Taking Control of Your Life: Food as Medicine

Western MD vs Functional MD Tree ImageJoanne Pappas Nottage, a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach and speaker at our April 2017 Patient Education Conference, spent years struggling to get correctly diagnosed and treated for her autoimmune issues. Today, she’s helping people blend traditional western medicine and functional medicine to get and stay healthy. This is part two of a five part series from Joanne on functional medicine.

If you’re living with scleroderma or another autoimmune disease, you know how overwhelming it can be to manage. In a previous post on this blog, I described my challenging personal journey with autoimmune disease, and my eventual discovery of Functional Medicine (FM) – an innovative health approach that complements Western medical practices. FM has helped me feel better than I had in decades. I want that for you, too. Let’s start by exploring some specific factors FM addresses so you can begin to take control of them.

Functional Medicine Perspective on Autoimmune Disease

The first factor is food. FM advocates approaching food as medicine. To understand why, let’s consider the potential causes of autoimmune disease from the FM perspective. FM confronts autoimmune as a disease of the immune system, where a common internal system connects all autoimmune conditions. In some individuals, that connected system reacts to certain triggers (shown below), causing an autoimmune response. Unfortunately, many of these triggers are commonplace in modern life, and people with autoimmune disease can go for years without making the connection.

JPN Blog Post 2

The Importance of Gut Health

The core of that interrelated biochemical process is the gut, making it critical to overall health. Our gut is important to our overall wellbeing because its health determines what nutrients we absorb and what toxins, allergens and microbes are kept out. Good intestinal health enables optimal digestion and absorption of food, which in turn allows the important processes within our bodies to function well. Many diseases that seem totally unrelated to the intestinal system, such as psoriasis or arthritis, can actually be caused by problems in the gut.

The modern diet is full of foods that can create gut problems (processed foods, sugar, bleached flour, caffeine to name a few) and for some of us they trigger an autoimmune response. Pervasive in today’s food options, gluten— a protein found in wheat, barley and rye— is one of the leading offenders. While gluten-free diets are all the rage, they’re not just another fad. People who are sensitive to gluten or who have Celiac disease can have serious health consequences.

A growing volume of published medical literature shows that gluten can damage the gut lining, contributing to intestinal permeability (Leaky Gut Syndrome) and allowing bacterial toxins and undigested food particles to pass into the bloodstream. This can lead to the malabsorption of nutrients (Gut Dysbiosis, a microbiome imbalance), and can cause inflammation throughout the body—which can eventually trigger chronic and autoimmune disease. Beyond the oft-mentioned GI issues, gluten has been linked to scleroderma, Hashimoto’s, Graves’, diabetes and lupus. If you have one of these conditions, consider a gluten elimination plan and monitor your symptoms!

Think About Food as Medicine

We may not be able to change our genetic predisposition for autoimmune disease (30% of our risk), but we can change what we eat. Beyond gluten, sensitivities to other foods—dairy, soy, corn, peanuts or sugar—may contribute to your symptoms. Be mindful when you eat and notice how you feel afterwards. Try to identify and remove any foods that trigger inflammation and worsen your symptoms.

While there is no “one best” food plan for everyone, consider these practices: eat “the rainbow” – colorful fruits and veggies for important phytonutrients and antioxidants; consume healthy fats like olive oil and avocados; choose anti-inflammatory foods like broccoli, spinach, ginger, wild salmon and bone broth; add fermented foods like coconut kefir, sauerkraut, and pickled ginger for probiotics. Very importantly, stay hydrated! Water helps eliminate toxins and is an important contributor to body function.

My next post will explore the second factor FM addresses – our high stress modern lifestyle – and how it impacts autoimmune. Until then, I wish you good health!

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Thriving with Functional Medicine

Joanne Pappas Nottage, a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach and speaker at our April 2017 Patient Education Conference, spent years struggling to get correctly diagnosed and treated for her autoimmune issues. Today, she’s helping people blend traditional western medicine and functional medicine to get and stay healthy. This is part one of a four part series from Joanne on functional medicine.

You probably already know that autoimmune diseases like scleroderma can be confusing and hard to diagnose and treat. What you may not know is that there are so many options you may not have been exposed to – including Functional Medicine. I understand this particular struggle very well. I myself have received multiple diagnoses over the years and my path to better health was a stressful, frustrating and lonely journey, despite being blessed with a loving husband, family and supportive friends. I didn’t know what was wrong, and wondered if it might all be in my head. Sound familiar?

Joanne’s story

My symptoms began in childhood, when I went from being active and energetic to pale and easily tired. Eventually I was diagnosed with anemia and later with my first autoimmune disease, rheumatic fever, a condition so serious it damaged one of my heart valves and forced me into open-heart surgery in adulthood. I’m very grateful for the western medicine doctors and technology that saved my life!

Throughout my 20’s, I developed other symptoms—allergies, asthma, migraines, weight issues, poor sleep, rashes, hives—then was diagnosed with my second autoimmune disease, alopecia, which caused extensive hair loss. The specialist I saw prescribed cortisone injections, topical steroids, oral prednisone (exacerbating weight gain!) and even clinical trials. I had some hair regrowth but then lost it again.

Later I was diagnosed with granuloma annulare, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and antibodies for a mixed connective tissue disorder—all autoimmune diseases. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual to develop multiple autoimmune diagnoses, since many treatments address our symptoms but not their underlying causes.

Finding Functional Medicine

I pursued the path of conventional western medicine for years with at least 10 different doctors! I was a motivated patient and worked hard to get well, but still my overall health continued to decline.

Calling on my formal training in science, I asked my doctor if my symptoms might somehow be related. If we could determine the root cause, couldn’t we treat it instead of the symptoms? She told me that working with a specialist for each symptom was the best I could do. This frustrating response finally led me to explore alternative approaches to my health, to discover Functional Medicine (FM), and to feeling better than I have in decades.

I am a strong believer in western medicine, but in some situations I learned it is not enough. FM provides a strong complement to western medicine, taking a systemic approach to the whole body while addressing the underlying causes and empowering patients to be active in regaining their health.

What is Functional Medicine?

FM incorporates the latest in genetic science, systems biology and an understanding of how environmental and lifestyle factors contribute to the development of disease. An FM practitioner maps a patient’s story onto a timeline and the FM clinical matrix, does a physical exam, utilizes advanced lab testing and explores the interaction among genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that can influence complex chronic illness.

FM approaches autoimmune as a disease of the immune system, not of a specific organ, in which a shared biochemical process connects all autoimmune conditions. FM works to understand what triggers the immune response, then to systematically eliminate the triggers, correct imbalances and restore function. This approach changed my life and has worked for many with scleroderma too!

In upcoming posts, I’ll share more about the factors that FM addresses, and how you can start taking control of them and your health!