Have you ever said to someone, “I’ve had a headache all day”, and they ask if you want an aspirin? Or you comment that your bowel movements aren’t as regular as you’d like them to be, to have the other person suggest you try prune juice. Or maybe you’ve told your doctor that you get acid reflux regularly and he or she told you to take Tums® or Prilosec®.
Although all of these listeners are trying to help you resolve a problem that you’re having, the issue with these responses is that they are deductive in their approach. Deductive reasoning assumes a causal approach and only considers propositions with a clear premise and conclusion. With this framework, conventional medicine, and by extension many home remedies, have become very singular in their view of health and wellness as the “evidence-based” algorithm is applied. The methodology can be summarized like this:
This approach makes logical sense and works great in situations where there truly is only one problem with one cause and one solution. For example, after falling out of a tree, your bone is sticking out of your arm. The cause: a broken bone; the solution: set the bone and put the arm in a cast until it heals. For many acute situations, the approach is very effective because it resolves the issue that is causing the problem and can provide immediate relief from pain or discomfort.
But for non-specific, recurring and chronic conditions, this method doesn’t work as well. Going back to the beginning of this post, taking an aspirin might relieve a headache, but it might not (for some people ibuprofen or acetamenophin works better). And it certainly won’t address the cause of the headache. After all, the cause was not a lack of aspirin!
A headache is a symptom of something going wrong in the body. And, unfortunately, it’s not always easy to figure out what the problem is. Some causes of a headache include:
- Magnesium, riboflavin, niacin, folate, B6, B12 and/or CoQ10 deficiency or insufficiency
- Sensitivity to food or chemicals (including gluten, caffeine and artificial sweeteners)
- Excessive alcohol intake (i.e., a hangover which is probably related to oxidative stress)
- Autoimmune disease
- Hormone imbalance (for example, hormone changes during perimenopause or not enough melatonin)
- Neurotransmitter imbalance (for example, excess GABA)
- Muscle tension
So, maybe taking an aspirin will stop the pain, but it won’t increase your CoQ10 levels, help balance your hormones or reduce your stress (except for the stress you get from the pain!).
This isn’t the first time I have written about this idea. For example, I’ve talked about the many causes of acid reflux, constipation and diarrhea so you can work through the various potential causes and get some relief. Unfortunately, even the detailed information I give you about various conditions may not be sufficient because, in some ways, it again assumes there is just one problem! But what do you do when the cause of your acid reflux is a symptom of something else and either you can’t figure out what’s causing it or you can but don’t know how to resolve the newly identified problem?
This graphic shows a very simplified example of how solving any chronic condition can be challenging because there are potentially multiple different causes for each step.
To explain this example: Let’s say, you recognize that in addition to acid reflux you are also constipated and decide that’s the cause of the acid reflux. Constipation may be relieved by taking a magnesium supplement, if there is a magnesium deficiency. But then we have to ask, why is there a magnesium deficiency? The most obvious answer is the person isn’t eating enough plant foods where magnesium is abundant. Then again, maybe the person consumes too much sugar, caffeine or alcohol; is stressed so needs more magnesium than might be considered normal; supplements with large amounts of calcium or vitamin B6; is on oral contraceptives or diuretics and, therefore, is unnaturally depleted; or has liver or kidney disease.
As well, working with only one problem doesn’t take into account that you may be dealing with other symptoms such as a headache or dry skin or trouble sleeping.
You see what I mean about it being complicated?!?
The goal of functional nutrition, functional medicine and other holistic approaches to wellness is to figure out what is causing the problems in the body. To do this, the functional healthcare practitioner will look at everything for patterns and connections. Biometrics like lab results, symptoms, past diagnoses, and all the parts of a person’s story are pieces of the puzzle that, when put together, show why the body isn’t functioning well.
To give you an idea of how this works, this graphic was adapted from the Institute of Functional Medicine’s Functional Medicine Matrix and shows all of the factors that impact the incredible system that is your body:
I realize it might be kind of hard to read if you are using your cell phone, but that’s kind of the point! Resolving on-going, multi-faceted, interacting problems is not easy! As well, the most obvious answer may not be the best answer.
With that being said, it’s not impossible to figure out what is causing your discomfort. The trick is to be patient, curious and committed.
You must be patient because it won’t be figured out or resolved overnight. After all, you probably didn’t get into your current state yesterday, and you won’t get out of it tomorrow. That’s not to say you can’t see results quickly, because there’s a good chance you can. But getting full resolution will likely take time.
You must be curious about what is happening and any solution offered. You should ask questions of yourself and of your healthcare team to figure out what is going on. You should want answers and explanations. Don’t accept comments like, “There’s no evidence that taking this medication long-term causes any problems” because 1) the lack of the medicine is not the root cause of your problem, and 2) that sentence often means there’s no evidence at all… like, there’s no evidence that it doesn’t cause problems either. (By the way, I’m not anti-medicine, I just think our medical system relies on it too heavily and too many people are in a polypharmacy situation who don’t need to be!)
And you must be committed to yourself and your well-being. Sometimes that means doing things that aren’t fun or not doing things that are fun. Sometimes it will mean finding a new healthcare practitioner if the one you are working with dismisses your concerns as “part of getting older” or some other lame explanation. Or it might require working with information that is very new (i.e., not mainstream) and may make those around you uncomfortable. Ultimately, YOU are the one who has to live with how you feel, so you must be committed to what YOU want to resolve whatever is bugging you.
Resolving non-specific, recurring and chronic conditions is about feeding your intention to feel amazing. Because you did not get into your current state overnight, the process cannot be completed in one day and requires your patience, curiosity and commitment. Finding a healthcare practitioner who can help you put the puzzle together and provide support as you work through the possible root causes can make the process more efficient and effective. You absolutely can and deserve to feel better.
By the way, if you want to find a practitioner who uses a functional and integrative approach, you’ve found one in me. 🙂 Check out my Services page for more details about how to work with me one-on-one in person or remotely or to join one of my on-line groups.
Or, if you want to find someone in your area and you are outside of NYC, check out these resources:
- Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy Graduate Directory
- Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine, Find an Integrative RD Tool
- Institute of Functional Medicine, Find a Practitioner Tool