At the same time, you may well ask: What’s wrong with “Alternative Medicine”?
The failure to look for deeper explanations is widespread among health practitioners—both mainstream and alternative. Fortunately, a younger breed of functional medicine practitioners are beginning to get it right.
Originally published 2007
In the TV show, House, the doctor is an especially logical character who analyzes problems, performs tests, and unerringly cuts to the heart of the problem. In effect, he does a complete systems analysis to figure out what’s wrong. His primary weapons are observation and logic, supplemented by tests and experiments that produce the information he needs to make deductions. If every doctor were like that, people would be a lot healthier.
In this post, I’m focused on the pill-pushing, knife-wielding medicos who work on the “chronic” diseases that have been growing at such a rapid pace in America, and for which doctors have been all but useless. I am not referring to the heroes in hospital emergency rooms. When it comes to traumatic events, their life-saving brand of medicine is a godsend.
The “Symptoms” View
But in real life the focus is more on identifying the symptoms and prescribing the “cure” for those symptoms, as listed in the big book of medicine, the Materia Medica. That’s the “drugstore medicine” that goes on in the clinic that Dr. House tries to avoid on the show. The problem with that approach is that eliminating the symptom doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve solved the underlying problem—and it’s also rife with undesirable side-effects.
Case in Point: For years, the doctors gave me cortisone shots and cortisone cream (Lydicane) to treat the itch of poison oak and poison ivy (the symptom). They’re still doing that today. But there is a simple soap that removes the sap entirely—TecNu. That soap treats the cause, but most most doctors are entirely ignorant of it. (See Curing Poison Oak and Poison Ivy) I wasn’t supposed to use the Lydicane on my face, but what other choice did I have, as the rash continued to spread? But doing so thinned the skin, setting the stage for a bad case of rosacea that developed later (the side effect).
Case in Point: I had pain in my knee. It turned out to be caused by a flap of cartilage that had torn lose and inserted itself between the remaining cartilage and the bone. Orthopedic surgery removed that flap to eliminate that pain (the symptom). But I was never informed that there was a simple chiropractic maneuver that could solve the problem without removing cartilage. That maneuver is traction—simply pulling on the ankle, which creates a bit of space in the joints. With the additional space a little jiggling, the flap could easily have moved back where it belongs. But it wasn’t even offered as an option. That piece of cartilage was removed, and ever since I’ve been living with pain when I exercise (the side effect).
Case in Point: In 1985, I was diagnosed with “sinusitis”. The doctor prescribed codeine and antihistamines to control the symptoms. In 2006, I was diagnosed with “allergies”. This time, the prescription was for Nasacort and Zyrtec—strong stuff, but still focused totally on managing symptoms. But thanks to the folks at Root Cause Medical Clinics, the underlying cause was identified: a gluten reaction. (See What’s Wrong with Wheat?) With the underlying problem treated, the resulting “allergy” symptoms simply disappeared.
Case in Point: Doctors spend a lot of time treating cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity—the major killers in America today. But their patients are symptoms—symptoms they treat with drugs and surgery. They’re blind to the underlying problem—poisons in the food supply that cause those diseases, including partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, and MSG.
Learn more: What’s Wrong with American Foods?
In many more cases than these, medical doctors are virtually ignorant of important alternatives. Yet they are arrogant enough to believe that they know best, and have disdain for anyone who disagrees with them. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people selling snake oil in the alternative health industry. But it is a clear fact that many times, one of the alternatives is a better choice than the drugs and surgery of allopathic medicine—especially for chronic diseases brought on by the industrial lifestyle.
The symptom-oriented approach worked fine for diseases like typhus and scarlet fever that were prevalent at the start of the 20th century. Those diseases are caused by a “bug”, which medicines were designed to treat. Identify the symptoms, and you know the disease. When you know the disease, you known which bug is causing it, and which medicine is appropriate. So it’s natural to jump from the symptom straight to the medicine. But today’s medical problems are very different. As you’ll see in the section on deficiencies, there are multiple possible causes. Such a disease cause problems for doctors, because there is no one treatment that is appropriate for everyone. That may help to explain why Americans spend more on health care than any industrial nation in the world, yet rank last in life-expectancy and general health. Yet, doctors in general continue to display an unforgivable combination of ignorance and arrogance.
That kind of symptom-oriented thinking has even infected the world of herbal remedies—nutritional remedies that should be very helpful for anyone interested in maintaining health, but which tend not to be as effective as one would hope. If you consult a book of herbal remedies, for example, you’ll find a long list of remedies for every symptom and condition you can imagine. All of them have probably worked for someone. The question is, which one will work for you? For example, a symptom of deficiency could be caused multiple ways, as you’ll see in the next section. Two people could be displaying the same symptom, but require completely different remedies.
