Tag Archives: stress

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. 🙂

Natural Weight Loss Alternatives: Part 1

One of the most common questions people ask is, “how do I lose weight?”  Indeed, most of us are carrying around a few extra pounds.  If you are, you’re not alone; two-thirds of the population is now officially overweight.

There is good news and bad news.  The good news is, the problem can usually be solved.  The bad news is, it’s not a simple answer.  If it were, we wouldn’t all be struggling like we do!

Weight gain is a symptom of an underlying problem, and as with any healthcare dilemma, it’s extremely important to get to the bottom of what’s causing the extra weight to accumulate.  There are lots of causes of extra weight gain, too many to explore completely in one article, but I will touch on the most common causes and perhaps write a continuation in the future.

Cause #1: Low Thyroid Function – your thyroid gland makes thyroid hormone, which is a biochemical gas pedal for your cells.  It tells your cells how fast their metabolism should be.  It keeps you going, but also eases back on the throttle when necessary so that you don’t burn out. If your cells aren’t getting enough thyroid hormone, their metabolic activity slows down.  When this happens, your cells don’t burn fuel (blood sugar, oxygen, etc) like they should and the extra fuel gets stored in the fat cells.

Now, consider this: there are literally 22 different causes that fit into 7 different categories of thyroid dysfunction.  And it may not even be an actual problem with the thyroid gland at all!  The real culprit may be coming from any one of several other body systems, and the thyroid gland could be the victim, not the suspect.  This is why it’s extremely important to have a *complete* thyroid function panel done, and to have it interpreted correctly.  There are two problems that most people encounter; one is, most conventionally-trained doctors will only run TSH and maybe T4 or if you’re lucky, they’ll add T3 Uptake. The second problem is, the lab results aren’t interpreted in a way that evaluate for proper function, so many conventional doctors miss an underlying thyroid problem.

Cause #2:  Overactive Adrenal glands – your adrenal glands are small triangular-shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys.  Their main function is to help us deal with stress.  They produce and release cortisol, our “stress hormone” whose job it is to raise blood sugar and heart rate so that we have more energy to handle the stress we face.

The catch is this: we’re only designed to handle immediate stressors that quickly pass.  If we’re under too much stress for too long, our bodies pay the price.  If cortisol levels are consistently too high, they will promote weight gain, especially around the lower abdomen and hips.  If the problem worsens, a person’s face can become rounder and slightly more pale.  It is important to have your cortisol hormone levels checked.  The best test for this is actually not a blood test; it’s a saliva test.  The cortisol found in saliva is the amount of active hormone readily available for your body to use, so it’s a more relevant test.

Cause #3: Liver Congestion – the liver is a large organ under the right side of your rib cage that basically acts as a garbage disposal or water treatment plant.  It has more than 500 jobs, and detoxification is at the top of the list.  Every toxic chemical we breathe, eat, or drink (air pollution, food additives), and every metabolic waste product from all your cells passes through the liver to be cleansed and converted to a less- or non-toxic substance.  The result is that the wastes go to the kidneys and the circulating blood is clean.

If your liver gets bogged down with too many toxins (poor diet, polluted area, or excess hormones), then it creates a traffic jam and all the toxins waiting in line to be detoxified start to back up.  As a defense mechanism, your body will try to pick the safest spot to store the excess toxins, where they will do the least amount of damage.  That would be (drumroll, please): the fat cells.  There are excellent tests that evaluate true liver detoxification function that go much further beyond the basic blood tests your conventional doctor is familiar with.  The functional tests are usually part of a much larger panel designed to evaluate a wide variety of body functions.

Please see Part 2 for more!

How do I choose the right probiotic?

A reader writes…

“How do you go about selecting the right probiotic?  I’ve heard such conflicting information.  Some say that probiotics are useless, because you’re born with what you have and there’s no way to replenish.  What are your thoughts?”

My first thought is, who on earth is telling people there’s no way to replenish good intestinal bacteria?  Whoever it is, he or she is gravely misinformed on several counts.  First, we’re not actually born with any gut bacteria; we acquire it early on–first during a regular vaginal birth and next during breastfeeding.  (Those who did neither missed out on these opportunities and may not have adequate levels of good bacteria if they didn’t acquire it from other places.)

Next, it’s important to understand that our normal gut flora (beneficial or “good” bacteria) are constantly under attack.  These attacks come from anywhere: stress, processed foods, alcohol, tap water, soil, other animals, medications (especially antibiotics and antacids), other people, and lack of stomach acid, just to scratch the surface.

Why do we need these bacteria in the first place?  They carry out an extensive array of extremely important functions.  They help fight some major disease-causing bacteria; in fact, they help form most of our immune system!  They turn vitamins into their active forms so that our body can use them.  They help you absorb nutrients, including fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals, and others.  There’s even a growing body of evidence that suggests these bacteria may play a role in lowering cholesterol.

So, when we don’t have enough of these bacteria, the above benefits start to evaporate; the immune system becomes weak, other “bad” bacteria (as well as yeasts, fungi, and parasites) can become opportunistic and “install” themselves, you can become seriously deficient in multiple important nutrients, and if the recent studies are correct, your cholesterol may elevate.  Does any of this sound familiar?  It should.  Why?  Because most people are indeed missing much of the good bacteria they need.

