15 Health Mistakes You Don’t Want To Make – Part 1: #1-3

It’s an unfortunate situation.  By the time most people seek Functional Medicine care, they’re at the end of their rope.  They’ve been down the conventional medicine path; they started with their regular family doctor.  That doctor might’ve prescribed a medication or two to attempt to quell the symptoms.  Likely, that approach either didn’t help at all, or it helped only somewhat, or it helped for a while, but now the problem has returned.

The regular family doctor might have then referred the person to a specialist.  He or she saw the specialist.  The specialist either recommended additional/different medications and/or possibly a surgical procedure.  Some people act on those recommendations, while others don’t–either way, many times, the results are the same as mentioned above.

Even if the person sought second (or third) opinions, the results might’ve still ended up the same.  At that point, it’s quite natural to give up on medicine.  After all, drugs come with side effects and surgeries result in permanent changes.  And if the original problem (or additional problems!) still persist afterward, it’s understandable to become disillusioned.

From there, the peoples’ paths often diverge.  Some seek out a naturopath or chiropractic doctor, depending on the nature of the health issue or the person’s belief system.  Others take their health into their own hands.  The first instinct is to Google the problem–and Google does deliver!  Health-related blog sites, web-based discussion/support groups, informational Wikipedia entries, and nutritional/herbal supplement vendors all wait at the ready with a plethora of information.

But Google is a double-edged sword.  There are several problems that too-often result.

First, the information may or may not be accurate.  Wikipedia content often hotly debated behind the scenes by its contributors.  Supplement companies have an obvious agenda (to sell you their products!).  Support groups often lack any members with medical education, ending up in a blind-leading-the-blind situation.  All of this can create a mental-pretzel situation; after six hours of ceaseless research, you’re wrapped up in a mental whirlwind, having been left with more questions than answers.

Second, symptoms often overlap.  Is that depression due to a nutritional deficiency (and if so, which one)?  An environmental toxic or heavy metal overload?  A low thyroid or other hormone imbalance (and if so, which hormone)?  A food intolerance?  Erratic blood sugar levels.  Is that insomnia due to excess adrenal function?  Gluten or dairy reactivity?  Excess epinephrine?  A nutritional deficiency?  Or perhaps an electromagnetic Chinese meridian imbalance?  And that fatigue–is that due to a cellular energy imbalance? Low thyroid?  Adrenal fatigue?  Candida?  H Pylori?  Parasites?  Mercury or Arsenic burden?  (And there’s that gluten again…)  Ohhhh boy.

(Sidenote: The body is a web, where everything affects everything else.  We simply cannot change one variable and expect everything else to remain unchanged.  And by the time we reach 30 or older, chances are very good that we’ve been harboring some underlying issues for a while.  Over time, these problems have built up and begun to impact the other systems.  In addition, as the body ages, it loses its ability to “bounce back” and compensate for these issues.  When the underlying causes of problems begin to overpower the body’s ability to compensate, we begin to feel symptoms.)

Third, as one researches their health issue, they often get inaccurate advice or come to inaccurate conclusions–a self-diagnosis, if you will.  It is then that they rush to purchase that product that promises to be a magic bullet or that someone in a support group has sworn by.  At best, the person can actually find some relief (although I have yet to find someone who has achieved complete relief–it’s usually partial or temporary).  Usually, the person spends lot of unnecessary time, energy, and money and fails to get the desired results.  At worst, they actually end up doing themselves harm along the way.

As one can imagine, by the time someone reaches my office, “everything is wrong”, and it’s been wrong for a while.  And chances are, if they have attempted to treat themselves, there will be additional imbalances.  My patients with low thyroid function usually test high in Selenium.  Why?  Because they’ve been taking excessive doses for too long, having read somewhere that Selenium is a cure-all for thyroid issues.  They may or may not also have excess Iodine.  My patients with gastrointestinal problems usually test excessive for Lactobacillus bacteria.  This is because they read about the wonders of probiotics, and decided to eat a lot of yogurt or take a probiotic powder with a too-narrow strain profile.  For these people, their problems persist, because eating the yogurt aggravated their undiscovered dairy intolerance and if they’re over 60, the Lactobacillus load actually caused an intestinal imbalance.

Here are  the first three out of 15 self-treatments you do NOT want to administer without being under proper care of a licensed practitioner, because even though these remedies are natural, there are indeed risks.

  1. Iodine (usually for thyroid disorders)
    Why not?  Many people are indeed low in iodine and thus, they may  need it.  However, not all thyroid problems are iodine-deficiency-related, and iodine may cause problems when taken in excess or when your levels are already sufficient.
  2. Selenium (also usually for thyroid disorders)
    Why not?  Selenium is indeed a nutrient mineral, but only in small doses.  In larger doses (or to take it when not deficient), it actually becomes akin to a toxic metal, accumulating in the liver and other tissues and interfering with body function.
  3. Lactobacillus Acidophilus (usually for intestinal health)
    Why not?  Although your intestinal tract needs good bacteria, there is a such thing as too much of a good thing.  The intestinal bacterial makeup consists of hundreds of different kinds, or species.  It’s a diverse ecosystem all its own.  There should not be too much of any one species, or the whole system can be thrown out of balance.  Lactobacillus is indeed considered a type of “good”  bacteria, but all organisms can begin behaving badly in excess amounts.  Many people actually create/aggravate intestinal problems just by consuming too much yogurt or probiotic powder/capsules.  When Lactobacillus takes over (as it often naturally does in older age), other species get edged out.  All of the different species provide different benefits, and your intestinal surface area is finite/limited–if one type decides to play King of the Hill, others can become diminished.

Stay tuned for Part 2!  We’ll be addressing common mistakes made for depression, anemia, immune defense, more gastrointestinal mistakes, and even the wrong forms of certain vitamins!

