Reversing Chronic Disease
We are currently facing one of the worst epidemics in modern history. Chronic disease has become so commonplace that it's considered a normal part of our current lifestyle. Chronic disease includes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, arthritis and joint related disorders, cognitive decline and depression, hormone imbalances, autoimmune conditions and other lifelong illnesses. Every single one of the diseases I just listed are all on the rise and expected to continue to spread despite the number of medications and medical procedures being delivered. Functional Medicine has the power to not simply prevent, but reverse chronic disease entirely.
Hippocrates, known as the founder of medicine and regarded as the greatest physician of all time, said “All disease begins in the gut.”
Although he said that over 2,000 years ago, medicine has yet to approach digestive disorders holistically. Today, we face numerous digestive diseases and conditions ranging from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) to ulcerative colitis, and diverticulosis.
Some digestive issues – such as constipation and diarrhea – are relatively benign (yet uncomfortable), while others – such as inflammatory bowel disease – are life threatening.
Like every other chronic health condition, digestive disorders are complex and have multiple causes that can vary from person to person.
Yet every digestive disorder can be narrowed down to one or more of the following underlying mechanisms:
- Deficiency of digestive enzymes including low stomach acid
- Dysbiosis or an imbalance between “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut
- Chronic infections ranging from bacterial, parasitic or fungal infections
- An overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine
- A permeable gut barrier otherwise known as “Leaky Gut”
- Food sensitivity, allergy or intolerance
- Impaired communication between the gut and brain
The primary pillars of optimizing digestive health include:
- Digestion and Absorption
- Detoxification and Elimination
- Microbial Balance
- Gut Barrier Integrity
We all know that food and nutrient status plays a major role in our health. But simply eating healthy is not enough. You have to eat healthy food and be able to fully digest and absorb the food you're eating.
Much like our skin prevents infections from the outside world, our digestive tract prevents toxins, bacteria, viruses and other harmful substances from entering our blood stream.
More than 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease and dysfunction, with up to 60% of these people being completely unaware of their condition.
One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder. Although Levothyroxine, a synthetic form of thyroid hormone, is the fourth highest-selling drug in the US, the number of people suffering from thyroid disorders continues to rise.
Hypothyroidism is the most common thyroid disorder and characterized by cognitive decline, depression, weight gain, constipation, dry skin, hair loss, irregular menstruation, infertility and joint pain.
These hormones are responsible for the most basic aspects of our body's function and impact every single major system of the body including our brain, GI tract, cardiovascular system, bone metabolism, red blood cell function. gallbladder, liver, glucose metabolism and body temperature.
Hyperthyroidism is another thyroid disorder with a different set of symptoms such as heart palpitations, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, weight loss, diarrhea, anxiety, excessive body heat, increased appetite and insomnia.
The two major causes of thyroid disorders are nutrient deficiencies and autoimmune disease.
The most common nutrient deficiencies include iodine, zinc and selenium. The most common autoimmune condition is Hashimoto's disease.
Here's the thing to understand: if autoimmunity is present, balancing the immune system or determining why the body is in “attack mode” should be the priority when it comes understanding the root cause of the problem.
Simply substituting thyroid hormone is not the best approach to correcting imbalances.
Furthermore, emerging research indicates that the gut microbiome plays a central role in the regulation of both stress and sex hormones within the body.
Thus, hormone imbalances and related conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, breast cancer, prostate cancer, amenorrhea, estrogen dominance and low testosterone may all be related to an unhealthy digestive tract.
The most important thing to understand with hormone imbalance are the two models of diagnosis and treatment.
The conventional model is known as the “replacement” model of care. The replacement model is basically measuring what's low and replacing it. In this manner, if you have low estrogen or progesterone, you will be given a prescription to increase these hormones.
The functional model is very different. A functional medicine approach to balancing hormones would be concerned with determining the underlying cause or source of the problem and addressing it at that level.
Another important thing to consider is that replacing hormones may be something that needs to be done, but is rarely the only thing that needs to be done.
In other words, within the Functional Medicine model, you might find that a certain hormone needs to be supplemented, and so it becomes part of the treatment plan. However, not everyone requires hormone replacement, especially if they have not investigated the underlying causes.
