Dr. Swathi Varanasi: “Sleep is so underrated”

A Moment For You — Whether it is sitting on the family room floor for five minutes before the kids come home from school, or an hour in a dedicated meditation room, closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths is a great way to reset and revamp your brain for the rest of the day. As […]

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A Moment For You — Whether it is sitting on the family room floor for five minutes before the kids come home from school, or an hour in a dedicated meditation room, closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths is a great way to reset and revamp your brain for the rest of the day.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Swathi Varanasi.

Dr. Swathi Varanasi, or Dr. Swathi for short, is a bilingual pharmacist specializing in integrative health and cannabis. She is a natural medicines educator, a clinical researcher, a TV show host, and a multimedia content contributor. She is dedicated to leading the charge in medical education by creating innovative programs about the range of healing modalities and their impact on the overall health and wellbeing of patients around the world.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Even before I started on my path to becoming a pharmacist, I had always been interested in holistic health and healing. I found myself in pharmacy school where there was little to no discussion about nutrition and preventative health, but I knew there was a way they both could work in synergy. When I graduated, there was no formal training for pharmacists interested in pursuing integrative health, so I partnered with one of my brilliant mentors to co-found and was the first-ever resident of the PGY1 Integrative Health Pharmacy Residency program. During this postdoctoral specialized residency program, I trained at an independent natural pharmacy and HIV clinic in Los Angeles, California. Emphasizing an evidence-based approach and working with the patient as a team, I was able to provide natural medicines education and guidance to help each patient achieve their own treatment goals; these conversations involved a number of methodologies and modalities of healing, like eastern & western herbs, homeopathy, cannabis, therapeutic aromatherapy, dietary supplementation and everything in between. Since my training, I have moved on to a variety of educational ventures, including but not limited to creating online courses, guest lecturing, college and postgraduate course curricula consulting, and textbook and reference guide writing.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

During my training to specialize in integrative medicine, I was fortunate to be a part of an interprofessional healthcare team including but not limited to a community pharmacy and an HIV/AIDS clinic. I set up the clinic’s first-ever medication therapy management (MTM) program in which I saw patients on a biweekly or monthly basis in appointments that lasted up to one hour. Given my highly specialized niche, it was beyond gratifying to provide answers to practitioner and patient questions regarding drug-drug interactions from my western didactic and practical training, but also questions regarding nutrition, cannabis and overall wellness. There was one patient in particular, let’s call him Joe. Joe had been diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s and has since suffered with depressed mood and anxiety. Through years of trying various varieties of conventional prescription therapy cocktails, he was looking for something that would be work, saying ‘I am willing to try almost anything.’ We had a wonderful discussion about the multitude of options for mood imbalance including but not limited to therapeutic aromatherapy, mindfulness, sleep hygiene, interpersonal relationships and nutrition. Since the start of my career, like Joe, more and more patients are interested in learning more about complementary and alternative therapies. The increased number of patient questions was accompanied by practitioner questions as they wanted to learn more about integrative health modalities to help their patients as much as they could. By having ongoing discussions with healthcare practitioners, I think slowly but surely they are beginning to really appreciate the value of many avenues to optimal wellness.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The biggest mistake I made was assuming that other western practitioners would understand my chosen career path… Many of whom do not take what I do seriously. I receive comments about how I have ‘thrown away my education’ and that I am telling patients to ‘stop taking all of their prescription medications.’ The misconception that being an Integrative Health Pharmacist involves discounting the use and benefits of prescription medication is something I deal with all of the time. Every practitioner has their own definition, but the way I practice evaluates the many modalities of medicine (eg. medications, dietary supplements, eastern & western herbs, therapeutic aromatherapy, homeopathy, physical exercise, sleep practices, meditation, etc.) to determine options for the patient. This very personalized methodology requires that the practitioner and patient work as a team to evaluate which one or combination of these modalities is best for the patient’s lifestyle and treatment goals.

I have learned that regardless of what you do, people will always have an opinion, so you might as well do what lights you up rather than what makes others happy.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There is no way I would be where I am today without the faith and guidance from one of my mentors, Integrative Health Pharmacist, Dr. Pam Tarlow. As I briefly mentioned in my background, even before I was a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) student, I had always been interested in preventative medicine, but did not know a pharmacist who was able to marry both the western and eastern mentalities of patient care… That was until I met Dr. Tarlow, one of the first Integrative Health Pharmacists who started 20 years ago. I reached out to her inquiring about a clinical rotation spot at her site, an independent natural pharmacy in Los Angeles, California. When I came out to rotation, I knew I had finally found my place in pharmacy, with the opportunity to help educate practitioners, patients and students about natural medicines. Beyond this realization, our relationship has since grown and inspired many of my other professional relationships with other bold, trailblazing women who are unapologetically passionate about what they do regardless of what everyone else says.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

As an Integrative Health and Medical Cannabis Pharmacist, I am committed to educating practitioners, patients and students about the therapeutic potential and the possible pitfalls of botanical medicine as well as other modalities. In my practice, the intersection of many methodologies of health and healing is what is most vital to patient outcomes. I found through my training that I am so passionate about sharing my evidence-based knowledge and expertise about natural medicines with everyone.

