The science of a body’s self-healing
It has been eight years since South African-born doctor and Wits University medical graduate Dr Summeiya Omar started her functional medicine practice in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
Aptly named the Optimum Health Centre, the practice has grown steadily, mostly through patients’ word of mouth.
Her innovative approach blends functional medicine, also known as integrative medicine, with the Unani-Tibb system — an Arabic-Greek medical system developed by Arabic physicians, notably the philosopher-scientist Ibn Sina in the 11th century. The system has its roots in the Greek philosophers Hippocrates and Galen.
The key principle in Unani-Tibb is that the body is capable of healing itself and maintaining optimum health and balance. The underlying concept is that the body is made up of the four natural elements — fire, water, air and earth — and it has a specific temperament — hot or cold, wet or dry — and various combinations of these.
For example, hot and dry people are generally lean and busy, with an A-type personality. This type of temperament is called bilious, and people will become imbalanced if they are too stressed, don’t sleep enough, drink alcohol or smoke.
They manifest problems including headaches, acne, ulcers, haemorrhoids and adrenal stress. Treatments include eating cooling foods and drinking cool water or milk, as well as relaxing exercises, massages, yoga, dealing with the causes of stress and getting sufficient sleep.
Cold and moist types of people usually have more body fat, tend to tire easily and have an accommodating personality. This body type is called phlegmatic. They will become imbalanced if they eat too much, sleep too much and are exposed to the cold. They tend to get diabetes, chesty colds and flu, and hypothyroidism.
To rebalance, this type of patient needs to eat spicy foods, eliminate cold salads and cold water, regulate sleep and do cardiovascular exercise.
“Our clientele are mostly women between the ages of 30 and 60, experiencing a combination of fatigue, weight gain, labile moods, erratic periods and low libido. Most of the time they have been prescribed anti-depressants like Prozac, but their bodies are simply out of balance,” Omar explains.
To diagnose patients and determine the root cause of illness, she notes patients’ histories and does a physical examination. She measures their wellness parameters, mostly with thorough blood tests that show levels of hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and cortisol.
“The adrenals can reveal signs of stress, fatigue or burnout; the pancreas signs of insulin resistance; and the thyroid clues to a sluggish metabolism,” Omar explains. She also looks for signs of inflammation — the root cause of degeneration — and cardiovascular and cancer risk factors.
She then designs a wellness programme that includes lifestyle modification and a prescription of natural products, vitamins, nutraceuticals and bioidentical hormones. “In this way we can restore the body’s balance,” she says.
Omar says the results speak for themselves: “95% of the time, we are getting the results we want: people feeling well again. It’s a fulfilling place to be.”
But she wanted to help the other 5% of her patients, so she opened the Royal Marouni Spa at her Optimum Health Centre.
“Some patients need to be detoxed — emotionally, physically or both. They have been eating the wrong foods, smoking and drinking excessively, or mentally holding on to thoughts and resentments that are not serving them. The accumulated toxins tend to store in various organ systems,” Omar says.
For these patients, she prescribes a week-long detox including mud wraps, massages, colon cleanses, intermittent fasting and a cleansing diet of green juices and vegetables.
“We have to clean out the toxicity before adding the ‘good stuff’, and only then can the body start healing.”
Omar’s holistic approach to medicine was first inspired by her father, Dr Abdul Gani Omar. He was orphaned when he was six months old and had a tough upbringing in Vrededorp in Johannesburg. After the apartheid government’s forced removals, he moved to Lenasia.
“I think my father has had the greatest influence in my life. He had all the makings of a victim but not only did he overcome his circumstances, he was always so empowering, charismatic and kind,” she says.
“He had trained to be a homeopath whilst working for an encyclopaedia company in London. Unfortunately, homeopathy in the 1970s in SA was a relatively new concept, so to earn a living and support his family he ventured into business,” Omar points out.
Her father had a shop selling incense, kaftans, handicrafts and spices from India at the Oriental Plaza. In the back he had all sorts of lotions, potions and herbs. Omar recalls how people went to the shop to consult him, and emerged with happy smiles on their faces.
“When I started having my own children, my father would advise me on what to do to overcome minor ailments the natural way.
“He also planted the seed in my mind, from a young age, to become a doctor,” Omar adds.