The Truth Behind the “Everyone Is Different” Mantra

If you’ve hung around the internet-based support groups and forums (either general or for a specific disorder) long enough, you might get lucky and see a practitioner pop up every once in a while with a gem….followed by the disclaimer: “Everyone is different.”  Many patients in my office ask me how long it might take them to get better; someone next to me in the grocery store might ask me what they can take for their Candida, Mercury toxicity, or a general detox plan.  Or a colleague calls me to ask what they can do for a patient with a mysterious symptom.  To which I reply with my own: “Everyone is different.”

What’s with that?  Is “Everyone is Different” a simple cop-out?  An office ploy to obtain more patients or clients?

Maybe it is for some practitioners, but I can only speak for myself and how I practice.  When it comes out of my mouth, “everyone is different” really means just that.

The skeptics out there scoff and say, “well, that’s just a ploy.  There can’t be that much variation between human beings.  After all, we share 96% of our DNA with cats, which is only a 4% variability; how can humans vary so much?”

The easy answer is…three factors.  1) Predisposing Factors, 2) Triggering Factors, and 3) Perpetuating factors.

1.  Predisposing Factors

That starts with genetics.  You’ve probably heard the term “genetic predisposition”, usually in reference to a disease or condition.  Our genes vary a lot!  For example, 30% of the population has a genetically-predisposed reactivity to gluten.  About 40-50% of the population has a methylation (detox pathway) defect.  Do you have estrogen dominance symptoms, or are you one of the estimated 50-80% of the women out there with uterine fibroids?  Then you may be among the 50% of the population that metabolizes estrogen differently in the liver, turning it into a very powerful, too-active form of the hormone.  When I order a genetic screening of someone’s detoxification ability, about 25% of the markers are abnormal, indicating mutated genes…in every.  Single.  Person.

It’s not just genes, either.  We vary in our physical structure as well.  Ten percent of the population is missing the retinaculum, a strip of tissue that goes across the inside of the wrist.  An estimated 40% were born *without* a psoas (pronounced “so-azz” major muscle.  Wow!

Let’s consider development, the first factor being prenatal care.  Parents whose children were planned are much more likely to have sought prenatal care, including prenatal vitamins with extra folate and other nutrients vital for proper fetal growth.  At the very least, they have (hopefully) stopped smoking or drinking.   A mother who doesn’t realize she’s pregnant (and may not until the third or even fifth month!) may not have taken any of these precautions.

2. Triggering Factors

Triggering Factors (or “triggers”) involve events or physical/chemical/emotional assaults that set something in motion, usually the development of a chronic disorder.  These usually occur after birth (although they can indeed begin in the womb), and can happen at any time of life, even in the elderly.

The birth process itself can change things.  A traumatic or emergency delivery, or a situation in which the baby was deprived of (or otherwise low on) oxygen can present lasting problems.  If the baby was born vaginally, this bodes much better for the development of the “good”/helpful bacteria that live in the GI tract; in fact, it’s an important point of establishment.  Those born by Cesarean section by-pass that opportunity.  The same goes for breastfeeding versus a soy or cow’s milk formula; the first three days of breast milk production isn’t the milk protein at all, but rather, colostrum, which is absolutely vital to a healthy immune system and (once again) the establishment of good intestinal bacteria.

Immediately after birth, a baby is born with 287 different toxic chemicals and metabolites in the blood. The urinary studies are even worse: of over 3,000 metabolites found in the urine, 2,200 were toxic and unnatural.  According to current research, it’s estimated that a lady sheds 60% of the stored toxins from her adipose tissue (fat cells) during pregnancy.  These do indeed cross into the umbilical cord.  If this lady lives on a rural ranch, her toxic exposures will be different than for someone who lives in a city, across from the cement plant (which releases ambient Mercury into the air).

As a newborn, if a baby was separated from his or her mother (mom was in the military or otherwise absent), this can actually intensify the brain-adrenal stress response, creating changes that last through life.  If the baby is vaccinated immediately, the immune system fails to develop properly (it is not developed well enough to know how to handle a vaccine properly until at least six months of age; vaccinating beforehand simply confuses the immune system, not to mention the doses of Mercury, propylene glycol/antifreeze, and formaldehyde that have been reported in vaccines).  Again, the same goes for breastfeeding – six months is the minimum for a healthy immune system; 12 months is ideal; I’m happy with anywhere in between.

Then, one must ask, what is this person’s early life like?  Do the parents fight?  Did the family move a lot?  Is the house clean and sanitary?  (Is it *too* clean and sanitary?)  Did the neighbors treat their lawn with chemicals or commercial fertilizers?  Is there an unknown growth of black mold in the vents?  Is there an unknown termite infestation releasing naphthalene (a toxic chemical) into the air?  What about diet?  Some brands of commercial baby food contain MSG!  That does not promote a healthy gut; in fact, it causes a Leaky Gut.  And what about baby clothes?  Many of today’s baby products (such as clothes, blankets, etc) have been treated with flame-retardant chemicals, which sounds good in theory, but in reality are quite toxic.  These chemicals release fumes into the air and through the skin that end up in the baby’s blood, threatening vulnerable developing tissues (like the brain and reproductive system, especially).

When the child gets sick, is he or she automatically given antibiotics?  During a seasonal cold or flu, it’s good to know that dairy and sugar create additional mucus and prolong the illness.  Eliminating these foods from the diet, at least during that time (and regardless of allergy) will help ease the symptoms and duration of a cold or flu.  Antibiotics, however, will not.  What they *will* do is kill off healthy bacteria.  There’s a place for antibiotics–to take care of an immediate problem before it becomes worse, while then taking the time to figure out why it happened.  A healthy immune system only gets a seasonal cold once or twice per year and in some people, every two years.

In light of the above, consider all of the “forks in the road” that each of us has faced.  We’ve had incredibly different combinations of predisposing and triggering factors influencing us from before birth!