I am proud to be the co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer at the women- and minority-founded CBD & botanical brand, Element Apothec. I am the incoming Chief Pharmacy Officer at CalEthos, in which I will be responsible for founding the first-ever brick-and-mortar medical cannabis dispensaries managed and run by healthcare professionals in the state of California. I manage educational efforts at an innovative cannabis genomics and integrative wellness company, Jade Health, and an adaptogenic cookie company, Madeby. In addition to my post as adjunct faculty and/or guest lecturer at colleges of pharmacy and colleges of traditional Chinese medicines, I recently launched the first-ever online course on medical cannabis specifically for pharmacists (Cannabis Science & Therapeutics for Pharmacists) in collaboration with the educational platform, Medical Cannabis Mentor.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

Tweak #1: Good Bye, Alarm Clock

Sleep is so underrated. One of the top ways to feel refreshed in the morning is not setting an alarm. Well-named, the alarm is alarming to your body and forcing it out of its current sleep cycle. By cutting a sleep cycle short, you may not feel fully rested and you may have a temporary hormonal imbalance. Allowing your body to wake up naturally goes hand in hand with the importance of a personalized morning routine that will set you up for success for the rest of the day.

Tweak #2: Herbs, Herbs & Herbs

As an Integrative Health and Medical Cannabis Pharmacist, I would be remiss not discuss the incredible therapeutic potential of botanical medicine. Adding specific herbs to your daily routine, called adaptogens, can improve your body’s resilience to stress and can have life-changing and anti-aging properties with consistent use. Popular examples of adaptogens are ginseng, ashwagandha, matcha, and functional mushrooms. Without delving into too much detail, the endocannabinoid system is a system in the human body that maintains our body’s homeostasis; most famously influenced by Cannabis sativa, the addition of a low-medium CBD dose of daily (eg. 25 mg) could be an amazing addition to your routine as well.

Tweak #3: What Is Kohlrabi?

Nutrition is a mainstay of my discussions with patients. As I view food as nature’s medicine, I urge my patients to challenge themselves to get out of their comfort zone with their food choices. For example, this could be buying a fruit or vegetable that is new to you, or this could be trying a new recipe to mix it up. I always say that if you have not tried it yet, then you do not officially know if you like it, or not. Given the vast array of nutritional benefits in these plant-based foods, studies have shown that eating a variety could impact your body’s homeostasis.

Tweak #4: ‘I Am Amazing’

I can be the first to admit that I never anticipated the impact Tweak #4 could have in my life. Like my western-trained physician, dentist and nursing colleagues, I was not taught about the benefits of mindfulness or meditation practices in my curriculum. A healthy mindset has played the most impactful role in my maturation as a person and professional. I would suggest beginning with seemingly simple ‘I am’ statements to remind yourself how ‘awesome’, ‘strong,’ and ‘successful’ you are. Especially in these times, you may be feeling trapped in a negative mindset about the future; transforming your mindset to a positive one about yourself and your capabilities could work wonders for your trajectory. Your subconscious does not know the difference between what is real and what is not. If you tell it that you are amazing, it will believe it. With repeated affirmations, you will also start to believe it, consciously.

Tweak #5: A Moment For You

Whether it is sitting on the family room floor for five minutes before the kids come home from school, or an hour in a dedicated meditation room, closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths is a great way to reset and revamp your brain for the rest of the day.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

If I could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, it would involve the widespread discussion of and accessibility to healthy food and a healthy mindset. There would be many moving parts including a list of authoritative bodies, private corporations and nonprofit involvement, however, I believe this movement is key to improving overall health in the American population. Studies have shown that food desserts not only have high rates of chronic disease, but also have high rates of crime and mental health concerns. Working with grocery stores and food banks to eliminate food deserts in low-income areas would be beneficial for so many communities.

In addition, certain cities have begun setting an example for others by incorporating prescriptions for specific healthy foods that can be found in pharmacies alongside prescription medications. This not only helps patients but also local farmers who can provide seasonal produce for these programs. With pharmacies on nearly every street corner providing these new healthy food services, pharmacists can play an essential role in helping provide guidance and answer patient questions.

New specialties such as nutritional psychiatry are demonstrating the intrinsic link between the food we eat and how we feel. My proposed movement would also extend past nutrition to include the accessibility to low- to no-cost mental health providers. I firmly believe that ample access to nutrient-rich foods and mental health care services is pivotal for the future of the country.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

There are so many things I wish I was told before embarking on this unconventional professional journey. I have the opportunity to lecture at quite a few undergraduate universities, colleges of pharmacy, and colleges of traditional Chinese medicine regarding this exact topic. As someone who forged her own path and created a niche that did not exist, my first piece of advice is to figure out what you want by asking yourself questions like, ‘What does your ideal day look like?’ and ‘What do you want to known for?.’ Once you figure what you want, the next step is to take inspired action to work towards that goal. I think it is very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and lose sight of the big picture. I wish someone would have told me about the concept of chunking large tasks into smaller ones; creating attainable, realistic monthly goals has helped me propel projects forward rather than feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to start with long-term deadlines. Overall I wish someone had told me that it is completely okay (and normal) to want to achieve, be, and think differently than others. In pharmacy school, when we were only told about a limited number of career options, I initially felt ashamed that what I wanted did not resonate with any of them. Following your intuition is much more important than satisfying other people’s standards.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

This is a wonderful question. In my opinion, all of these topics are inherently linked. As someone who is vegan for nutritional and environmental reasons, I am passionate about the impact of a plant-based lifestyle on the human body and the world. If I had to pinpoint one of these big topics, I would select mental health simply because if we are suffering mentally, emotionally and spiritually, then we are unable to think past our current circumstances. By targeting the state of mental health in America and the world, I think that could translate to a much healthier, happier population and planet.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Connect with me on LinkedIn! If you have any questions, DM me on Instagram and let’s chat (@doctorswathi). Looking forward to e-meeting you!

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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