Are You the Sum of Your Parts?
Could you remove your eyes, carry them around in your pocket with you all day, and still be able to see? It seems ridiculous to think about, but that’s essentially how conventional medicine sees you – you’re a set of eyeballs, a liver, a heart, a pair of lungs, a brain; all disconnected from the host. Our current healthcare model isn’t designed to treat you as a complete person, rather you are divided into organ systems.
If you suffer from a chronic disease, you have likely seen numerous physicians, depending on the circumstance. So, for instance, if you have diabetes, you probably have an endocrinologist, a cardiologist, and a family practice physician. Each specialty may have great things to offer, but results are usually minimal because there’s really no comprehensive strategy to get to the root of why you have diabetes in the first place. It can be likened to pouring one bucket of water on a five alarm fire. You’re not going to make much progress unless you attack the fire at the source and from all angles. That’s what functional medicine does. It addresses dysfunction with a comprehensive strategy to fight the root causes of symptoms and improve your overall state of health, not just the state of one organ system. To a functional medicine practitioner, you are a complete person, every part of you matters.
Let’s take a look at depression as an example of how functional medicine can create a real change in symptoms. Depression is widespread in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 16.2 million adults (6.7% of all US adults) had at least one major depressive episode in 2016 (1). Conventional treatment for depression generally involves an antidepressant medication and behavioral therapy. But, studies have shown that most of those treated for depression with traditional psychiatry do not meet remission. Why is this? One answer may be that conventional psychiatry treats brain dysfunction with medication and ignores the origin of the dysfunction which may be nutritionally driven.
When addressing depression from a functional medicine/nutrition view, we must assess the entire person. There is a direct connection between the brain and the gut via the vagus nerve. So, digestive function becomes extremely important when it comes to treating all mental health disorders including depression. Most of the serotonin (a neurotransmitter important in preventing depression) is created in your gut by a healthy gut microbiome (2). If your little gut microbes aren’t creating enough serotonin, you can experience decreased appetite, anxiety, hypervigilance, depression and sleep disorders. In other words, your brain is not able to function at an optimal level. Gut dysfunction is responsible for a variety of mental health issues. If we ignore the gut dysfunction (as is often the case in traditional psychiatry), we miss the opportunity to effectively treat the depression using nutrition and lifestyle based medicine. Nutrition based strategies are low cost and have none of the side effects of psychiatric medications.
Another option when managing depression from a functional medicine/nutrition approach is to teach patients how to modify their lifestyle to create more brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF helps to keep your brain healthy, can actually help you create new brain cells, and reduces the symptoms of depression. Creating more BDNF can be accomplished by exercise, following a diet that is low in sugar and unhealthy oils, and high in plant based foods, and by practicing meditation. Making these types of lifestyle adjustments can help to create a healthy brain environment and reduce symptoms of depression without medication.
These are just two examples of how a functional medicine provider would partner with their patient to manage depression. Every patient is an individual, with unique circumstances. A functional medicine/nutrition provider will utilize all the tools necessary to help their patients reach and maintain an optimal outcome. Medication is life changing for some and may be necessary in many cases. But medication is not always the answer and it's never the only answer. Psychiatric medications have undesirable side effects such as increased appetite, weight gain, nutrient deficiencies, diabetes, dry mouth, digestive distress and fatigue (3). And, as with most medications, they shouldn't be used for years on end. They can be helpful initially, but, patients can get stuck in the cycle of taking a medication for a 'disease,' then taking a medication for the side effect of the first medication and so on. Studies indicate that lifestyle modification is actually more effective in controlling the symptoms of depression than medication and/or therapy alone.
We are not machines; we can’t just replace parts that aren’t working optimally and expect a different result if we haven’t fixed the underlying problem. Functional medicine can identify and attack the root cause(s) of a ‘disease’ and change the course. In fact, most chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, dementia, cancer, and mental illness) can be prevented and/or reversed with a functional medicine/nutrition approach. Let's move away from focusing on what disease a person has and move toward a healthcare system that looks at the person as a whole.
For more information on how functional medicine/nutrition can improve your symptoms, contact us for a free 15 minute phone consult.