You get the idea.  Most of my sickest patients had been subjected to long-standing family dysfunction or other emotional traumas growing up.  Many others were just fine until they got caught up in a bad relationship or moved to a particular house in which, undisclosed to them, was a black mold or cockroach infestation.  For others, it was a job change, in which the new job was extremely stressful, with a steep learning curve.  And for still others, all was well until a college spring break trip abroad, during which they contracted a stomach bug that ended up being an ulcer-causing bacteria; this created a hole between their intestinal tube and their bloodstream, and from there they went on to form severe reactions to several major foods.  Which brings us to…

3. Perpetuating Factors

These are factors that, once a condition or dysfunction has been set in motion, play a major part in keeping it going/making it worse.  These factors provide additional–often daily–assaults to the system, progressing the condition.  Prime examples include unrealized food intolerance, a dysfunctional marriage, fibromyalgia, harsh medication, environmental chemical exposures, processed foods, MSG intake, genetic abnormalities (such as the estrogen metabolism example mentioned early on), a manipulative sibling, an aging parent, chronic injuries from a car accident, migraines, birth control pills, a chronic unknown intestinal or dental infection, a special needs family member, death of a loved one, an old sports injury, *additional* food allergies (that develop long after the first few), and so much more.

Alcohol intake or prescription medications will change one’s nutrient status, and with that, one’s entire function.  The same holds true for one who is under chronic stress or chronic pain from an old injury.  Someone who harbors emotional traumas that have not been resolved through quality counseling may do “everything right” in terms of their care plan, and their symptoms may not budge.  Thus, it’s crucial that your doctor asks a lot of probing questions, scrutinizes every inch of a detailed health and personal history, gathers information about medications you’re taking, and recommends a comprehensive diagnostic lab workup.  (Hint: A blood cell count and an adrenal stress test are *not* a comprehensive workup!  At least not when you have a long list of mysterious symptoms and nothing you’ve tried has provided lasting relief.)

(The Unwritten #4: The Gameplan)

Each of us is a fingerprint–we look the same, but no two of us are exactly alike.  I see this variation very plainly when I receive lab test results on my patients.  I must carry three or four different versions of, for example, an intestinal healing formula, because a patient with a sulfur-loving bacteria growing in their intestine wouldn’t respond to the version that contains MSM, a sulfur-derived natural compound.  Others have an aloe allergy, so they wouldn’t handle the one with aloe very well.  Some need a more basic formula, while others need one with more anti-inflammatory ingredients.  Some peoples’ immune systems need turning up, while others’ systems need calming down.

Another good example involves thyroid disorders.  There are about 22 different patterns of thyroid dysfunction.  Healthy levels of specific brain chemicals are needed in order to stimulate TSH, the thyroid-stimulating hormone.  The thyroid gland must be open to receiving that TSH signal.  Then it must have enough raw nutrients (minerals and proteins) to make thyroid hormones.  The catch is, most of the thyroid hormone that the thyroid gland makes is inactive.  This hormone must be activated elsewhere.  If you suffer hidden, sneaky, chronic inflammation, you won’t activate thyroid hormones properly.  Thus, your thyroid tests can be “normal” and you still feel like a textbook hypothyroid case.

Some people need Iodine to improve their thyroid function, while for others, that can be an unpleasant–and risky–idea.  Some people need immune boosting (or calming) support in order for their thyroid symptoms to improve.  And still others need to tone down their adrenal stress before they’ll feel normal in thyroid terms again.  Sex hormone dominance can also mimic low thyroid function.  There’s no one magic bullet for “hypothyroid”.  For some people it might be a stomach cell-rejuvenating formula so that they can break down protein again in order to make their thyroid hormone backbone.  For others, it might be an adrenal modulating formula so that excess stress hormones stop interfering with thyroid hormones.  And so on…

The good news is, the technology is out there–and it’s now reliable, widely-available, and cost-effective!  It is now possible to sniff out these underlying causes, and rule some out while ruling others in.  This allows us to very specifically hone in on what the underlying cause of *your* particular problem is.  This also allows us to say, “well, it isn’t that, so we don’t even have to go down that road; let’s focus our efforts over here instead.”  The diagnostic approach becomes smarter.  The treatment or care approach becomes more targeted.  People heal more completely.  They even heal faster…

….even if:     “Everyone Is Different”

🙂

Change vs. Transformation

It has certainly been a while since the last post!  Rest assured, I have not abandoned this blog.  Many ideas have been swimming around in my mind, and today I feel compelled to share with you one of the most important of those ideas.

I want to have a serious conversation with you about how to approach the Journey we call Healing…

One of my main goals for our patients is to be successful on this Journey and reach their potential for optimum health.  “Optimum health” means different things to different people, and each person has his or her own potential, limited only by factors we can’t control, such as some genetics, some lifelong diseases, and some environmental impurities.  However, even if you DO live in toxic surroundings, carry some “bad” genes, or have been diagnosed with a lifelong disease, that doesn’t mean that you can’t reach YOUR potential.  We just have to find out what that potential is.  You may have never experienced it (yet).

During this journey toward optimum health, we undergo a healing process.  It’s important to know that “healing” is not the same as a “cure”.  Conventional medical school teaches that a “cure” is defined as an “infinite remission” of a disease.  Understandably, that becomes their main goal.

That sounds good and noble.  But is conventional medicine good at curing disease?  Recent statistics indicate that 7 out of 10 deaths are due to chronic disease, the major ones being:

  1. Cardiovascular Disease (heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and others)
  2. Cancer (all types, quickly overtaking Cardiovascular Disease as the #1 cause of death)
  3. Diabetes (especially Type 2, which is exploding, although we are seeing many more adults develop Type 1 than before)
  4. Autoimmune disease (Multiple Sclerosis, Celiac Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, alopecia areata, Parkinson’s Disease, Sjogren’s Disease, Lupus/SLE, and many others)
  5. Neurodegenerative and cognitive disorders (such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, as well as other types of neurological problems like neuropathies and seizures)

Another staggering statistic is, one out of every two adults had at least one chronic illness.

