Updated: Feb 27, 2022
We all seem to know someone experiencing health issues both young and old alike. We may be dealing with it ourselves. How many people do you know who are chronically ill? Chronic illness and chronic pain are all too common these days. Sadly people deal with these things without satisfactory management strategies or answers. Mental illness, depression, IBS, and back pain often can fall into the same category of poor management and chronicity. Today, people fill their calendars with medical appointments and cabinets with medication. It's not uncommon for individuals to get treated for a host of illnesses like autoimmune disease, cancer, mental illness or GI problems. Diagnoses like diabetes and heart disease are considered acceptable parts of aging yet they are occurring in younger and younger people.
Has the world and our environment become so toxic that illness is inevitable? Is the only cure medication or surgery? We seem to be surrounded by advertisements for pharmaceuticals to manage the 72,000+ types of medical conditions that are recognized in the U.S medical system today. Yet these ailments are not root of the problem, they are symptoms of problems. Our body is a group of systems that interact. As disease processes progress, symptoms can surface in many areas of the body because of this relationship. When we see multiple symptoms arise, the medical community refers to them as co-morbidities. Co-morbidities are disease symptoms that can occur together. In the past, these co-morbidities were considered separate problems in different systems. Now we understand that systems rely on one another. The symptoms are not unrelated but alternate manifestations of an underlying disease process. Consider, for example, heart disease and diabetes. These were once thought to be unrelated however medicine now appreciates that both are related to insulin resistance. There are also similar disease manifestations between the brain and the gut. Manifestations of the same problem in the body can be expressed by several different systems in different ways based on the the way the problem bathes our genes. This why one person might present with insulin resistance and high blood pressure while another might present with type II diabetes. If we look at symptoms as separate problems, treat them as separate and only treat the symptoms, we are missing the root of the issue. Understanding the possible connections and even the root cause will be what ultimately optimizes health.
Disease processes are highly influenced by life style, diet, stress and our environment. Dr. Mimi Guarneri, MD and author of The Heart Speaks teaches that our biography determines our biology. It's not just our genetics, it's the interaction of life style, our life time line, coping mechanisms and genetics that influence our health or our disease. When we view disease process as something happening to us, it often can make us feel powerless and seem like we have no control. What's exciting is that this is the not case. We have the power to manage root causes thus changing outcomes and reducing/reversing the process of disease.
In modern Western medicine what are often managed are symptoms. What many people don't realize is that the causes of these symptoms result from the interaction of our organ systems. The causes are not necessarily treated. When these interactions of body systems are less than ideal, symptoms arise. They may appear unrelated like the example of high blood pressure and diabetes. If we treat only the symptoms of high blood pressure or only the symptoms the diabetes, we may not have explored to the root of the problem which is insulin resistance. Without addressing this, we may see additional manifestations in the brain like Alzheimer's disease also related to insulin resistance. In addition our genetics influence the body's expression in unique ways.
Think of medics management like sitting on tacks. If you only take one of the tacks away (treat a symptom), your body doesn't necessarily get optimal relief because you are still sitting on the remaining tacks that weren't removed. To get optimal relief, it makes sense to remove all the tacks by addressing the root cause.
Think of this another way. Consider mopping up a leaking sink. Dr. Mark Hymen, MD, physician at the Cleveland Clinic for Functional Medicine equates medical management of symptoms to using a towel to mop up the floor soaking wet from an overflowing sink. If you don't turn off the faucet, the floor will continue to be wet with water despite cleaning it up. The floor will never be dry because the source of the wet floor hasn't been addressed. The sink is still running. Medication and surgery treat symptoms. They are the towels mopping up the wet floor. Do not misunderstand this statement. The towel is useful especially to help dry what water is already on the floor but real solution comes when the faucet is turned off at the source. Another solution is to slow the stream of water so that the towel can be more effective. Addressing things like life style, diet, stress, and social health are wonderful tools to turn off or slow the faucet.
While acute trauma is managed successfully with an unparalleled approach in this country, chronic disease is not well managed. Autoimmune disease, cancer, gut dysfunction and mental illness fall into these categories. With modern additions of chemicals, processed foods, environmental toxins and many new types of life stressors, it's no wonder that chronic illness has become more wide spread. These elements effect the flow volume and speed of the leaking sink water. When someone's daily well being is compromised with trauma or stress, when diet isn't ideal, when stress levels are high and/or when sleep is compromised, the water starts to flow harder and faster out of the sink. The impact of the towel (surgery and medication) is then less relevant or effective. Consequently it's not uncommon that we observe surgery and medication to fall short of a solution for a health problem. They can help control the water damage to the floor but their impact may be marginal depending how fast and strong the water flows. Surgery and medicine also come with their own ramifications and side effects. Though it can't be argued that surgery and medication have sound impact, we often observe people continuing have pain even after surgery. Still others take medication that needs to be increased or changed due to lack of efficacy over time. To use the water analogy once again, the stronger the flow, the more towels you need, the greater the water saturation on the floor. If the water flows fast enough, more towels are necessary to control the damage.
