Chronic Problems vs Acute Expectations

In medicine, we use the term acute to refer to an illness or disease that comes on suddenly, and doesn’t last long. Heart attacks are acute. Colds and flu are, too. Acute illnesses tend to either get better fairly quickly–with treatment, or often without–or kill you. Usually, it’s the former.

We see our fair share of acute problems: infections, injuries, colds, flu, sore throats, and all manner of other complaints that need to be dealt with.

Where naturopathic medicine shines even brighter, however, is in chronic illness. Unlike an acute problem, chronic conditions come on far more slowly, often getting worse over time. Arthritis. IBS. Crohn’s and colitis. Persistent back pain. Recurring migraines. Heart disease, kidney disease. It’s a long list. And unlike acute problems, they don’t go away on their own, at least not for long. They’re stubborn, and they take a special approach. Here’s why.

The Two Challenges of Chronic Illness

Beyond the obvious problem that they keep hanging around messing up your life, chronic problems have two other distinct challenges:

  1. They’re difficult to diagnose. Acute problems often have readily identifiable causes. That broken leg? It’s because you broke your leg. There’s no mystery. Typical solution? Pain control, reset, cast, heal, and done. Chronic migraines, though? Wow. It could be hormonal imbalances. Environmental toxins. Musculoskeletal imbalances. Stress. Food intolerances. Chronic diagnosis is an art form. It takes time and experience, and that’s why ND’s seem to take forever during your initial visit. The more persistent and mysterious the problem, the more information we need. We’re the Sherlock Holmes of health care.
  2. They’re challenging to fix. Moreover, it’s not just the diagnosis that’s tricky, treating chronic problems is no cakewalk either. Not because the treatments don’t work, but because they’re harder to do. Acute conditions are often dealt with quickly–take a pill, get a cast, rub on a cream. Then wait. Chronic conditions are a whole different story. They take longer, and worse still, they often require significant lifestyle change on the part of the patient. You have to change the way you live your life, and that’s a lot more demanding than taking a pill.

Chronic Problems meet Acute Expectations

Of course, that’s where things get tricky. As a culture, we’re not accustomed to the challenges of fixing chronic complaints. We’re used to acute solutions–the pills, the injections, the bandages. We’re used to looking for the “one thing” that is responsible for our symptoms, and the “one thing” that will fix it.

Unfortunately, in the majority of cases there really isn’t “one thing” at all. The real cause of a chronic illness generally is a result of long-term “un-wellness”. In effect, it’s lots of things.

It’s months of poor sleep. It’s years of crappy eating. It’s one too many glasses of wine and too few glasses of water. It’s no movement and lots of TV watching. It’s years of exposure to chemicals. It’s a host of chronic behaviors that give a chronic result: a body that can never fully heal and recover.

Basically, it’s a host of chronic behaviors that give a chronic result: a body that can never fully heal and recover. A body that’s overwhelmed with inflammation, raging with out-of-whack hormones and low-grade nutritional deficiencies. A body–and its owner–that has energy in the toilet, poor sleep, crappy moods, even crappier digestion, and a lackluster sex life.

That’s more than chronic illness. It’s chronic unhappiness, discomfort, and confusion.

Most chronic symptoms are really the body screaming at its owner to take better care of it overall.

The good news is that despite all these obstacles, much chronic disease is still very treatable. You can change, and you can see the results. We do every day!

 

Health Mysteries

“In the beginning, disease is difficult to recognize but easy to cure.
In the end, disease is easy to recognize but difficult to cure.”

– Franz Mesmer, German Physician

I love this quote. It’s a lesson for patients in the value of prevention and long term health thinking, but also a reminder to doctors of the importance of not shying away from the hard diagnostic work of challenging cases.

Challenging cases are something every doctor gets, and we see our share. Every week, new patients arrive at StoneTree with health care dilemmas. And while each patient’s symptoms might be vastly different, at the heart of many cases there’s a common theme: they feel awful but conventional medicine says there is nothing wrong with them.

These patients are often angry and frustrated. Their lab tests have come back not showing anything significant. They’re being told, “It’s all in your head.” They feel like they might be malingering hypochondriacs.

Of course, they’re not malingering hypochondriacs. Their body is in that first stage of disease that Mesmer is talking about, the stage where it is very difficult to identify a problem, particularly by standard tests that are geared toward diagnosing disease, not subtle imbalances. And that leaves patients with a problem: they have a health mystery that no one seems interested in solving except them.

