By Mark Hyman, MD
Just because you're treating your symptoms doesn't mean you're healthy. If you think your doctor is controlling your health problems because he or she has prescribed medication for them -- well, you couldn't be more wrong! That's because doctors are very well-trained to treat symptoms and diseases, but NOT to address the underlying imbalances that perpetuate illness.
The problem? That's like taking the batteries out of a smoke detector instead of trying to find the fire. On the other hand, I am always interested in ALL of someone's symptoms, because they are the clues to deeper imbalances. Once you find those deeper imbalances and correct them, the symptoms go away.
This approach is called systems medicine, because it looks at all parts of the body, not just one organ. Unfortunately, much of conventional medicine doesn't work that way.
If an asthma patient also has the skin condition psoriasis, for example, he is sent to the dermatologist. If the same patient has irritable bowel syndrome or reflux, he is sent to the gastroenterologist. And of course, if he's depressed or can't focus, it's straight to the psychiatrist.
And from each doctor, he gets the "perfect" medicine for each problem, with no one considering how all these symptoms may be related, or how addressing the underlying causes of these symptoms can fix everything at once. So the patient ends up being treated with the best of conventional medicine -- but is still sick!
To me, there's no better example of the pitfalls of this approach than my patient, Joe.
At 42, Joe thought he was healthy -- despite taking 4 different drugs for mood and psychiatric problems, not to mention medication for asthma, psoriasis, reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic postnasal drip!
That's just the tip of the iceberg. Joe was also about 25 pounds overweight, and he carried those pounds in one of the worst places for his health -- his middle. Plus, Joe's triglyceride levels were over 500 (normal is less than 100).
His health problems had started early. Over the years, he took many antibiotics for his asthma, which he had had since childhood. He was bottle-fed, was allergic to milk as a child, and was a very colicky baby.
As an adult, his health got even worse. His nose dripped, he had heartburn, and he got frequent sores and bumps on his tongue after eating certain foods. He also had sugar cravings and would frequently feel weak and have episodes of very low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Just recently, he had developed psoriasis.
And poor health ran in his family: Joe's mother and his cousins had type 2 diabetes, and a lot of his relatives had reflux and ulcers and heart disease.
Joe's lifestyle certainly didn't help matters! For starters, his diet was less than ideal. It started with a bagel or a processed protein bar and a cup of coffee each morning. Lunch was usually a turkey wrap with lots of cheese, chips, and a few Diet Cokes.
Dinner was a little better, but he craved bread, pasta, and potatoes and had sweets after dinner because he craved those, too.
All told, he usually drank 2 glasses of wine a day, not to mention 3 cups of coffee, and countless diet colas. On top of all that, Joe only slept about 5 or 6 hours a night.
No wonder he felt so poorly!
But instead of looking at Joe's lifestyle as possible cause of his health problems, his doctors simply treated his symptoms with drugs -- and a lot of them. In fact, his medication list was pretty scary for a guy only in his early 40s. He took 4 psychiatric drugs: one for depression (Lexapro), one for attention-deficit disorder because he couldn't concentrate (Concerta), one for anxiety (Xanax), and one for sleep (Ambien).
He also took 2 drugs for asthma (a steroid to reduce lung inflammation and another to open up his airways), plus another steroid nasal inhaler to take care of his postnasal drip. And, of course, his medications wouldn't be complete with the second-favorite drug of the new millennium, a powerful acid-blocking drug (Protonix). None of these drugs was the right solution for his problems.
Take Protonix, for example. Conventional medicine and powerful drugs companies have led us to believe that millions of people need acid-blocking drugs to deal with their heartburn symptoms, as if we're treating a mutant strain of human beings who suddenly produce too much stomach acid. Nobody wonders if heartburn actually has to do with someone's lifestyle (like Joe's 3 cups of coffee or 2 glasses of wine every day) or an infection or imbalance in the bacteria in the gut, or allergies, or magnesium deficiency.
Instead, the source of the problem is almost never questioned and the answer is almost always drugs.
I'm here to tell you that it doesn't have to be that way! We were not designed to malfunction to the benefit of the pharmaceutical industry. Our bodies are in a delicate balance and health depends on restoring that balance. People who need drugs to treat illness are NOT a mutant strain of humans, but people whose core systems are out of balance. The cure is balance -- not drugs.
So when Joe came to see me, the last thing I wanted to do was to find a better medication cocktail for all his problems -- asthma, postnasal drip, reflux, bumps on his tongue, high triglycerides, belly fat, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and attention-deficit disorder.
Instead, I asked a different set of questions and did testing to look at the basic core systems in his body that were out of balance -- his immune system, his digestive system, his hormonal system, and his nutritional status. This is a much different way of looking at health.
