Identifying the Underlying Cause
The time has come for a paradigm shift in medicine. More than ever, patients are seeking alternatives to conventional medications. In part, this is due to an increasing amount of research showing that many medications are causing negative side effects. These side effects can often be worse than the original condition that they are prescribed to treat. Additionally, patients often feel frustrated because they don’t feel better taking their prescribed medications.
As a naturopathic physician, my patients are often surprised that I prescribe medications along with herbal supplements, vitamins and dietary changes. I view all these therapies as tools in my tool kit to treat patients. I use the most appropriate treatment that will be the most effective, have the least amount of side effects and most importantly promote healing. Sometime a natural therapy will do the job and other times a medication is needed. Rather than just treating symptoms I prescribe therapies to help the body regain function and balance. I truly believe this is the medicine of the future. Identifying the underlying cause of disease often means finding the original imbalance that caused a cascade of negative reactions in the body. Ultimately these reactions lead to uncomfortable symptoms and disease.
After being in practice for the past 10 years it has become increasingly clear that there are certain core imbalances that impact our health and vitality. Addressing these three areas can help establish a foundation for health and address several underlying triggers for many chronic symptoms and diseases.
Inflammation is the body’s response to injury. The immune system is signaled to clean up damaged tissue. Inflammation becomes a problem when it is chronic and left unchecked. Inflammation in different parts of the body leads to different conditions. Inflammation in the joints leads to arthritis, inflammation in the blood vessels contributes to heart disease and inflammation in the brain can cause attention deficit and depression. There are simple blood tests available to identify levels of systemic inflammation such has C-reactive protein (CRP). Other tests are more specific such as Lp-PLA2, a marker for vascular inflammation that leads to atherosclerosis and heart disease.
There are plenty of anti-inflammatory nutrients and medications on the market. My treatment plans for reducing inflammation often include high doses of an herb called Curcumin (also known as Tumeric) and high quality fish oil. However, perhaps more important is the identification of inflammatory triggers that caused the damage in the first place. I find the diet is a good place to start. Diets high in sugar are notorious for causing inflammation particularly in our blood vessels. Some people can react to even healthy foods. Food intolerance and allergy testing can help identify which foods may trigger the immune system to set up a cascade of inflammatory responses. Decreasing the amount of inflammatory foods in the diet can have a powerful effect on overall health.
Recent research has identified that the good bacteria in our digestive tract plays an important role in our health. These good bacteria in our colon appear to communicate and strengthen our immune system, improve our metabolism and make important nutrients for our bodies to use. Our health can take a turn for the worse when less healthy bacteria, yeast and parasites take over and thrive in our intestines.
These low grade infections in the gut can lead to unpleasant digestive symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, reflux and bad breath. These bad bugs can also trigger an immune response that is thought to worsen inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and Colitis as well as autoimmune conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus. As if this isn’t bad enough, this imbalance of bad bugs can also have more systemic effects such as weight gain, chronic infections, anxiety, depression and attention deficit.
For many of us an unhealthy digestive system is playing a role in chronic health issues. This is unfortunately more common with the prolific use of antibiotics in medicine and in our food supply. Fortunately, more advanced testing is available to identify the health of the digestive tract in its entirety. A simple stool test can tell us how much good bacteria you have populating your colon, gut inflammation levels and how well you are digesting your food. It can even tell us what bad bugs you have and the best treatment to get rid of them. Identifying and treating the imbalance of bad bugs, following a therapeutic diet and taking a pharmaceutical grade probiotic for a period of time can help establish a healthy gut and robust microbiome. This is an essential step for establishing long lasting health and vitality.
Stress Hormone Imbalance
Cortisol is the main hormone that the adrenal glands produce in response to stress. Cortisol is produced daily in order to meet the body’s daily demands. Typically cortisol levels are highest in the morning and then slowly decline throughout the day. The body recognizes stress in many different forms. Emotional stress, physical injury, inflammation, pain, blood sugar changes or sleep disruption can all elicit a stress reaction and cortisol production in the body.
Cortisol is a natural steroid and anti-inflammatory that helps the body reduce pain especially after an injury. However, if the body produces too much cortisol over time this can lead to bone loss. Cortisol also helps mobilize sugar from our liver to be used by our brain and muscles during stressful situations. This is a very helpful adaptation when we need immediate energy to fight or flee from a predator. However, many of our chronic stresses of today do not require a big physical feat of strength and endurance that uses up this mobilized sugar. As a result instead of being used as energy much of this mobilized sugar is then stored as abdominal fat. Consequently, one of the most recognized sign of chronic stress is the “spare tire” weight gain.
When stress becomes chronic the body is often not able to keep up with the demand. Instead, other hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone will convert to cortisol in the body to help pick up the slack. Many times this shifting of hormone resources leads to hormone imbalances in both men and women. Women will develop menstrual cycle irregularities, PMS, hot flashes, low sex drive, mood swings, weight gain, insomnia, acne breakouts, infertility and unexplained fatigue. Men will often show signs of depression, loss of muscle mass, erectile dysfunction, hair loss, chronic indigestion and chronic joint pain.
Stress reactions and cortisol dysregulation are often the underlying cause for many hormone imbalances. Many patients come to my office for evaluation and treatment of hormone imbalances. Some have even had blood tests. Yet, rarely have they had the most important evaluation---a stress hormone test. This test involves taking 5 different saliva tests to measure cortisol levels throughout the day. Treatments vary depending if the cortisol levels are too high or too low. One of my favorite natural treatments for both men and women is an herbal medicine called Maca. This South Peruvian herb has been shown to balance hormone levels when they are either too high or too low. Other times men and women benefit from Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) as a way to support their hormone balance. Although treatments may vary, it is important to recognize that stress hormone regulation plays an integral part in all our hormone levels and impacts our overall health.
Identifying these three underlying causes of disease—inflammation, digestive disturbance and stress hormone imbalance—will not only address many chronic illnesses but improve your overall health and wellness. Are you wondering where to start? The doctors at NaturoMedica are well versed in the functional medicine testing and treatment options available. We look forward to helping you focus on the optimal functioning of your body as you seek a more vibrant and vital life.