Monday, December 27, 2010

"Let Food Be Thy Medicine"

Hippocrates is considered the father of modern medicine. One of his most famous quotes is “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”. These words are often utilized for the eloquence with which they express the importance of our daily food choices. The relevance this phrase has is stronger than ever. Nutrition is an underlying theme for just about every health concern we may experience today. To address the underlying causes, we must consider the influence our diet has on our wellbeing. Today we will begin this journey by exploring blood sugar imbalances and the misconceptions that still prevail in our society regarding fats in foods.

When considering our food choices and the impact on our health, the first step relevant for today’s health concerns is to address blood sugar imbalances. Blood sugar imbalances are rampant in our culture. We tend to overly consume highly processed foods and grains, and simple sugars which contribute to an immediate jump in blood sugar levels due to their high glycemic index. The body responds by pumping out insulin from our pancreas to lower the level of sugar in our blood. Elevated blood sugars always cause an elevation in insulin levels. Insulin in our body conveys two primary messages. The first is that the blood sugar should be stored for later use in the form of fat depositions. Let me repeat this first point, elevated blood sugars and hence elevated insulin levels signal our body to store foods consumed as fat. The second is that insulin increases the levels of systemic inflammation in our body.

Day in and day out after the insulin assault on the unnecessarily high blood sugars, the blood sugar levels crash. This hypoglycemic state creates a sympathetic, or stress, response from the body. The adrenal glands release cortisol to help mobilize sugar from stores in the body. At this point the individual typically feels jittery, irritable, and quickly reaches for that sugary snack to get through to the next meal. This pattern causes the sugars to jump up again, insulin is released, and the entire process repeats itself. For most people eating the standard American diet (SAD) this happens every single day. Eventually the pancreas fatigues and can no longer release enough insulin to control the blood sugars and the patient is diagnosed as a diabetic. Simultaneously, the adrenals are exhausted and can no longer function in their full capacity. Our body’s hormone systems are affected by this constant stress and their functions are interrelated. Years of poor dietary choices often require an extensive amount of intervention to restore proper body function and balance.

Fats generally confound us more than any other aspect of nutrition. My 9 year old daughter helped me understand why when she said, “Dad, it’s a homonym. You know, a word that sounds the same but has different meanings.” She couldn’t be more correct. We use the word “fat” to describe lipids in foods and when referencing individuals that are overweight. Even though the low-fat dietary craze of the 80’s would have us believe that they are directly related, they most certainly are not. But the mis-information remains and people still worry that fats in foods will lead to becoming an overweight individual. The result for our lifestyle from this distorted view is that fats have been consistently removed from foods and replaced with sugars. The end product now has a higher glycemic index than the original food and the increased insulin levels to control the elevated blood sugar causes the body to store the food as fat. As we have pulled fat from foods, individuals have become more overweight and the incidence of diabetes and heart disease has continued to climb; yet we somehow continue to believe that fats in foods are detrimental to our health. They aren’t, with one exception.

Trans-fats, or hydrogenated oils, are pointless from a dietary standpoint. There is no need for us to consume them. Processed food manufactures continue to use them because they add stability and shelf life to their end products. They do this at the expense of our health. Trans-fat consumption is related to poor cholesterol levels and increased inflammation in the body, among other things. The only way to be certain that trans-fats are not in our food products is to read the full label. The imprudent business that continues to create these products have created a marketing ploy that will allow them to write largely on the front of a package that it contains “no trans-fats… per serving” as long as there is less that 0.5 grams of trans-fats per serving. The product itself certainly still has trans-fats in it, and so will we if we don’t read the ingredient list searching for the key words: hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, or fully hydrogenated.

In general, foods are neither good nor bad for us. As we begin to change our relationship with foods and nutrition, it is vital to remember that the benefit or detriment to our health is primarily from the quantity and frequency with which we consume any particular food, not a quality inherent to the food itself. For example, we could consume too much water and actually die from an electrolyte imbalance. Our objective should be to strive for variation in our food regimen, focusing mostly on veggies and fruits coupled with protein sources to balance blood sugars. When ever possible and affordable, we should buy local and organic. By reducing our consumption of processed, high glycemic foods and avoiding trans-fats we will improve our daily energy with balanced blood sugars, decrease our systemic inflammation, and better help protect ourselves from the chronic lifestyle diseases that plague our culture.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

7 Principles of Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathic or Holistic Medicine is based on 7 core principles that together comprise the philosophical foundation at the heart of the treatment modalities. In fact, the reasons we make choices with Naturopathic treatments is more important than the different treatments themselves. It isn’t what we give, but why we give it, that defines Naturopathic Medicine.

