How My Dermatologist Transformed My Diet, My Mental Health, And My Wellbeing

It’s no secret in New York City: dietary needs are at peak consideration. If you are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, or anything in between, there is a restaurant, food truck, or dedicated menu just for you. As a previous member of the “I’ll eat anything” tribe, I used to pride myself on the fact I could—and would—eat anything (duck hearts, alligator, guinea pig…).

The fact that, more often than not, what I ate didn’t agree with me afterwards never seemed to phase me. Nor did I ever consider that my years-long struggle with anxiety could be connected to my diet or anything other than an internal chemical imbalance that was my genetic lot in life. Then, research started to make the social media waves that your gut played a crucial role in mental health. “Leaky gut” can cause and maintain inflammation in the body, leading to depression and anxiety. Suddenly, the thought dawned on me: if anxiety, depression and low energy are linked to inflammation, maybe I could treat these concerns by focusing on treating inflammation—starting in the gut.

To do this, I visited Dr. Russak at her Manhattan office, Russak Dermatology and Russak+ Aesthetic Center. She has developed, with the assistance of her team and a seasoned lab technician, a service that tests for a range of food sensitivities, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, in addition to levels of cortisol and heavy metals in a patient’s system. It’s called The Comprehensive Wellness Analysis. Through these tests, Dr. Russak can better understand what daily habits, products, or foods are not agreeing with your body, causing inflammation and other concerns.

Testing for food sensitivities at a dermatology practice? It’s a service that seems more at home in a nutritionist’s office, but the doctor explained that it’s a perfect—and, more importantly, necessary—companion to the practice’s other treatments.

“In developing our new clinical spa, Russak+ Aesthetic Center,” Dr. Russak said, “we wanted to make it a place that specializes in addressing our overall skin and wellbeing. Since our skin is our body’s largest organ and is a refection of what happens within, it only seemed fitting to ensure the body is in balance internally to alleviate concerns manifesting outwardly.”

I was excited to get started. The first appointment consisted of testing and filling out forms detailing yours and your family’s health history. You’ll have blood work taken and then—there’s the hair sample. A short sample of hair will be taken from the back of your head to test for cortisol levels, unless your hair is chemically treated—then hair from your head won’t work. Chemically treated hair includes dyed, chemically straightened, permed, or bleached hair. What’s a gal with a keratin treatment to do? Well, (beware, reader, TMI approaching) you can grow out your pubic hair before the appointment and snip off a tablespoon’s amount that day in the office. And, yes, that is exactly what I did. Only thing left for me to do was wait two and a half weeks for the follow-up appointment with Dr. Russak to discuss the results of my testing.

Two and a half weeks later, I sat in Dr. Russak’s office filled with anticipation. Would I learn something surprising or would no great discoveries be made through this experience? I was ready to find out. Dr. Russak entered the room holding a thick folder and sat down across from me, smiling. “I think what we found will answer a lot of your questions,” she said. Was she reading my mind?

Dr. Russak walked me though packets of the Comprehensive Wellness Analysis’ findings, explaining what the numbers and colored symbols meant. First up, my food intolerance report. I was highly sensitive to many of the foods I ate on a daily basis. I’m a creature of habit so when I find a meal I like, I tend to make it every day until I’m physically incapable of stomaching it anymore (and that can take years). As it turns out, we can develop sensitivities to food if we eat them too often. A diverse diet is a healthy one and I was making myself sick by sticking to the same meal plan, never switching it up. Egg whites from my reliably low-cal egg white omelet breakfast, apples and peanuts from my favorite sweet but filling snack, and dairy, any kind of dairy, were all revealed as foods that I was highly intolerant to.

All right, so now I know I’m not doing my body any favors by eating these foods. But what I wanted to know was what could happen to me if I continue to eat them (I love cheese. How could I give up cheese?).

“Unaddressed food sensitivities can cause a number of ailments,” she answered. “These reactions are characterized by the production of IgG antibodies and the gradual formation of antigen/antibody complexes, which are deposited in tissues causing chronic inflammation. They are responsible for the ‘delayed-onset’ of symptoms, which can occur several hours or days after foods are ingested. Symptoms include anxiety, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches/migraines, fatigue, hypertension, eczema, acne, asthma, joint pain, chronic rhinitis, arthritis, weight problems and fibromyalgia.” Conclusion: better to stay away from foods you are sensitive to.

Would I ever be able to eat cheese again? “It is possible to eliminate the offending food from the diet for a short period of time and then gradually re-introduce them when symptoms have improved,” she reassured me. There was hope yet!

Next, we went through my vitamin and mineral report. Here was where the testing had found something wholly eye-opening. My magnesium levels were well, well below normal and my sodium to magnesium levels were also far from normal. In addition, the test revealed a very fast metabolic profile. Combined, Dr. Russak explained, these findings directly pointed to my anxiety.