What we don't hear much about in modern medicine is how our thoughts, lifestyle, emotions and social network affect the ways in which the body systems interact and work. They can help slow or even stop the leak. Our mind and nervous system interpret the environment and, through this interpretation, signal the body to change its cell and genetic activity accordingly. By changing our environment or diet or changing the perception of our environment, cell function, genetic activity and our inner physiologic environment change.
Modern medicine has taken the power away from the individual and it has compartmentalized symptoms that seem unrelated. It also sadly has led us to believe that we can only be healed by extraordinary means like surgery and medication, or worse, that it's just faulty genetics that led to disease. Science and professionals who study mind/body, integrative and functional medicine have begun to uncover the impact of how conservative management of one's environment and lifestyle place the power back in the hands of the individual. This is not necessarily a replacement for medical intervention but it certainly is an adjunct/support. The focus is to OPTIMIZE your health not to simply treat the disease or dysfunction. There is certainly a time and place for surgery and medication but there is room for management strategies to treat the whole person and the root causes of disease that led to the symptoms.
If you have been fortunate enough to have watched the documentary HEAL on Amazon Prime, then you may already have insight into this idea. If you have not, it's worth your time. As a student of functional medicine, the documentary is particularly meaningful. It interviews leaders in research and the practice of mind body medicine. The message in this documentary....the body has the power to heal itself. Our job is to get out of its way and allow it to do the work. While the documentary validates surgery and pharmaceuticals, it supports the powerful impact of conservative treatment, diet, lifestyle and social support for the body's inherent healing process. Our thoughts and emotions effect our health in powerful ways. With a few exceptions, disease is not a foreign invader that brings illness TO us. Much of chronic disease however is a result of lifestyle. Lasting illness, severity of the body's reaction and the overall impact are influenced by what is INHERENTLY going on in the body. Breakdown of the body's ability to heal itself is often inhibited by our lifestyle including the food we are eating, our socialization, present or past trauma, our environment, and our stressors.
Ancient Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine has long viewed disease as a process of 6 stages: accumulation, aggravation, spread, localization, disease and finally diversification. What this basically means is that disease is dysfunction in one area that builds up and gradually becomes toxic to the interacting systems of the body. It continues to build and spread depending on how it is fueled. Because systems interact, the impact can be widespread when we cannot contain it or dampen the accumulation. Depending on what other inflammation, irritants or aggregates are present in the body, the effects have potential to be more severe and lead to a variety of symptom manifestations. When effects are wide spread, problems seem separate but in fact they are interconnected. Our medical system has been set up to compartmentalize symptoms treating them as unrelated to each other, having separate unrelated causes not as the interaction of systems. Functional Medicine and Integrative Medicine look to incorporate ways to address the leaking faucet not just to mop up the floor. The approach is to optimize your heath by appreciating the interactions of systems and address issues at the root level.
Consider the way you look at health care on a personal level and a global level. Consider the power and control you have regarding your own health and your body. Health and medicine are much more than what happens to us in a hospital, at a gym, or in a clinic. It's affected by the way we manage our stress, the way we socialize, the way we eat, the time we devote to self care, and most importantly the way we live each and every day. What we do has an impact. It's up to us to take the reins and decide how to manage it with some guidance from knowledgeable health care providers.
Functional and integrative health care providers exist to help with management. Practitioners are joining the ranks even in areas like physical therapy, nutrition, health coaching, acupuncture, chiropractic, primary care medicine and specialized medical disciplines like GI, cardiology and orthopedics. The goal is to give you tools for health care not just sick care and to optimize your health in all aspects of your life not just your symptoms. We are our own healers. Providers like this offer you additional education and guidance to manage your health and healing. They practice to offer options and to treat you as a whole person. They see medicine from a team approach. You are a part of that team. Both you and the practitioner are working together for your optimal health as well as management of your symptoms.
You have choices. You have a say. You are driving the bus. You are in control. You have the power and authority to optimize your health, to hault the spread of disease and to even reverse disease in some cases. Your perspective and your choices have consequences. It all makes a difference. When you understand how to better use tools that you have, the outcomes can be amazing. If we choice health care in place of sick care, consider how good you could feel. Imagine the things you could do when you feel your best. The potential is there and it's pretty amazing.
Saxena MD,S. (2022), Cardiometabolic Advanced Practice Module. Transforming the Assessment, Prevention and Management of Chronic Metabolic and Cardiovascular Disorders. (APM) [Power Point Slides], The Institute for Functional Medicine, Federal Way, WA.
Guarneri MD, M. (2022), Cardiometabolic Advanced Practice Module. Transforming the Assessment, Prevention and Management of Chronic Metabolic and Cardiovascular Disorders(APM) [Power Point Slide], The Institute for Functional Medicine, Federal Way, WA.
Hymen MD, M. (2021). Introduction to Functional Medicine. Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice. [Power Point Slides]. The Institute for Functional Medicine. Federal Way, WA
Noonan, K. (Director). (2017). HEAL [Film]. Adam Schomer and Richell Morrissey.