What is the matter with taking pills, and why is holistic medicine/functional medicine/lifestyle medicine the most effective way to combat metabolic disease and its worrying outcomes – diabetes, heart attack, stroke, hypertension, dementia, arthritis, cancer and so on?
“My clothes are falling off me”
This gentleman had been devastated to be diagnosed with a series of medical conditions in his 60s and found himself on pills for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and gout.
He came to see me with general lethargy, frequent palpitations, and severe arthritis. He had to sleep in a reclining chair because of severe back pain, and he suffered insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome. He weighed 103kg (BMI 31.5), had a blood pressure of 160/100, high cholesterol at 6.7 and HA1C (reflecting diabetic control over the previous 3 months) at a very high 9.2.
After six months on a personalised (holistic/functional/lifestyle) healthcare plan of a healthy diet, regular exercise, and appropriate dietary supplements, he reported: “I need to start a trouser fund, as my clothes are falling off me.”
He had lost two stone in weight, his blood pressure had normalised at 123/68, his blood sugar had too, and his HA1C had come down to 6.8 (normal < 6.5.) His cholesterol dropped to 4.3 – and he came off his regular medications. He returned to enjoying everyday life – gardening, household work and cycling several miles regularly.
The most important aspect of this gentleman’s condition was not any of his serious medical issues but his willingness to change his mindset. The moment he realised that these conditions were reversible – in other words, there was hope – he acted promptly.
“Can I avoid passing this on to my children?”
Every day I meet patients who are very concerned about their health and have a strong family history of metabolic disease. They ask, “Is there any chance for me to reverse my heart disease, my diabetes, my sky-high blood pressure, my high cholesterol, my arthritis, and more importantly, clear my bad family history and avoid passing it on to my children?”
This blog answers firmly, “Yes!”
Like the gentleman above, many of my patients have resolved their chronic conditions. And what made them successful was their willingness to change their thinking.
Are you on the path to metabolic disease?
Many early symptoms of the metabolic disease, like brain fog, fatigue, or body aches and pains, fall into the gap between health and disease, as they do not satisfy the diagnostic criteria to qualify for treatment.
A 2003 BMJ article discussed patients who present with symptoms like these, whose medical tests come back as normal. Without a diagnosis, some doctors assume these patients are making up their symptoms and hence refer them to psychiatry.
The BMJ article encouraged doctors to find a different approach – to accommodate these patients’ symptoms and meet their needs. This was probably the reason behind the growth of holistic/functional/lifestyle medicine.
Unlike conventional medicine, functional medicine addresses the root causes of chronic health problems.
Be proactive rather than reactive
Metabolic conditions start with a faulty metabolism, slowly becoming a cluster of risk factors – central obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, and low HDL (the good guy) cholesterol. Three out of five of these risk factors diagnose metabolic syndrome. And metabolic syndrome gives birth to a long list of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, dementia, arthritis, and cancer.
The problem with conventional medicine is that it does not recognise the gap between health and disease – you either have the condition or you don’t. For example, if you show a fasting blood sugar of 6.9, you won’t qualify for any treatment, but once it reaches 7, the diagnosis will be confirmed. You will be entitled to lifelong diabetic treatment!
Again, metabolic conditions themselves progress unchecked and give birth to other diseases over time; and can have several complications. For example, diabetes damages the eyes and is the commonest cause of blindness, damages the kidneys and causes end-stage renal failure and the need for dialysis, damages the peripheral circulation and is the commonest cause of limb amputation, damages the peripheral nerves and is the most common cause for peripheral neuropathy.
As each metabolic condition emerges, the patient is forced to take more and more pills every day for life. Such medication may slow the disease’s progression, but the patient inevitably continues to deteriorate and stays dependent on those pills for life.
Functional medicine believes the gap between complete health and obvious disease is the ideal time to spot cases and stop the slide towards actual disease.
Effective lifestyle management
Effective lifestyle management can avoid or abort the metabolic syndrome early on. This is because functional medicine focuses on restoring function and reinstating balance within the body systems. It strengthens core physiological processes and adjusts the patient’s environment to nurture and optimise these functions.
This approach naturally includes therapies that focus on restoring health and function rather than pills that simply control symptoms. Because, without correcting your lifestyle, your problems will progress, and you will just need more pills!