So, we turn to probiotic supplements.  I would love to sit down with someone who doesn’t believe probiotics do any good and show them the before-and-after digestive analysis tests of my patients (with names protected, of course), and show them the growth of the colonies of good bacteria between the initial test and the subsequent follow-up.  The numbers of good bacteria do improve.  This is how I know the probiotics are working.

So how does one choose a good probiotic?  There are quite a few choices out there and unfortunately, not all probiotics are created equal.  The supplement industry is largely left to police itself without a lot of regulation, which has both advantages and disadvantages.  The bad news is, there are some that don’t do squat.  The good news is, there are many that are quite effective, and these companies are free to innovate and develop superior products, which many of them have done.

So how do we separate the “men from the boys”, so to speak?  There are two fundamental qualities to look for in a probiotic: a variety of species, and high, potent doses.

At your local health food store, most of the products contain anywhere from 3 to 5 species or so.  This is okay, but it’s not quite enough.  This is because your intestinal tract is essentially a small ecosystem.  There are literally billions, even trillions of different types of bacteria happily co-existing together, each of them occupying space and keeping each other in check, ultimately creating a delicate balance.  Supplementing with a 3-species formula won’t do much.  (Most formulas available only through healthcare professionals typically have much higher quality and potency than those available to the public at health food stores and other places.) The most diverse higher-quality* formulas we have found so far (and thus, the ones we use) contain 12 different species.  While that doesn’t sound like much of an improvement in the grand scheme of things, it seems to work quite well, each additional species having a compound effect.

Next, let’s talk potency.  Potency is measured in colony-forming units, or CFUs.  One CFU, theoretically, goes on to start its own entire colony.  It’s mind-bending to consider how many billions of microorganisms there are in just a teaspoon of probiotic powder.  The storebought brands tend toward lower dosages, somewhere around 5 to 35 billion CFUs.  The highest dose medical grade supplements we found (and incidentally, the ones we use) contain 100 billion CFUs…in a single quarter teaspoon.

And last but not least, as with all supplements, it’s important to avoid supplements that contain (or come from a factory that uses) gluten fillers (wheat germ, wheat flour, wheat proteins, food starches, etc), yeast, soy, egg, milk, corn, shellfish, and MSG, just to name a few.  This is because many (if not most) people actually have immunological hypersensitivites to various common foods, in which the body’s immune system perceives that food as a toxin and launches an attack against it, creating lots of inflammation and chronic, mysterious health problems.  Many storebought supplement companies may be contaminated with these common allergens, but most medical grade supplements specifically state that they are free of all of these substances.

Since our ability to maintain good bacteria balance declines with stress, age, and lifestyle, it’s good to take a high-quality probiotic as part of a maintenance regimen.  This is especially true after finishing a round of antibiotic treatment, such as that for an infection.

*There are other formulas that may contain up to 14 different species, but these are not potent enough to be considered medical food/medical grade supplements, which have the highest quality and potency.

In health,
~Dr. L. Sweeney
Functional Medicine, Functional Endocrinology, and Functional Immunology
San Antonio Family Alternative Medicine

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What is Functional Medicine?

The short answer is, Functional Medicine is the future of medicine, if we are to get well and stay well as a society.  It’s the direction in which regular medicine should have gone.  It should be used as the primary method of treatment, especially in cases that are not acute, infectious, catastrophic, life-threatening, or other emergencies.

The long answer is, the definition of Functional Medicine largely depends on who you talk to.

  • The Institute of Functional Medicine, arguably the leader and Gold Standard of the field, describes a science-based, patient-centered form of healthcare that recognizes biochemical individuality and favors active prevention.
  • A talented colleague of mine defines Functional Medicine as a complete lifestyle-modification program that evaluates physiology using extensive diagnostic lab testing and then corrects any imbalances found by applying specific, individually unique combinations of neuro-metabolic therapies.
  • Another talented colleague of mine mentions looking at everything (hormone balance, nutrient metabolism, immune system, and a plethora of other categories) all at the same time, leaving no stone unturned

Functional Medicine really is “all that” – in terms of the explanations given above, as well as being Just That Cool.

When I explain it, Functional Medicine can take on a few different personas that all relate back to the same Big Idea.  Various descriptions are as follows…

  • A highly-advanced version of Clinical Nutrition, taken to another level as practiced by a doctor, that bases its herbal and nutritional plans on comprehensive lab testing
  • A third type of healthcare that is separate from both conventional and alternative medicine branches we’re already familiar with, that utilizes the best of both worlds
  • An emerging medical subspecialty that combines conventional testing and natural therapies
  • A logical, scientific alternative for those looking for natural or holistic healthcare, perfect for those who don’t know where to turn or who to trust.
  • A scientific-yet-holistic of looking at the functions of the body and how they are inter-connected, identifying dysfunctions in key areas using lab tests, and then correcting them with a comprehensive lifestyle modification plan.

That last one is my favorite (couldn’t you tell?)

Functional Medicine really shines with chronic, complex disorders, especially the degenerative and/or mysterious.  I can say it is definitely worth the effort, commitment, and investment!  Most Functional Medicine practitioners know firsthand; many of the best doctors got involved with the field because of their incredible experiences.

We’re a product of the choices we have made every day.  Every day we have another chance to stay on our current path or choose something different.  What are you waiting for? 🙂