The “Systems” View
The symptoms view tends to treat one persons’ symptoms the same as another’s. If the symptoms are the same, the treatment is the same. The systems view, on the other hand, looks at a person as a being composed of multiple interacting components, including body and mind, with inputs and outputs. It observes symptoms, but it also runs tests, analyses the results, and targets the underlying causes of problems. The causes tend to fall into two groups:
The nice thing about problems caused by nutritional deficiencies is that they are easy to cure. You get the missing nutrients and, voila!, the problem disappears. But it can be tricky to identify the cause of a deficiency.
Let’s suppose for a moment that you do have a nutritional deficiency (if you’re eating a modern industrial diet, you probably do). There are several ways for that deficiency to occur:
- Not Available: The nutrient is not available in the foods you eat, which could happen for one of several reasons:
- Not Preserved : Volatile nutrients like Vitamin C and MSM are destroyed during storage and processing.
- Not Formed: Phytochemicals that form when the plant is ripening never get a chance to do so when the plant is picked green.
- Not in the Soil: Trace minerals we need are gradually lost from the soil when only the “big three” (nitrogen, potash, and phosphorus) are replaced with chemical fertilizers.
- Not Bound: Even if the minerals are present, the plant can’t bind them without the microorganisms that feed on them—microorganisms that thrive only in unplowed, organic soils.
- Not Eaten: You don’t eat foods that contain the nutrient you need.
- Not Absorbed: The nutrient is present in your diet, but it’s not being absorbed. (For example, folic acid is required for the absorption of B-vitamins. But the FDA limits folic acid to 800 mg, because it interferes with the test they used for anemia 80 years ago. So when you take a B-vitamin supplement, most of it is never absorbed.)
- Not Produced: The body should be producing it, but it’s not. (The majority of B-vitamins are produced in the intestines, by beneficial bacteria who feed on the fiber in your diet. The glands produce hormones, and the liver is a small chemical factor that combines bits and pieces into the things you need. A problem in any one of those systems would produce symptoms of a deficiency.)
- No Co-Factor: The nutrient is present, but a vital co-factor is missing (there can be many), so what seems like a deficiency of one thing is really a deficiency of another.
- Usage Blocked: The body’s use of the nutrient is being blocked in some way.
- Usage Shunted: Too much of the nutrient is being used for other purposes. (For example, Vitamin C protects the eyes from the rays of the sun, fluorescent lights, X-Rays, the TV, and old cathode-ray computer monitors. But it breaks down in the process. Vitamin C is also used up when making bones and cell tissue, as well as in the immune system. If too much is needed for one purpose, not enough is available for its other uses.)
- Reconstruction Blocked or Reconstructor Absent: Many antioxidants are broken down when they do their work, but are then reconstructed. (For example, Glutathione Peroxidase reconstructs Vitamin C in the eyes, and Vitamin C reconstructs Vitamin E.) A deficiency of one thing can produce symptoms of a deficiency later in the chain.
So even when you know that a deficiency in “A” causes condition “B”, you may have to look deeper to identify the cause of the deficiency. And that’s where many health practitioners fall short. The observed deficiency is real enough, but it is generally better to solve the underlying problem than to continually consume mega doses of the nutrient that is, in effect, acting as a “band-aid”.
It may also be that you are getting way more of things that are bad for you than your body can handle. In the American diet, those things tend to be partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, and wheat. (See What’s Wrong with American Foods?) But there are also heavy minerals and pollutants to consider.
How do you know whether you’re treating a cause or a symptom? The question is, when can you stop? With symptom relief, you have to keep taking supplements forever. Stop taking them, and the problems return. But by focusing on the cause and changing your lifestyle to remove it, supplements are only needed for a few months to restore full health to the body—something the body is fully prepared to do, as soon as we stop beating on it and start giving it what it needs. Of course, there are times when it’s a good idea to treat the symptom. But you need to treat the cause as well, so the symptom goes away.
The “Root Cause” View
Fortunately, I have at last found a team of doctors, chiropractors, and clinical nutritionists who have a true systems view of health, at Root Cause Medical Clinics. Here’s a statement of their philosophy—and an impressive one it is. I suspect that they represent the tip of an important trend: a new breed of doctors who focus first on understanding the system that is the patient’s body, identifying the underlying cause, and then treating that cause.
These doctors focus on the body as a system of inputs and observable symptoms. They use medical tests to understand the exact cause of problems, and they don’t automatically leap to the latest drug or surgical procedure. Instead they look for long term, health-building cures. That is precisely the procedure I have previously recommended, in Using Doctors Wisely), so it’s understandable why I am so thrilled to have found them.
