It’s Not Just One Thing Making You Sick: Here’s Why That’s A Good Thing
People don’t come to see me because they are feeling great. They come to see me, in my capacity as a functional medicine practitioner, because something is wrong. They have a particular health issue, or multiple issues, or just a general feeling of ill health, that concerns them. When we dig deep with a comprehensive health history and labs, we often find a whole slew of underlying dysfunctions that are contributing to their symptoms – sometimes in unexpected places. In fact, most of the time, there is not one single obvious problem – no smoking gun. Health problems are almost always multifactorial, based on a cascade of imbalances and dysfunctions that have been going on for awhile and that are finally causing noticeable and bothersome symptoms.
In other words: It’s not just one thing making you sick. At first, this might make you feel discouraged or overwhelmed, but this isn’t bad news, and here’s why. The inextricable connections between all the cells in your body mean that when you change one small thing, you can create a cascade of health. By fixing just one issue at a time, you put yourself into a sort of rewind and one issue after another can begin to heal. Here are 17 of the most common things I see that trigger health dysfunction.
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1. Microbiome Imbalances
This collection of bacteria located in your gut affects almost every aspect of your health and is a key component of your immune system. You don’t have to be having gut symptoms in order to have gut problems because bacterial imbalances can manifest in a number of different ways, from hormonal issues to weight-loss resistance as well as digestive problems like leaky gut syndrome. It has also been shown (1) that the health of your microbiome is key for proper metabolic function and immune system function.
Inflammation is one of your body’s natural defense mechanisms, but chronic inflammation takes a helpful response and turns it into a pathology. Inflammation has been implicated in almost every chronic health problem and most inflammatory diseases can be traced back to the health of the microbiome, including (2) autoimmune issues such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, and other issues such as asthma. This is just one example of how multiple points of dysfunction can be related.
You can down kale and kombucha like a champ, but if you’re serving yourself a huge slice of stress every day, you won’t ever be at your best because what happens in your mind can manifest in your body. For example, stress impacts the gut-brain axis directly (3) during times of increased stress, which can lead to digestive problems such as IBS and leaky gut syndrome. But the affect goes the opposite way, too. Research has supported that a healthier microbiome can positively (4) affect brain health and the symptoms of PTSD. These are all reasons why stress management (meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, walks in nature) is a powerful healer.
We live in a chemically laced world, with chemicals all around us, in our food, beauty products, house cleaners, even our paint, carpets, and furniture, not to mention in our air and water. Our bodies are not made for processing such a heavy toxic load and studies have shown (5) that pesticides in food, for example, are correlated with neurological and reproductive problems. Sadly, children are affected the most because exposure can hinder their development and increase the risk of developing health and behavior problems later in life. But even a small decrease in your toxic load can make a difference, so take a closer look at the products you use and start swapping things out one by one. With a few simple detoxing tools, you can minimize this health stressor.
5. Food intolerances
Just because you’re eating “healthy” foods doesn’t mean you’re eating foods that are best for your individual body. Many people have food intolerances they don’t know about but that can cause health issues. For example, histamine intolerance – a sensitivity to naturally occurring histamines in “good” foods like bone broth, mushrooms, smoked meats, and spinach – can lead to chronic inflammation and stubborn allergy symptoms. FODMAP intolerance (that can cause IBS symptoms), cross-reactivity, and gluten intolerance are additional issues that could be contributing to your ongoing health problems. Doing an elimination diet is my gold standard for finding out what your body loves and hates, regardless of what might be good or bad for anyone else. Once you know your intolerances, you can remove those troublesome foods for good and make your way back to health.
6. Blood sugar imbalance
Your body can use glucose (sugar) for fuel, to create energy in the form of ATP, and insulin is the hormone that helps push glucose into the cells so this can happen. Unfortunately, more people are becoming insulin resistant, with blocked cell receptors and a backup of blood sugar, causing blood sugar problems and an epidemic of diabetes and its precursors, like metabolic syndrome. A diet rich in healthy fats and lower carbohydrates can help turn blood sugar imbalance around.
7. Adrenal fatigue
Your adrenal glands release your stress hormone cortisol in response to a complex web of communication known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). When your brain does not properly signal the release of cortisol through the HPA axis, this can cause cortisol levels to rise too high increasing blood sugar and blood pressure, or drop too low causing blood sugar and blood pressure to sink too low as well. This roller-coaster can lead to cravings, feeling “hangry” (hungry and angry), dizziness, or fatigue. A direct correlation between blood sugar levels and HPA axis function has been demonstrated by research, (6) so get your blood sugar under control to get control over cortisol and restore adrenal function.
8. Methylation impairments
Methylation is your body’s biochemical superhighway. Certain impairments like the MTHFR gene mutation can inhibit detoxification pathways causing your toxic load to increase, but you can support menthylation by eating more foods rich in B vitamins like grass-fed liver and sulfuric vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, onions, and mushrooms.
