Functional medicine practitioners like myself have been taught to look for the root causes of disease, rather than simply treating a patient’s symptoms. For instance, if a patient comes to me with high blood pressure, I will consider all the factors that may be playing a role in the blood pressure being elevated, and address each and every one (if the patient is willing) before simply recommending prescription medication. Why? Not only do medications have side effects, the underlying causes of the high blood pressure can be negatively impacting the patient’s health in other ways. You don’t want to ignore these factors. An acronym that is used by functional medicine practitioners to consider root causes of disease is STAIN, which stands for stress, toxins, adverse food reactions, infections, and nutritional imbalances. Let’s look at each of these more closely.
STRESS: I used to think that if I ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, and maintained a healthy weight, I would be guaranteed good health. Unfortunately, I have found that it’s not that simple! There are many other factors that affect our immune system ( and our health) and stress is one of the most impactful. Chronic stress – from our work (such as frequent project deadlines or a difficult boss or coworker) – or from our family ( too many demands or conflicts) – or just unrealistic expectations we may have created for ourselves – can wreak havoc on our health. Our bodies are either in a state of rest and repair, where the parasympathetic system is engaged or in fight-or-flight mode, where the sympathetic nervous system is active. Chronic activation of the fight-or-flight response causes stress hormones – cortisol, adrenal, and norepinephrine- to increase in our blood. Over time, these hormones suppress our immune response, and be a factor in the onset of a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Learning to say “no” to extra demands that will threaten our sense of inner calm is so important. Self-care is not selfish; it is essential to our health. Meditation, prayer, journaling, yoga, walks in nature, gardening, visualization techniques, hobbies, and relaxing with friends can all be helpful. Schedule one or more of these activities into your day consistently. Talking with a trained therapist can also be helpful in dealing with current stressors as well as past trauma. I also recommend limiting time spent watching the news and on electronic devices, especially at night! Look for ways to infuse more joy and laughter into your life! Watch the sunset, walk your dog in the park, or dance with your child or grandchild!
Toxins are abundant in our environment and we need to do our best to avoid them. Between cigarette smoke, car exhaust, mold in our home or workplace, pesticides, artificial colors and hormones in our food, contaminants in our drinking water, and chemicals in our personal care products, there is much to be concerned about! Limiting our exposure to toxins in our water, food, air, and physical environment as much as possible, while also enhancing our detoxification pathways will help us stay healthy. Begin by ensuring you have clean air and water. When I discovered that I was suffering from mold illness a few years ago, we had both the air conditioning ducts and crawl space in our home remediated, and I purchased several high-quality air filters for as well. I also started on a binder ( capsule) to help remove the toxins and began twice-weekly sessions at an infrared sauna to induce sweating to help rid my body of the mycotoxins. These strategies all helped, but eliminating the toxin ( the mold) was the most critical. I also made sure I was getting plenty of protein and B vitamins which are essential to the liver’s detoxification processes. It may be helpful to hire an Environmental Health consultant to come check out your home for possible environmental hazards, including mold and EMFs. (electromagnetic fields). You may want to invest in a whole-home water filtration system or purchase a counter-top water filter. The Environmental Working Group’s website http://www.ewg.org, provides a lot of great information on how to limit your toxic exposures from food, tap water, and personal care products. You can download a list of the “Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen” – the dirtiest and cleanest fruits and vegetables of 2021. Those on the dirty list you should try to buy organic, if possible. BeautyCounter (www.beautycounter.com) and Skin Worship (www.skinworship.com) are two companies that sell clean, fragrance-free, toxin-free personal care products, including facial cleansers, moisturizers, and make-up. When considering toxins you need to avoid in your life, remember that there are toxic people too. Avoid spending time with people who leave you feeling depressed and drained.
