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Changing Food from Adversary to Ally – Part 3

If you haven’t checked them out already, take some time and review Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. In Part 1, I introduce the concept of functional medicine and the influence the environment and our choices have on out gut health. In part 2, I dive into using the FODMAP diet to promote a healthy gut and address food intolerances. Today, I’ll address how the other areas of health (physical, environmental and emotional/mental) also influence how your body feels.

As I mentioned in the first post of the series, people often present with symptoms that have an underlying trigger. Many people don’t realize that the trigger and the symptoms are related and they become increasingly frustrated when modern medicine can’t make them feel better. Instead of treating the symptom as a problem that needs to be fixed directly, we need to treat it as a symptom and investigate why it is occurring.

Physical Health: Many people don’t realize that regular physical activity is actually essential for overall wellness. No, you don’t need to go to Orange Theory or join Cross Fit. You just need to move your body the way that feels good to you at least 30 minutes every.single.day. People often go from one extreme (no physical activity) to another (joining crossfit) and get frustrated because they are exhausted, sore, and beat down. They don’t feel comfortable in their new environment or didn’t ease into it, which ultimately creates an unsustainable program. Creating healthy habits takes time, reflection, and insight. Start slow but commit to doing it every day – regardless of the weather. If it’s 8:30pm and you didn’t exercise, go for a walk instead of tuning into netflix. No one ever said, “dang, I wish I hadn’t exercised today.”

…side note…This also teaches our kids that we don’t do things just because the circumstances are ideal. Do you want your kid to be the one who can power through a tough situation and be OK being uncomfortable, or do you want your kid to be the one that gives up the moment the situation deviates from ideal or easy? My favorite saying of all time is “be the person you want your kids to be.” If that doesn’t motivate a parent, I don’t know what does.

Environmental: Of all the areas of health, this is one I feel has the broadest reach of professionals and I have the least experience with. I am not going to dive into the controversial areas of organic food, GMOs and corn. Know that there is budding information in all of these areas and I recommend you seek out reputable sources to learn more about the impact these items may have on your health.

The main area I wanted to touch on is the impact of the global environment in which you live and it’s impact on your health by a process called epigenetics. This is an up and coming area of research and I think it will be the next frontier of medicine. Your environment literally changes how the genes in your body are expressed and work. Some of these changes are reversible and others are not. This is why it’s SOOO important we help create healthy environments for our kids.

This is one explanation for the ever fascination we have around why some people develop various health conditions. For example – you may know someone who smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day for 50 years and never developed lung cancer, but you may also know someone who smoked 1 pack a day for 10 years but developed lung cancer 20 years later. Person #2 likely has the genes that would promote cancer if exposed to a certain environment. Similarly, a 3rd person may have the genes but never smoke and ultimately never develop cancer.

A saying that emulates this so well is “genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.” [I hate analogies that involve guns but it explains the phenomenon so well. If you have another one that explains it just as well, please let me know!] As for our topic at hand, this may be able to explain why some people develop intolerances and others can freely eat any food they like. Environmental triggers to promote epigenetic changes are still being researched but can include stress, diet, pesticide exposure, hormone exposure, pollution and exercise, to name a few.

Mental/Emotional Health: This is a biggie. Maybe the biggest of all the areas. Our minds are powerful and have way more control over how our body functions that we would like to think. Many people can become defensive when this is brought up. They respond with, “so you think I’m crazy?” No, you’re not crazy. You’re human and you can’t control every ounce of everything your body does. Think of a situation when  you were nervous – public speaking, wedding day, a big presentation, flying for the first time – and think of how you felt. You may think superficially about how you felt, but if you really think back you’ll remember you had butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, racing heart, or trouble focusing. This is your body reacting to the stressful situation and nothing will stop those symptoms unless your mind does not think there is a threat or risk.

There’s an complete nervous system in your GI tract that you have literally no control over and even the slightest stress or change in your environment can trigger a reaction. The same neurotransmitters that work on the brain can work on the GI tract – this is why some  people with depression and IBS will notice improvement with the symptoms when they do therapy and take an SSRI medication. I believe most people can be treated without medications, but it takes time and intentional work through counseling or personal growth.

Starting from a young age, our bodies respond a stressful situations through our GI tract. Whether you’re 8 yr old or 67 yr old, something stressful at home, school or work can trigger symptoms that cause you to go to the doctor. Again you have no control over this and I want to emphasize that it’s not that you’re crazy or it’s on your head. You’re feeling REAL physical symptoms. This is important to keep in mind.

For example, it is very possible that your 8 yr old is not making up the fact that he has real belly pain. He likely doesn’t know or understand why. That’s where your job as the parent and our job as health care providers come in. After any concerning issue is ruled out, together we need to get to the bottom of what’s going on at school that is causing his stress. If we solve that, we can begin to help him feel better without stigmatizing him as being a “sick kid” and giving him unnecessary medications.

Similarly, many adults have trouble with insight into these triggers as well.  This can be even more complicated as we get older and develop maladaptive coping mechanisms or relationships. It is important to remain open-minded when addressing symptoms that are multifaceted.

Final Thoughts
One last thing I want to be sure to emphasize is that medications are often not required to treat functional illness. The focus on care has shifted to shared decision making and it is essential that you tell your doctor if you don’t wish to take a medication. Even if we try to not over-prescribe, we sometimes feel like that is what the patient wants. Since we have options available, we may think we need to prescribe something to feel like we are doing something. Our healthcare system is not set up on the way to promote overall health and well-being and many doctors (myself included) forget that sometimes reassurance and listening are all that are needed. Please remember that we all went into this profession to help people. Our goal is not to create big pharma. If your doctor does offer a medication, don’t feel bad saying that you’d rather hold off for now. Have a discussion about the alternative items you’d like to try and set goals for your next appointment.

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What did you think of this series? Would like to see more extended posts and series like this one or do you prefer shorter bursts of information? Leave your thoughts below!

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