Grasping the significance of these 7 principles will be vital to our journey as we describe in future segments the potential of holistic healing.

Support the healing power of nature – The body has an innate wisdom and ability to heal. Too often conventional medical approaches strive to work against this process utilizing pharmaceuticals that suppress the body’s own healing attempts. A holistic approach to healing considers the symptoms of an illness as an indicator of the direction the body is striving to move; and then a specifically chosen modality is utilized to support that healing direction.

Treat the cause – The goal with holistic medicine is always to get to the root cause of the problem. By discovering and addressing the underlying problem, the individual is able to experience healing on the deepest and most lasting level.

Do no harm – At the heart of holistic healing is the principle of Do No Harm. This is a commitment to avoid any potentially detrimental treatment options and to support healing with the most gentle and effective means possible.

Doctor as teacher – When individuals seek to pursue a more healthy and holistic lifestyle, it is imperative that they create a nurturing support system to encourage their growth through the process. The holistic doctor is just one of these important relationships, poised to provide information, alternatives, and support while on this journey.

Treat the whole patient – Illness is not confined to physical complaints. The mental and emotional aspect of patient health is vitally important to healing. It is an unfair approach to disregard the concerns that are not directly related to the patient’s chief complaint or diagnosis. This limited perspective restricts the degree to which healing can actually occur. When the whole person is considered, healing can be profound and lasting.

Always support prevention – As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This statement can not be truer than it is during our time today. The diseases that have become pandemic to our Western society are primarily the results of our poor lifestyle choices. The solution to dealing with the continual rise of high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes is to change the behaviors that have supported this propagation. A focus on prevention encourages the adoption of healthy lifestyle choices that can reverse and/or hinder the development of these chronic diseases in the future.

The principles of Naturopathic Medicine are very simple in theory, but the application of these collectively towards every patient is a difficult task to achieve. We are an impulsive and result driven society that will often forgo the ideal path in lieu of a quick fix and short lived solution. When it comes to our health the “easy way out” will merely trade a symptom today for a more chronic condition down the road. As we embark on this journey together, may we have the patience and the foresight to recognize our own healing potential and the courage to embrace the challenges that this new path my pose.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Women's Health Gift

This past week I attended a Women’s Winter Welcome event in Lexington. There were multiple booths with all kinds of gift ideas and products directed towards women. It appeared there were between 300 and 500 women in attendance.

After an hour of exploring the booths, the women were treated to a winter fashion show with local models wearing the looks of the season.

Following the fashion show, there was a panel of 7 local doctors to discuss and answer questions related to women’s cancers including the treatments and surgery options. It was a diverse panel within the conventional medical model; there were a couple of different surgeons, oncologists, and even a radiologist that specialized only in reading breast imaging.

As I sat in the back of the room and listened to the conversation, there were two particular areas of the discussion that I found troublesome:

First, the issue of family genetics was examined and the correlation with cancer development. One oncologist suggested that women get a picture of their family history stretching back 3 generations, looking for any specific women’s cancers. He didn’t mention epigenetics at all… the idea that our lifestyle choices has an impact on our genetic predispositions and actually determines which genes are turned on and turned off. Research has confirmed this concept on multiple levels. I have heard it suggested that the actual incidence of genetically predetermined cancers is around 15 percent. This means that the other 85% of cancers are related and determined by our lifestyle choices. This is the kind of information that I find empowering. It allows us this influence in our own life and health. There is no need to sit back and feel that we are at the mercy of our predetermined genetic make up. I wish the panel would have shared this information with the women in the crowd, instead of simply delivering a message that “if you have a family history of cancer, you’re in trouble.”

