So, instead of the conventional way of looking at symptoms and providing medication to relieve them, the approach of the functional solution is as follows: focus on investigating the body’s interlinked systems, figure out what physiological processes have deviated from the norm, thus uncovering the origin of the dysfunction that is causing those symptoms. From there a plan is established to remove the cause and restore the affected systems to normal operation, enabling the patient to regain a normal(or as near to normal) quality of life. Surely that’s a better option than just treating symptoms of disease, living with debilitating side effects and allowing the condition to remain as it is or to worsen?
Genes have a significant effect on our health, however genetic expression isn’t written in stone, the field of epigenetics has shown us the role that environmental factors play in switching genes on and off… genetic response is dependant on a number of variables. Epidemiologists have shown that nongenetic modifiable variables account for between 70 to 95% of chronic disease risk in conditions such as coronary heart disease, stroke, adult-onset diabetes, cancer and autoimmune disease. One of the fundamental principles of the functional solution is that everyone has their own unique genetic composition and that the interaction with their lifestyle, diet and environment dictates how those genes express themselves. Hence a thorough investigation of a patients lifestyle, diet and environment is necessary to reveal exactly what’s going on with a health issue.
But what does that really mean?
Lifestyle. We’re talking about things like activity patterns, sleep, exercise and stress. For instance…
– The right type and amount of exercise. The right exercise creates growth of mitochondria in our cells, thus enabling the body to produce more energy. There’s too much and not enough. A sedentary lifestyle means the body will lack the benefits that come from exercise, such as reducing the risk factor of a vast array of degenerative diseases and decreasing systemic inflammation. Where as an over the top approach will create conditions of chronic inflammation.
– Activity patterns, eg desk all day, sofa at night. Recent studies have implicated the sedentary lifestyle in the obesity epidemic.
– How many hours of sleep. Our basic physiological operations require good sleep to maintain normal function, for instance neurological performance, endocrine balance and musculoskeletal growth and repair. Growth hormone required for cellular repair and restoration is released during sleep. Adequate sleep supportes the immune system.
– Stress hormones and their chronic effects. Acute stress will activate the immune system, cortisol floods the body, energizing it into high alert to deal with a stressful event, think fight or flight, it is an inflammatory hormone in order to deal with the damage of the situation. This is entirely normal. When the stressful situation has gone the body returns to normal. However, if experiencing ongoing, extended stressful experiences, i.e chronic, the immune system stays in a raised state of activity, inflammation levels stay high continuously. If this doesn’t change, the body will react to bring the immune system down from its overactive state by suppressing it, reducing its operating ability below previous normal levels leaving the body in an immunosuppressed state.
Diet. Dietary aspects that impact health include gut function, food sensitivities such as gluten and dairy, and lack of nutrients.
– Poor gut health can cause chronic inflammation. Approximately 80% of our immune system is in our gut. Therefore reduced gut function will result in reduced immune function. The condition of leaky gut occurs when the gut wall lining is damaged by invading substances in our diets and medications, from toxins, infections and by stress. This damage makes the gut wall become more permeable, then instead of just allowing nutrients to pass through it into the bloodstream all these invading substances pass through too. The immune system activates with inflammation to deal with this foreign influx. Ongoing intake of these invading substances of course means chronic inflammation.
– Food sensitivities. When food particles leak through the gut wall, the immune system will create antibodies to deal with anything it doesn’t recognize, such as gluten and dairy. So whenever these are eaten they pass through the gut wall, the specific antibody detects it and creates inflammation to destroy it. Antibodies can become confused and attack other cells.
– Sugar. High sugar consumption causes insulin resistance leading to increased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and obesity. High fructose intake causes liver function problems. SIBO bowel function problems increase with sugar – overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. Bacteria primarily eat carbohydrate so diets high in sugar accentuate the problem.
– Lack of nutrients. This is an issue in several ways. Gut damage means that the gut’s absorption functions are compromised, thus reducing absorption of nutrients. Bacterial overgrowth uses up nutrients. Modern processed foods have a low nutritional value and their proportion in our dietary intake has increased significantly. Natural foods of previously high nutritional value now have reduced nutritional value due to modern farming methods, so our diets are not as nutritious as in the past.
Environment. Here we look at toxins present in our personal environment. Studies have shown significant levels of heavy metals and industrial chemicals in people who aren’t engaged in industry and don’t live in polluted areas, in other words, normal folks. Many of these toxins cause an overactive immune system response that creates chronic inflammation. Cumulative effect of low level toxins is key here…toxins in the air we breathe, the water we drink, in food from plastics, cans, pesticides, in products we put on our skin and hair, in our medications. Over time it adds up and has a significant impact on our immune system. For example heavy metal pollution buildup in the body influencing chronic fatigue and multiple sclerosis.
All these factors have a direct influence on the amount of inflammation in our bodies and chronic is the common theme, the functional solution seeks to zone in on the root causes of inflammation, then work on reducing it, thus allowing the immune system to repair and heal. This will involve making changes in some of the areas of a patient’s life outlined above, areas that harbour those root causes.
Lifestyle change is fairly self explanatory from the above lifestyle factors. Environmental changes could involve removing a specific toxic exposure once it and its impact has been identified, or introducing air or water filtration. Then dietary nutrition and supplementation may be used to aid detoxification. For instance metallothioneins are cysteine rich proteins that detoxify heavy metals in our bodies, glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables significantly increase detoxification function.
Regarding dietary changes, as we’ve explored so far, the gut plays a very significant role in our level of health. Functional medicine provides an approach to address imbalances in the gut and restore healthy function. It’s called The four R’s – REMOVE, REPLACE, REINOCULATE & REPAIR.
Remove – Take out of the diet anything that may cause damage.
Replace – Supplement missing enzymes necessary for digestion.
Reinoculate – Supplement prebiotics and probiotics to reintroduce healthy bacteria.
Repair – Supplement nutrients that can enable the healing of the gut wall lining.
So a picture builds up here as to what is involved in the functional solution. As mentioned, everyone is unique and the investigations above build the foundation for a unique personalized treatment program. Next we’ll look at what happens to begin this process with a patient’s first meeting with a functional medicine doctor – your practitioner.