How have you been feeling? Living through a pandemic has prompted many of us to put our health into the foreground of our lives. We’ve all had to reexamine our health choices and contemplate measures to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.
This is an excellent and opportune time to explore an approach to health called “Functional Medicine,” which views the body as a tree and how we feel as leaves on that tree.
All of us need to have a conceptual knowledge of the type of healthcare/lifestyle philosophy we want to follow. Consider these fundamental questions.
- What does “healthy” mean to you?
- Which aspects of lifestyle do you find most important for you?
- How will you incorporate a health strategy in your day-to-day life?
- How do we keep our immune system strong?
- How do we implement healthy eating?
- Who do we trust to help us to navigate our health?
- Who can we talk to about our symptoms and health concerns?
In general, the path to becoming and staying healthy is a simple one: eat nutritious food, rest adequately, move your body, find ways to deal with stress in multiple appropriate ways, and do what gives positive meaning to your life.
How we move, the food we eat, the liquids we drink, the pollution and barrage of chemicals we are exposed to, how we sleep and deal with stress all can be viewed as the roots of the tree creating health (or disease) throughout the tree.
If the tree gets poor nutrition from the soil and is over-watered, receiving little sunlight, it will not thrive. Similarly, the human body has core requirements for vitality.
Understanding Functional Medicine
Functional Medicine looks at the various “functions” serving the body as a whole. Some of these functions are cellular communication, defense, repair, assimilation of nutrition, detoxification, and elimination. Disruptions in these functions affect the system as a whole creating physical symptoms, which are your body’s way of communicating to you that core functions are compromised.
Functional medicine encourages you to address the “root cause” upstream from the symptoms. Listen to the symptoms rather than just suppressing them, and you will be on your way to creating a healthy life.
For example, which of the following choices makes the most sense?
If you are sitting on hot coals, you can take ibuprofen to decrease the pain or remove the hot coals from your chair.
Similarly, if you have a headache, you can take a pain reliever, and the headache is resolved for the moment. You have treated the symptom successfully, but it will return unless you have addressed the “root cause.”
Root causes may include:
- You try to survive on four hours of sleep a night.
- You drink alcoholic beverages nightly.
- You live on drive-throughs and fast food.
- You are breathing in mycotoxins from unnoticed water damage in your home.
Each of these needs to be addressed according to that root cause to avoid further pain.
Understanding the interconnectedness of your lifestyle choices is significant. Focusing on the headache symptom and deciding to drink less alcohol will help your body overall, improving its functions. Thus, you sleep better. Even small changes can provide promising results.
The primary lifestyle areas to address are:
- Stress management
- Internal and external environment
Always refer to these critical areas when your health is compromised, as they will remind you where improvements can start.
You are born with a set of genes that endow you with a blueprint of what can happen with your health, but this is not fixed. You do not have to get the diabetes that everyone in your family has. This genetic material has to be read and interpreted. This function is strongly affected by the environment in which you bathe those genes. So control that environment!
Your body receives information from the food you eat, how much you exercise, how much you sleep, or how upset you get over life’s challenges. To put it another way, the DNA in your genes is like a computer’s hard drive, which is packed with programs. It is the information from the environment that determines which programs will be run and at what time.
Your genes load the gun, but your environment pulls the trigger!
When deciding to take control of your health through the path of Functional Medicine, you will go on a journey of discovery and look closely at six significant pillars of your health.
- Diet and Digestion – Our digestive function is equally as important as our diet. A healthy meal that is not digested properly creates a toxic effect on our bodies.
- Environment and Detoxification – Our environment is becoming more toxic. It is essential to create a timeline that addresses toxic exposure throughout a lifetime which can affect how the mitochondria function.
- Mitochondria – Found in every cell in your body, mitochondria are always busy turning food and oxygen into energy. It is here that metabolism happens. Learning how to boost your mitochondria, which are sensitive to damage, is essential.
- Brain Health – Cognitive health is essential for overall health: inflammation, chronic stress, poor digestive function, and sleep deprivation are all brain-busters.
- Stress and Hormones – Too much stress means too much cortisol, which can disrupt our body’s communication center and our other hormones.
- Lifestyle – One of the significant issues addressed by a Functional Medicine doctor is lifestyle, including nutrition, exercise, alcohol use, and more.
Throughout my investigations into my patient’s health, two key areas often emerge. This is gut health and thyroid health (which spill over into brain health, weight, energy levels, stress, and more).
For those dealing with gut health problems, Functional Medicine might be the path to feeling better. In Functional Medicine, we look at the many functions of the digestive tract and evaluate it through your health history and timeline.
We also use specialty testing such as stool testing, breath testing, nutritional testing, and evaluation of your microbiome to try and identify the root cause or causes of your specific symptoms.
Your GI tract has evolved into an incredibly sophisticated and complex unit that functions to take everything we ingest and does the amazing job of digesting and assimilating the nutrition while at the same time keeping out foreign invaders (bacteria, viruses, and parasites), as well as artificial chemicals like herbicides, pesticides, glyphosate, food coloring, texturizers, preservatives, etc.
Because of this, your immune system has strategically been placed to line your intestines like the TSA agents guard entry points in the airport. We know that 70-80% of your immune system is found in your GI tract because of this great potential for injury.
Not only can the things mentioned above wreak havoc on your intestinal barrier, but things we do not even consider having an impact on the gut do. Things such as lack of sleep, the day-to-day stressors you are exposed to, and even concussions or other brain injuries impact our intestinal health because of the significant gut-brain connection.
After all, we call our GI tract (our enteric nervous system) our second brain.
Because of this intimate connection, the quality and the types of food we eat, the pollution we breathe in, how we view the world, the mood we are in, the stress we internalize can all have a significant impact on this GI environment and lead to inflammation and intestinal permeability or “leaky gut.”
Leaky gut can contribute to various health issues such as SIBO/IBS, celiac disease, food sensitivities/allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, anxiety, headaches, fatigue, and brain fog. Another effect of leaky gut is that it can set the stage for autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune disorder that causes your immune system to attack your own thyroid. This disease, common in women, has affected over 14 million people in North America alone and is consistently increasing.
Common symptoms include overwhelming fatigue, hair loss, brain fog, weight gain, constipation, and depression. Often it takes years for a diagnosis, and many times patients are told to take an antidepressant or that they are just getting older.
Those that persist are finally diagnosed, and thyroid replacement started, but symptoms still frequently persist. In Functional Medicine, we look not only at the labs and whether your TSH is “normal,” but we do a more comprehensive thyroid panel and assess how you are functioning.
We work to optimize your thyroid function and look for other issues contributing to your symptoms, which may include unaddressed inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, mycotoxin exposure, Stealth infections, and exposure to heavy metals, to mention a few.
We look for the root cause(s) of your autoimmunity because we know that if a singular autoimmune issue is not addressed, you are statistically more likely to get a second, third or fourth because the underlying problems have not been addressed.
After creating a blueprint of your life and investigating the root causes of your health problems, the climb up the mountain begins. Your Functional Medicine journey is one of commitment, challenges, and boundless rewards.