Organic. Not mechanical. That means we need to think differently when trying to fix problems in the system. Repairing a mechanical system is usually a straightforward, clear-cut, logical process.
Not so with living systems, which are elegantly complex and sometimes incomprehensible. We have a capacity for emotion, interconnected body systems, and strong survival instincts. No wonder it’s challenging to zero in on one correct thing to do when you have a health issue.
This diagram, from the Textbook of Functional Medicine, is an attempt to visually represent these interrelationships. Consider inflammation, a common example of a body not functioning properly. Inflammation underlies many chronic conditions including arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Looking at the diagram, we see inflammation could be caused by environmental inputs such as diet and exercise. And/or oxidative stress at the metabolic level. And/or imbalances in any of our hormone systems including thyroid, adrenals and pancreas. And/or psychological and emotional factors. And/or a structural issue.
You aren’t like anyone else.
You have different genetics, You had different childhood experiences. You eat and exercise in an individual pattern. All these variables make us each unique.
That’s the tricky part in dealing with health issues. What works for someone else may not work for you because of your unique combination of constitution and experiences.
For conventional medical practitioners, this uniqueness is an inconvenient truth. I recall a doctor’s exasperation when it became clear that his go-to thyroid prescription wouldn’t help me. “But Synthroid works for 95% of people,” he sighed.
Our uniqueness means that none of us is average. Yet many treatment decisions are made because “on average, drug X was effective.” An average is an arithmetic calculation and means that there were extremes at both ends of the pool of subjects—some who were greatly helped, and some not at all. So Synthroid is an effective thyroid replacement, but it was a disaster for me.
A revealing article in ScienceNews discusses the shortcomings of statistics in medical research.
Statistical tests are supposed to guide scientists in judging whether an experimental result reflects some real effect or is merely a random fluke, but…countless conclusions in the scientific literature are erroneous, and tests of medical dangers or treatments are often contradictory and confusing.
… trial results are reported as averages that may obscure individual differences, masking beneficial or harmful effects and possibly leading to approval of drugs that are deadly for some, and [to] denial of effective treatment to others.
…“Determining the best treatment for a particular patient is fundamentally different from determining which treatment is best on average,” physicians David Kent and Rodney Hayward wrote in American Scientist in 2007. “…misleading impression that the treatment-effect is a property of the drug rather than of the interaction between the drug and the complex risk-benefit profile of a particular group of patients.”
Life is a moving maze.
I’d love to think that I can figure out a solution to a particular health issue and then it’s done and dusted. Settled. Un fait accompli.
But it isn’t going to happen. Living systems are responsive and iterative—when something changes, they adapt in ways most likely to ensure survival of the system, When something else is changed, the system adapts again. It’s how we make progress.
It also means that what works for us now may not work in a few months or years. That’s where I’m at with carbohydrate consumption.
As recounted in earlier blogs, I was plunged into a 10-year period of obesity and fatigue after a total thyroidectomy, despite being prescribed the thyroid replacement that “works for 95% of people.”
It took a low-carbohydrate diet to reverse the unhealthy condition of my body and drop 50 pounds. I ate non-starchy vegetables along with meat, fish, chicken, eggs and plenty of good fats like olive oil, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter. I had no grains of any kind, and no starchy vegetables such as corn, legumes, potatoes, yams, and other root vegetables.
It was miraculous until it wasn’t.
Over the course of a year, the inches melted away consistently, and I ended up back at my normal weight. Better yet, I experienced much less fatigue and my mind was clear again. I heaved a sigh of relief.
I started feeling like a prune. It showed in my skin, but I felt dried up on the inside too. It’s hard to describe, but I’ve had many years of developing body awareness, so I knew, I just knew. It did not feel like a fully healthy condition, even though my weight, blood pressure, and lab tests were now normal.
This was puzzling. It was never mentioned as a side effect of low-carb, grain-free eating in anything I had read or heard so far.
What now? As I do, I investigated. More about that in a later post.
Organic systems respond best to personalized treatment plans.
The way forward is with personalized medicine. Functional psychiatrist Kelly Brogan wrote recently,
Like everything else in the reframing of our human experience, we are de-standardizing health. We are bringing medicine back into the realm of the “N of 1” or the “study of You.” You are not a randomized clinical trial. You are a specific symphony of information.
Although I have found references to n-of-1 in the medical literature, acknowledgement of interconnection and individuality is still largely missing in conventional practice. Most often, illness is treated as an isolated disease or condition, and the “symphony of information” is ignored.
In contrast, functional medicine starts from the premise that an individualized and evolving treatment plan is essential to truly resolve health issues.
Fortunately for all of us, the functional approach is on the upsurge as more and more practitioners are drawn to thinking this way. You’ll find functional medical doctors, nutritionists, chiropractors, health coaches, acupuncturists, and Chinese Medicine doctors, among others.
If you want to know more, including how to find functional practitioners, these previous blogs will get you started:
Thank you Laurana. A great read. I am going to enjoy thinking of myself as a “symphony of information”. I am particularly intrigued with your continued investigation into your low carbohydrate diet. I have cut a significant amount of carbs out of my diet with the proposed intention to go ‘all the way’. However, I have times when my body seems to be screaming for a bowl of rice or rice crackers. I simply feel sated after consuming rather than craving more as I have heard can occur with carbohydrate intake. And I recently heard one of the fellows at camp who regularly follows a Keytosis diet describe his state: “I feel like I’m starving!”
I have recently been experimenting with acupuncture, cupping, naturopathy and supplement exploration. It has been interesting to pay such close attention to what my body is saying. It does indeed speak to me.
Your description of functional medicine has put a name to my process. Individualized and evolving. Makes perfect sense. Thank you again for shedding more light onto the overwhelming topic of health. I’m beginning to believe it can be simple 🙂
Hi Susan. You’ve brought up some excellent points. There is a distinct difference between the desperation of a craving and the quiet knowing of a body that is telling you what it needs. In order to make that distinction, we have to be tuned in to our bodies. All the modalities you mentioned can help with that, and the reward is that we gain access to so much wisdom.
The man who is starving on a ketogenic diet can use this awareness to investigate what is not working with the way he is eating. It might just be that he needs to increase consumption of healthy fats (olive oil, grass-fed butter, coconut oil). When we don’t eat carbs, we have to get our calories from somewhere…and fats have a high satiety value. Ketogenic guidelines are usually 60-70% of your calories from fat. Or, he may beed to change up his eating pattern. I recommend Dr. Dan Pompa’s article on Diet Variation
Your closing comment inspired me to remember that simplicity is what I’m going for. Not in the simplistic sense of glossing over and ignoring information, but with the intention of discovering what is deeply satisfying…for my body as well as my mind.
Thanks for sharing your insights.
You’re most welcome. And thank you for the tips in response. Looking forward to your next post.