Well…we like the mysteries. The great thing for many of these patients who end up in our office is that although recognizing what is wrong with them has been frustrating and difficult, the fix can often be much easier.

Dealing with nutritional deficiencies, low grade toxicities, food intolerances, hormone imbalances or immune system issues in the early stages reap huge rewards. People have more energy, and get better sleep. Their moods balance. Their immune systems, which seemed to be betraying them, now behave properly and their detox systems are not overrun.

There’s a prize for solving the mystery, and that’s a faster, easier return to health. That’s why we like the mysteries. As Mesmer suggests, a hard problem to solve beats a hard disease to cure.

No One Knows You Better Than You

During a recent appointment, a patient told me, “The goddess flows to that which is nurturing.”

At the time, we were discussing something in the patient’s life that was going smoothly. The statement was her way of describing that when you listen to your body and your intuition, and act accordingly, things just seem to work.

Her phrase stuck with me, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how much it captured our philosophy of health care.

You Versus Science

The human body is a complicated place. The reductionist approach of modern research science wants your body to be like a machine, but it really isn’t. One person will respond to a drug, when another won’t. One person will develop lung cancer from smoking, where another will live to 100 smoking a pack a day. One person will gain weight just looking at chocolate and then other can eat all they want and never gain an ounce.

Our patients consistently look for advice on what is the best thing for their health. What is the best diet? How much exercise should I do? How much sleep should I get? How much water should I drink? There are guidelines in the research for almost all of these things, but the real answer is that it’s likely different for everyone.

To our patients, we say this: You are a beautiful little snowflake. Each and every one of you has your own individual biochemical beauty. And that means that each and every one of you may need different things to find your best level of health. For example:

  • Some people do great on a paleo diet, others feel sluggish and bloated.
  • Some people’s lives change on a gluten-free diet, where others feel no difference at all.
  • Some people feel amazing doing intense exercise, while others only feel good with yoga.
  • Some people can roll with the punches and process stress like a champ, while others need more time and space to weather life’s changes.

Only YOU know what is the best for you. You’re the world’s leading expert in you. Think of a time when you felt the best. You had energy, you were happy, your sleep was restful and your digestion worked perfectly. What you were doing at that time is a clue to what is best for you. It’s a signpost on the path to great health. If it was eating low carb, sleeping 9 hours, running or meditating, this is what is nurturing to your body.

North American lifestyle can definitely get in the way of what is nurturing to your body. But so can not trusting your inner goddess (or god, gentlemen). If you find you spend a lot of time worrying about what the media says is the new super food, ideal exercise, or fad diet, perhaps it’s time to sit quietly and tune in to a new source of health news: your own inner wisdom.

Preventing Allergies Before They Happen

Three cheers for saying good-bye to dark days and cold temperatures! The sweetest days of winter are upon us and spring is just around the corner.

Naturopathic doctors are big on prevention–in fact, it’s one of our core values. Preventing a problem or symptom is always so much easier that treating it. So, as we enjoy these few weeks of great spring skiing, we’d like to turn your attention to the upcoming allergy season…before it happens!

Why You’re Allergic…And Others Aren’t

Seasonal allergies give our patients a lot of grief. Sneezing, itchy/watery eyes and runny noses are no fun, and some folks will have reactive lungs and skin irriation as well during this time of year.

The conventional way of dealing is to use daily antihistamines to stop the immune reactions, but naturopathic doctors look at allergies a little differently. For us, an allergic response is a sign that your immune system is intolerant of, or reactive to, a harmless protein (or antigen).

A properly functioning immune system sees pollen as harmless and ignores it. In a person with an allergic response, that protein is seen as an intruder that will do harm, and the immune system shows up in force–with things like mucus and sneezing–to try to get rid of it.

The reason you’re suffering and your neighbour isn’t, then, may be that something is out of balance, and causing your immune system to not work quite right.

What’s Out of Balance?

The real question now becomes: Why is your immune system over-reacting to something it shouldn’t? Here are three reasons:

1. Your gut is a mess.

One of the biggest parts of your immune system is in your gut. It’s here that your immune system learns what it should and shouldn’t be tolerant to. All the little critters that live and work there everyday are responsible for this job. When they’re disrupted by medications like antibiotics and steroids, or by toxic chemicals in our environment, they don’t do their job properly and you become more reactive.

