In a bid to justify my instinctive decisions about resisting suppressive therapies for my Crohn’s disease; I am reading books and listening to podcasts in a frenzy, trying to digest all the information I can get my greedy, groany guts on. The great thing about this for my blog readers, is that you get to benefit from all my research, by putting in very little effort at all!
An online IBD friend of mine kindly let me listen to a whole series of pod casted talks titled ‘The Evolution of Medicine’ which explore auto-immune, nutrition, gut health, mental health, under the movement that is known as ‘functional medicine’. The talks are all excellent in different ways, but all discuss the somewhat revolutionary idea of starting medical healthcare ‘from scratch’, can medical practice pro-actively seek to avoid ill-health rather than just be reactive to symptoms? A change that major, can only begin with education and an increased enjoyment of learning about our bodies; something I seek to achieve right here – with my writing and visual illustrations.
Anyway, what is this incredibly dull sounding term ‘Functional Medicine’?
“Functional medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach and engaging both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership. It is an evolution in the practice of medicine that better addresses the healthcare needs of the 21st century. By shifting the traditional disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, functional medicine addresses the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms. Functional medicine practitioners spend time with their patients, listening to their histories and looking at the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex, chronic disease. In this way, functional medicine supports the unique expression of health and vitality for each individual.” See more here.
To me, this school of thought is everything I always hoped medicine would be; engaging, dialogic, educational, investigative and always learning. But I was disappointed from a very young age to learn that physicians’ opinions were often imperfect and they certainly didn’t work like that. From my Grandmother’s misdiagnosis of Tennis Elbow, which was actually a fast spreading Cancer that killed her in her mid-sixties, to my father’s aggressively prescribed battle with Crohns disease ending in his bowel being removed, even to my partners recent misdiagnosis of ‘ring worm’ and given some strong acidic ointment for what was essentially an auto-immune psoriasis-like rash caused by a food allergy. Not only do GP’s ask too few questions and mis-diagnose, but by gosh do they like to mis-prescribe too, only to confuse the body’s own healing a whole lot more in the process. Moreover, the amount of patients that come home waving a prescription they barely understand bamboozles me!
For instance, just how many people don’t realise that taking ‘anti-biotics’ for a relatively mild infection, shouldn’t be taken lightly? Not enough. ‘Anti-biotics’, loosely translates to; DEATH TO THE BACTERIA (in scary booming voice); killing the good guys as well as the bad. Swallowing an anti-biotic pill is like throwing a grenade into your gut. It will kill off your carefully trained and shiny-shoed army. And if your immune system was compromised in the first place – it’s not always the best approach, killing off an entire colony of your good guys, in order to catch a few of the bad ones. But again, patients aren’t really explained to in this way, in order to make informed decisions about medication they are offered. Even for much bigger medications like statins, immuno-surpressants, anti-depressants etc. The chemistry behind drugs is really fascinating when you start to visualise it. So why do our doctors keep it all from us like silly children and barely help us consider the other factors surrounding our ill-health? Well some would say it’s not their job. So that’s where the newbies of Functional Medicine step up. It’s a fantastic movement, of different but totally sensible thinking.
A functional approach to medicine questions the bigger picture. Yes the usual genetic history is helpful – ‘Does x or y run in your family?’ But It would also seek to find environmental clues. It would explore the patient’s entire patterns of consumption, not just of the obvious baddies like cigarettes and alcohol, but does their diet look after their gut health and overall immunity? Can they notice or isolate the start of their problems, was there an environmental or emotional trigger? A relationship breakdown? A crisis at work? Or a holiday with weird tasting eggs at breakfast? Can we look for clues and patterns in our times of illness and in health plotted along a timeline? Can we make links to a random rash and our body’s way of sounding an alarm? It’s about a mindful approach to all of the factors in our life and the part they have to play.
Functional medicine methodology understands the body is only ever just trying to function in the way it’s meant to. It just wants to get on with it’s job, unhindered and undisturbed by toxins, stresses, bacteria and the annoying things that distract it. When it feels irritated by these distractions it sounds the alarm or malfunctions, often compromising our immunity – making us feel crabby, or worse giving us a condition that we can’t seem to get rid of.
I listened to an excellent podcast by Andrea Nakayama CNC, CNE; titled ‘Unlocking long term digestive health’. Now one thing any functional health advocate will tell you, is that the key to health and a strong immune system begins in the gut. So our digestive health is by default an excellent place to start.
She boldly explains that ‘90% of our make-up is bacterial’. We are not just biological stand alone individuals, we are micro-biomes – whole communities of microbes, constantly multiplying, fighting, dying, evolving. This is great news for our health when you consider how much positive influence we can have over the bacteria which arrive and thrive in our body, even just by considering what we put in our mouths.
A functional practitioner would seek to learn about our Micro-biome history, from before we even left the womb and trace our childhood through to the present day. They might ask; “Were you breast fed?”, “What medicines or vaccines were you exposed to?”, “Which viruses did you get as a child and how did you fight them?” In unlocking some of these memories and immune histories – we can learn a lot about what goes on inside ourselves and our unique patterns of healing and repair.
I am also reading a book simply titled ‘Gut’ by Guilia Enders which is one of the best things I have in my rucksack aside from my cherry chapstick and pencil case full of muji pens. I can’t get enough of it. It’s hilariously written, medically insightful, a visual feast both illustratively and in it’s written style, and it would (and should) be of interest to anyone. Well anyone with a gut, so that’s everyone actually.
Why should you read it? Quite simply because, the crazy zoo-like ecosystem in our gut, makes up two thirds of our entire immune system and also because it’s full of really fun descriptions of our anatomy and bodily functions; pooing, vomiting, digestion – the lot.
I am currently chewing my way through it’s pages, but once I have digested it properly I will summarise what I’ve learnt.