/ Podcast / Nature’s Profound Impact On Health, With Dr. Patrick Hanaway

Nature’s Profound Impact On Health, With Dr. Patrick Hanaway

When it comes to your personal health, what are your priorities? According to Dr. Patrick Hanaway, establishing a relationship with nature should be near the top of the list. This week, he joins Dr. Sandi on Health Coach Talk to explore nature’s role in holistic well-being. They discuss the macrobiome, Dr. Patrick’s cancer diagnosis, his work with indigenous peoples, and more in this powerful episode.

“We’re trying to protect ourselves from the world rather than feeling the world. When we’re feeling the world, we can begin to listen—and have a bigger view of what’s going on.”

Dr. Patrick Hanaway

While conventional healthcare tends to focus solely on the physical body, the functional medicine matrix places mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being at its core. This holistic approach has long resonated with Dr. Patrick, whose profound relationship with nature is built on the wisdom of indigenous cultures and his own lived experiences. He serves as a role model for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with nature as part of an integrated approach to health and well-being.

Health coaches can tap into this wisdom as they help their clients bring more balance to their lives. Coaches make the connection between a provider’s plan of care for the physical body and the deeper healing potential that a relationship with the natural world has to offer. Dr. Patrick highlights how health coaches can guide their clients to connect with nature, channel its healing power, and achieve harmony in mind, body, and spirit. Listen to the episode below.

Episode Highlights

  • Explore the profound connection between nature and well-being
  • Learn how Dr. Patrick’s cancer diagnosis changed his perspective on life
  • Learn what plant spirit medicine is and why it shifted Dr. Patrick’s approach to healthcare
  • Hear Dr. Patrick’s secrets to deepening your relationship with the natural world

Meet the Guest

Patrick Hanaway, MD

Blue Deer Center

Blue Deer Center

Patrick Hanaway, MD, is a board-certified family physician and leading voice in the Functional Medicine movement. For the past 20 years, he has worked with his wife at Family to Family, their clinical practice in Asheville, NC. Dr. Patrick has held numerous leadership roles in his field, including president of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine, chief medical officer at Genova Diagnostics, and chief medical education officer at The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). He has taught with IFM since 2005 and currently leads the GI Advanced Practice Module. In 2014, Dr. Patrick helped facilitate the collaboration between IFM and the Cleveland Clinic, where he was the founding medical director and later, research director. He has also been initiated as a Mara’akame (indigenous healer) by the Huichol people of the Sierra Madres in Mexico.

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Episode Transcript

Dr. Sandi: Welcome to Health Coach Talk. Today, I have a very special guest. He is not only a teacher, but he is a true healer. At the heart of the functional medicine matrix is the mental, emotional, and spiritual component, and I have always believed that this is an area where health coaches can have tremendous impact. And Dr. Patrick Hanaway, my guest today, is somebody who really embodies taking on that mental, emotional, spiritual component and teaching it and practicing it himself. He is a real role model, so I think you are going to really enjoy my conversation.

But, first, let me tell you a little bit about Dr. Patrick Hanaway, who I first met when he was my teacher at the Institute for Functional Medicine. Dr. Hanaway is a board-certified family physician. He served on the executive committee of the American Board of Integrative Medicine and is past president of the American Board of integrated holistic medicine. After 10 years as chief medical officer at Genova Diagnostics, he became the chief medical education officer for the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), our collaboration partner, where he oversaw the development and implementation of IFM’s programs worldwide.

In 2014, Dr. Hanaway worked with Dr. Mark Hyman to develop the collaboration between IFM and the Cleveland Clinic where he served as the founding medical director and then the research director. He now serves as a research collaborator with the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. His research interest focused on nutrition, the microbiome, evaluating value in functional medicine models of care. In 2018, Dr. Hanaway was diagnosed with stage 4 laryngeal cancer. His life has been transformed through a functional and integrative approach that includes nutrition, shamanic healing, acupuncture, herbs, prayer, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, community support, spending time in nature and love. Recent medical assessment has demonstrated no evidence of disease.

The primary focus of Dr. Hanaway’s work is to leverage his skills and knowledge to transform medical practice through education, research, and clinical care. Importantly, he was initiated in 2009 as a Mara’akame. This is an indigenous healer by the Huichol people of the Sierra Madres in Mexico. He holds community fires, leads ceremonies, and offers traditional healing. In that capacity, he is involved in teaching a new course called Plant Spirit Medicine: Growing Awareness of Nature, which he will talk to you all about.

