My Journey Into Functional Medicine
I grew up in South Louisiana with two hardworking parents who did not have time to make home-cooked meals every night. We grew up in the generation of processed foods before we really knew the dangers of processed foods. I grew up eating things like microwaveable corndogs and pizzas with the frequent drive-thru fast food. I had frequent ear infections needing antibiotics multiple times as a child. By the time I reached college, I already had chronic constipation. While in college, my dad worked in China for several years, and upon my initial trip to China, my bowels began fluctuating. I would have times of urgent diarrhea followed by more constipation. Needless to say, I was confused just like my bowels, and I thought this was normal.
Then, I moved to another foreign country: Dominica, a Caribbean Island. Different food, new local bacteria, and buckets of stress did not help my digestion. Even worse, I began eating more sweets and drinking more coffee, thinking this was brain food. Of course, I never exercised aside from my 10-minute hilly walk to and from school carrying an enormous pile of books and laptop. During the first year of medical school is when I reached my peak weight of 200 pounds. During my second year of medical school, I became friends with a classmate who was training for an Ironman. Not only was he training for an Ironman but also was on pace to qualify for competing regionally. In addition, he was excelling in class and on tests. Actually, he was scoring better than me in my classes.
This was an epiphany for me. He made me realize that there is always time for exercise, no matter what stage of life you are in. I will always be thankful for him teaching me this valuable lesson. I am not saying that you have to train for an Ironman because completing an Ironman is near insanity, but anyone can make time for 10-15 minutes of movement per day. I began forsaking an hour of study in the afternoons for running, swimming, and showering. Although my time for studying shrunk, I was more efficient during the time that I did study. I began eating the best that I knew how and lost 30 pounds in the following 6 months.
Despite losing weight and feeling better, I always had to know where the nearest bathroom was throughout medical school and residency as my bowels were irregular and unpredictable. The more nervous or stressed I was, the more likely I was to need a bathroom. As it turns out, medical school and residency is not short on stress, so this was a daily experience.
During my first year of residency in South Carolina, I developed what I thought was seasonal allergies. Except, there was no season – it was year round. Anti-histamines just made me drowsier without relieving any symptoms. The nasal steroids like Flonase became my only resolve. Throughout the remainder of residency, I ate whatever the hospital served which occasionally involved overcooked vegetables. I drank gallons of Diet Mountain Dew and coffee. My sleep schedule was erratic like most residents. I was on call, completely stressed out and afraid that I might kill someone for 30-36 hours at a time … without sleep. Then, I would sleep until the next day and start all over again.
Having a beautiful, healthy baby girl during residency did not help my fatigue, IBS, or
weight problem although it certainly helped my perspective on life. She brought new joy and purpose into my life. Kids have the inherent ability to make you smile even in the worst of situations.
By the time I finished residency and reached Austin, my stress levels had dramatically dropped, and I was eating much healthier. My bowels were already becoming more regular. However, my nasal allergies and chronic sinus drainage continued. I could not live a single day or sleep soundly at night without nasal steroids.
I performed my advanced lab work. I had terrible biomarkers, and I was ashamed of myself. I had excessive inflammation, Vitamin D deficiency, low omega-3, high homocysteine, MTHFR mutations, ApoLipoprotein E4, and poor cholesterol markers.
After those terrible labs, I began supplementing with Vitamin D, Methylation support, adrenal supplements, fish oil, and multivitamin. Then, I began training for a sprint triathlon and foregoing the cookies that the drug reps brought. I lost a little weight and my bowels became more regular. Despite vigorous exercise, my year-round “seasonal allergies” remained unchanged.
I began hearing more about gluten sensitivity. In fact, one of my coworkers mentioned that she began getting psoriasis on her knees. She removed gluten from her diet, and it resolved. I didn’t believe her. I was still using methotrexate and Enbrel to treat psoriasis, an auto-immune condition. Then, I met Heather Hanson, a functional medicine nutritionist, who turned her own life around with a gluten-free food elimination plan.
More and more Austinites trickled through my practice making outlandish health claims from gluten-free diets, the message finally began sinking into my thick conventional medicine brain. Could this be real? Nope. I still didn’t believe it. There’s no way my allergies and IBS are caused by gluten. So, what did I do next? I ordered a respiratory and food allergy panel on myself to prove that I have allergies to pollen, mold, dust, weeds, and anything that grows or dies.
Nothing showed up. Nothing … literally. Zilch. Nada. The big goose egg.
I didn’t have any allergies at all. I had food sensitivities. However, I’m stubborn. I still wasn’t ready to buy into the gluten craze yet, and I wasn’t ready to give up my delicious gluten. So, I cut out all dairy products for one month. I ramped up my supplement intake even further. Over the next few weeks, I was able to skip a day or two on my nasal steroids but it was not enough.
Then, I repeated my lab work. My inflammation markers (hs-CRP and Fibrinogen) had reversed a year ago, but my Myeloperoxidase and LP-PLA2 levels remained surprisingly elevated.
Elevated Myeloperoxidase and LP-PLA2 are signs of excessive immune activation. This is bad. Excessive immune activation is something that I tell patients every day that is a food trigger and increases risks of heart disease, dementia, and cancer to name a few.
Finally, I had to admit defeat. I went gluten-free. Within a week, I was completely off of nasal steroids, and my bowels have been like clockwork. I also began trimming ancient fat stores without being hungry or dieting. A delightful perk!
Now, the only time that I reach for the Nasacort in the cabinet is when I cheat and eat too much gluten. I would make a terrible Celiac Disease patient. I’m sure that you’re not surprised – everyone knows that Doctors are the worst patients! I have always tried to practice what I preach, but now I really am practicing what I preach.
That’s my story. What’s yours?