“Health is a positive vitality, not just the absence of disease.”
Picture this: you’re headed out the door for an important meeting. You’re rushing, frazzled—with just enough time to get there. You hop in the car, turn the key, and…click.
Suddenly, your whole day is upended. Now, you need to get to a shop, diagnose what’s wrong and fix it. A pain in the butt, no doubt—but hopefully you’ll only need a new battery or starter—a clear problem with a clear solution.
But this time, that’s not case. A number of not-so-obvious factors have contributed to your car’s sudden inability to function. Maybe a wire is shorting out? And maybe that one wire has been slowly deteriorating for many years due to environmental factors, neglect, or—who knows? Maybe it was never installed properly to begin with?! It wouldn’t make much sense to replace the starter if there’s a deeper issue that will just cause it to break down again, right?
The point is this: our bodies are our vehicles. When they start shorting out, it throws our whole world out of whack. And traditional Western medicine approaches illness from the acute-care methodology: find what’s broken and fix it. In some instances, this works. When we sprain an ankle, catch the flu, or break a bone, there is a standard protocol of treatment that’s tried and true. But chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmunity—which are epidemic in our culture—are complex and systemic, and unfortunately, traditional medicine falls short when it comes to investigating the myriad contributing factors that create these diseases.
Enter Functional Medicine (FM). Since 2000, FM has been gaining momentum as an alternative approach that melds the traditional, diagnostic methodology of Western medicine with an integrative framework that investigates the “perfect storm” of factors contributing to disease. Functional Medicine takes a balanced, broad-view perspective, considering both the latest science-based research alongside the most time-tested alternative therapies, tailoring treatment to the unique needs of the individual.
After two years of inconclusive tests, prescription drugs, and zero progress, I turned to Dr. Todd LePine, a Functional Medicine practitioner based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I asked him to treat the baffling array of symptoms I was experiencing—loosely diagnosed as autoimmune inflammatory arthritis. Over the past two years, I have progressed from being unable to practice child’s pose to teaching weekly classes again! It has been a long, challenging road—and I’m still healing—but today I have a much clearer understanding of my body and what it needs to be well and whole.
Throughout this journey, I’ve learned that there is much that Functional Medicine can offer all of us‚ whether we are unwell or simply seeking more vibrant health:
Chronic disease must be treated holistically.
When there is dis-ease in the systems of the body, it doesn’t make much sense to focus entirely on the symptoms. A chronic disease like rheumatoid arthritis, for example, may present in the joints, but is typically accompanied by symptoms of fatigue, gut distress, and even eye and skin issues. This diversity of systems affected is typical of chronic disease, so why would you only visit a rheumatologist (joint doctor)?
Functional Medicine acknowledges that chronic disease impacts the whole body and considers all sides: genetics, diet, nutrition, hormones, stress, exercise, diagnostic testing, and even social, spiritual, and physical environments.
The aim is to get to the root of the disease—not just put Band-Aids on symptoms.
Gut health = body health.
Research continues to underline the importance of a healthy gut, and with 80% of our immune system housed there, it’s not coincidental that most chronic disease sufferers also suffer from gut distress. [Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota in disease]
Functional Medicine recognizes the correlation between whole body health and gut health, investigating everything from diet to potential food allergens and the “ecosystem” of gut flora (good bacteria). In his personal blog, Dr. Mark Hyman, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, offers 10 strategies for creating a healthy gut and conquering Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
We’ve all know that it’s important to get a good night’s sleep. But Dr. Amy Myers, owner of Austin UltraHealth in Austin, Texas, reminds us that our sleep patterns affect everything from hormonal balance to energy levels and immune function. According to Functional Medicine, getting enough sleep is just as important as diet and nutrition.
Check out Dr. Myers’ article The Importance of Your Sleep Cycle for tips on how to reset and support your body’s natural sleep patterns.
Another excellent resource from Health Ambition outlines the importance of consistent sleep, its different stages, and the negative effects of lack of sleep versus its benefits: Why is Sleep so Important?
Stress overrides our best efforts to be well.
In the beginning of this journey, it was easy for me to cling to the action-oriented steps for getting well: eat this, don’t eat that; do this, don’t do that.
