Health Column: Get to the root cause with functional medicine
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Each disease has a cause and a treatment, or so we are taught in medical school.
Identify the disease, then prescribe the drug or perform the surgery. This approach works well for many things, such as an acute infection or appendicitis, and indeed Western medicine has done wonders in the areas of infectious disease, surgery and trauma. But for the rest of it, the bulk of it, we’re merely putting on “bandages” to slow the disease process or simply treat the symptoms. The emerging field of “functional medicine” is changing that paradigm.
What about eliminating or reversing heart disease, cancer, stroke or diabetes? What about getting to the root cause of an endless list of symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, or pain? We have a pill for everything, but those pills rarely if ever stop or reverse the course of disease, or really address the underlying cause of symptoms that we doctors hear patients complain of oh-so frequently.
Functional medicine analyzes the core systems that allow the body to function properly. This means looking closely at the foundation blocks for good health including hormones, digestive health, immune function, nutrient status and genetics. We may check for allergies, chronic infections or biotoxins, build up of environmental toxins or heavy metals, clogged detoxification or cellular energy pathways.
Practicing functional medicine is more difficult that prescribing a pill, both for the doctor and the patient. And at least initially, it often involves advanced laboratory testing, which is sometimes expensive or not covered by insurance.
Getting to the “root cause” of disease is not for the faint of heart. It is a process that sometimes takes time and money, but I know from experience that the time and money spent to get to the bottom of a problem leads to less costs in the long run, and most importantly a healthier, happier patient.
FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE IN ACTION
As an example of functional medicine, consider three real patients that presented to me with the exact same symptom of heavy painful menstrual cycles. Each one had been placed on oral birth control pills to simply regulate and control the cycles, but not one of them had any explanation or attempt at finding out why their cycles were abnormal. All three patients were cured for completely different reasons.
Patient A had low thyroid, which was causing the abnormal menses. It happened to be the autoimmune type called Hashimoto’s disease. She was found to have “leaky gut” and a delayed allergy to gluten, which is often a trigger for Hashimoto’s. We healed her gut, eliminated gluten, the Hashimoto’s went into remission, her thyroid started producing better, and her menstrual cycle normalized.
Patient B also had trouble with gaining weight and acne. She was found to have a hormone imbalance due to Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, in her case caused by high levels of insulin. By addressing the situation like one would with a diabetic, we normalized her insulin. She lost weight, her skin cleared, and her menstrual cycle normalized.
Patient C had things much easier. After analyzing her diet and environmental exposures, we simply had her improve her nutrition and avoid her previously high exposures to “xeno-estrogens,” which are common chemicals found especially in plastics, beauty products, herbicides and pesticides. We had her do a detoxification “cleanse” to help things along and within a few months her menstrual cycle normalized.
I’ve witnessed individual cases of Attention-Deficit Disorder cured by either eliminating food allergens, avoiding artificial sweeteners, improving nutrition, treating chronic infections, or by accounting for genetic mutations that caused reactions to foods containing histamine. There are often many underlying root causes for the same symptom and the mantra of functional medicine is to look for those root causes.
“Idiopathic” means the idiot doctors can’t figure out the pathology; that’s an old joke probably every doctor has heard. But seriously, most people don’t realize how many things in medicine have no known cause. Because we can’t identify a simple cause, or we never even look for the cause, then it becomes idiopathic and we proceed to treat symptoms, usually with drugs, as best we can.
To illustrate how functional medicine is often simply looking at root cause elements that explain a multitude of idiopathic complaints, I’ll share one more real patient story. John (not his real name) was a 63-year-old gentleman who was referred to me by his wife for evaluation of fatigue. She was thinking he might have low testosterone, which he did, but his functional medicine story involved six medications and four doctors.
John had a long, long history of irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux, and he had undergone scopes, CT scans, and blood tests without any relief. His gastroenterologist had him on two medications. The cause of his symptoms was idiopathic.
He also had problems with intermittent racing heart and palpitations. A cardiology workup including sonograms and stress tests did not reveal any problems. He was on a medication to slow the heart rate and diagnosed with idiopathic tachycardia.
The neurologist saw John for the tingling and pins and needles sensation in his hands and feet. The usual blood tests, MRI and nerve conduction studies did not turn up a cause. John had idiopathic sensory neuropathy and was on a seizure drug to help manage the symptoms.
Now with all these concerning medical issues and medications, John was a bit of a wreck. He was prone to anxiety and insomnia. For this, his family doctor had him taking a sleeping pill and a sedative as needed for panic attacks.
Functional medicine testing quickly found that John had “leaky gut,” delayed allergies to dairy and wheat, along with adrenal fatigue. With healing the gut, elimination of food allergens and adrenal support, all of his symptoms resolved. He now has two doctors, including his family doc, and me, and takes no medications.
Often there are single or multiple root causes for a myriad of symptoms, and finding the root cause is at the heart of functional medicine. If you would like to discover the underlying source of symptoms or reverse the course of disease, then consider taking a functional medicine approach.
GJ Free Press health columnist Scott Rollins, M.D., is board certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call 970-245-6911 for appointments or more information.
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