Dr. Alexander Shikhman

Get to know Dr. Alexander Shikhman. As the founder of Institute for Specialized Medicine, Dr. Shikhman answers some more personal questions about how he became interested in medicine, how he made his way to the United States, and why he started his own practice.

How did you first become interested in medicine?
My personal journey into the world of medicine started quite early. I was born in the Soviet Union, a country that does not exist anymore. Despite the major brainwash that all of us experienced as children, the education system in the former USSR was an excellent one. Our teachers taught us very high ethical standards and were capable of predicting who we would become in our adult life. Luckily for me, my first teacher in elementary school told me that I must become a doctor. Being an obedient student, I took that advice very seriously, which predetermined my profession.

When I was in high school, I came across a book called Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. I finished the book within one day, and read it several times again. I became fascinated by the world of immunology and infectious diseases. It was then that I decided that if I became a physician, I would focus my practice and research on these two areas of medicine.

I entered medical school in Moscow when I was just 16 years of age. At the age of 17, I started working in an immunology laboratory. I became fascinated by the interplay of infection, autoimmunity, and tumorigenesis. I became more and more interested in the nature and management of chronic illnesses—the most challenging of modern medicine. I chose rheumatology as my specialty because it focuses on the management of chronic illnesses and is based on the crossroads of immunology, autoimmunity, internal medicine, and infectious diseases.

We know you have your MD, but many people may not know you also have your PhD in immunology. How did that come about?
Before becoming a full time clinician, I dedicated most of my initial post-graduate time to researching the connection between chronic infections and rheumatic diseases. This resulted in my PhD in immunology at age 27.

How did you come to the United States?
I came to the United States in 1991 for my residency and continued studying the interplay between infection and autoimmunity at the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center with Dr. Madeleine Cunningham. I also entered their internal medicine internship and residency where I had the privilege to work with some of the brightest rheumatologists at that time: Drs. Morris Reichlin, John B. Harley, and Samuel Olenick.

How did you come to make the connection of foods as a trigger of illness?
My professional journey into the world of food as a trigger of human illnesses started in the late 90s when I started practicing rheumatology at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, CA.

Most of my day was spent at The Scripps Research Institute, and my long evening hours were dedicated to patient care in the clinic. During one of the evenings, I consulted a patient with debilitating psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. He could barely walk, and his skin, including his face and hands, were completely covered with active psoriatic lesions.

The unusualness of the consultation was due to his religious beliefs; he declined my offers of traditional medical therapy and requested a “natural” approach to his illness. I was confused and frustrated. I did not have enough expertise in the area of “natural” therapy of autoimmune diseases, but as a professional I wanted to help the patient and respect his requests.

The next several days I spent in the library trying to find any relevant information on natural therapies for his condition. The information was very limited and not very impressive.

Then I came across several patient testimonials that showed companies in Europe performing food intolerance testing had success with food elimination protocols in psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. I gave my patient this information and wished him luck.

I was very skeptical that such an approach would make a difference, but to my surprise, he showed up several months later with nearly normal skin and his joint pain was not bothering him at all. With a great smile on his face, he informed me that the food intolerance testing performed in the UK revealed that he was strongly intolerant to salmon, which he was eating almost every day. Elimination of the salmon from his diet resulted in a dramatic improvement of his health, and more importantly, the effect of the diet was long lasting.

Why did you begin adopting a gluten-free protocol for many of your patients?
Being intrigued by my patient’s success, I started analyzing the effect of diet on patient health, and soon realized that gluten-containing foods had a major negative impact on autoimmune and metabolic ailments.

Similarly to microorganisms and viruses, gluten can trigger chronic inflammatory diseases and autoimmune diseases. The main difference is that infectious agents are capable of self-replicating in our body while gluten is not; and requires constant consumption to support the inflammation. I started eliminating gluten from my patient’s diet and noticed benefits above and beyond all expectations. Over time, I realized that appropriately performed elimination diet can do wonders in patients with various autoimmune diseases.

Since this discovery, a gluten-free diet has become a vital part of my therapeutic protocols.

In 2008, you founded Institute for Specialized Medicine, why did you want to start your own practice?
I had the vision for a clinic of integrative rheumatology. To me this means being able to use all of the tools of medicine from both traditional and non-traditional medicine. A place where we help patients not only by treating their symptoms, but also by unveiling the driving forces behind their illness.