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Healing Update: Fantasy vs. Reality

If there is one thing I have learned about my path of healing/managing my autoimmune disease, and in my functional nutrition studies, is that every. single. one. of us is unique in their healing path. You can watch all the health summits you want that talk about real food, nutrition, eating "squeaky clean", stress, hormones - you name it. But no matter how many of these summits you take in, things won't get real for you until you take action with your own body. This has certainly been true for me.

The other thing is, I seem to think in black and white sometimes. I have this fantasy that healing is going to be a straight line progression of improvement. You know, I went from 100% to 10% and then had a steady increase of health since my lowest point. Yet, in reality, my actual healing path has looked something more like this. I had a huge decline in health when I started getting really sick and then its been somewhat roller coaster-ish with a steady overall improvement over time. But there are plenty of peaks and valleys in there!

Graph courtesy Toréa Rodriguez

Graph courtesy Toréa Rodriguez

Let's rewind. 4 years ago, I was really sick and trying to hide it. And even though over the years, I had taken steps to work with naturopathic practitioners and MDs and do a lot of healing, I still never felt back to 100%. And yes, one of my MD's told me I will never again feel 100% and I refuse to believe that - (there is my bullheaded tenacity again!). But overall, I have been feeling great in comparison to how I felt 4 years ago! I still want that 100% though. Two steps forward...

...and a few steps back... Last fall, I did my first stool test to look for gut infections. Yeah, I know - there is NOTHING glamourous about stool tests, but I got over it. We found H. pylori (Heliobacter pylori for all you bio geeks out there). And while I didn't exhibit common symptoms associated with an H. pylori infection, we decided to treat anyway with a natural protocol. "Holy adverse reactions BatMan!" My body did not like this protocol one iota so I decided to stop and try again later. In the meantime, my front teeth had become very sensitive to temperature, and already carrying around some excessive weight, I quickly gained another 10 lbs (in ~ 2 weeks). Oh and my GI health was somewhat neurotic, alternating between chronic loose stool and constipation (not good on either account and the loose stool thing - yeah that was already going on for at least a year). I know, this is all very much TMI - but you know what? Its important to talk about these things because this can be the body's way of telling you, "Hey, everything is great, have a nice day!" or "Hey, buddy, listen up. Things are not all that great and we need to take different action here!".

Time to take action. So I signed up for Dr. Sara Gottfried's Detox - mainly because it was around New Year's Resolution time and I was so sick and tired of this excess weight. And while it worked for others in the program, it _did not_ work for me. BUT, I did learn some interesting things about my body. I learned that my morning blood sugar was erratic and needed some help. And I learned that my body does *not* do well on processed foods of any kind - no matter how "healthy", raw, grass-fed, fermented, etc it is - protein powders? Not my friend. 

However, I continued to slide. My adrenal fatigue days were back. Exhaustion was a constant theme, and recovery from mild exercise was hard to predict. Some days I needed 3 recovery days and others just one. Then I decided to sign up for a nutrition certification course, but one that included lab tests so that I could further investigate what was happening in my body.

Okay lets fast forward to this summer. During my FDN training, I learned a lot about gut health, what happens when people get leaky gut, and further, about gut infections that most people don't realize they even have. Suddenly it clicked. Back in the fall, I messed with my microbiome with the H. Pylori protocol. Then I messed with it again during Dr. Sara's Detox. Imagine the Theory Lightbulb flickering on above my head: "I bet you, that all this autoimmune stuff, the leaky gut and recent tweaking my microbiome has landed me with some infections that are not so obvious." This also corroborated with the fact that for the past few years, I cyclically felt like I was coming down with a cold or the flu every few weeks, but never would. So I elected to do more testing on my mucosal barrier and, yep, another stool test.