2. You have a food sensitivity.

Sensitivities to gluten, dairy, eggs and many other foods make your immune system react each time you eat them. Every time you eat a food you are sensitive to, it creates a little bit more inflammation, revving up your immune system even more. That reactivity makes it even easier for spring pollens to set things off.

3. You are nutrient deficient.

Many vitamins and minerals are critical for keeping the immune system working properly. Vitamin C, magnesium, essential fatty acids–they are all used up in our high stress, poor nutrition, toxic lifestyles, making our immune system less able to balance itself.

What can you do now?

Figure out what the root cause of your immune system imbalance and rebalance it. If you do it now, before the pollens show up, you can make this spring the sweetest ever. To learn how we can help assess what’s making you sensitive to pollens and other allergens, contact the clinic at 705-444-5331, or feebetter@stonetreeclinic.com.

Understanding Your Hormones in a Post-40 World

Valentines Day is approaching, and it brings to mind thoughts of beautiful flowers, delicious chocolates and LOVE.

For many of our patients in their 40’s and beyond, however, this time of year leaves them wondering just where their thoughts of love have gone. Or, if the thoughts are there, what happened to the get up and go to act on them?

For the Boys

Andropause can be a scary time for men. It is described medically as the end of male virility.  Gasp. What dude wants to hear that?

What’s really going on? The brain is making less of the hormone that stimulates the testes to make testosterone, so production goes down. Sex hormone binding globulin, or SHBG, increases as well, which binds testosterone and makes blood levels even lower.

To add to that, loss in lean body mass and increase in fat mass causes an increase in estrogen secretion, which inhibits testosterone further. In other words–you’re trading one bulge for another.

For the Girls

Menopause can be an irritating time for women. It is described medically as the “end of the female’s productive life”, but the symptoms that can show up make it feel less like the end of your period’s life, and more like the end of life, period.

What’s really going on? As the ovaries age there are fewer eggs around to mature. The brain keeps trying to stimulate the ovaries to make an egg but it either doesn’t happen, or it takes a really long time. Progesterone, which is made by the mature egg, starts to fall and estrogen, which is one of the hormones required to mature the egg, just keeps climbing. This results in heavy periods, breast tenderness, hot flashes, major mood swings (AKA Keep-the-Knives-Locked-Up), and insomnia.

Once it’s all over the body should find its new balance, but sometimes it doesn’t, perpetuating the old symptoms, or creating new problems like lack of libido and vaginal dryness.

How do you figure out what’s going on?

Most hormones in the blood are bound to proteins, which serve the purpose of ferrying them around to the various cells. Bound hormones don’t have any effect – only unbound ones do.

You can test blood levels, but they only show bound, or non-active hormone levels.

Saliva tests can reveal unbound levels. This is the active form of the hormone, so we get a better look at what is going on. (Remember with andropause, for example, one of the things that happens is the binding protein increases, so that even if there is enough testosterone around, it isn’t active.)

What to do about it?

Twenty year-olds can find their mojo regardless of how much they sleep, run or eat. It’s the biological imperative, and all us 40-somethings can remember it clearly. Now that we’re making our way into middle life, however, what we do or don’t do matters a great deal.

  • Exercise. Losing muscle mass and gaining fat mass takes a huge toll on testosterone levels and jacks up estrogen, both of which make for more sitting on your butt and less getting it on. Regular exercise not only battles the bulge, but it maintains the lean tissues. It also increases circulation in the extremities – and blood flow is always an important part of an intimate encounter!
  • Diet. Foods that put on the pounds increase our fat stores and then increase estrogen in the body. This perpetuates the estrogen dominance in women making menopausal symptoms worse, and makes testosterone fall even further in men. Eat foods that nature makes. Lot of veggies, fruits, lean proteins, legumes and nut and seeds.
  • Avoid xeno-estrogens. Plastics, pesticides, non-organic dairy – all are full of xeno-estrogens that can make the problem worse.
  • Hormone Balancing. This can be done with herbs and supplements, or bioidentical hormones, and Naturopathic Doctors are trained and to help you do just that.

You can’t avoid aging altogether, but you can definitely change its pace and impact. How about for this Valentine’s Day, you give yourself the gift of getting your mojo back!

