Does it ever seem to you that autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, and other chronic illnesses are on the rise? Or that people seem sicker and sicker despite our medical advances?
Your observations are correct. Healthcare is increasingly inaccessible for many people. We’re surrounded by toxic synthetic chemicals in our environment, homes, and even our food. And although Western medicine has improved the prognosis for many diseases, it ultimately focuses on treating symptoms rather than holistic health.
Perhaps you’ve experienced this common scenario: you visit your doctor with a list of persistent yet vague symptoms. You get only 15 minutes to talk about them, and you leave with several new prescriptions but no real answers. When the symptoms linger, you return to your doctor, who orders a round of tests that all come back “normal.” The doctor shrugs and advises you to get more sleep and reduce your stress.
It’s not you — it’s our system. Doctors spend less and less time with patients. Meanwhile, we’re subsisting on a diet of hyper-processed foods and living increasingly sedentary lives inside polluted builds. Western medicine sees the human body as a set of systems. If something is wrong, it simply needs fixing. Health is construed as a lack of illness rather than total wellness.
That approach can leave you hurting from fully preventable ailments. While more holistic medical providers are emerging, you must take charge of your health in the meanwhile. Here’s how.
Exploring Your Dietary Needs
There has been a lot of media buzz about gluten sensitivity, some of it overblown. It’s true, though, that everyone’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract is unique. Many people don’t tolerate specific food groups or nutrients very well. Moreover, certain foods boost health, for some folks more than others. Understanding your unique biochemistry is crucial to developing your ideal nutritional plan.
Begin by identifying the foods that make you feel best — and the ones that give you trouble. Keep a food journal and document any symptoms, both physical and mental. Once you have a rough idea of your problem foods, eliminate them one by one and continue tracking your symptoms.
Gluten and FODMAPs
Gluten is a commonly cited “problem food.” Scientists estimate that up to 6% of people have gluten sensitivity or intolerance (the most severe form of which is celiac disease). It’s hard to say because gluten sensitivity is hard to diagnose. Some studies found patients to be sensitive to FODMAPS rather than gluten itself. FODMAPs are poorly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates that may cause GI issues. They include:
- Fructose, found in fruits, vegetables, and table sugar
- Lactose, found in dairy products
- Fructans, found in grains such as wheat and rye (which also contain gluten)
- Galactans, found in legumes and beans
- Polyols aka sugar alcohols, such as xylitol and sorbitol
Because these carbs are hard to digest, they typically pass through as fiber. But for some people, FODMAPs lead to tummy or bowel issues. Because they reach the end of your GI tract undigested, they ferment. Intestinal bacteria then feed on them, releasing gas. FODMAPs may also draw liquid into the intestine, causing diarrhea.
Some people react more to certain types of FODMAPs than others. Other poor souls are sensitive to all of them. You’ll need to determine which foods trigger any GI symptoms.
Many vegetarians and vegans sing the praises of plant-based diets. There are certainly benefits, from saving money to reducing your carbon footprint. However, cutting meat could also boost your health. Some people, though, need meat to thrive. (And it is most people’s best source of vitamin B12.)
To understand your unique meat needs, break out that food journal again. Do you notice bloating, indigestion, or tiredness after eating meat? Your GI tract may not be digesting it properly. However, if a hamburger makes you feel great and a black bean burger sends you to the bathroom, your gut may have an issue with galactans rather than beef.
Certain types of meat may bother you more than others. Some people have trouble digesting red meat because it is so protein-dense. Even if you don’t experience intestinal distress, you may not absorb many nutrients from it.
Also, beef, pork, and other red meats contain the carbohydrate Alpha-gal, to which you can be sensitive or even allergic. Alpha-gal allergies often develop after a bite from a lone star tick.
Thus, many people rely on poultry, fish, or mollusks for their carnivorous needs. These meats are typically leaner. Plus, fish packs a lot of beneficial omega-3s and other nutrients. (Just be sure to buy sustainably sourced seafood and avoid species prone to mercury.)
In short, your dietary needs are unique. Focus on avoiding your trigger foods and eating the ones that give you energy. Nurture your gut’s beneficial bacteria as well. You need them to break down your food — especially meats and grains!
And don’t forget to prioritize foods that boost your metabolism and immune defense. When you get your vitamins and minerals, all your body’s processes work more efficiently.
Testing Your Blood
What does your blood say about your health? Labs can test your levels of just about anything, from cholesterol to vitamins to pathogens. While blood tests are anything but conclusive, they’re a good place to start tackling chronic illness.
A typical metabolic panel will measure the following substances:
- Glucose, aka blood sugar, which fuels your cells’ processes and reproduction
- Calcium, which ensures proper function of your nerves and muscles
- Sodium, potassium, chloride, and carbon dioxide, the electrolytes that modulate your cell walls and fluid balance
- BUN (blood urea nitrogen) and creatinine, which are metabolic waste products that your kidneys (should) remove
Comprehensive metabolic panels also measure blood protein levels as well as the liver enzymes ALP (alkaline phosphatase), ALT (alanine transaminase), and AST (aspartate aminotransferase).
Physicians primarily use these tests to screen for diabetes and liver or kidney disease. However, abnormal results could point to other health conditions that affect digestion or metabolism.
It’s also worth noting that your results heavily depend on your recent diet, activity level, alcohol consumption, and many other factors. You may need several rounds of testing to get your most accurate numbers.
If you’re experiencing mysterious symptoms such as fatigue, hair loss, or sleep issues, your physician may prescribe a TSH test. This measures your level of Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone to evaluate your thyroid’s health. If it’s normal, most doctors will assume your thyroid is, too.
However, it’s not that simple. First, TSH is produced not by the thyroid but by the pituitary gland. It secretes TSH when it detects low blood levels of thyroid hormone — assuming that mechanism is accurate! Some scientists believe the “normal” range is too high to be meaningful.
Also, people can have thyroid issues even if TSH is normal. In autoimmune conditions such as Graves’ and Hashimoto’s, the body attacks the thyroid as an invader. But for all the pituitary gland knows, everything is fine.
And of course, both your TSH and thyroid hormone levels fluctuate throughout the day. Thus, a single blood test is rarely conclusive.
As you take charge of your health, request the blood tests you’d like to see. You’ll likely need several different tests at least twice. Some physicians — and insurers — may balk at this. Testing clinics may charge less than your doctor’s office. Document everything for your records so you can advocate for yourself.
Most importantly, monitor your symptoms throughout the process. How were you feeling on the day you got each test? Keep a detailed journal so you can draw connections between
Western medicine prefers to treat first, diagnose later. Some patients go years without a proper diagnosis because it’s easier to relieve the symptoms. And unfortunately, many doctors and health insurers will decline to perform/cover tests or procedures they deem unnecessary.
Thankfully, that’s changing as we shift toward a holistic approach to health. But in the meanwhile, it’s up to you to advocate for your wellness. With diligence, you can hopefully find the root causes of your ailment … and start feeling better for good.
This article was inspired by an interview with Emily Gold Mears, a citizen scientist, biohacker, and the author of Optimizing Your Health.