So, without further ado, my interview with Dr. Patrick Hanaway.

I want to welcome you, Patrick.

Dr. Patrick: Thank you so much, Sandi. It’s great to just see the arc of our friendship and relationship over time and the work that we get to do together. So, I’m really happy to be able to share some work that I’ve been doing in the closet for the past 25 years but is really deeply meaningful to me and I appreciate the opportunity to be able to share that with your group.

Dr. Sandi: Thank you. Tell us about plant spirit medicine. This goes back a long time. This is not new to the world. You have a special personal interest. So, can you share your personal story, how you got interested in this area?

Dr. Patrick: Well, as you said, plant spirit is connecting to the spirit of plants. It’s different than connecting to the constituents of plants. Certainly, we can study herbology and learn many things, but connecting to and learning and developing relationships with the plants is something that many indigenous people have done for tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of years to be able to learn from the plants, how they can be of benefit to our people, and learn about what they have to tell us about the environment around us and be able to develop a true relationship.

And so within that framework, I first began to deepen my understanding about being able to listen to the natural world. Shortly after I started my functional medicine practice here in Asheville, North Carolina with my wife, Lisa, she had taken a course with a teacher named Eliot Cowan. And Eliot was teaching plant spirit medicine, about how do we listen and develop a relationship with the essence of plants, with the spirit of individual plants, especially local plants where you live, to be able to deepen and use them as tools for helping to heal and bring individuals back into balance. As it happened, Lisa took the course, and we were starting our practice, and she said, “You really need to do this course.” And I said, “We’re just starting our practice. We don’t have time to be able to do that.” And she said, “No, you really need to do that.”

And what I found was an opening that, instead of the way in which I had before that time really looked at plants as things, as objects, to be able to use and manipulate as medicines, and rather I began to be open into an awareness of, how do I have a relationship with individual plants to see how they can help me on my healing journey and amend to be able to help others? And so that was 25 years ago, and much has unfolded after that time that I’m glad to share about. But that was the beginning of my journey, and I’ll also say that, when I began to work with this as a medicine, and working with taking people’s pulses and helping to bring balance in that way as part of a relationship of hands-on healing work that I did, I was pretty skeptical. I was like, “I’m not going to do this. I don’t really think this works.” But it worked and I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Even I don’t believe it’s going to work and something’s shifting in these people.”

And so it opened me up to a relationship. And I use that term rather than an energy, because it’s not just a physics thing that’s going on. It’s truly a relationship and a connection of bond between myself and the plants and then sharing that with others to help them to be able to receive the benefit that that particular plant spirit has for them.

Dr. Sandi: What surprised you as you began to study this?

Dr. Patrick: Several things surprised me, but what arises is that I actually had experienced this with plants and with trees when I was a little boy. And being able to connect to that and say, “Oh, this is what I was feeling and seeing and tasting and hearing when I was three, four, or five years old,” that was just awesome. It was the wonder that was there.

And so as I connected back to it, I’m like, “Oh, I actually know this. I have experienced this before.” And it allowed me to be able to see how I had, I would say, chosen a different path, a path that was really about the way in which we think in the West, that is about objectifying things and using them to be able to take them, and create tools, and be of benefit. Like, there’s no doubt that the functional medicine work is of great benefit to people and yet there’s something. And that’s what surprised me because I was opened up…I, kind of, walked through a doorway through a portal where it’s like, “Oh, I thought that I understood what was going on, and I really didn’t understand what was going on. I saw a small piece of it,” which is beneficial but there’s more and so I want to share that.

Dr. Sandi: So beautiful. And it seems like it is so right for today. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the growing disconnect that we have with nature as a society where we are indoors most of the day with artificial light, many buildings, we don’t even open the window, we don’t get outside, we don’t get into the sun, we’re afraid of the sun. Can you comment on this growing disconnect with nature and then what we can do about it?

Dr. Patrick: Well, some people talk about it as nature deficit disorder. And I think if we look at even the rapid growth of attention deficit disorder, it’s like the way… We’re not as human beings meant to be indoors in chairs, sitting for long periods of time, trying to assimilate conceptual information. Now, there are some learners who can do that really well, but there are many other learners who are kinesthetic or who are auditory or experiential. And being able to connect to literally the music of the world, the sound of the world, and being outdoors gives us entirely different domains of both relationships, and knowledge, and wisdom that we can gain.

