Naturopathic doctors are trained to see and treat patients holistically, but one future ND is looking deeper by delving into an individual’s family medical history.
Michael Smith, a third-year naturopathic medical student, is currently working on a community education project focused on the intersection between genealogy and medicine.
Smith will present his findings next week at RootsTech Connect, the largest family history conference in the world. This year’s event, to be held virtually on March 3-5, 2022, spans more than 1,000 class sessions about genealogy research, DNA ancestry testing, preserving memories, and more. Keynote addresses will be shared from Food Network’s Molly Yeh, Palestinian comedian and actress Maysoon Zayid, African boxing champion Azumah Nelson, Argentine singer Diego Torres, actor Matthew Modine, French baker Apollonia Poilâne, and many others. Registration for this virtual event is free for anyone to join.
Michael Smith (He/Him)
• Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM), Class of 2023
• Master of Science in Biomedical Science, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, 2019
• President, NUNM Student Government Association (SGA), 2020-21
• Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
Smith pre-recorded a 20-minute presentation titled “Researching Ancestral and Family Health History.” In it, he teaches about various aspects of family medical history, why it is important, the types of records where health history information can be found, and how to analyze records for contextual clues on the health and life experiences of ancestors.
“Family sickness, chronic disease, what your ancestors died from – I take all those genealogical details into account and weave them into a patient’s story,” Smith said. “We all have a story we’ve inherited, events from the past 30, 50, 80 years … As a naturopathic doctor, I can look at the roots of a person’s health, combined with a current health snapshot, and then help the patient write the best future chapter of their life that they can.”
Smith cites research showing the benefits of family connections and health outcomes. For example, in 2013, New York Times columnist Bruce Feller wrote about the benefits of children knowing their family stories. He also references work done by professors at Emory University who saw this demonstrated in research with teenagers.
Connecting Naturopathy to Family Medical History
Smith, who grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, found personal strength and resiliency in his life while researching his family history during the early days of the pandemic.
“It was during Covid, January 2020, when I got the idea to start researching my family ancestry on a daily basis,” Smith said. “I set a New Year’s resolution to do a little every day, just to connect some time every day with my family. What it did was: A) Help me get through the initial mental isolation challenges that Covid brought, and B) it also gave me resilience to keep going through school, because medical school is not easy. I realized I love doing family history, and I’m in medical school, so why not bring them together?”
Smith’s presentation will fulfill the community engagement component required of naturopathic medical students. Presenting his research into how genealogy can factor into the practice of naturopathic medicine has the potential to reach a global audience.
“The community education piece has allowed me to share my interest in genealogy with other people and explain what naturopathic medicine is,” Smith said.
The inspiration for Smith’s research is the therapeutic order, the naturopathic philosophy usually visualized as a pyramid.
“We start on the foundations of health, addressing structural integrity issues, or other parts of our health that may be off. Ultimately, we climb up the order, with pharmaceuticals or surgery at the very top. Ideally all of that comes after we focus on the foundation,” Smith said. “As I’ve been learning and applying these principles in treatment plans and classes, I’ve really been emphasizing going to the root cause – what is really going on here? I’m interested in the experiences of a patient before they even come to us, what have they experienced in their life, and what their family has experienced.”
Naturopathy for the Next Generation
Another inspiration for Smith’s research is the field of functional genomics, which pertains to using DNA tests to create an outline of a person’s genes. This outline can help explain why someone has high levels of dopamine, for instance; essentially, how someone is programmed genetically to act in a certain way.
“Based on genomic information, we can optimize a patient’s health by prescribing natural supplements or lifestyle changes – that’s where I see my journey with genetics going. I’m not so interested in the ancestral part of DNA as much as the functional genomic part, applying it to one’s health leading to better health outcomes,” Smith said.
As president of NUNM’s Student Government Association (SGA) from 2020 to 2021, Smith has encouraged current and prospective students to chart their own path in natural medicine, as he has done.
“When I talk with incoming or prospective students, one thing I always say is that there are so many opportunities at NUNM to pursue what you want – whether it’s point-of-care ultrasound, botanicals, homeopathy, or musculoskeletal medicine. … I’m interested in all those subjects which are part of the naturopathic program, but for me my passion is the intersection of family history, genealogy, and natural medicine, and this is my opportunity to share that with people,” Smith said.
Hope for the future of health care is also a driving force behind Smith’s research.
“No matter where we’ve been, our ancestry, where our heritage comes from, we can seek to change and strive to be better and improve on the past. We’re all descended from imperfect people, our genetics and lifestyles may not be everything we might hope for, but we can find healing – and that comes through understanding who we are and who we came from,” Smith said.
“As we understand the story of our family, and of our own lives, we can take a snapshot of our health and then write the future chapters of our story. And if it’s done right, with the help and guidance of naturopaths, we can keep moving forward.”
To watch Smith’s presentation at the RootsTech Connect virtual conference, register for free at rootstech.org.