Giardia lamblia. CC Image courtesy of AJ Cann

Giardia lamblia. CC Image courtesy of AJ Cann

The results are in! Okay folks, brace yourselves. My mucosal barrier test confirmed leaky gut (wait, hadn't I already done a gut healing protocol? More on why that is in a future post.) and the two tests combined confirmed that not only do I have a bacterial dysbiosis (meaning I had nearly 2X as much aerobic bacteria than anaerobic when they should be closer to 1:1), I have a very healthy population of yeast or fungus (also not ideal), and Giardia lamblia, a well-known parasite! Phew - that was a lot of information from just two tests, but it certainly does point towards some of my more nagging symptoms and GI issues that I have not been able to solve. Plus, when your body is constantly fighting an infection, the last thing its going to worry about is weight normalization. So the clues were all fitting together, finally, into a whole picture puzzle. 

Progress continues: my new protocol is rocketing me several steps forward. Since June, I have begun the Autoimmune Paleo diet protocol (as outlined in The Paleo Approach by Sarah Ballentyne PhD) to eliminate any foods that might be causing inflammation. I have also started a botanical protocol to go after my dear parasite, bacterial and fungus "friends". It's a long protocol (6 months) and I intend to eat AIP the entire way through to keep my immune system as strong as I can.

So here's the great news: Im seeing improvement  in the GI health area (slow, but its there), and I have dropped 8 lbs without trying. My fatigue has nearly gone away, at least its been in remission somewhat which is a huge improvement over this spring. And my recovery days are becoming more predictable or correlative with exercise/stress output. Overall, Im really starting to feel closer to that 100% from years ago.

And while this is still a work in progress, I think the key point here is to not give up. Continue investigating, continue doing your n=1 experiments on yourself to discover how you can maximize your health in every area possible. Just don't try tackling it all at once - thats a sheer case of overwhelm waiting to happen :)

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One Sure-tell Sign You Have a Great Functional Medicine Practitioner

Sample lab results showing reference range and resultant values.

Sample lab results showing reference range and resultant values.

Those of us that are using functional medicine to get better, know that part of that process involves ordering lab work - sometimes a lot of it. For a functional medicine practitioner, it's critical to get an understanding of what is going on in various system functions, in addition to cross-referencing that with client symptoms. However, taking lab results at face value may not be so wise.

Lab reports usually come with an actual value of the molecule or substance being measured. Then the lab will show you a reference range and sometimes the lab will indicate if your value is within this reference range. Easy enough, right? Not so fast! You really want to make sure your functional practitioner knows if that is enough.

So how do you know that your functional medicine practitioner knows how to interpret the labs?  One of the first things they should do is educate you on reference range and what it really means. Each laboratory establishes their own reference range. It's the range of values they get from all the people they test and they determine what is normal for that population. However, keep in mind, the people who often get tested are people who are not feeling well and already showing disfunction in their body! Further, since each lab has their own reference range, you may get lab work done at two different places and have two different reference ranges! Makes it not so valuable as a reference, right?

What your practitioner should then explain is that each value has an optimal range. Optimal range refers to the values that healthy, vibrant, full-of-energy people have. I don't know about you, but *that* is what I want. Most practitioners have been able to identify what this is from their own years in practice, and a lot of this information is now made available through functional medicine training (like the FDN course I am taking). This optimal range does vary on the individual somewhat and may be above, below or equal to the statistical medians reported in the reference range.

So lets take an example. In the image above, there is TSH (the first lab result). TSH is Thyroid Stimulating Hormone and this is something that many doctors test to get an idea of Thyroid function. (TSH alone is not the whole thyroid picture, and that is a whole different story - you can learn all about that in the Thyroid Sessions) The reference range here is 0.45-4.5 mU/L. However, most functional practitioners now know that the optimum range for most people - those that feel great - is between 0.5 and 3.0. And for me, I know that I feel best when my TSH reads just under 2.0 like it does in the image above.

So, to summarize, if you have a functional practitioner who accepts lab results at face value and doesn't immediately educate you on what optimal ranges are, it's time to find a new doc. If all this is old hat to you - then keep calm, and carry on!

Would love to hear from you what impact this information (whether from me or from your own health advisor) had on you when you learned it! Share in the comments.

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