine as much as it applies to conventional medicine. I’m looking for the science. I want to know there’s something that’s been tested that I can rely on so I can explain to a patient how it’s supposed to work. Then I can use the science to monitor how it’s actually working.”
Dr. Hirt has studied acupuncture, Chinese medicine and nutrition in order to expand his arsenal of therapies. He’s excited by experiments with stem cell therapy and PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections that use the body’s own cells to stimulate the body to repair itself.
“I think at this point Americans can expect, especially if they are doing regenerative medicine with cutting-edge doctors, that wear and tear can be corrected,” Dr. Hirt asserts.
Meanwhile, Dr. Hall is planning to offer her program on a cruise ship where patients can go to focus on hormone balance, adrenal exhaustion and hypothyroidism, as well as emotional health and consciousness.
“We’re looking at a lot of things generate a lot of data. That data is going to start coming out of our center,” she enthuses. “We’re just going to blow this thing wide open.”