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Shingles and IV Vitamin C

Every year many Canadian suffer from a painful case of the shingles.

Shingles is a re-activation of an old chicken pox virus (the herpes zoster, or HZ)  that is hiding in the dorsal root ganglion, a little sack where our nerves leaves our spinal column to go out to our body.

When our immune system is healthy and strong, this dormant virus stays right where it is and causes no trouble. If our immune system is weakened–sometimes by chronic stress, poor diet, or toxic exposures–the virus can leave its hiding place to create the characteristic red, raised lesions that show up, usually on the torso. These lesions can be very painful and difficult to treat.

Most shingles infections are self-limiting and will resolve in two to four weeks, but for the unlucky, symptoms can take months to resolve and some can be left with post-herpetic neuralgia. Either way, it’s a painful condition.

But while it’s usually a condition reserved for older folks, shingles can affect any adult and the incidence seems to be on the rise. What to do?

Conventional treatment

The conventional for shingles usually involves anti-virals, steroids and pain-killers, all of which have limited success, making it a very challenging thing to treat.

Naturopathic Approaches

Prevention, is of course, ideal. Stay healthy. Eat well, sleep, get outside every day.

But if you do get shingles, supplements like lysine and B12/folic acid are often used. Avoiding foods high in Arginine, like nuts and chocolate, is also recommended.

But the treatment we have the most success with? High dose IV vitamin C.

This great article by Dr. Levy MD, shows the evidence supporting the use of IV vitamin C for shingles pain.

Dr. Tara, cold but happy in January!

Beating the Winter Blues

Unless you are one of those “love to ski” types, winter can be a long, cold, boring, cold, dark, cold season. For many of us it’s hard to be happy. For others, the winter season is more then just a little difficult–they suffer from seasonal affective disorder or become clinically depressed.

There are many symptoms associated with depression other then sadness. Sleep troubles, change in appetite, slow thinking, fatigue, irritability, restlessness, and difficultly making decisions are all possible signs of depression. Even physical symptoms like back pain and headaches can be signs that your mood is out of balance.

Conventional medicine relies on the use of anti-depressants to treat the problem, and when the depression is severe, these tools can be literally life saving. However, there are some downsides associated with the use of antidepressants that have many patients looking for alternatives.

How Naturopathic Doctors See Your Depression

Because the body generally does an excellent job of healing itself, naturopaths see depression, like most symptoms, as a sign of an imbalance in your body that could be creating your current symptoms. Here are a few:

  • A hormone imbalance – low estrogen and/or high progesterone can be a culprit here. Also, thyroid and adrenal imbalances can lead to very low moods.
  • A nutrient deficiency might be in play – low levels of omega-3 fats, iron, B vitamins or vitamin D can be the cause of imbalanced mood.
  • Too much inflammation as is often caused by the standard North American diet and/or food intolerances, resolution of that inflammation with a diet change can greatly affect mood.
  • Mental-emotional imbalances. Unresolved grief, post traumatic stress – these are all real causes of sadness and depression. Also, a feeling of hopelessness, depression or overwhelm are all signals that it is time to sit down and re-evaluate what is most important in your world. Put those things that are front and center and act to change them.

What to Do?

The first rule of depression is to not go it alone. Serious depression requires serious help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

If you’re trying to beat the “winter blues,” though, there’s a growing body of research that says that exercise works as well or better than anti-depressants, and with none of the side effects.

The trick, of course, is that if there’s ever a time when you feel less like exercising, it’s when you’re depressed. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions:

  • Start small. Don’t make a big deal out of this. You’re better off getting a few minutes of exercise outside than nothing at all. Really–take a two-minute walk. Everyone has two minutes. It’s getting started that matters.
  • Walking counts. You don’t need to throw weights around, get sweaty, or go to Pilates. A simple walk will help.
  • Get outside. There are numerous benefits to being outdoors, particularly in winter. You’ll get more bang for your buck by getting out of the house.
  • Rely on friends and family. Getting out in winter is hard enough on your own. Find someone to join you, and hold you accountable.

Wondering if your hormones or nutrient status are affecting your mood? Just contact the clinic at 705-444-5331 to learn how you can find out.

Freedom from Itchy, Watery, Sneezy…

For many of our patients, seasonal allergies are such a predictable condition that they don’t even complain much—they just accept it as the price they pay for nice weather.

