They’re a key to good health, according to Dr. Robert Abel, a pioneering vision specialist, nutrition expert, author and educator who will speak at Wilmington University as part of its Speaker Series on Nov. 10.
If he’s not traveling to India, Nepal, Mexico, Brazil, the Middle East or Europe on diplomatic or medical missions, Abel is writing books like “The Eye Care Revolution,” as well as fiction and non-fiction for adults and children. Or he is teaching locally and internationally on subjects such as the cornea, cataracts and nutrition. Or he is patenting artificial cornea techniques, or creating a vitamin company and a website — eyeadvisory.com — dedicated to total wellness.
And then there are his most important roles: husband and father of three married children and grandfather of two grandchildren.
A practicing ophthalmologist in the Wilmington area since 1974, Abel has performed more than 17,000 eye surgeries and helped found three eye banks. Now 71 (“the new 50,” he says), he continues to see patients three days a week.
Not surprisingly, Abel believes the eyes are a major key to good health. “Many years ago,” he says, “through my studies, I realized that, aside from cataracts, everything that happens to the eyes has a systemic foundation.”
That realization led this student of life back to college to educate himself about the connection between vision and health. “In 1984, I started taking nutrition courses at the University of Delaware. The courses gave me the opportunity to learn biochemistry again, and I realized that the eye is a biochemical workshop.”
With that prelude, Abel is off on a tutorial about the eye and its relationship to overall health: “The eye is a bag of water with two lenses; those two lenses focus light onto the retina, which is a carpet of receptors that picks up the image and sends electrical signals through the optic nerve to the brain. Forty percent of the brain is devoted to what goes through your eyes, so vision is paramount.
“All the nutrition for the eye is in the liver. So if you walk this pathway backwards, you find the liver is the central organ of the body; everything you eat goes through the liver. It’s stored, transported and excreted through the liver.”
After his studies at UD, Abel began to focus more on nutrition and diet. But the genesis for that focus can really be traced back about 25 years, when he began practicing Tai-Chi. Originated in China, Tai-Chi is a self-healing system of slow, graceful exercises that combine movement, meditation and rhythmic breathing to improve the flow of “chi,” which is thought to prevent illness and improve well-being.
Abel was introduced to the art at a medical meeting. “They gave a free hour of Tai-Chi. I took it, and even though I was rather awkward at it, that day everything went right. I solved one problem that I had, then went on to deal with the next, and the next. About six weeks later, I was home on a Saturday morning and had nothing to do and I said, I should be doing this. I called up someone listed under yoga and found a Tai-Chi teacher, and I began to study under him.”
Abel has continued to do the exercises, at first with a teacher and now on his own. He calls it “both a physical and a mental martial art,” and although he claims he has “plateaued” because he no longer has a teacher, he’s learned much from the exercises.
“Physically, you learn to respond to something in a balanced style. The same thing applies mentally: In responding to an issue, you don’t react impulsively, you react with consideration.”
Tai-Chi eventually led him to the study of herbal medicines and supplements. For the past 20 years, he has worked with an herbalist and has adopted a variety of natural approaches to disease management. He also co-founded the alternative medicine curriculum at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University, where he formerly was a clinical professor of ophthalmology.
Abel has learned that physicians, while they may be extremely skilled in their profession, know little about nutrition. “My older son went through medical school and had a total of three hours of nutrition classes,” he says.
Through speeches and presentations to both lay groups and medical conferences, he emphasizes the importance not only of nutrition, but of a total healthy lifestyle. He creates aphorisms and slogans to help convey his message. For example, he invented the acronym NEWBARS: nutrition, exercise, water, breathing, alternative solutions, relaxation and socialization/spirituality.
“NEWBARS is a daily act,” Abel writes in his Eye Advisory blog, “with items in the seven categories that are specific to only us. These might be avoiding over-consumption at each meal, adding more green leafy vegetables, stretching twice daily or just simply breathing deeply in order to briefly extinguish our mental chatter. We all need to find balance in our external and internal lives. We create our own barriers and therefore the solutions require insight, intention and implementation.”