Functional medicine is all about prevention, and then, if it is too late to prevent, it’s about improving the management of complex, chronic diseases.
For example, suppose you’re suffering from lethargy, fluctuating energy levels, brain fog, or impotence. In that case, you can only reduce and eliminate those issues by addressing the underlying causes – not by just dealing with the symptoms. The effective remedy is likely to lower inflammation, regulate your blood sugar, balance your hormones, reduce your toxins, or heal your gut.
All this sounds very complicated, but the actual intervention could be as simple as reducing your stress levels, enjoying restful sleep, eating healthy food, increasing your physical activity, strengthening your loving relationships, enjoying the sunshine, and having a purpose in life.
Your personalised action plans
Functional medicine depends on high-tech 21st-century laboratory tests, which study in detail your metabolism at a cellular level. Besides cellular biochemistry, functional medicine benefits from a deep dive into modern genetics to discover bodily weaknesses that require support to induce healing.
For instance, one 50-year-old gentleman with prostate cancer presented with severe lethargy and an inability to walk. His ambition was to be able to enjoy swimming with his young children, but he was unable to complete one 25-metre length. The tests revealed genetic variants that impaired the activation of essential vitamins and a deficiency of essential nutrients that support energy production.
He cleaned his diet, practised intermittent and water fasting, and gradually increased his physical activity. After applying nutritional support, to our great amazement, he was able to swim 2.5km in one go! Interestingly, an MRI scan 9 months later showed the shrinking of his prostate cancer from size 14 to 6.
Lifestyle modifications that you should consider
Let’s start with reversing hypertension; the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH) helps weight loss, lowers inflammation, and thins the blood to stop clot formation. This diet means low sugar, processed carbs and red meat, and high in fish and poultry. It can lower blood pressure by 1 to 2 mmHg in two weeks.
Other blood pressure interventions include weight loss, reducing alcohol, less salt (sodium), increasing magnesium and potassium, reducing stress, improving sleep, and stopping smoking. Please note that only 30% of hypertensives respond to medication.
Natural interventions to lower triglycerides include a 5 to 10% weight loss, reducing sugar and processed carbs, and increasing fibre intake in vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Fibre slows down sugar and fat absorption. Healthy fats include olive, avocado, coconut and omega 3, which all lower triglycerides. There is also evidence that aerobic exercise helps.
Optimising HDL can involve regular aerobic, strength and high-intensity exercise, a low-carb, Mediterranean and ketogenic diet, olive oil high in polyphenols, coconut oil, and purple food high in anthocyanins (blueberries, blackberries, and red cabbage.)
Several studies have suggested that regular consumption of extra-virgin olive oil with high polyphenol content may optimise HDL (the good guy.) Weight loss of 1 kg increases HDL by 0.01 mmol/ L.
Pills versus lifestyle changes
You have a headache; you take a pill; the headache goes, but it comes back when the pill wears off. This is because pills work on symptoms.
However, lifestyle changes work on bodily systems to remove imbalances and reinstate optimal function. Once the lifestyle starts to work, its effects will stay forever – or as long as you continue to practise the new lifestyle!
How do you motivate yourself to make these changes?
Andy, another patient, liked his little treats, such as chocolate cake or a glass of wine. But he learned to focus on long-term goals, such as being able to play with his grandchildren and dance at his granddaughter’s wedding. Therefore, he started to give more weight to his long-term goals and was more willing to give up some short-term enjoyment.
But your lifestyle changes need to be simple and doable. If you share what you are doing with others, this will not only increase your commitment and give you more motivation but also teach other people about good lifestyle habits.
Reflect on your progress and continuously adjust and redesign the changes until successful. See failure as an essential part of your continuous learning process. Allow time for these obstacles in your goal planning.
So, my friends, metabolic diseases are serious and life-threatening, but functional medicine shows us that you can resolve them with some simple, everyday lifestyle changes. First, tune into your long-term goals (playing with your grandchildren, say), which will give you the motivation to start and not give up. The long-term view will motivate you to start, and the modesty of each new step will provide how to keep moving forward.
As always, please ask any questions in the Comment section below – and please do subscribe to the newsletter so that you don’t miss further vital information. Thank you!
Hypertension and the lifestyle modification: how useful the guidelines? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2991739/
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