One of the most important concepts I learned when getting certified as a Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner was the “Hallway of Life.” Picture a long arrow, with perfect health on the far left and death on the far right. This line represents the range of health possibilities one may encounter in their lifetime. I know, kind of a scary line to think about…
About two thirds to the right is a line labelled “Diagnosis.” While we all hope to spend most of our days on the left end of the spectrum, in practice, many people spend their life in fear of crossing over this “line of no return” and developing one of the (now) ubiquitous chronic diseases, including heart disease, autoimmune diseases, cancer, Type II diabetes, or Alzheimer’s.
Many people believe that one’s chances for developing such a disease is purely a matter of bad luck and bad genetics (“My grandpa and my dad both died of a heart attack, so I’m probably doomed to encounter the same fate.”) Given this genetic-determinism model, many assume the only thing they can do is cross their fingers, hope they don’t get sick, and rely on health insurance if/when they slide into this rightmost third of the Hallway of Life.
While our genetic code obviously plays a role in health outcomes, the truth is that epigenetics―changes in genetic expression caused by how we live―is far more important for overall health. This is good news! It means that we have much more choice in where on the spectrum we end up than previously believed. I’m certainly not saying that you can control everything or avoid any and all diseases. But I am saying that that you can at least influence which genes get turned on or off based on how you eat, sleep, and move.
In cases where someone does get diagnosed with one of the above diseases, modern medicine has developed some powerful tools to mitigate the effects and lengthen lifespans. But why wait until you get to sick to take action? Why not take action now to trigger optimal genetic expression and reduce your chances of developing a chronic disease in the first place?
This is where nutritional therapy and lifestyle interventions really shine. There are ten main health fundamentals that need to be in balance for the body to be optimally healthy, which you can think of as equal “pillars” that hold up your “health roof.” They include:
- A nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory, real food diet
- Blood sugar regulation
- Stress Management
If one of these pillars starts to crumble, the other pillars have to hold up more “weight.” Eventually, this added stress will cause other pillars to start crumbling, too. This is where we get those telltale signs and symptoms that start cropping up before we get to a disease state (headaches, digestive issues, skin problems, fatigue, brain fog, being “hangry,” irregular menstrual cycles, etc.). These signs and symptoms are like when you first hear those telltale squeaks in a car — it’s a sign that something isn’t going quite right, and something needs to be addressed.
The great thing is that the body is really smart and knows how to bring itself back into balance if we give it the building blocks it needs to heal and remove the stressors causing damage.
Conventional medicine generally focuses on treatment of symptoms, whereas a functional approach is interested in figuring out the root cause. We can look at the various signs and symptoms as clues of where there might be an imbalance in one of these fundamentals, and what might need to be done to help the body bring itself back into balance.
It’s analogous to figuring out where the squeak in your engine is coming from, rather than turning up the radio so you don’t hear the the noise anymore.
As an example: when someone is experiencing acid reflux, a conventional doctor will usually diagnose them with gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) and put them on Proton Pump Inhibitors to reduce their stomach acid.
A functional practitioner, on the hand, understands that:
- Stomach acid is critical for breaking down the foods we eat for better absorption and killing pathogens in food.
- More often than not, the problem is not too much stomach acid, but too little.
- Most people in our busy modern society eat while distracted with TV, work or phones, eat too fast, and don’t chew their food thoroughly, which doesn’t give the body enough time to “prime the pump” for digestion.
- Eating too fast puts a huge burden on stomach acid to chemically break down the barely chewed food (which should have been mechanically broken down much more in the mouth before ever reaching the stomach).
- When the above happens, food sits in the stomach too long, and begins to ferment, putrefy, and expand, pushing back up into the esophagus and causing the burning sensation knows as acid reflux.
- This, in turn, can cause even more problems further “downstream,” including gas, bloating, dysbiosis (overgrowth of the bad kinds of bacteria and yeast), SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), diarrhea, constipation, and more.
Therefore, she can educate the person about how digestion is supposed to work, and how it can go awry. She can make some recommendations for habit changes around the way they eat:
- Not eating while driving, scrolling through social media, or sitting in front of a computer at work.
- Slowing down when eating and savoring one’s food.
- Chewing until the food is totally liquid in the mouth.
- Not drinking lots of water, juice, alcohol, etc. right before or during a meal.
She may also make recommendations for foods or nutrients that will support the body’s own production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes.
But what she will not do is silence the signs or symptoms, or wait until they develop into a disease state. And nor should you. Take control of how you eat, sleep, and move today so you needn’t live in fear of the diseases of tomorrow.