9. Leptin resistance
Leptin is a hormone produced in your fat cells that tells your brain to use your body’s fat stores for energy. Problems occur when the hypothalamic cells of your brain do not recognize leptin, causing your body to think no food is coming in. This sends your body into starvation mode so it hoards every calorie, turning it to fat. This hormone-brain miscommunication can be traced back to chronic inflammation, which dulls the brain’s leptin receptor sites and causes your body to produce more leptin than necessary.
10. Thyroid dysfunctions
Thyroid hormones are the queen of all hormones, as all the cells in your body need them to function properly. Unhealthy thyroid function can lead to autoimmune conditions, hormonal problems, and even seemingly unrelated issues like depression. In fact, depression has been shown (7) to be significantly relieved by treatment to regulate thyroid hormone production.
11. Autoimmune problems
Your immune system defends your body from invaders, like bacteria and viruses, you depend on it for survival, but sometimes your immune system overreacts and mistakenly attacks your own healthy cells in a case of mistaken identity. This is autoimmunity. Around 50 million Americans have an autoimmune disease, and millions more are somewhere on the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum. But there’s good news! Stanford estimates (8) that up to 77 percent of your immune system is determined by controllable factors like inflammation, toxins, and the food we choose to eat.
12. Sex hormone imbalances
When your testosterone, estrogen, and/or progesterone are out of whack, you can develop a wide variety of health issues, like infertility, PCOS, weight gain, weight-loss resistance, and low sex drive. Whether you’re a man or woman, your body needs all of these hormones in a delicate balance.
13. Viral infections
Doctors often miss viral infections, and they may be one of the missing pieces in your own health puzzle, as they can lie dormant in the body for years before activating and triggering a cascade of health problems and uncomfortable symptoms, from rashes to fatigue and worse. The most common viral infections I see are all part of the herpes family:
- Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)/HHV-4
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV)/HHV-5
- Varicella zoster virus (VZV) and Human Herpes Virus (HHV)-3
- Human Herpes virus type 6 (HHV-6)
Most people actually have one or more of these viruses present in their bodies, so the important variable is not whether or not we have a virus but how and when it will be triggered. Anything from microbiome imbalances to stress can awaken the sleeping virus, and once active it can wreak havoc on your body in the form of brain problems, autoimmune conditions, and thyroid problems.
14. "Healthy" junk foods
Mmm, gluten-free cookies, fat-free muffins….it’s hard not to be swayed by a packaged product that promises to be exactly what you can eat when you have dietary restrictions. And don’t those “healthy” gluten-free cupcakes look delicious? While these may be a great alternative to “regular” junk food on occasion, these are still junk foods and highly processed. Eating too much of these can leave you missing essential nutrients.
15. Nutrient deficiencies
Without proper nutrients, your body is unable to function optimally in many complex ways, and many people have nutrient deficiencies, especially of vitamin D, magnesium, B vitamins, and iodine. Lack enough of these essentials and you may develop hormonal, thyroid, and methylation impairments. TO make sure you get what your body needs to do its work, stick with a well-rounded diet filled with a wide variety of grass-fed organic meats, seafood, dark leafy greens, and sea vegetables.
I often see my patients get prescribed a drug to treat a particular health problem, only to come away with more health issues than when they started because of side effects and other problems caused by the drug. My advice to patients is to always ask questions and do your research before you start a new drug. Focus on treating the root cause of whatever you are going through, rather than just masking symptoms. You may find that your medication needs will be reduced or eliminated entirely – along with any side effects. But please do not quit taking any medication without talking to your physician first.
17. Neurological problems
Your gut is often referred to as the second brain because 95 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin is made and stored in your gut and serotonin is a major mood regulator. Fix your gut and your serotonin levels may regulate, possibly alleviating mood issues like anxiety and depression.
As we can see, your body is like a well-oil machine. Each individual part plays its own role and when one part goes awry the entire machine begins to fall to pieces. Fortunately, even in the face of multiple health issues and a long list of symptoms, a few lifestyle changes can set you on the trajectory towards healing and better health.
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- Bull MJ, Plummer NT. Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2014;13(6):17-22.
- Slingerland AE, Schwabkey Z, Wiesnoski DH, Jenq RR. Clinical Evidence for the Microbiome in Inflammatory Diseases. Front Immunol. 2017;8:400. Published 2017 Apr 12. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2017.00400
- Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011;62(6):591-599.
- Cryan JF. Stress and the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: An Evolving Concept in Psychiatry. Can J Psychiatry. 2016;61(4):201-203. doi:10.1177/0706743716635538
- Cohen M. Environmental toxins and health--the health impact of pesticides. Aust Fam Physician. 2007;36(12):1002-1004.
- Gonzalez-Bono E, Rohleder N, Hellhammer DH, Salvador A, Kirschbaum C. Glucose but not protein or fat load amplifies the cortisol response to psychosocial stress. Horm Behav. 2002;41(3):328-333. doi:10.1006/hbeh.2002.1766
- Hage MP, Azar ST. The Link between Thyroid Function and Depression. J Thyroid Res. 2012;2012:590648. doi:10.1155/2012/590648
- Brodin P, Jojic V, Gao T, et al. Variation in the human immune system is largely driven by non-heritable influences. Cell. 2015;160(1-2):37-47. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2014.12.020
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.
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