Verdict: conventional medicine doesn’t have a great track record of curing.  This is not to say that they don’t save lives, especially in emergency or advanced situations–there is definitely a time and place where conventional medicine is exactly the right approach–but its principles don’t hold up so well when applied to treating chronic disease.

We must think instead in terms of healing.  A Functional Medicine doctor must know who the person is in order to help make them whole.  (This is one of the reasons we ask so many questions on our intake forms!)

Each person has several layers of being

  • Our parts – our body and brain – these constitute the “material” layer
  • Our mind, thoughts and psychological status – these make up the “awareness” layer
  • Our meaning, values, and things we deem important to us – these form the “non-conceptual awareness” layer
  • Our transpersonal relationships and spiritual paths – these help us to “transcend”

When we talk about healing, we’re not talking about eradicating a disease.  We’re talking about healing a person, a person with dreams, thoughts, desires, wishes, secrets, aches and pains, losses, regrets, hurt, headaches, digestion issues, mobility problems, excess weight, high blood sugar, short-term memory problems, sadness, and many other aspects.  We are multidimensional beings.

We are also interpersonal beings, and we identify with our associations, which often include our family, our marriages, our circles of friends, our careers, our communities, and more.

Next, I want to make a bold statement:  Illness is a gift.  That statement might cause some resistance, to put it mildly–in fact, it might make you angry, but please read on, because I’ll explain.  (In fact, despite the tough battle I must fight regarding my own autoimmune diseases–yes, plural–I had arrived at this conclusion myself, for the same reasons I’m about to discuss.)

Illness is a gift in that it presents for the person a HUGE opportunity for growth and transformation.  That doesn’t mean that this is always a happy or pleasant journey.  In fact, it’s a very challenging path, with many potholes, ravines, unstable rocks, roadblocks, and steep cliffs along the way.  Hippocrates, known as the Father of Medicine (the same one who said, “let thy food be thy medicine”, taught us that one can learn how to gain from our illness by one’s own thought.

This means that healing is a journey.  When you’re first dealing with your illness, you may experience denial and anger.  Eventually, this may evolve into acceptance and benefit and if it does, this is the stage at which you can begin to heal.

A colleague told a story about another friend/colleague of his that developed cancer.  His friend became angry, frustrated, and resentful, blaming it on an office issue in which he had a staffing issue with someone he hired.  His cancer required a lot of his attention and a lot of time spent away from the office, and he could not allow this issue to continue in his absence.  So, he dealt with that issue once and for all and resolved it completely.  This was a major stressor that had affected his whole life for years, and the development of the cancer forced him to resolve the issue.  Had he not developed it, he might have allowed this issue to continue, dragging him down for the rest of his working life.  As it stands, I believe his cancer is in remission, and his office is solid and peaceful.

My own autoimmune disease was a gift as well.  If someone had said that to me early on, I would have thought they were crazy.  However, I slowly realized as time went on, and I fruitlessly searched and searched for a doctor who could really help me and would take the time to try and solve my mystery, that such a doctor would not be made available to me anytime soon, and that I would have to become that doctor myself, to make sure that no one else went through what I did.  So, I went through school and although this cost me dearly (my disease got worse and progressed into multiple diseases), I emerged, tattered and broken, yet alive, and resolute: no one in my care was going to suffer or walk alone.  Had I not developed that disease, I would not have found my calling to serve, and I would not have sat here before you.  My disease(s) ARE indeed a gift.

That doesn’t mean the journey was easy.  It required transformation.  Transformation is not the same as change.  Change is what it takes to be different, in which State “A” is different than State “B”.  Change involves small alterations, Baby Steps that can be taken quickly, such as vowing to take 3 deep breaths every 20 minutes, in order to relieve stress at work.

Transformation happens on a grander scale in which you begin to identify or connect with something else and ingrain into your core being so that it becomes part of you.  An example of this might be the discovery of yoga or Nia for that stress relief, in which you experience a “wow!” moment.  When you hit a “wow!” or “a-ha!” moment, you’ve just undergone a transformation.

Another sign you’ve undergone transformation is when you begin to “do a 180” from your previous opinion and believe the opposite of what you believed before.  One of my patients, always the skeptic and always one to do what he was going to do and never put much stock into my gluten-avoidance advice, read a particular book, “Wheat Belly”.  Not several months later, this man is not only gluten-free but GRAIN-free, realizing that corn (something he once consumed rather freely) isn’t so great, either.  Every chance he gets, he strikes up conversations with visitors or even some regular patients in our front lobby, professing the evils of the grain family, especially wheat (“that stuff is killing us!”)  I smile and laugh inside.  Transformations are beautiful and fun to watch.  Witnessing someone go through transformation, as painful and confusing it can be for the patient (and the doctor–we don’t want to see you suffer either!) is one of the greatest rewards for me in practice.

All transformation involves change (lots of change), but not all change is transformation.  Almost anyone can go on a crash diet and lose 10 pounds in two weeks to fit into that bikini during Spring Break.  Anyone can eliminate gluten for a week.  However, some people are so hooked on the adrenaline rush of the evening news cast or political AM radio talk shows that despite the fact that these stimuli are causing subtle, low-grade stress reactions that slowly eat the person alive, they can’t bring themselves to stop watching or listening.  Or they can’t simply leave that toxic ex-significant other alone.  If these people were to take those steps, they would surely have “wow!” moments…and undergo important, potentially life-saving transformation.

On a grand scale, there have been some pretty famous transformers that not only experienced personal evolution, but shared this with the world; examples include people like Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr…you get the idea.  You don’t have to be the next Gandhi, but it might not be a bad idea to use his level of commitment and vision as a role model for your own personal journey.