The way conventional medicine is practiced today is like trying to fix a car by listening to the noises it makes instead of looking under the hood. But that's what systems medicine, also known as functional medicine, is all about -- about looking under the hood. What did I find when I looked under Joe's hood? Well, Joe had a number of core problems.
For one thing, his gut was inflamed and he had a parasite. This led to food sensitivities to wheat and rye -- the main gluten-containing grains. He also had the gene for celiac disease (HLA DQ8). From all the antibiotics he had taken over the years, he also had yeast overgrowth in his intestinal tract.
Joe also had insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. His triglycerides were very high at 597 and his total cholesterol level was 275, while his HDL ("good") cholesterol was only 39 (normal is over 60). He also had high blood sugar and a fatty liver from eating too many refined sugars and carbohydrates. This in turn led to his hypoglycemia and fatigue.
Yet, these problems were NOT inevitable. Joe's family history of diabetes and heart disease made him predisposed but NOT predestined to these problems.
We also found he had some genetic imbalances (MTHFR homozygous polymorphism) that increased his need for vitamin B12 and folate (both of which are important in controlling mood and cardiovascular risk). And his blood tests indeed showed a deficiency of these vitamins.
Joe also had a very low vitamin D level of 19 (ideal is 50 to 100), which as been linked with depressed and impaired immunity. He also had low levels of chromium, which is associated with insulin resistance and diabetes. Plus, his omega-3 fats were quite low. These are very important for maintaining good cholesterol and blood sugar control, as well as protecting against diabetes.
So how did I help Joe? Not by treating each individual symptom, but by bringing balance back to his life. First, I helped him improve his diet by eliminating refined carbohydrates and sugars and eating more fiber and omega-3 fats. I also had him get off gluten and dairy -- foods that were trigging inflammation in his gut. He cut way back on coffee and stopped drinking alcohol. And he started exercising and sleeping a bit more.
I recommended that Joe supplement with a daily multivitamin, fish oil, and probiotics (healthy gut bacteria). I treated him with high doses of folate and B12 to accommodate his genetic need for more. I also gave him high doses of vitamin D to bring his levels back to normal and improve his mood and immune system. I treated his parasite and the yeast overgrowth with short-term medication.
After 3 months, I saw him again. What had changed? In that short time, Joe had lost 25 pounds, his triglycerides dropped from 597 to 80, and his cholesterol from 275 to 198. His folate and B12 status were back to normal. His fasting blood sugar dropped from 101 to 84, which is normal, and his insulin levels dropped back to normal. And now-normal liver function tests showed that his fatty liver had healed.
Getting good blood test results is one thing, but how did Joe actually feel? Well, he had no more need for reflux medication or asthma inhalers. Those symptoms were gone. Plus, without my instruction (and despite my advice), he stopped taking all 4 of his psychiatric medications because he was sleeping better, didn't feel anxious or depressed, and had no more problems with concentration or attention.
Just by "looking under the hood," I discovered imbalances that I could correct. Instead of treating his problems with more drugs, Joe was able to get off his medication and feel even better.
Joe isn't the only example of this approach to health -- I've seen similar results in my patients, time and time again. To me, the solution is clear: The science of systems medicine is ready for the doctor's office. It is possible for people to get to the root of their problems.
As we have seen, asthma or reflux are not irreversible problems, but may be the result of food sensitivities like those to gluten or dairy, or imbalances in the gut with parasites and yeast, or from poor diet.
We know that depression isn't caused by a Prozac deficiency, but instead may be related to key nutritional factors including sugar in the diet, and deficiencies of nutrients such as folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fats.
So when dealing with any chronic illness, or a "whole list" of problems, remember, you can get to the bottom of it by following some of the guidelines below:
* Keep in mind that nutrition is the most powerful thing that can create or cure illness.
* If you are depressed or anxious, remember that it is not due to a Prozac or Valium deficiency, but may be related to a number of different causes such as vitamin deficiencies, essential fat deficiencies, or too much sugar or stimulants in your diet.
* Try a detox diet that gets you ON whole food and OFF of caffeine, sugar, alcohol, processed foods, gluten, and dairy -- and see how many of your health problems go away.
* Take a good multivitamin and fish oil, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D -- the right amounts of these nutrients can take care of many problems.
* If you don't get better, then get help -- you might need someone who can look a little more closely under the hood.
* Look for a doctor who practices systems medicine or functional medicine. You may find one in your area at http://www.ultrametabolism.com/qualified-doctors.
In my practice, I often find myself to be an accidental psychiatrist or accidental weight loss doctor, witnessing remarkable transformations in patients by simply taking away the things that make them ill, and giving them things that put them back in balance.
You can try the same approach at home by following the tips above. It is really that simple. The body's intelligence for healing does the rest!