Category Archives: 6. Health Topics from a Functional Perspective

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!

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.


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.