Stress is not so black and white—in fact, I learned over time that I often approached my healing efforts with a rigor and determination that my body translated as stress! If you’re eating well, but your body is in a flustered, anxious state as you take each bite of food, can you ever truly “heal?”
“I learned over time that I often approached my healing efforts with a rigor and determination that my body translated as stress!”
Chronic stress is elusive. It is a state of being that is so deeply entangled with what we consider “normal” that it is difficult to even see, let alone dissolve. For me, I learned that I could be doing everything “right” but if I wasn’t truly calm in my center, stress would erode my best intentions.
There are many ways to temper stress, but what works for each of us is very different. It could be as simple as pausing with a cup of tea, smelling its aroma and taking several long, deep breaths. It could be 10 minutes of meditation in the morning. Maybe a weekly massage, walking in nature, or a yin yoga class. Even a stupid-funny movie that makes you laugh out loud. It’s less important what you do and more important that you are consistent and find activities that make you feel really good—relaxed, peaceful, and at ease.[For more about the science of stress and detailed ways to manage it, here is an excellent, thorough article by Chris Kresser, M.S., L.Ac]
One size does not fit all.
When you are trying to heal from chronic disease, it’s so easy to get swept up in the sea of healing promises that saturate the internet. Throughout my journey, I explored many of these pathways, including cleanses, juicing and fasting, and removing gluten, dairy and other common food allergens—all with mixed results. If there’s one thing I learned with absolute certainty it’s that there is definitely no one formula for wellness that works for everyone.
Even the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol, which has a tremendous online following and brought me to another level of healing, did not work for me “as is.” In time, I learned to use the diet as a template that I customized based on my own body’s needs, cravings, and reactions to food.
Functional Medicine embraces our bio-individuality, and doctors work one-on-one with patients to hone in on the unique needs of their body chemistry.
Healing takes time.
We don’t just wake up one morning with chronic disease. It happens very slowly, over time. Similarly, reversing chronic disease requires very gradually shifting the trajectory of your life by making small, consistent changes. It requires stamina, patience, and perspective.
“…reversing chronic disease requires very gradually shifting the trajectory of your life by making small, consistent changes.”
My journey, like any, has had many ups and downs. And in the lowest of the lows, it was tempting to get down on myself and feel as though I was making no progress. But always—if I paused long enough to step back and see the wider view of my path to healing—I would see that even in the challenging moments, the cumulative effect of my efforts was positive. Slowly, but surely, I was getting better!
Think of the You you’d like to be five, 10, even 20 years from now and start planting the seeds. Imagine you’re leaning into a new direction with your life, adjusting the direction of your compass little by little each day. Focus on tiny steps that make you feel good, and trust that in time those tiny steps will accumulate, adding up to a healthier, happier you.
The body is designed to heal. Our job is to get out of the way.
We are hard-wired for survival. The human body is an incredible organism and our capacity to heal and recover is truly amazing! There is no shortage of miraculous stories of recovery: people who’ve walked after being crippled with debilitating arthritis (Barbara Allan, author of Conquering Arthritis), reversed secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (Terry Wahls, M.D., author of The Wahls Protocol), and stopped stage four cancer dead in its tracks (Kris Carr, author of Crazy Sexy Cancer).
The only way to truly heal the body is to listen and respond to what it needs. My experience with arthritis has taught me to pay attention to the signs my body is sending; It sounds so simple, but for me, it’s necessitated a complete rewiring of how I take care of myself on a daily basis. I experienced major shifts by unraveling old habits that were no longer serving me—deep-rooted tendencies like cleaning my plate (even when I was full), “powering through” with another cup of coffee when I really need a nap, having a couple drinks more out of social pressure than actual desire, and letting my to-do list, rather than my intuition, dictate my day.
If we can tune in to what our body is saying and do our best to give it what it needs, we create an environment conducive to healing. Like keeping a full tank of gas, getting an oil change, and rotating your tires every 5,000 miles, you’ll set yourself up for a truly stellar life road trip, with an abundance of scenic stops and richer, more synchronistic experiences. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like my kind of ride!