Sometimes, transformation occurs through the resolution of dissonance.  Dissonance is the difference between what you want (more energy, less weight, cancer remission, a sharper mind, fertility, clear skin, better lab test results) and what you’re currently doing (are you eating salads or sodas for lunch? Are you walking or watching violent movies at night?)  Sometimes, all it takes is to be AWARE of the dissonance; that alone can motivate people to make changes.  Other times, it takes an event that really hits home (such as a heart attack, or a conventional doctor’s mention of an insulin or statin drug trial).

My job as a Functional Medicine doctor is to help YOU facilitate that change, and to walk with you as a guide through your journey, holding your hand in support every step of the way, so that you do not ever feel alone.  My patients come to me ready to do something; most aren’t sure what, but they know they can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing and expect different results.

It’s also my job to understand that most patients will likely take steps backward in their journey.  This is normal, and it is not a sign of failure.  To give up completely and drop out of care without another idea in mind would be failing; to keep going, even if you’ve veered off the path, is not failure.  The path to healing is not linear; it spirals and curves, twisting and turning.  Sometimes you fall.  You don’t need to hide it and you don’t need to be ashamed.  You just need to get back up and keep trying.

Spirituality can bring about massive transformation, and even help alleviate some chronic diseases.  Some people find God, while others begin to question the religious framework in which they were raised.  Still others try out spiritual paths for themselves, dabbling in one philosophy or another, as if trying on clothing to see if it fits.  (There is NO problem with that!  If you feel drawn to do this, then by all means, please do.)  Some people merely get in touch with nature and that provides a spiritual springboard for them.  Others seek counseling or cut toxic drama-prone people from their lives.  These trials and excisions may cause a little (or a lot of) pain, but they bring about healing.

Every good healthcare professional (Functional Medicine and otherwise) should make Compassion their top priority.  Compassion can be eloquently defined as, “where love meets suffering.”  It is our job to love our patients for who they are, wherever they are in their lives and on their journeys, leaving no room for judgment or condemnation.  If we doctors are to call ourselves healers, this is an absolute requirement…

…because healing is MORE than a cure.  Chemotherapy cures cancer, but it does not HEAL the person.  Chemo may be necessary in many cases, but that person must also work to heal from the inside and undergo a true transformation.

Let’s walk. 🙂

How To Rebuild the Adrenal Glands Naturally

Your adrenal glands are two small glands that sit on top of your kidneys.  They produce important hormones that help you buffer stress and adapt to every day life.  Under short-term stress, the adrenal glands make more cortisol and DHEA to help you maintain your health during stress.  They also make adrenaline, which gives you that boost of energy when you need it.

If the stress lasts a short while and then goes away, no harm is done.  After all, that’s what your adrenal glands are designed to do: handle immediate stress.  But if the stress becomes chronic, the adrenals produce too much stress hormones over a longer period of time, something that the body wasn’t designed to handle.  These hormones have “side effects”, such as poor immune function, abdominal/belly weight gain (due to water retention), and excess blood sugar (which can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes).  In addition, you may find it very hard to get to sleep at night and your short-term memory may begin to slip.  Over time, these blood sugar and nervous system effects can lead to insomnia, diabetes, fibromyalgia, obesity, mood disorders such as depression, irritability, anxiety, and more.

Eventually, if the stressor(s) continue further, the adrenal glands begin to get tired and wear out.  This is known as adrenal fatigue.  They begin to produce lower amounts of stress-management hormones because they simply don’t have any more left to give.  People with adrenal fatigue often experience low energy, great difficulty getting going in the morning, and afternoon fatigue.  If the adrenal fatigue advances, so does their feelings of fatigue, and often the person begins to crave salty foods.

Stress comes from three separate sources…

1) Emotional/psychological stress.  Most of us are aware of this type of stress.  This can come in many forms – the death of a friend or loved one, a long city commute to work, a demanding boss, an unhealthy marriage, uncooperative children, aging relatives, the loss of a pet, a career you don’t enjoy, difficult co-workers or in-laws, and the list goes on.

2) Physical trauma or injury.  Believe it or not, even a physical, non-emotional injury can cause your adrenal glands to work overtime.  This can include anything from a sprained ankle to a serious motor vehicle accident, and anything in between.  This holds true even if you don’t perceive you’ve been injured.  Many times, my patients will have gotten into a minor fender-bender 10 years ago, maybe felt a little stiffness the next day, and that was it.  Guess what?  It can still kick the adrenal glands into high gear, many years later.

3) Chemical stress.  This can include anything that alerts the body’s immune defenses or interferes with the body’s chemistry.  Examples are many, and may include any kind of bacterial/yeast/fungal/viral/parasite infection (such as Helicobacter pylori, Clostridium difficile, Candida, pinworms, or Epstein-Barr, etc), heavy metals (such as Arsenic, Aluminum, Cadmium, Mercury, and Lead), an autoimmune disorder, a household or industrial chemical (such as paint thinners, pigment colorings, etc), a problem food (such as wheat gluten, dairy, MSG, soy, or artificial flavorings, colors, preservatives, sweeteners, or flavor enhancers), or environmental allergies (mold, cockroaches, grasses, pollens, animals, dust mites, trees, nuts, etc).

Wow, that’s a long list!  And how many of us have these?  How many of us have ALL THREE?  And how long have we had these issues?  It’s mind-boggling to think about.

These stressors throw a monkey wrench into your health into all aspects of your health and thus need to be evaluated and dealt with effectively.  Only then can a person can heal fully.

Evaluating adrenal function…

Evaluating adrenal gland function is the first step.  After all, the effectiveness of the remedies used will depend on exactly what’s happening with the adrenal glands, and at what time of day.  When we evaluate adrenal glands, we are checking for several things, each of which has clinical significance beyond what is immediately visible on the test:

  • The amount of adrenal hormones produced throughout the day
  • The timing of the hormone production at different times of the day
  • The robustness of the adrenal response
  • A cross-reference of each hormone to the others
  • Additional markers that give more information about the chronicity of the situation and additional impact on other body systems

The above markers also give us information about various parts of the brain and nervous system and whether these parts are over- or underactive, how chronic the stress pattern is, how advanced along the adrenal dysfunction continuum the person is, which other systems are impacted, and the extent of that impact.