This is how indigenous societies and cultures have worked to transmit knowledge and wisdom over time and yet we’ve really lost that. We’ve downplayed that. And that’s really only occurred over the past 100 years. So, we’re not connected. In my home, we have a gathering with the fires. We estimate we’ve had probably 1,700 gatherings over the past 24 years of people sitting around the fire and being able to listen to each other and share and open their hearts. And this is what people have done for hundreds of thousands of years. At least we know for sure. I mean, we can date fire back at least 800,000 years, but we know that this is a way in which people relate, and connect, and share their stories about what’s going on and be able to learn from each other.

So, the fact that we don’t work in that way but rather work indoors and work towards a very, kind of, linear task orientation, which has given us great tools. It’s given us the Zoom that we’re talking on right here. It’s given us airplanes, and automobiles, and beautiful cars, and heating, and cooling, and food available. There’s so much abundance that we’ve actually insulated ourselves from the natural world. You know, it’s common for us to have fears of the natural of the world outside and of other people and of the unknown. But in fact, that’s actually where the excitement of life lives and having courage to be able to move from our hearts, to be able to face those fears.

You’ve heard me talk about the uncertainty of dealing with cancer. And yet there was never a time that I felt more alive than being able to connect with that uncertainty and saying, “Wow, I just don’t know how much longer I’m going to be in this world, and I’m really enjoying and finding it in every moment of it.”

Dr. Sandi: That’s such an important word and having a sense of wonder about the world around you. And you certainly get that in nature. And I’ve heard you describe your cancer journey and so moved by how you were able to access that world of nature and really feel that spiritual awareness and get meaning and purpose. Health coaches, I think, can be ambassadors for nature, and they can help people to experience nature in many different ways. And so could you comment on specifics? If somebody says, “Yeah, I want to be out in nature more. I want to appreciate it more, but, you know, I just don’t have the time or my environment isn’t conducive to going out in nature,” so how can coaches be instrumental? What are some of the practical things that they could suggest?

Dr. Dr. Patrick: Well, there’s so many different aspects, and we do find in most places there is some green space that is there and available. But even in the city, we find there are trees growing. There are flowers that are emerging through the cracks in the sidewalk. There is nature just wanting to be able to express itself and expressing itself in so many different ways. So, it then is about, “Okay, let me take the time to listen.” And so it’s really just about beginning to cultivate the practice of being able to listen.

We have this course that we’ve put forth, a 12-part course that works through talking about connecting to the world, but it’s experiential and saying, “Okay, so go through the city. Walk in the city and write down what you’re feeling, what you’re sensing, what you’re hearing, what you’re smelling, and then go and walk in a park and just for 15 minutes and do that and notice what the difference is between that.” Those are the kinds of experiences.

And then we also, in the course, really teach people to journey into the plant world, to journey to begin to learn and understand, and eventually to be able to journey to different plants and develop relationships with them. So, these are some simple tools, but the way in which coaches, really the confidant, they are the mirror that is reflecting to the individual what their opportunity is to be able to optimize or move in the direction of health and wellness. And so as the coaches are doing that, they’ll find that some people, they’ve worked on their nutrition or they’ve worked on their exercise. And how do we work in connecting to the natural world? One thing I would say is like, if you can exercise outside, it’s better than exercising on a treadmill in front of a television set just because you’re also going to get that forest bathing effect that we know has a very profound effect on being able to support and uplift the immune system just as an example.

Dr. Sandi: That is so true. When I walk outside, it’s very different than walking on a treadmill, and I find even five minutes. I was a clinical psychologist for many years, and I specialized in health psychology. And I often worked with people in an area called psychoneuroimmunology, social oncology, and they often were unable to get out. I would see them at bedside in the hospital. But the power of imagery where I would have them imagine that they’re in the most beautiful place in nature and it had to be personalized to them. It wasn’t what I thought, but they would imagine it and they would describe this profound experience of feeling really at peace. And they made it very vivid where they incorporated not only visual but auditory smells, tactile, imagine the feel of the sand on your feet. And I wonder if you would comment on that, that if somebody, if it’s not possible to be out in nature, can you imagine it? Can you bring it into your current environment?