ADVERSE FOOD REACTIONS
Food allergies and intolerances also affect our health. The most common allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, wheat, and soy. Food allergies invoke an immune response and cause symptoms such as hives, rashes, headaches, upset stomach, congestion, and difficulty breathing. In the most serious cases, a life-threatening anaphylaxis occurs and requires the administration of adrenaline to counter the effects of the allergen. Food intolerances do not stimulate the production of antibodies like food allergies do, but still cause symptoms. For example, lactose intolerance is caused by deficiency of lactase, the enzyme needed to break down the sugar lactose. In this case, the ingestion of lactose-containing food like milk can cause symptoms of gas and abdominal discomfort. Celiac disease is caused by the overreaction of the immune system to the protein gluten found in foods such as bread, pasta, and crackers. Symptoms include diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and anemia. In addition to the most common food allergies, people can have food sensitivities to proteins in a wide variety of foods including beans, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and herbs and spices, which trigger the release of IgG antibodies. IgG food testing using a patient’s blood can determine if food reactions are contributing to their physical or mental symptoms. Eliminating all identified IgG positive foods after testing reduces stress on the immune system, lowers inflammation in the body, and helps to heal “leaky gut.” Remember, when our gut is compromised, our immune system is also impaired. Food allergy testing can pinpoint dietary causes of a patient’s symptoms and by eliminating the offending foods, they can heal and feel better. Nutrigenetic testing can give additional information regarding how a patient’s unique genetic profile impacts their need for nutrients and response to food components. For example, my results showed that a high sodium intake is likely to increase my blood pressure; this is not true for everyone.
Chronic infections can also be an underlying factor in poor health. These can be caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses, and fungi. A patient who is suffering from what they believe is just an “irritable” bowel may actually have an intestinal infection. For example, if a patient has an overgrowth of Candida yeast in their intestines, it can cause “leaky gut” and may also contribute to irritable bowel syndrome ( with abdominal pain and constipation or diarrhea), as well as depression, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and migraines. There are a number of tests that can determine if Candida or another infectious agent is present, including a stool test or organic acids test. Identifying and treating the infection will not only help the patient feel better, but will take stress off of the immune system. Another type of infection that can cause problems is an infected tooth, which can cause bacteria to travel through the digestive tract, contributing to dysbiosis, as well as burdening the immune system. Root canals can trap bacteria under the tooth, which breed, and spread throughout the body. I recommend patients see a biological dentist, who treats patients with the understanding that dental health affects a person’s entire health and treats patients using a natural approach.
When someone is eating the standard American diet ( sometimes referred to as the SAD diet), they are most likely not getting a diet that is adequate in nutrients, fiber, and phytochemicals, but instead is full of processed foods containing excessive amounts of sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats. This type of diet is also likely to contain potentially dangerous preservatives, artificial flavors, dyes, and emulsifiers. And it is likely not to contain the right balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat for most people. It is also likely to have a higher glycemic load that is recommended for optimal health and disease prevention. A food frequency questionnaire can point to nutrients that may be deficient in a person’s diet, and lab testing can confirm or deny those findings. Nutrigenetic testing can reveal genetic SNPs ( single nucleotide polymorphisms) that can increase an individual’s need for certain nutrients. When a patient adopts a diet based on clean, whole foods, that are mostly plant-based, rich in fiber and phytonutrients, and devoid of harmful additives, they are likely to see their health improve. Supplementing them with vitamins and minerals for which they may be at risk of deficiency can also be helpful. We know that the immune system requires a wide range of nutrients to function optimally and deficiencies can make us more susceptible to illness. There is a clear link between certain nutrient deficiencies and certain diseases; for instance, deficiencies of vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin K increase the risk of osteoporosis. Ensuring nutritional adequacy is a key to vibrant health and disease prevention.
Let’s go back to the root causes of disease and my example of high blood pressure. In a patient with high blood pressure, I would consider all the potential underlying factors – stress, toxins, adverse food reactions, infections, and nutritional imbalances. The most likely culprits are stress and nutritional imbalances. Therefore, I would recommend that the patient choose a variety of strategies to lower their stress and to improve their diet. They could begin by making a list of the major stressors in their life and identify ways to address each one. As far as diet, limiting sodium while at the same time increasing potassium intake can help improve blood pressure, particularly if they have a genetic SNP which causes sodium to increase their blood pressure. If they are overweight, lowering their calorie intake to achieve weight loss, can also help lower blood pressure. Regular daily exercise such as walking or jogging can be helpful. Certain functional foods can help lower blood pressure, as well, including dark chocolate, hibiscus tea, and beet juice.
In summary, symptoms in our bodies have root causes and do not just happen randomly. Identifying and addressing these causes with a natural approach is always a good place to start, and often all that is needed.