Autoimmune disease is one of the top ten causes of death in women and the elderly and now affects one in ten people worldwide.
Over 100 distinct autoimmune diseases have been identified, affecting nearly every organ system and tissue in the body with at least 50 other diseases suspected of having an autoimmune component.
Autoimmune conditions can range from diseases like Type 1 Diabetes, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Multiple Sclerosis and Crohn's, to autoimmune conditions of the skin such as scleroderma, psoriasis and dermatomyositis.
While autoimmune conditions have become commonplace in the industrialized world, it's almost nonexistent in contemporary hunter-gatherers living a traditional, ancestral lifestyle.
This gives rise to the current theory that the dramatic rise in autoimmune disease is environmental, rather than genetic.
Environmental factors thought be the cause of autoimmunity include a Western diet, chronic stress, changes in the gut microbiome, environmental toxins, sleep deprivation, vitamin D and other nutrient deficiencies, reduced sun exposure and a number of pathogens including parasite and viral infections.
Additionally, these environmental factors not only trigger autoimmune conditions, but perpetuate and exacerbate them.
It's important to understand that most autoimmune conditions many not be complete curable, but identifying and removing the triggers will often lead to a dramatic reduction in symptoms and even complete remission (which is similar to a cure).
Each and every autoimmune disease will manifest differently, in different people. However, there are similar relationships and identifiable factors. For instance, Chron's disease impacts the GI tract, whereas Multiple Sclerosis affects the nervous system.
Regardless of where the body is being attacked, the same mechanism is true across the board: the body inappropriately recognizes some part of itself as foreign, and the immune system begins to attack a particular tissue or organ system.
In light of this, balancing the immune system and identifying what the body is reacting to is key.
Because the digestive system contains over 80% of our immune system, assessing digestive health and function is a primary place to start.
Intestinal permeability, or leaky gut, is one of the major mechanisms that can initiate autoimmunity.
Autoimmune disease are the end result of a disturbed digestive system and misfiring immune attack. Restoring gut health, barrier function and removing foods or environmental stressors can help to calm the immune system down and restore balance.
Diabetes, Weight Loss & Metabolism can be bundled into one term: Diabesity.
Insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, glucose dysregulation, obesity, weight loss resistance and poor metabolism are all conditions that share the same broken biochemistry.
Obesity and being overweight have become a modern plague in America. The primary driving force behind this $60 billion weight loss industry is a diet high in processed and refined foods.
However, developing diabetes, weight loss resistance and metabolic disorders gets more complex and includes nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, gut dysbiosis, sleep dysfunction, stress, environmental toxins and chronic infections.
Diabetes and cardiovascular disease have surpassed infectious disease as the primary cause of death worldwide.
The CDC has reported that one in three people will develop diabetes and many of these individuals are children.
A Yale study found that almost 25% of children between the ages of 4 and 18 years already has pre-diabetes.
These conditions are typically characterized by poor regulation of blood sugar. Additional symptoms of dysregulation can involve heart palpitations, shakiness, anxiety, confusion, visual disturbances, seizures, loss of consciousness and even death.
The primary causes of poor blood sugar regulation include:
- Poor Diet
- Lack of physical activity
- Chronic stress
- Lack of sleep
- Digestive Dysfunctions
- Environmental Toxicity
- HPA Dysfunction (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal)
There is a central theme behind the principles of Functional Medicine which consists of the idea of a profound mismatch between our genetics and the modern environment.
And it is this mismatch – between our genetics and environment – that is driving the current epidemic of chronic, inflammatory diseases.
Our diet and sedentary lifestyles are often mentioned as primary drivers of this mismatch, but there is another factor that plays a much bigger role: The Stress Response System.
Our stress response is primary governed by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
Stress (emotional or physical) activates the HPA axis and sets off a cascade of brain-hormone signals that ultimately lead to hormone and brain chemical production.
These hormones and neurotransmitters include cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine.
The key thing to understand here is that the mechanism our body uses to respond to stress is protective in the short term, but damaging in the long term.
