To appreciate what Functional Medicine can do, we like to use an analogy which everyone in Texas can relate to: a building, its foundation, the soil underneath, what happens when the foundation shifts, and the various repair options available.
Our climate is subject to droughts and floods. This can radically alter the soil in which the foundations of houses and other buildings are embedded. If the soil becomes too soaked (soft) or too dry (hard), it can cause the foundation to shift. When that happens, any of several consequences may result: cracks may appear in walls, the building may begin to slant, and doors or windows may fail to open or close properly.
To combat this, we’re instructed to water our lawns according to an intermittent-yet-regular schedule, in order to maintain a healthy foundation. If we fail to do so, we may suffer any of the “symptoms” mentioned above.
If we notice a crack forming in a wall, for example, then we know that the problem is probably not with the wall itself; we know via neighbors, real estate agents, and other informational sources that the true culprit is more than likely a foundation problem.
A new resident who didn’t yet know better might attempt to cover up the crack in the wall with spackle or paint. After all, successfully smoothing over the crack would make it invisible. One who didn’t know better might be inclined to believe that the problem is now solved since its (visual) effect can no longer be seen.
Some might begin to see where we’re going with this.
Now, imagine that your body is the house discussed above (and if you think about it, this isn’t too far from the truth; after all, we live in the same body every minute of every day).
Let’s also say that your underlying body chemistry and physiological condition make the “foundation” of your “house.” This would include your organs, glands, brain, hormones, neurotransmitters, electrolytes, energy generators, and more. It would also include your ability to digest food, defend your body against germs, eliminate wastes and toxins, maintain hormone balance, fall asleep and wake up according to a healthy rhythm, and other such tasks.
The ability of these factors to function depends largely on nutrients, such as proteins, vitamins, healthy fats, and minerals. These make up the “soil” that your “foundation” sits in.
Over time, the body encounters its own “droughts” and “floods”. This primarily consists of stress, which comes in three forms: physical, emotional/mental, and chemical (toxins). Examples of everyday stressors include pollution, chemicals, food additives, molds and fungi, bacteria, and others. Any one or combination of these may cause our own biochemical “foundation” to shift, in order to adapt to that stress.
If our “foundation” shifts too far off its base, “cracks” begin to appear; these are the symptoms we begin to experience, such as fatigue, insomnia, depression, “brain fog”, weight gain, high or low blood pressure, or frequent infections.
At the time, we may not realize that these symptoms are mere “cracks” in our “walls”, nor that they actually stem from a larger “foundation” problem. In fact, we probably don’t even realize that the “foundation” problem exists; after all, it shifted so slowly, that we didn’t notice it. We simply see obvious cosmetic clues (such as hair loss or acne) and/or perhaps minor functional issues (fatigue, sleeplessness, migraines, pain, or depression).
From here, we make a mistake with our body’s “foundation” that we would never make with a building foundation: we fail to realize that our symptoms are actually an indicator of an underlying problem, and we attempt to suppress the symptoms without considering the idea that there’s something going on underneath, on a foundational level. We seek out what we think is the easiest and cheapest way to “fix” the problem: a “handyman”, to seal the “cracks” in our “walls” (or worse, we try to fix the problem ourselves).
Handyman To the Rescue…?
The “handyman” in this story is the conventional medical approach to chronic disease: the covering up of the symptoms with over-the-counter or prescription drugs designed to inhibit the natural process of the body that has slid off its “foundation”.
The “handyman” is wonderful at sealing up a wall; he does that incredibly well. It’s cheap and easy to do, and it can be done in a day, and your “home warranty” (your health insurance plan) even covers it.
However, his job does not involve looking at the foundation. He knows little about foundations, and he knows nothing about digging under your house, hoisting it up, and making repairs underneath the surface. And besides–your “home warranty service” (health insurance) will only cover spackle, not foundation repair.
Thus, the underlying foundation problem itself never gets addressed and so, it continues to shift even further off its base…but your “walls” sure look nice and smooth. The symptoms have been successfully quelled–for now.
However, it may not take long before more symptoms begin to poke through; cracks begin to appear in other walls. If the situation gets bad enough, even the pipes inside the walls may lose their integrity and start leaking, or cracking altogether, and the house becomes more and more unlivable.
Remember: that “house” we’re talking about is your body.
Another call to the “handyman” results only in more “spackle” sealant (prescription or over-the-counter drugs, or even surgeries), sometimes multiple types, and for the sake of our story, these “sealants” come at a price: they are “corrosive” to your “house” (this refers to the side-effects of drugs and the tissue trauma of surgery). They start eating away at the very walls they’re supposed to repair. Over time, even more sealant is needed just to stabilize the weakened walls.
“It’s All In Your Head”
You’ve probably been told that your symptoms are “all in your head”. What you may not know is how many hundreds of times we’ve heard that from people in your situation. Yes, that means that you are not alone; people all over the country are being told that it’s “all in your head”.
This would be like the “handyman” denying that the sealants he’s using are corrosive. Of course, they are! But the “handyman” is a respected pillar of the community and culture. Even if you dare to ask him about the safety of his materials, he won’t even consider the idea that the “sealants” themselves are causing any problems of their own. In fact, after taking a quick glance at a couple of surface indicators, he insists that your entire “house” is now fine.
But you live in this house every day, and you know better. It still doesn’t feel like it should.
The handyman eventually gets tired of coming over to your “house”. He insists that your remaining problems are all imagined, and he begins to tell you that your eyes are just too sensitive. He might give you some rose-colored glasses to wear so that you don’t see the remaining wall damage.
This may all sound ridiculous, and it is! However, this is exactly what happens in the conventional medical system to people with chronic health conditions and illness every single day.
At a certain point, some people decide they’ve had enough of these corrosive sealants, and they may opt for an environmentally-friendly handyman who uses natural sealants that aren’t as corrosive. They’re milder and they take a little longer to dry, but at least they don’t eat away the walls.
This “green handyman” would be the “naturopath”, “health coach”, or another non-standardized designation, who uses “natural alternatives” almost as if they were…medications–i.e., natural substitutes for drugs. White willow bark is merely the natural form of aspirin, and red yeast rice is merely a natural statin drug; this is simply less-corrosive “spackle” with which to smooth a “crack” in the wall. It is not, however, a successful “foundation dig”.
What people with chronic disease really needed all along is simply someone to take the time to figure out that the real problem was coming from a deeper source, to evaluate the entire house and the soil in which it is situated, to identify the “sinkhole” in the soil, to get under the slab, and then to strengthen the integrity of the soil underneath the house that caused the foundation to weaken in the first place. Only when the foundation problem is addressed does everything else slowly begin to improve.
There’s a Catch…
The drawbacks? Time and Expense…You get what you pay for, and Quality work takes time. Foundation work takes longer to identify and is much harder to fix. Also, there aren’t many good foundation repairmen out there, so they are tougher to find; neither the regular repairman, nor the environmentally-friendly one are trained to get under the foundation. You also pay for this type of repair out-of-pocket. Maybe, your basic handyman and his sealants are covered by your homeowner’s insurance policy; however, the foundation repairman isn’t. The homeowner’s insurance company says that it doesn’t recognize foundation repair as a valid form of home repair and denies the idea that a bad foundation can lead to any further problems.
This is not a quick, cheap, or easy fix. However, what would you do for your house — continue to slather spackle on the walls to cover up the cracks, or take a deep breath and have a foundation job done correctly?