Dr. Patrick: Absolutely. Absolutely you can. And in fact, sometimes it’s necessary to be able to do that. Now having an opportunity to go outside and just breathe the fresh air, that cannot be replaced. But having the opportunity, as we see with stress and trauma, if we are remembering what happened, our whole secondary immune system aligns, hormonal changes occur, everything changes that is reliving that experience.

Now, reliving the experience of being able to be in the natural world in a beautiful place is another way of being able to connect to that, to remember it, journeying to that and using those tools. I mean, we find this too in high-level athletes who are imagining the success that they have, and it makes a difference. And so we have the ability in our mind’s eye to be able to move into the natural world and to be able to connect with it and be with it through what we’ve remembered from the experiences that we’ve had before and connecting to the emotions that are tagged to those memories is a way to be able to allow us to move back into that more parasympathetic state of rest and relaxation rather than fight or flight and allowing the body to be able to drop into those places also potentiates healing.

Dr. Sandi: Absolutely. It’s so powerful. What are some things we could do to bring nature inside if we’re living in an environment where we want to improve it and we want to bring nature in, we want to bring plants. Can you comment on some tips perhaps that people could incorporate into their homes?

Dr. Patrick: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, in terms of plants, bringing those inside, one of the things that I’ve grown to be even more interested in is looking at, well, what are the native plants? What are the plants that live in that area that are from that area that can be incorporated into where you live? We love tropical flowers and some beauty around us, but actually having plants that grow locally and planting them, having them be with you so that you can connect to them, you can literally, as I said before, journey to them and be able to develop a relationship of connection and listen. Because as my teacher Eliot said, if plants can heal as well as acupuncture, local plants can heal a thousand times better because they’re from the world that you’re living in right now. And so being able to bring plants that are indigenous or native to where you live and be able to have them in and around you to be seeing them through the windows or having them in your home or in your dwelling helps you to deepen that connection, because we are a product of the land and the world that we are in, where we’re at locally at that point in time. And so deepening that connection is another form of listening.

And I keep talking about listening and being able to connect to, well, what is the world telling me at this point in time. And it can feel like it’s a mental process but, you know, when it becomes felt in the heart, it’s like, “Oh, wow, there’s a new awareness that I have, and it’s not a conceptual awareness. It’s a felt sense,” that is what we want to help continue to promote and deepen.

Dr. Sandi: Speaking of deepening, what about gardening and growing your own plants? Can you comment on how powerful that is as a process?

Dr. Patrick: It’s powerful, and it’s also an aspect of being able to, again, from the perspective of my teachers, and mentors, and the elders that I’ve worked with across various different cultures and populations is that it’s listening to what are the foods that are normally grown here and how do I connect to the corn, the beans, the squash, the things that many different cultures have worked with over time to be able to connect. Then there’s also the aspect of being able to allow yourself to be connecting to the earth and connecting to the biome of the earth and allowing that as you’ve heard me speak about the microbiome, but I spend more time now talking about the macrobiome and its relationship to the microbiome. And that actually promotes the diversity of expression to occur.

So, in gardening and moving down into being able to regenerate and help support the land and bring it back to allow its diversity to be there and have that diversity of expression of micronutrients being able to move through the plants, which will then feed us and bring us into balance. So, those are also great approaches. And with those plants in your garden, talking to them, letting them know that you’re in relationship. And one of the things that I hear from the farmers that I’ve worked with over time and the people who have grown many gardens is like a third of the food is for me, a third of the food is for the animals, and a third of the food is for the earth, like, recognizing that there’s going to be an interplay. And while the percentages may change at times, it’s not as though like, “This is mine,” rather, “This is part of what I’m growing and it will be of benefit to the earth and it will be a benefit to the animals that are there.” So, again, it’s about how do we find balance in our relationship with the natural world. That’s really what we’re going for.

Dr. Sandi: I’ve heard you talk through IFM about immune function and also about how we can be too clean, too sterile. What would you say, especially to parents who are afraid of nature? They are out in the sun with their kids, and they go copious amounts of sunscreen. They can’t run barefoot. They feel they’re safer if they’re indoors and people are having kids spend more time on screens, for example. They don’t think about just getting out and play like in our day when we would just go outside, and play, and, “See you at dinnertime, kids.” But it’s quite different today. So, what can we do to help people overcome that fear of germs, of that it’s bad, the sun’s dangerous, the light’s dangerous, going out in nature is dangerous, you can get dirty, and that’s not good?

