Environment encompasses every aspect of our lives, from light and radiation that reaches us from the
edge of the known Universe to the microclimate inside our cells. Most familiar is our spaceship, Mother Earth, providing the support and materials for that “castle” of work and play, rest and growth—our home. It also provides us with the building blocks of our physical bodies as we convert the planetary bounty we eat to black hair, blue eyes, sharp hearing, or raspy voice; literally, our food becomes who we are. The nourishment of this temple of flesh and bones also influences the more evanescent aspects of who we are: the productivity of our mental environment, the weather in our emotional environment, the fertility of our spiritual environment. When examined closely, it is obvious that these environments are inextricably linked: we are part of them and they are part of us.
As a Fellow of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, I have seen many patients with environmentally-related conditions, helping me hone my skills, knowledge, and
experience in the diagnosis and treatment of the effects of diverse toxins, including heavy metals, pesticides, molds and dusts. When I worked as medical director of a drug rehabilitation program, I recognized that sometimes we expose ourselves to intoxicants, often after “toxic” family environments. After three decades of practicing Preventive and Family Medicine, I thoroughly recognize that poisons introduced into any aspect of our environment often leach into the other layers. In order to become whole again, we must detoxify on all levels.
With detoxification, we often start with the environment inside the gut, since this is the interface between our external and internal environments. If this layer is not doing its job to exclude toxins and assimilate nutrients, it is difficult to summon the physical strength to apply ourselves in the work environment, or the mental and spiritual fortitude to handle what the winds blow in—be it hurricanes or financial turbulence.
The science of understanding and treating these layers of our environment is called FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE. Unlike conventional allopathic medicine (standard of care in the West for MD’s and DO’s) which focuses suppressing effects, Functional Medicine targets root causes in the fundamental ways our cells work together or function. By aiming at the source of illness, our whole being is supported to work in harmony from the inside out. This allows our systems to most effectively deal with disturbances in the outside environment, such as allergens, chemicals, and stress.
The basic tenets of Functional Medicine all directly relate to environment:
Biochemical make-up is based upon genetic and environmental factors unique to the individual. Assessing health depends on evaluating lowered health reserve, not just testing for pathology.
Patient-centered versus disease-centered: We must know the person who has the disease, rather than just which disease a person has. The patient serves as his or her own point of reference. Therefore, we treat a person, not a laboratory value.
Health is a dynamic balance of internal and external factors. What is the individual’s environment that has provided a foothold for this disease? How do we make that environment less able to support dysfunction, and better able to flourish harmoniously?
This comprehensive approach differs dramatically from the symptom-suppression and “Band-Aid”
therapeutics that often characterize much of our modern health care. Western medicine seems to focus
on making a “diagnosis,” rather than looking at the environment which is manufacturing the signs and
symptoms. For instance, drugs are used to change the patient’s perception of pain, not the basic causes of it. We use anti-hypertensives, anti-nausea meds, anti-depressants, etc.
PRINCIPLES OF HEALING
Functional Medicine addresses ways to promote the body’s self-healing mechanisms by correcting fundamental imbalances. This often results in many systems healing simultaneously, instead of taking a different medicine for every symptom. The science of Functional Medicine has grown from extensive research that defines how the most minute biochemical processes affect the status of that most complex of organisms, the human body. The revolution of the last decade in molecular biology illustrates that we no longer need to separate “nature versus nurture.” Indeed, we have seen how genes can be turned on or off by various environmental factors, showing how intimately our basic building blocks are linked to the world in which we live.
Specific laboratory testing, often not available in most doctors’ offices, can identify dysfunction in the following areas:
Nutritional imbalance: Have improper diet, effects of previous medical treatments, alcohol or genetic susceptibility led to improper molecules being admitted to the body through disrupted gut ecology (leaky gut), while strengthening nutrients are being passed out?
Immunologic dysfunction and inflammatory response: Have the basic systems that distinguish “self” from “other” (separating the individual’s own body from his/her planetary environment) gone awry, either attacking the body itself (e.g., arthritis) or becoming under-active leaving the body vulnerable to infection?
Impaired detoxification: Has there been a breakdown in primary detoxifying organs—liver and kidney—allowing accumulation of internal wastes (oxidative stress) and inefficiency of removal of external toxins?
Endocrine imbalances: Have the glands gotten off step in their complex dance resulting in over- or under-production of vital hormones?
Once we have identified where the imbalances arise in the environment, we can use many natural supplements and lifestyle therapies to gradually and gently bring the being back into harmony. This process may require several steps to address all the layers. It is rare that serious disharmony leading to chronic disease occurs overnight, so it may take some time, yet we can fundamentally rebuild the body so that it is once again in balance with its internal and external environments. This allows us to become and stay healthy whatever the elements may bring.