The second thing that was slightly upsetting to me was when the radiologist used the term “prevention” to describe mammograms and pap smears. These diagnostic tools are not prevention techniques at all. They are screening methods for discovering cancers. They do not do anything to prohibit cancer growth… and possibly in the case of mammograms started at an early age they may actually increase the breast cancer incidence over time due to the repeated exposure of the breast tissue to radiation. This would have been an ideal opportunity to discuss the actual prevention steps women can take to support a healthy and long cancer free life. If you are a smoker, stop smoking. Loose excess weight. Practice stress management. Avoid exposure to neuro-endocrine disrupting chemicals in our food, personal care products, and daily life. Eat more veggies and fruit every single day. Avoid processed, high glycemic foods to balance blood sugars and insulin levels.

Cancer is a scary condition, but having knowledge and an understanding that we actually have an influence over our risks of developing this disease is a gift. In fact, it may have been the best Holiday gift these women didn’t get.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Do It Yourself Health

I am a big fan of the “Do It Yourself” and “Home and Garden” networks. These stations constantly air shows that provide homeowners the knowledge and courage to make lasting improvements to their home and yards. By simplifying the steps and providing detailed information about the process, these shows invite reluctant individuals into an uncharted territory and guide them through the terrain. The individual is still required to complete the task, the hard work has to be done at home; but the confidence from having a detailed plan, available resources, and a guide form the valuable base that is the successful starting point for any project.

The pursuit of health is always a “do it yourself” project. It has become shockingly obvious that individuals can no longer just walk into a doctor’s office and expect in 15 minutes to have their health concerns addressed and fixed. Health requires a proactive approach and the belief that the individual can direct their own healing with the support of a holistic medical team and the most up to date information.

Realizing that shift from the passive observer simply watching on the couch, to the active creator manifesting the vision for health and wellness is a beautiful phenomenon. It may not happen suddenly, but instead be the collaborative result of glimpses of health, gleaned initially through personal research – online, through books, from friends, from attending a health talk around town, shopping at the local health food store, etc. Any of these can prove to be the initial catalyst that sparks a more profound change in health. These opportunities are the “Do It Yourself” health shows all around you. If your health, if your life needs improvement, turn these channels on and let the information begin to flow. When the time is right and you are ready to invest in your health, the pieces will fall together. The more preparation you do, the smoother your journey will be.

Don't wait... Get started today.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Blood Sugar Screening - what the numbers don't say

I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work at multiple health fairs throughout the year in my surrounding community. I always enjoy meeting other healthcare providers and talking with the various employees and participants about their journey to health. It feels particularly good to reach so many individuals during a single day.
A couple weeks ago while spending the day at a health fair, I was concerned by something I overheard a employee say. I thought it would provide a useful and educational anecdote for people concerned about nutritional health.

The story happened something like this:
There was a nurse down at the other end of the room. She was doing finger sticks and checking employee's blood sugars as a basic diabetes screening. It was a simple test and most of the participants that weren't afraid of needles were having their numbers evaluated. A group of women, having just had their blood sugars checked, progressed across the room towards my table. While standing in front of me, a particular woman boasted of her food choices for the day: "Pancakes from McDonalds, hashbrowns, 2 soft drinks, and a cookie from the insurance table just across the way. Guess what? Her blood sugar was only 78." She smiled and gave herself a nod of approval at her excellent number.

In retrospect, I would have slowed my immediate response, but I was so upset by the inefficiency of this test in this particular moment that I jumped right in with an assessment of the situation. The woman was overweight and quite typically carrying the majority of her excess adipose tissue around her abdominal area. What I let her know, was that in order for her body to produce a blood sugar of 78 on this day following the food choices she had made, her pancreatic beta cells had to produce significantly more insulin than required had her food choices been different. Based on the blood sugar reading, it succeeded. But the extra insulin required to control the sugar spike from the foods consumed conveys a message to the body. The abundance of insulin tells the body, we have an excess of easy energy right now, the best thing to do is store it as fat for a later use. In addition to causing the body to store the consumed calories as fat, the insulin is also pro-inflammatory throughout the body. When this message and these signals are repeated day in and day out the end result is always the same => the individual is overweight and on the road to becoming a type II diabetic.
This is the risk with isolated screenings that do not consider the individual within the context of the big picture. Even though the number may look good today, the long term risks are compiling because the lifestyle factors are being neglected.