#gamechangers // Sonia Couto
So, can you tell us a bit about who you are?
My name is Sonia Couto and I am a doctor in Phytotherapy. I am currently 25 years old and in my third year of practice in Cape Town. My life has been a bit of an unusual journey. I have immigrated from South Africa to England and back to South Africa again. While I lived in England, my mum developed a wheat intolerance, underactive thyroid and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Consequently, from a young age, I was very aware of healthy eating, living and the effect the surrounding environment has on your health. Moving back to South Africa allowed for sunshine, seasonal food produce and lots of fresh air. And through all of this, I began to learn more and more by experimenting with food, clean living and exercise protocols.
What was the catalyst for your personal journey with food, health, and finding healing through more natural means?
When I was around 15 years old, I was learning about the intricacies of plants during a biology session. As most teens do...I began staring out of the window and daydreaming. It suddenly dawned on me that plants are here for a reason and have a purpose to fulfill in nature. And I was determined to find out what those reasons are. So I found a small book on herbal medicine and started to read through it. I was absolutely delighted to discover that the plants in this book had a real (and sometimes potent) effect on the body. From then on I just knew I had to learn more about the medicinal attributes of plants. And here I am today, a doctor in herbal medicines. I love that my occupation not only covers herbal medication but also extends to diet and lifestyle advice. This combination works so well together and truly shows off “Vis Medicatrix naturae” - the healing power of nature.
How have you got to where you are today in your career?
The University of the Western Cape is the only University in South Africa that offers Phytotherapy. As fate would have it, I lived 15 minutes from UWC! So straight after high-school, I began the 5-year journey to become a doctor in Phytotherapy. The course is set up as a 3 year Bachelor of Science in Complementary Medicine and then a 2 year Bachelor of Complementary Medicine in Phytotherapy (you can also choose Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Unani Tibb). Within these 5 years, you attain all required clinical hours. For more information on the course click on this link. After graduation, I felt that I needed more experience and help with the business aspect of running your own practice. So I shipped myself off back to the UK and had the privilege of learning under the guidance of Hakim MK Karim in Inverness, Scotland. I worked there for just under 4 months and we began doing seminars and workshops together. This has developed into a yearly endeavor of workshops in Cape Town as well as Scotland. And this year presents our first retreat in Austria!
Has your journey to where you are today inspired you to do anything you never thought you’d be brave enough to do?
Most definitely. When I was studying I thought my career would be easy...I'm a doctor after all?! But I soon came to realise that it is not as simple as opening up a practice and assuming you will have an instant flock of patients. The biggest issue is that no one knows what Phytotherapy is and how to use the services that a Phytotherapist provides. So I realised that my first step would be educating people on the role of herbal medicine in primary healthcare. This has lead me into a role of public speaking, workshops, social media marketing and educational products. While I have never been afraid of public speaking I certainly did not think that it would play such a large role in my life. Before every event there's always a brief moment when I ask myself “why am I doing this, I'm so nervous, how is this event going to turn out?!”. But then my passion for and faith in plant-based medicine takes over.
What are your top tips for staying healthy
(physically, emotionally, and mentally)?
Almost everyone works in a static manner. Yet our bodies are made for movement. Do this in whatever way you enjoy, be it dance, running, yoga, weights, hiking. But just remember to move! When we don't move our cardiovascular system weakens. There is less blood to our brain and therefore less concentration and memory. There is also less blood flow to the peripherals and this means varicose veins, swollen legs and cold hands and feet. Raising your heartbeat and exercising your heart muscle is incredibly important for physical and mental health.
Stretching is also incredibly important to help with core strength and to decrease chances of injury. And not only while you're young. Stretching will help with stability and core strength to prevent falls and injury when you reach a ripe old age! Yoga stretches are particularly good for pressing against lymphatic chains and helping your body's natural detox mechanisms to move along.
Shallow breathing and poor posture are a common problem. Take the time to breathe in deeply and align your spine. Research has shown that not doing this will lead to increased levels of cortisol. Standing upright also leads to an increase in positive memories and decision-making skills. Breathing deeply stimulates the vagus nerve to encourage a parasympathetic nervous response (rest and digest). You can turn your day around by being conscious of your posture and diaphragmatic breathing.
We've all heard about the gut-brain link. When your brain is not happy your stomach is not happy and when your stomach is clogged your brain is clogged! So keep both running smoothly at the same time. This is a huge topic in itself but a good start is to cut down on refined sugar and to include fermented foods in your diet (unless you fall into one of these categories).
My last and best tip is to get yourself on an adaptogen. Adaptogens are plants that help your body to adapt to mental, physical and emotional stress. In our fast-paced, cyber-space reality I believe that EVERYONE could benefit from being on an adaptogen. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a particularly good adaptogen that can be used over the long-term unless you are pregnant.
What is your favourite go-to meal after a busy day?
So this is a bit of a tricky question for me. I have adopted intermittent fasting as a lifestyle. This is due to its many hormonal and gut-related benefits (but that's another story). So I like to have breakfast at 8:30 and then have my last meal at 4:30. Personally, this habit forces me to plan my meals and to avoid the “after work” binge. So instead, I will share my favourite “breakfast on the go” recipe: In the evening, blend 1/3 cup of rolled oats, a tablespoon of chia seeds, a tablespoon of pea protein, a teaspoon of cinnamon, a mashed banana, some chopped dates, and a few almonds or peanut butter. Place all of this in a glass jar and fill it with boiling water. When it has cooled down, place it in the fridge for your ultimate “overnight oats”. But don't forget to grab it out of the fridge in the morning, along with your teaspoon! Overnight oats allows you to not have to worry about eating at 6am before work. You also don't need to wake up early to prepare a healthy breakfast. And it definitely curbs the temptation to binge on a mid-morning breakfast muffin because you got too hungry!
What is your favourite thing to do to wind down and relax?
I love to surf. I find that water forces you to breathe properly and it's saltiness feels so cleansing. There is nothing like feeling the power of the ocean behind your board as you take a wave. It is truly a reminder of the strength and beauty of nature and this brings balance to the mind. It is easy to get caught up in “likes”, deadlines, meetings and images today and (for me) surfing brings perspective.
What is phytotherapy? And why are herbs & plants so interesting?
For details on phytotherapy view this link. I could share a hundred facts about what make herbs and plants so interesting. But instead, I will leave you with a very relevant thought. Antibiotic resistance is wreaking havoc across the world. This is largely due to the overuse of antibiotics for basic colds and often for viral flu. Without antibiotics, simple infections may progress into extreme conditions and basic operations could lead to death. Maryn McKenna sums it up nicely in this Ted talk. Therefore, it is important to refrain from the immediate use of antibiotics for basic colds and flu and this is where herbal medicine becomes very useful. If the masses went back to the use of herbal remedies to ward off a simple cold then herbs and plants could save the world from antibiotic resistance.