Millions of years of evolution and selective adaptation are hard wired into our brains and physiology. Thousands of years ago, these stress pathways ensured our survival and allowed us to run away from predators or overcome our enemies.
In these instances, increasing heart rate, blood sugar and blood pressure are all adaptive advantages for survival.
However, when this same stress response system is chronically activated – not by warfare or being chased by a predator – by traffic jams, working several jobs, eating an inflammatory diet, not sleeping enough and dealing with all the other problems of modern life, we are chronically exposed to these elevations and it becomes problematic.
Rather than helping us to survive being chased by a lion, they begin to contribute to diabetes, heart disease and every single chronic disease you can imagine.
Over time, the chronic activation of our stress response system erodes and depletes our physiological reserves.
And when our reserves run dry, we see abnormal changes in cortisol output (too little or too much), disruption of circadian rhythms and changes in the production of other hormones and neurotransmitters such as DHEA, melatonin, estrogen, testosterone and epinephrine.
Collectively, the dysregulation of the HPA axis is primary driver of chronic disease and associated with a wide range of symptoms, including:
- Morning exhaustion
- Energy crashes after eating
- Difficulty recovering from exercise
- Immune suppression
- Insomnia or sleep disturbance
- Low sex drive
- Poor memory
- Extra abdominal fat
- Salt cravings
- Low body temperature
- Low Testosterone
- Skin rashes and breakouts
- Decreased stress tolerance
- Excessive need for stimulants
Obviously there's a variety of symptoms that could be attributed to a faulty HPA axis.
- Perceived Stress. This includes both emotional and psychological stress.
- Glycemic Dysregulation.This includes high and low blood sugar.
- Circadian Dysruption.This includes sleep deprivation, too much exposure to light or faulty light/dark cues.
- Inflammatory Signalling. This includes inflammation caused by poor diet, digestive dysfunctions, autoimmunity.
Addressing stress, adrenal function and the HPA axis is not simply about balancing cortisol. It's not a problem of too much or too little cortisol or weak adrenal glands.
Instead, this is a condition related to a mismatch between our modern diet and lifestyle and the innate, built in stress response system.
Because of a wide-ranging impact that the HPA axis has on our body, efforts to restore normal HPA axis function can lead to life-changing dramatic improvements in health.
It's hard to overstate the significance that cardiovascular disease has in the United States.
- Heart Disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.
- Cardiovascular disease impacts 85.6 million Americans.
- Close to 100 million Americans have heart attacks every year.
- In the US, one person dies every forty seconds from a cardiovascular incident.
- One in three deaths that occur in the US are caused by cardiovascular disease.
- One in three Americans has metabolic syndrome, a strong cluster of factors related to cardiovascular disease.
- The total cost of treating heart disease in the US is estimated at $320 Billion.
It's quite obvious that heart disease and related cardiovascular incidents are a major player in healthcare.
However, cardiovascular disease is one of the most misdiagnosed and mistreated conditions in medicine. Although much as been learned about what causes heart disease and what doesn't, the medical establishment continues to operate on outdated science.
For example, it is now well established that eating cholesterol has no direct impact on blood cholesterol levels.
It's also well established that the amount of cholesterol in the blood is not the driving factor behind heart disease.
Furthermore, it's a scientific fact that low cholesterol results in higher mortality and death than high cholesterol.
And despite the science that exists, most of the general public and healthcare profession continue to operate on old, outdated models of care.
Given that heart disease is the number one killer in the US, it's more important to appreciate the fact that it's largely preventable with diet and lifestyle modification.
Conventional medicine overemphasizes the value of LDL-C and Total Cholesterol and treating heart disease with statin medications.
There are now more people taking statin or cholesterol lowering drugs than ever before, and these same people still end up dying and suffering from cardiovascular incidents.
Functional and ancestral medicine takes the view that high cholesterol is merely a symptom, not the cause, of heart disease.
More important than cholesterol, is the monitoring and management of LDL-P, Insulin, Leptin, Oxidized LDL and genetics.
Through customization of your diet, lifestyle changes and targeted nutritional supplementation, you can address the underlying causes of heart disease, improve heart health and extend lifespan.