Dr. Patrick: I think some of it is modeling, but it goes back to that word I used before around insulation. If we’re trying to protect ourselves from the world rather than feeling the world, and when we’re feeling the world, we can begin to listen to the world and have a bigger view of what’s going on. In our conceptual mind, it’s very easy to move into polarity. I say that is, sort of, the coin of the realm these days. And to me, that’s an expression of the lack of connection to the natural world and being able to see the nuance, the mutualism, the interrelationship that goes on in the way in which animals, and the plants, and the waters work to feed each other and support each other, and also recognize that there’s a normal cycle through the seasons.

So, one of the things in the course that we talk about is the five phases or what might be called five element theory in Chinese medicine. But the five phases, it’s like, well, spring follows winter, and summer follows spring, and harvest time follows the summer and fruition, and the cooling and autumnal changes follows the harvest. And then there’s the winter. And it happens in that way. And one of the things I have focused on literally through my whole career as a functional medicine doctor is, like, I actually see the functionalist matrix in that way as well. There are specific patterns and relationships that unfold. And being able to work with people to understand if you’re trying to move through a place of fruition but you’re in the winter of your life, it’s difficult to be able to do that. If you’re trying to move into a place of completion but you’re in the spring of your life, you can’t do that. So, how do you listen to where things are at and what the world and your body is telling you to be able to do that? So, coming back to your question, it’s like, well, how do we help to begin to have that change? I think we as parents and grandparents need to model that to be able to help bring our children and our friends’ children and grandchildren out into the world and be able to connect into nature in a way that is open, and playful, and allowing for curiosity and wonder and exploration.

Dr. Sandi: I love that. That is so beautifully said. Patrick, tell us more about this course, how people can find it, and how they may access it, what they will learn in it.

Dr. Dr. Patrick: So, you mentioned that I began to learn this more than 25 years ago from my teacher, Eliot Cowan, and he then brought me and I began to have dreams. And I then followed a pilgrimage path with the Wirikuta people in the Sierra Madres in Mexico. And in their worldview, the blue deer sings the song of the world into existence. And so two years ago, the Blue Deer Center was started in the Catskills in New York. It’s a nonprofit retreat center. I was just there this past weekend, gathering with 25 volunteers to help get things ready for the season. And two years ago, the teacher died and so we want to be able to carry on not only the legacy but what he’s remembered. It’s not that he discovered anything. He just remembered a way in which people are related to plants for a long period of time.

So, we took the knowledge that he shared. We interviewed various kinds of healers like Tieraona Low Dog, herbalist Kat Maier, a sangoma from South Africa, Colin Campbell, Pat McCabe, a Navajo healer in Taos, New Mexico, Sofia… And I always forget Sofia’s last name, I’m embarrassed by that. Sofia Díaz Hernández in Mexico. And we brought them together, and we asked them questions. And then we put together a framework of this on-demand course that people can access. It’s about 10 hours of programming and includes experiential work in terms of journeying to the plant world and journeying to the teacher, journeying to individual plants to learn lessons and be able to understand those aspects of the five phases of fire, earth, metal, water, wood, and how they interrelate with each other and really inform our lives.

So, that course is available through bluedeer.org and is on-demand and people can move through it. If people become interested in deepening and understanding, there is also a path to becoming a healer in that way. But really the key point is about helping people to begin to change their relationship to the natural world and to be able to begin to listen to all the voices and all the people, all the beings that are present in so many different forms.

Dr. Sandi: So beautiful. Well, we’re excited about this course. We will provide the links in the show notes. And where can people find you personally?

Dr. Patrick: Well, they can find me a couple different ways. A lot of it right now is through bluedeer.org. I’m the chair of the board there. I spend a lot of time focused on that, continue to do consulting and working with people through familytofamily.org. That’s our clinical practice here in Asheville, North Carolina. I say we, that includes my wife Lisa who we’ve been partners on this path for a long time.

Dr. Sandi: Well, we wish you the best of luck in this new course and your mission. And of course you are a regular contributor as our faculty at FMCA, our new course in functional nutrition. So, I want to thank you for being on Health Coach Talk. And, again, all of the information is in the show notes for listeners. Thank you.

Dr. Patrick: Thank you so much, Sandi.