Abel will discuss his theories about the pursuit of wellness at Wilmington University on Tuesday, Nov. 10, in a speech sponsored by the College of Health Professions. Dr. Lori S. Irelan, assistant professor in the college’s nurse practitioner program and Georgetown Campus liaison, heartily agrees with Abel that physicians lack knowledge about nutrition.
“Good nutrition is often the missing ingredient in the prescription for wellness,” says Irelan, whose doctoral research focused on this problem.
“We know that an estimated 70 percent of all diseases, including one-third of all cancers, are related to diet,” she says. “Yet patients are given medication instead of education about choosing a good diet. This disconnect occurs because healthcare providers are not taught about nutrition in their curriculum and often feel inept, in turn, to teach their patients about it. Since we are taught more about pills, that is the route that is typically chosen.”
She calls cancer, the second leading cause of death in the U. S., “a fruit and vegetable deficiency disease,” adding that 337 studies from the National Cancer Institute show this correlation.
“My favorite video “is ‘Up-rooting the Leading Causes of Death,’ by Dr. Michael Greger, of Cornell University,” she says. “It shows the links to poor nutrition in the top 10 causes of death in the U. S. I encourage everyone to go to YouTube and watch it.”
Abel’s speech will cover not only nutrition, but total “harmony of the body,” he says. “I plan to relate simple principles,” he says. “For instance, you need to both stretch and exercise; you need to look at diet, and you need to understand that some things you’ve heard may not be true. For instance, ‘fat is bad for you.’ That’s based on a faulty premise, but it has become an industry. Also, cholesterol can be bad for you, but we are a little too vigorous in the way we treat it.”
He recommends eating organic, local and seasonal food. “I know it’s expensive,” he says, “but it’s a goal.”
When it comes to water, Abel insists that it be filtered. “The chlorine in our water knocks the iodine off of the thyroid hormone, and hypothyroidism is endemic.”
As for exercise, “I’ll show the audience how to breathe. I’ll actually have them stand up and take a breath.” He says everyone should do that first thing in the morning.
“Clearing your lungs in the morning is really helpful; otherwise you just have this tidal breathing, and stuff collects down there.”
Many people claim they don’t have time to work out. For them, Abel recommends a few simple exercises. Tops on his list is the plank. It’s a core strengthener in which you lie face down on the floor, place your elbows and forearms underneath your chest, and prop yourself up on your toes and forearms to form a bridge while keeping your back straight. Maintain the position for as long as you can without allowing your hips to sag toward the floor.
“Anybody can do the plank for 10 seconds, and then 12 seconds, and so on,” Abel says.
He emphasizes that strengthening the core — “not just pumping iron”— is critical in terms of total body health.
Stretching becomes more important as we age, he says. “If you don’t stretch, you shrink with age. When an older person falls, he or she breaks a hip or a wrist; a younger person gets a bruise. That’s because the older person’s tendons have become like steel and the bone has gotten thinner, and instead of the tendon going, the bone goes. Whereas if you stretch every morning you will keep your tendons flexible.”
Stretching your back is especially important, he says, and stretching the wrists will help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.
At the end of his speech, Abel says, “I want the audience to be able to talk to their doctors with the knowledge that they know more about themselves than anyone else, including their doctor. I want them to take matters into their own hands, especially about diet, physical health, and memory and cognitive function. Cognitive decline doesn’t have to be significant. For instance, meditation can help, and you can do it in as little as 20 seconds. There are simple things I want to give people to control more aspects of their lives.”
Abel, who works out with a personal trainer, is a testament to his teachings. He is spry and trim, weighing the same as he did when he was a sophomore in college. And his zest for life remains unabated. “My blood type is A-positive,” he says, “just like my attitude.” WU