No two people will look exactly alike, so there is no one set protocol that fits everybody.  Some people will need to prolong the presence of cortisol in their bodies, while those with adrenal stress will not see any improvement with supplements that preserve cortisol.  So it’s important to evaluate your adrenal function thoroughly, and take sample readings throughout the day so that you know the full state of your adrenal function; this is because remedies for adrenal overactivity are *not* the same as those used for adrenal fatigue.  Some people are in a transition from one stage to the other, and may need a combination.

To address adrenal health, it’s only useful to use remedies for adrenal support after you’ve eliminated–or at least minimized–the cause(s) of stress (see the list of 3 types of stress above).  Otherwise, your efforts to rebuild your adrenals may not be as effective.  Again, we must eliminate the cause of the problem in order to begin to heal fully.

One thing I recommend for almost all of my patients is a quality of B-complex.  Some people require larger doses than others.  I’ve had people come to me with lab work that says their B12 levels are high but when I evaluate the cellular level B vitamins, they actually show up with a deficiency, despite supplementation. These people may either need larger doses to make a positive impact, or they may need an alternate form of B12 that is more easily absorbed and utilized.

B-complex alone doesn’t fully regulate the adrenal function, but it does provide a nice foundation because it has such a positive impact on so many aspects of healthy function. I will say that most people will not use the B-complex very well, usually because of an intestinal infection or lack of good bacteria. We absolutely must deal with that first so that you can absorb the B vitamins.

For help with adrenal dysfunction, chronic fatigue, poor blood sugar regulation, or the evaluation of adrenals, cellular functions, vitamin absorption and utilization, please call Dr. Sweeney’s office at (210) 340-2150.

 

Functional Medicine Lab Testing

Believe it or not, most doctors don’t order nearly enough testing.  The human body is extremely complex, consisting of many different systems that interact in an intricate web, with every system influencing all of the others.  All of the different major physiological functions have special relationships with each other and all affect each other.  This is all well and good, as long as your body is humming along pleasantly, with everything working the way it should.

I might boldly venture to say that there is not a single person on this planet who fits that description.  Instead, stress, environmental toxins, food and environmental allergies, lack of proper nutrition, lack of exercise, dysbiosis, hormone fluctuations, infections, and even genetics, all throw a monkey wrench into this smooth interaction between all of your body systems.

And that’s where the domino effect starts.  Before you know it, a problem in one area becomes a problem in multiple areas; pretty soon everything seems to have gone haywire.

This is why comprehensive testing is important.  Since this level of testing is unfamiliar to most people, I thought it might be helpful to outline some of the lab testing most commonly run by a good Functional Medicine practitioner.  (Notice I said “a good Functional Medicine practitioner”!  Not all are created equal.)

Conventional blood testing – this usually includes a blood cell count, a metabolic panel, a lipid panel, a basic thyroid panel, and a few other miscellaneous tests, such as iron and/or B12 and others.

Adrenal stress testing – this often includes several readings of cortisol (the adrenal stress hormone) and DHEA (another important adrenal hormone).  There are several variations of this panel; depending on which type I order, it may also include screening for anti-gliadin antibodies, progesterone, or other male/female hormones.

Digestive analysis – this assesses your digestion and absorption, and often includes screenings for harmful microbes such as yeasts, parasites, and opportunistic bacteria that can interfere with intestinal function.  There are many varieties of this test available as well; some may include pancreatic function while others include stomach acid levels.  Some tests only screen for antibodies to a known pathogen such as candida or giardia, whereas others analyze the DNA of the microbes and compare it against a comprehensive database of microbes known to cause problems in humans.

Liver detoxification – unfortunately, the liver enzymes commonly tested for in a routine blood test don’t tell the whole story.  In fact, your liver can be in pretty rough shape and those tests will still be well within the normal range.  They don’t even start to show a problem until a liver issue is very advanced.  The good news is, there are much more efficient tests that assess liver function.  They do this by measuring levels of end-products of liver metabolism.  This gives a much more accurate picture of how the liver is functioning now, rather than waiting until advanced stages of damage and dysfunction have set in.

Heavy metal and nutrient mineral screenings – surprisingly, hair analysis is NOT the most accurate method of checking for the presence of heavy metals.  This is because hair analysis depends on proper excretion of heavy metals and some people tend to retain heavy metals inside their bodies instead of excreting them.  Luckily, there are several other methods of testing.  Some versions of this test only check for heavy metals, while other versions also evaluate the more beneficial nutrient minerals such as molybdenum and zinc to assess mineral levels.  These tests are much more accurate and reliable than blood-test versions of these minerals because the body will actually sacrifice tissue levels of nutrients to keep the blood levels constant.

Immune system panels – we can use several different tests to check various functions of your immune system.  One such test gives us clues regarding whether your immune system is fighting a foreign invader, or your own body.  Another test tells us whether your immune system is balanced (which is extremely important!) or whether one side has gotten a little overzealous and out of hand.

Thyroid test panels – to test TSH alone is never enough.  That’s like being blindfolded and trying to get an idea of what an entire elephant looks like by simply touching its trunk.  The trunk is what it is, but it does not tell you very much about the rest of the body.  I view the TSH test the same way; it is important, but it does not give the whole picture and testing TSH alone falls very short of good testing.  Thyroid test panels vary, but they can include the thyroid hormones themselves, how much of those hormones are being taken up by your body, the level of thyroid hormone transport protein lives in your blood, or even whether or not your body has started to attack your thyroid gland (i.e. the presence of thyroid antibodies).

Nutrients (Vitamins and Minerals) – there is a huge variety of different nutrient test panels available.  Some assess fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, D, and K), while others check water-soluble vitamin (B-complex, Vitamin C) levels.  Some evaluate minerals, like we talked about above.  Some measure other nutrients such as CoQ10 and/or glutathione.