Doctors Rick and Vicki Peterson put it this way:
Imagine the body. (Draws a stick figure.) On the left we have a number of lifestyle inputs coming into the body—things like diet, the environment, pollutants, stress and other stressors. (Draws a bunch of arrows coming into the body.) Over a period of time, they cause problems in the body. (Scribbles a few circles and figure eights in the center of the stick figure.) Those problems create symptoms we recognize. (Draws arrows going out to the right, and writes the word, “Symptoms”.) If we treat the symptoms, but don’t treat what’s causing them, the problem stays there. If we treat the problem, but don’t identify the lifestyle factors and make changes, the problem will reoccur. We have to do all three. We have to treat symptoms as needed, but be sure to treat the real problem and, at the same time, identify the lifestyle factors that cause it.
It was their knowledge of the systemic effects of gluten that led to my understanding of the fatigue that has plagued me for years, and resolved the incredibly itchy hives (dermatitis herpetiformis) that developed fairly recently. It also flattened an ugly pot belly, solved my skin problems, and provided a good explanation for my “milk allergy”, as explained in What’s Wrong with Wheat?.
Here’s their process:
- Understand the human being as a system, with stressors (inputs), conditions (state), and symptoms (outputs)
- Use the symptoms as a guide
- Use experience to suggest possible causes
- Use science to test assumptions and identify conditions
- Use supplements, whenever possible, rather than drugs, which are fast-acting, but which potentially harmful long-term effects.
In a nutshell, they follow this creed:
Eschew instant gratification in favor of lifelong satisfaction.
The first visit is free, too. It gives you a chance to find out how they work, and it gives them a chance to see if they can help you. And for the icing on the cake, they keep their appointments! Once, an emergency came up during one of my visits, and I had to wait for 20 minutes. So they apologized. Imagine that: A medical appointment where they actually keep the appointment, where they apologize if they’re late, and where you actually resolve the underlying problems. A new breed, indeed.
The “Functional Medicine” View
Fortunately, doctors are beginning to shed the blinders that were put in place by the drug cartels—er, that is, the drug industry. Rather than focusing on narrow “specialties” (Headache? We have a drug for that!) they focus on bodily systems (Let’s see. What combination of environmental toxins, nutritional deficiencies, and lifestyle factors are causing your particular headache?) .
Such doctors search for causes, and rather simply prescribing drugs in response to symptoms. They’re called “generalists”, in the sense that they go wherever the problems are—they’re not restricted to just the head, or just the heart. But in reality they’re system specialists. To do their job, they have to understand how all of the body’s systems interact, in order to diagnose and resolve the underlying problems that keep their patients from enjoying superior health.
The good news with such doctors, is that they don’t simply mask the symptoms with a drug protocol that tends to leave the underlying cause intact, until it eventually manifests in new and generally more serious ways. Nor do they add to the body’s burden with drug-induced side-effects. Instead, they address the underlying causes in ways that leave the patient with excellent health, at the end of the process.
The nutritional remedies and other remedies they use may take somewhat longer to show results (generally, days or weeks, rather than hours), but the results are infinitely better for your long term health.
Doctors like Dr. Mercola, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and the “Root Cause” doctors (Dr. Rick and Dr. Vikki Petersen) are representative of the “functional” view. But perhaps no one represents it better than Dr. Mark Hyman. As chief editor of The Journal of Integrative Medicine, he helped to ground the functional view with solid science. In his practice at the UltraWellness Clinic, he uses functional medicine as his guiding principle. And in his books, The UltraMind Solution and Ultrametabolism, he presents the concepts simply and effectively.
About the only thing the field needs is a better name. After all, what do you call a doctor who does functional medicine? A “functionalist”? That’s probably why the term “Integrative Medicine” never really took off. What do you call a doctor who does such things—an “integrationist”? Doctors who specialize in the heart are cardiologists—nice label to hang your hat on. I suspect that this branch of medicine needs a similar name—one they can use at cocktail parties to introduce themselves, and that will make it easy for the public to identify them.
In my view, it should be called “Systems Medicine”, and it’s practitioners can be “systemologists”. Well, it’s a thought, anyway.
- Using Medical Practitioners Effectively
- Why You Want Functional Medicine
- Curing Poison Oak and Poison Ivy
- What’s Wrong with American Foods?
- Wrong with Partially Hydrogenated Oils?
- What’s Wrong with Wheat?
- Eat to Live, by Dr. Joel Fuhrman
- Fasting and Eating for Health, by Dr. Joel Fuhrman
- The UltraMind Solution, by Dr. Mark Hyman
- Ultrametabolism, by Dr. Mark Hyman
- Root Cause Medical Clinics
- Dr. Mark Hyman’s UltraWellness Center
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