“Magnesium regulates calmness. If it’s low, you’ll have more allergic reactions, fatigue, and skin allergies like eczema, dermatitis, and inflammation. When sodium to magnesium levels are off balance, you’ll experience more feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety.” How did a fast metabolic profile contribute to this amalgam of anxiety and depression contributors? Dr. Russak went on to tell me how I needed even more magnesium than the average person because my body metabolizes it so quickly. Wow. An hour of getting blood taken and snipping off tufts of pubes was already paying off.

Thankfully, Dr. Russak doesn’t just reveal problems; she comes prepared with solutions. The thick folder she entered the room with contained everything I needed to leave the appointment armed and ready to change my lifestyle and improve my health. The Comprehensive Wellness Analysis Patient Guidebook is, well, extremely comprehensive. It hits upon a wide range of health aspects, explaining what lifestyle habits cause them to not function properly and the ways you can help your body work at its best. From regulating insulin and maintaining gut health, to protecting collagen proteins and the necessity of adequate sleep, this little book breaks down the many ways we have control over our own wellness. The Food Intolerance Guidebook is your roadmap to your new diet. Dr. Russak’s team customizes this to the results of your testing, listing the foods that you are sensitive to, what you food items to avoid because they might contain them (I needed to avoid cake, pancakes, and other bakery items because they are all made with eggs), and alternatives to those risky foods so your diet is never lacking. Additionally, Juliet Cavallaro, the Practice Director, who spearheaded the development of this service after going through her own life-changing wellness journey, is well-versed in nutritional counseling and able to address any questions that arise post-testing.

Finally, Dr. Russak drew up my Treatment, Supplement & Nutritional Plan. She detailed the supplements I would be taking, the foods I needed to remove from my diet, the ones I should add, and my fitness and sleep goals. After this in-depth meeting, I left Russak+ armed with the knowledge I needed to change my diet and lifestyle to achieve my specific health goals. Now, I just needed to commit.

And commit I did. Following the plan that had been drawn up, I began taking daily magnesium, and calcium supplements, and replaced the newly discovered offending foods with delicious substitutes. Breakfast omelets became fruit and granola bowls, an apples and peanut butter snack became carrots and hummus, cheese, ice cream, and creamy dishes became… no more. The results were immediate. Just from removing the foods I was sensitive to, my stomach felt more at ease after every meal and bloating decreased. It was a revelation. My skin was clearing up. Breakouts on my cheeks started to subside. I began to wear foundation without concealer.

Within a few weeks, I started to notice a change in mood. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to take steps to relieve my anxiety because—in the midst of researching for this article (i.e. sticking to the treatment plan)—I was knee-deep in wedding planning. Oh, one of our vendors (whom we already sent a deposit to) is no longer responding to phone calls or email? I can handle this. For planning a wedding in just a few months, I was fielding compliments left and right about what a calm bride I was. A stressful process that would have normally left me feeling weighed down with anxiety was being handled with confidence and vigor. There was a clear difference that I couldn’t deny. My gut, my anxiety, and my wellness were better than ever.

The results and plan from Russak’s Comprehensive Wellness Analysis are not a like a juice cleanse where you go on it for a few days every time you want a flatter stomach or health boost. No, the knowledge you take away from this treatment will shape a lifestyle overhaul. Once you realize that daily discomfort does not have to be your norm and that increased energy and reduced inflammation are possible, you’ll find it’s easy to make the lasting changes necessary to feel your best. It’s simple now for me to say “no thank you” to ice cream. I know the gastrointestinal discomfort and face full of breakouts later on will not be worth it. Being able to get through a day without coffee and feeling capable of taking on any stress is all the evidence I need to continue taking my supplements, stay dedicated to a food sensitivity-free diet, and commit to meeting my physical activity goals. Holistically, the plan gave me more tools to address my health concerns with targeted knowledge than anything before.

During my progress appointment with Dr. Russak, I let her know the changes I had seen and the happiness I felt since I finally had a real grasp of these longstanding issues. It wasn’t the first time she had this type of reaction in her office. “Many patients are interested in learning more about their bodies,” she said. “They know sometimes they don’t feel right but aren’t sure what triggers it. Some are at their wits end and can’t understand why they suddenly are in a fog all the time, are holding onto weight, suddenly losing their hair or cannot get a handle on their skin conditions.” Clearly, the positive possibilities of knowing more about your body are endless.

Gathering my things, I asked when she realized she had developed a remarkable treatment for her patients. Dr. Russak answered easily. “I knew we were doing something truly impactful when we received patient testimonial letters about how it changed their lives for the better. At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about.” With another passionate testimony to add to the list, I’m glad impacting lives is what Dr. Russak is all about.

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Gloria loves to share her experiences with our community. This is what happened when she got a Clear & Brilliant resurfacing treatment, and when she got lip fillers. Dr. Russak is also a regular contributor—here she details the best treatments for those of us in our 30s and 40s.

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