Food allergy/sensitivity testing – here again, there is a variety of testing available.  In fact, there are several different types of reactions to problem foods.  One type is an immediate reaction involving histamine; another type is a delayed reaction that does more damage in the long run, but it is less obvious at first.  Several different companies test for several different types of reactions, and may include a wide variety of different panels or groups of foods.  In fact, some tests also include environmental irritants such as pollens, molds, and others.

Male/Female hormone panels – these tests look at the levels of various forms of estrogen and testosterone.  Some even include progesterone.  Most tests involve a “snapshot” of the present levels, while another test measures a female’s monthly cycle over the entire duration of the cycle!

Note 1: This list is by no means complete!  Functional Medicine doctors literally have thousands of individual tests at our disposal, which means we can explore lots of possible avenues and get to the root of the problem.

Note 2: truth be told, I order testing based on what I believe the patient needs.  Some people may need more testing, while others need less.  Some may need a particular test, while others may not.  I don’t order every one of these lab tests for every patient, but I do order every test I feel is necessary for that particular person so that I have all of the information I need to help them heal.

Demystifying Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)

You step into an elevator, finding yourself next to a woman whose perfume is entirely too strong.  Or, your neighbor has sprayed chemical pesticides on his lawn again.  Most people around you don’t know the difference, but you sure do.  You’re extremely fatigued, you can’t think straight, and that itchy patch on your skin is reminding you of its existence once again.

Your family doctor is of little to no help (in fact, many conventionally-trained doctors don’t believe this condition even exists), so you have few options to turn to.  A quick internet search gives you more information and indeed can give one a sense of validation.  Scrolling through the lists of familiar symptoms and nodding to yourself, you eventually find yourself saying, “great! We now know this exists and how it manifests.  But what’s causing it?  And what–if anything–can I do about it?”

…Which is where the articles often fall short.  There are several possible theories, but relatively little has been officially established as fact yet.  The best advice one typically finds is, to paraphrase, “avoid as many chemicals as you can.”   These articles usually include comprehensive lists of sources of various chemicals, and these are quite helpful.  But what about the underlying cause?  That’s where the explanations get vague and sketchy because that’s the weakest link in the current knowledge.  Such is the reality of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.

The mechanisms most commonly described involve imbalances in immune system function, enzyme depletion (enzymes are needed to carry out biochemical reactions), and neuro-psychological conditioning (where two events happen at the same time and although they’re unrelated, your mind associates them with each other).

In my clinical experience, I’ve seen several additional possible causes.  These include adverse reactions to common foods, hormone imbalances (since hormone balance is closely tied to proper immune system function), impaired liver detoxification function, heavy metal overload (especially arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and lead), chronic daily stress, and the ever-common Leaky Gut phenomenon.  I’ve also seen bacterial and yeast infections, as well as vitamin, mineral, or other nutrient deficiencies contribute to extreme chemical sensitivity.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity covers a lot of bases and affects a lot of different body systems, and has lots of different possible causes and aggravating factors.  The good news is, there is a way to detangle this web of possible causes and start ruling various factors in or out.  Of course, the process starts with good comprehensive lab testing.  Yes, believe it or not, there is lab testing for everything I mentioned above.  The bad news is, your regular doctor is almost certainly not ordering all the needed tests.  The good news is, a good Functional Medicine doctor WILL.  Functional Medicine doctors often have access to a greater variety of more thorough testing through multiple lab companies because of their tendency to think outside the box and their lack of entanglement with insurance companies that tend to skimp on the coverage they offer.

Although there is no specific lab testing for MCS, there are several functional lab tests that can provide a lot of valuable information about what might REALLY be going on:

Liver detoxification function – this test measures a product of the liver detoxification process, assessing liver function in a way that is far superior to conventional blood tests, detecting breakdowns in function long before any blood test.
Why run this test if you have MCS?  Your liver must process everything your body comes in contact with, and every waste it needs to get rid of.  This includes environmental pollution, heavy metals, cellular-level wastes, spent hormones, and more.  In today’s overloaded world, we tend to put a lot of stress on the liver.  This can cause a “traffic jam” of substances to  be detoxified, which can then back up into the body.  Then, when we encounter one more strong toxin, such as someone’s perfume, we can’t handle it as well, and it’s easy to develop the symptoms of MCS.

Nutrient status – this test assesses various levels of vitamins and minerals that your body needs in order to perform its basic functions – detoxification, energy production, nutrient conversion, hormone production, and so much more.  Without these nutrients, the body cannot perform these crucial functions, and we begin to notice signs of breakdown and the development of chronic diseases and disorders.  Many nutrients can be measured individually with conventional blood testing, but the costs can add up quickly; Functional Medicine doctors have access to much broader and more complete functional panels that measure many nutrients at once, for a lower overall cost.
Why run this test if you have MCS?  Even though we live in a Land-of-Plenty in regards to food supply, most of us are still woefully deficient in many vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, due to our stressful lifestyles and processed food consumption.  Many of the detoxification processes needed to effectively rid the body of toxins require large amounts of certain vitamins and trace minerals, so if you’re experiencing MCS symptoms, it’s important to evaluate your levels of these nutrients to see if that may be causing or contributing to those symptoms.

Food intolerances – these tests evaluate your body’s reaction to certain foods, especially those found to be common triggers of adverse immunological reactions, such as wheat gluten, dairy, soy, yeast, egg, corn, oats, and more.  Various labs offer this testing, and there’s a wide variety of panels available.  Beware those that test only one type of reaction – unless multiple types are assessed, your doctor may miss a problematic reaction.
Why run this test if you have MCS?  Many of the symptoms consistent with MCS are also consistent with food allergies and intolerances – migraines, abdominal discomfort, nausea, skin itching, and many others.  It’s important to rule out an undiagnosed food allergy, especially since they are so common already, and becoming even more so.