She was also inspired by her older sister Fatima, whose second child, Tariq, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. A doctor told her the boy would be wheelchair-bound for life. Fatima travelled the world learning about alternative medicines and systems of healing. Tariq eventually learned to walk with calipers and attended a public school in Toronto, Canada.
Omar’s experience of the wider world began at the age of 12 when her father moved the family to Canada because he wanted his children to grow up in a free society.
In 1987, when she was 19, her parents insisted she return to SA to start her university studies. She was accepted at Wits University for a BSc degree.
“Wits was a hotbed of political uprising. Every week we had the apartheid police on campus, and invariably we would be dodging rubber bullets and tear-gas during the day and at night we lived at jazz clubs — Kippies at the market theatre, Jameson’s downtown, and Rockafellas in Yeoville,” Omar recalls.
“When it was time to study, it was time to study,” she recalls.
“I loved the academic discussions and question sessions with students and professors on grand ward rounds.”
After graduating with her medical degree in 1994, she worked as an intern at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. This experience had a profound effect on her outlook. “Suddenly, I had this title to my name and I had the serious responsibility of dealing with people at the end of their lives. It was time to grow up,” she says.
“Gunshot wounds, knife wounds and burns were a common sight, particularly on weekends and at month end. You cannot be unaffected by the somewhat macabre, surreal experience in a hospital like Bara. It made me start asking many existential questions — that’s when my own spiritual awakening began.”
The Road Less Travelled by M Scott Peck led her to the realisation that life was sacred and that many people had disconnected from their humanity and lost track of their purpose.
She also read books on Zen Buddhism and mysticism, among other faiths and ideas. She eventually reconnected with the faith in which she had been raised — Islam — and found inner peace and tranquillity.
At the age of 26, Omar met her Zimbabwean-born husband, Rehman Hassim. They married and she relocated to Zimbabwe in 1997.
She worked in the public healthcare system at Harare and Parirenyatwa hospitals for two years before taking time off to raise her children.
She preferred to give her children herbal medicines when they were ill, despite prescribing traditional medicine as a doctor. “It was an ethical dilemma that really gnawed at me. I was searching for answers and Unani-Tibb medicine seemed to have them,” Omar says.
When the economic and political uncertainty grew in Zimbabwe she moved back to Joburg in 2004 and studied towards becoming a Tibb practitioner under Prof Rashid Bhikha, founder of Be-Tabs Pharmaceuticals and the Ibn Sina Institute of Tibb. She then worked alongside a naturopath in a private practice in Joburg.
“It was a wonderful experience using the Tibb method. We were able to diagnose patients just by observation, pulse and tongue analysis. We also used techniques such as cupping therapy — a treatment which involves applying a vacuum cup to remove impurities and inflammation to rebalance the body,” Omar says.
“It’s one of the best treatments for headaches. The best part was that we were able to realign the body with herbal medicines and not pharmaceutical agents.
“However, I felt I was moving too far away from the medicine that I knew, but I eventually stumbled upon a new approach that combined the wisdom of the old while using the science of today.”
Regenerative and integrative or functional medicine made it possible to combine her Wits medical training with her knowledge and experience as a Tibb practitioner. In 2007 she wrote the American board exams in Malaysia and sat for oral exams in Dubai to qualify as a board certified anti-ageing and regenerative practitioner through the American Association of Anti-Aging Medicine.
Feeling burnt out from the pressures of running a practice, studying and raising three children alone in Johannesburg, she moved back to Harare in 2010 and made the decision to establish the Optimum Health Centre, the first and only functional medical centre in Zimbabwe.
Working with her are Dr Tapfumaneyi Mushekwi, a general practitioner with special interest in paediatrics; CrossFit personal trainer Justin Marabini; chiropractor Emily Njagu and the Royal Marouni Spa for detox, relaxation and pampering.
Omar’s patients come from all over Zimbabwe, SA, Zambia, Mozambique, Dubai and England. Many come to Harare for a first consultation and she conducts follow-up consultations via Skype. She ships healing products when necessary.
“The majority of noncommunicable diseases are lifestyle related. Many people are so accustomed to an unhealthy lifestyle that they really battle with compliance, so it’s best to start small and be consistent,” she says.
Her view is if people adopt a simple and healthy lifestyle, it will be a life-long investment that will reap enormous benefits. Her one-sentence recipe for a healthy life is universally achievable: “exercise, eat healthy, get sufficient rest and eliminate emotional baggage”.