But do we have to put up with it? Can we “fix” seasonal allergies? In many cases, yes—especially for allergies that appear later in life, or worsen over time.

A Case of Mistaken Identity
Our immune system is meant to be intolerant to many things in our environment—it’s a protective mechanism that’s evolved over millions of years. A properly functioning immune system reacts to serious threats like viruses and bacteria, and that reaction keeps us healthy.

In some cases, though, the system learns the wrong thing, and begins to make bad decisions. Instead of ignoring harmless things like pollen or ragweed, it reacts to them too.

The result is what we call allergies—your body reacting adversely to something it should (or used to) tolerate.

A Gut Feeling
When a harmless substance like pollen turns into enemy number one, though, naturopathic doctors don’t just see an “allergy”, we see a sign that your immune system is out of balance.

A normally functioning immune system relies heavily on the beneficial bacteria that inhabit your gut. Simply put, those bacteria “package” a harmless substance like pollen to tell your immune system, “Don’t worry about this. It’s okay.”

It’s a system that works great until something interferes with the balance of these beneficial bacteria. That compromises our “packaging” ability, and we become more reactive to things we should be able to tolerate.

Happy Gut = Fewer Allergies
Things like antibiotic use, exposure to chemicals and environmental pollutants can compromise your bacteria. So can your diet—eating too much processed food, too many foods you are intolerant to, or not eating enough fermented food can also throw off the system.

When we work with people to avoid their food intolerances, detoxify their bodies, improve their diets and heal their gut flora, it is never shocking to us when they come back and report they have had the best allergy season ever!

What’s Wrong With Gluten?

12871809_sGoing gluten-free is very sexy at the moment. We’re getting rid of our “Wheat Belly“, cleaning up our “Grain Brain”, and—as any naturopathic doctor worth their salt already knows—patient after patient reports that ditching wheat is making them feel better.

But what is actually wrong with gluten? Most of us grew up eating cereal and pasta. Haven’t we been eating bread through the ages without worries?

The truth is the grains we eat now are not the same ones our ancestors ate. Things have changed. Here are a few of the reasons why those pesky little gluten proteins are causing big problems.

Gluten Content is Up
Gluten is a protein in grains that can be very irritating to the immune system in our guts–more of it around means you are more likely to react. Modern hybrid grains have more gluten. A lot more. Fifty years ago, wheat contained 1 % gluten–now it’s over 50%.

“Pre-Digestion” is Down
The yeast used in traditional breads would start the process of breaking down gluten before it was eaten. Modern bread-baking techniques, however, use commercial yeasts that make for quick rising and bread that looks and tastes the same every time. Those commercial yeasts don’t do a very good job of starting the breakdown of gluten.

We’re Eating “Food” Instead of Food
Most of the foods containing gluten that we eat are highly processed. White flour itself is bleached with chemicals. Commercial cookies and crackers are filled with preservatives and pesticide residues. Plastics from the bags they are stored in leech into the product. These chemicals are immune-disruptors, and make our immune systems more reactive then they should be.

Add these factors to a host of other new modern lifestyle conditions, and you’ve got a recipe for a massive range of conditions that gluten causes or complicates.

How serious is it? How do you make change when you’re in love with toast and pasta? How can you be gluten-free without being fun-free? You can join the amazing Dr. Shelby next Tuesday night here at the clinic in Collingwood to find out. Space is limited, and the event is free and open to the public. Call 705-444-5331 to reserve a spot, or email us!

Are You Taking New Patients?

9639288_sThis is a question we get asked often by our patients. It’s a common occurrence for the StoneTree waiting room to be full, and the clinic to be hustling and bustling with patient visits and treatments of all kinds.

When people see this, they often think that, like their family medical doctors, our practices are “closed”, with new patients being taken on very slowly and carefully. In fact, closed practices are very rare in naturopathic offices, for one simple reason: our patients get better!

Naturopathic medicine focuses on treating the individual and getting to the root of the problem, as opposed to only treating the symptoms. Chronic health issues are almost always about an imbalance in the body–getting to the root of the imbalance and helping the patient resolve it often helps fix the problem for good. Patients who get better don’t need to be seen as often so they make room for new ones to join the clinic.

Know someone with a chronic health complaint who might benefit?  Offer them a 15-minute complimentary meet the doctor visit. We love to help!