Heavy metals – this test screens for the presence of toxic heavy metals in your system (such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, aluminum, and mercury, to name a few).  These metals can interfere with many body functions, such as detoxification, nutrient absorption and metabolism, and nerve signal conduction (from your brain to other parts of your body).  We’re exposed to these metals through many avenues – soil, air, water, food, household products, toys, storebought nutritional supplements, dental fillings, construction materials, cookware, plumbing, and more.  These metals may accumulate in various tissues of the body and reside there indefinitely, until they’re dealt with, IF they’re ever dealt with.  Important note: although the hair analysis method is popular and common, it is not the most reliable method of heavy metal testing. In fact, some metals are known to stop hair growth altogether, which will skew the results.  Samples of urine and blood are MUCH more scientifically reliable and will give a much more accurate picture.
Why run this test if you have MCS?  It’s important to find out if metal toxicity is overloading your body.  Since metals often interfere with digestion and absorption of important nutrients, detoxification of wastes and toxins, and nerve conduction (which ultimately drives ALL of these functions), it’s extremely important to find out if you’ve got a metal toxicity.

Digestive analysis – this test measures your body’s abilities to digest and absorb food as it passes through the digestive tract.  Many of these tests will also use DNA technology to screen for harmful microorganisms such as yeasts, parasites, and fungi.  It’s best to utilize the DNA method rather than a simple stool culture because the former is 200 to 500 TIMES more sensitive (and thus accurate) than the latter.
Why run this test if you have MCS?  This test is important to run on most people in general, and doubly so for those with MCS.  Many people have yeast or bacterial overgrowths or parasitic infections and have absolutely no idea.  These microbes can cause symptoms that closely mimic MCS, such as brain fog, fatigue or low energy, pain and inflammation, and abdominal symptoms.  We need to find out if you’re carrying one (or more) of these microbes so that we can eliminate it.  Sometimes that alone can greatly improve the MCS symptoms.

Wow!  That looks like a lot, and it is.  Sometimes, “a lot” is exactly what’s needed.  Functional Medicine tends to tackle problems that aren’t very cut-and-dry, but have multiple possible causes and symptoms that all overlap.  So, although it may look overwhelming at first, it’s very comforting to know that there’s an approach that will “go the distance” in helping you get to the bottom of what’s happening, and help you heal and finally have peace and relief.

Natural Weight Loss Alternatives: Part 2

Weight gain has been a bane of our existence in our current society.  It’s frustrating, especially when you’re trying to follow all the rules and do everything right.  Well, sometimes it’s not as simple as counting your calories or spending hours in the gym.  In the last post, I mentioned three major reasons why someone would gain extra weight.  Here are three more:

Cause #4: Gastrointestinal problems – many of us have major disruptions in our digestive system without realizing it.  More than 75% of all my patients have some kind of digestive dysfunction, whether it’s a parasite, a yeast, a bacterial infection, or a combination.  Much like a nice patch of grass that becomes infested with weeds, these “critters” take up residence along the walls of your intestines, keeping us from digesting and absorbing of many nutrients that help us burn fuel efficiently.  Without these nutrients, we end up with a scenario similar to the thyroid dysfunction, storing the unburned fuel in our fat cells.

Gastrointestinal bugs can also produce wastes that bog down the liver, causing the traffic jam I described above.  A comprehensive digestive analysis is a crucial tool that reveals a lot of information about how well you’re digesting and absorbing nutrients, as well as whether or not you have a parasite, yeast, or bacterial infection in your intestinal tract.

Cause #5: Excess Estrogen (both sexes) and/or Uterine Fibroids (women) – with all the hubbub surrounding hormone replacement therapy and its touted benefits, it may surprise you to learn that many women (and men) actually have too MUCH estrogen!  This is a condition known as Estrogen Dominance.  Estrogen in the proper amounts is normal and healthy, but too much estrogen can wreak havoc on the body.  In men, excess estrogen starts to compete with testosterone, which shifts a man’s metabolism more toward fat storage.  In women, there is less testosterone, but the outcome is similar: easier fat storage.

In addition, estrogen can promote abnormal uterine growth, called a uterine fibroid.  Uterine fibroids are benign tumors of the uterus, and with excess estrogen driving them, they can grow very large–the size of a grapefruit, or even bigger.  These can contribute toward significant (and sometimes rapid) weight gain.  This is especially true if your body has shifted toward making a more powerful form of estrogen rather than its normal, healthy mild form.  Often, a blood test for estrogen levels doesn’t go far enough; it’s good to test for the actual ratio between the milder and more powerful forms of estrogen.  This test is simple and can possibly save your life by alerting you to a possible risk of certain hormone-driven cancers such as breast cancer.

Cause #6: Excess Insulin – estrogen isn’t the only hormone that promotes fat storage.  When we eat a meal, especially one high in sugar or carbohydrates (even complex carbs), our blood sugar levels rise.  To counteract this, the pancreas will release insulin, whose job it is to take that blood sugar and bring it inside the cells for fuel.  However, if there is too much insulin over time, the cells become stuffed with blood sugar and they don’t need anymore.  So they stop responding to insulin when it comes knocking with more blood sugar in hand.  Now the blood sugar has nowhere else to go except–you guessed it–right into the fat cells.  Most doctors will test fasting glucose (a very simple and routine blood test) but may not run another very important test that measures how well your body has handled its blood sugar over the long-term, a period of about 4 months.

As you can see, there are several possible reasons why a person might gain weight, none of which have much to do with calorie-cutting or spending time on the treadmill.  When the body functions inefficiently or there’s a breakdown in body function, one of the most common ways this shows up is weight gain.  The important part is finding out which cause or causes are actually happening, because each of these causes requires a different approach in order to be effective and get results.  This is why comprehensive testing is so important.  Remember: for every test not run, the practitioner is only guessing, and you may not see the results you’d like.  It’s best to know for sure – it saves time and money in the long run.