Dr Benjamin Asher is an ENT like no other, with strong views on reflux, steroid use and the importance of holistic healing. He spoke to LINE HILTON.
Before studying medicine, Dr Benjamin Asher taught meditation which perhaps explains his unique perspective on holistic health.
For 30 years the highly regarded physician has used conventional medicine and alternative methods to treat ENT disorders.
He has also extensively studied cranial osteopathy, hypnosis, myofascial therapy, Feldenkrais and the Alexander Technique.
Dr Asher is based in New York, where he works with many professional singers and actors, and has served as house physician for the New York City Opera.
Why did you become an ENT surgeon?
I was a meditation teacher and thought if I became a physician, I could get more people to meditate. I never actually thought western medicine was very good – it’s particularly bad for chronic illness. I thought I would be a surgeon because it’s technical and you can fix something.
I trained at the University of Iowa, which has the best ENT programme in the US. It’s about an hour away from Maharishi University so I spent time down there too.
I’ve always looked at medicine from a mind, body, spirit perspective and that has deepened as I’ve gone along. My experience as a physician is showing me more and more that the aspect of consciousness can’t be overlooked. It’s probably the most important part of it all.
Your approach very much focuses on holistic health. Can you explain that from an ENT viewpoint?
The general attitude among many laryngologists is that the vocal cords are just these two vibrating slabs of meat. They [ENTs] just look at the strobe and the vibration. In my opinion it’s an incomplete look because it’s not connected to what the person is and who they are. You can strobe 50 people who are in Broadway shows and they will all have different degrees of irregularities and/or pathology of their vocal cords. Yet some people are doing great and some people aren’t. Why is this? Why are some people having problems with those nodules and some people aren’t?
You talk about the importance of immune function. What are some of the lifestyle factors that hinder our immune system?
Diet is a big factor – sugar does have a big impact on your immune function. Not getting appropriate amounts of sleep and smoking cigarettes are also issues.
In my opinion – and there is no scientific evidence for it, but I know empirically it works so I consider it a fundamental truth – a big factor in terms of the immune system is the micro-biome and what is growing in the gut. Being on lots of antibiotics and steroids has a big impact on the immune system as it results in yeast over-growth in the gut.
I put all my patients with chronic sinusitis on a yeast treatment protocol, and 75 to 80% of those people are so much better. They will never have surgery and their sinus problems go away.
If I have a person coming to me for treatment who is getting sick a lot, I treat them for yeast.
What is your view on prescribing steroids to a singer?
The system is rigged against singers. No one would ask a multi-million-dollar athlete to perform when they are injured or impaired in any way. But that’s what happens to singers.
To add to this, artists generally have low self-worth. They’re at the whims of their producers and everybody else. There is a tendency for artists to do something unhealthy to themselves so that they can get up on stage and do what they need to do. It’s counterproductive. You cannot get away with using steroids over and over again without doing harm to your system.
There is also the issue of your relationship with your body. To treat it in such an unloving, unkind way has some deeper, subtle energetic effect. I’m not saying that I will never give a steroid to a singer, but I will always explain that I don’t think it’s a good idea.
What are your thoughts on reflux and the singer?
A lot of people rant and rave about reflux. It does exist but it’s over-diagnosed. If you go to a laryngologist and you’re having any vocal trouble, you’ll get a medicine for reflux.
Thankfully I think people are a little less inclined these days to push the medicines on people, although they still do. The medicines – and I’ve always said this – are terrible for you. There are some very serious adverse effects associated with taking proton pump inhibitors long term, including the risk of dying younger.
If someone does have reflux, the question is: why? And how are you going to treat it? People who have reflux, don’t have too much stomach acid. But the treatment is to shut down stomach acid production. You need to ask: what can you do for a person who has reflux? Are you going to look further downstream to see if they have problems in their GI tract?
The problem is everybody thinks they’re going to get a pill and that will resolve the problem. No one is looking at the bigger picture.
What general health advice would you give singers?
People who don’t want to get sick a lot should take some sort of immune boosting substance. I like ImmunoKinoko AHCC which is a mushroom derived supplement. It’s a potent immune booster. I take it myself and recommend it to all my patients.
It’s also critical to work regularly with a good voice teacher. A lot of singers come in and have never had any voice training at all and they’re the ones that are in the worst trouble. They don’t have any technique to fall back on if there is a problem.
Also, if you’re not well, you shouldn’t perform. Don’t feel the pressure. I say to my patients: “You need to look after yourself because if you don’t, a small problem can become a big problem fast.”
What should a singer look for in a voice coach?
I look for people who are teaching people to relax the supraglottis, that is relax all the muscles above so that you’re not overblowing. You need to have some system for that. I like David Jones, who is a voice teacher in the city. I use him or some of his students. He knows people all around the world and can recommend good people.
For actors I look for Linklater teachers; I think that Kristin Linklater has a good approach for reducing vocal tension.
What else would you like to change about people’s perceptions about health and well-being?
I gave a talk entitled “Evolving from fear into love, a new medical paradigm”. To my mind that tells the whole story. It’s about how fear permeates our medical system. It’s the reason why people think illness is a punishment and often see it as a sign of failure.
What I work in, really, is the field of love. I’m not talking about romantic love. I’m talking about an energy field, it’s the fabric of which everything is made. My desire is to bring that into the world of medicine. My experience is that illness is basically the fact that we’re separated from that – and not really knowing who we are.
I don’t believe affirmations are helpful. Affirmations create a polarity and if you’re trying to affirm something it means that deep down you’re feeling the opposite way. You can’t ignore the shadow stuff. People need to have a way of working with their challenging emotions rather than just trying to let them go.