Using Nutrition to Conquer Chronic Illness
This article about finding ways to conquer chronic illness was written by Dr. Alexa Abdelaziz, Olivia Moore, MEND
According to the National Council on Aging, 80% of American adults over age 65 have a chronic condition and 68% have two or more chronic conditions. The CDC reports that chronic diseases are not only the leading cause of death and disability in the US, but they are also the leading contributor to the nation’s $3.5 trillion in annual health care costs.
All of these numbers are huge, but what exactly do they represent?
Not only do they represent the portion of the population living with and managing these conditions, but they exemplify the need for new and innovative treatment methods. One such method is incorporating functional medicine into your treatment plan, along with holistic wellness.
For instance, functional medicine and holistic wellness go hand in hand, often serving as a useful combination of treatments. Personalized plans, iterative modification based on needs, and a whole-body focus on health help conquer chronic illness, however.
Defining Chronic Illness
The CDC defines chronic illnesses or diseases as “conditions that last 1 year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.”
According to the National Council on Aging, hypertension (high blood pressure) and high cholesterol are two of the most common chronic illnesses. While quite common, these two aren’t the only ones that may impact your life.
The ten most common chronic conditions are depicted in the graphic below.
How is Chronic Illness Treated?
Pharmaceutical drugs or surgical interventions are common when treating a variety of chronic conditions. These treatmentments aim to correct the “problem,” but in many cases may inadequately address the underlying root cause of illness. The focus on treating symptoms, rather than the root cause, means people aren’t really getting better.
In his book The Disease Delusion, “functional medicine” guru Dr. Jeffrey Bland takes on the topic of chronic illness. Within it, he questions why advances in modern medicine have led to a doubling of life spans in only a four generation span of time, yet chronic disease remains on the rise.
Bland also asserts that managing chronic diseases accounts for three quarters of our total healthcare costs. This is because doctors choose to mask these illnesses with pills and temporary treatments, rather than addressing their underlying causes. Worse, he asserts that only treating symptoms leads us down the path of further illness.
To conquer chronic illness, other measures need to be taken.
Conventional Health Care Model Falls Short
Historically, human lives were cut short by infections and acute infectious diseases. Near the turn of the 20th century, a shift in medical knowledge focused on developing universal cures for acute diseases within the population.
The ensuing advances in infectious disease prevention and cures led to a previously unimaginable rise in human life expectancy during the 20th century.
However, as we enter the 21st century with generations plagued by “chronic” illnesses and predictions for shorter life expectancies in younger generations, it becomes more apparent that conventional medicine may have overplayed the “one pill for all ill” paradigm.
Today, doctors in the western world practice conventional medicine. This practice is rooted in the scientific method, to investigate medical problems and prescribe either pharmaceutical drugs or surgical interventions to correct the “problem.”
Unfortunately, a “problem” or condition often treated by conventional medicine is actually a symptom of the underlying root cause. This focus on treating only the resulting symptoms of a root cause means that these symptoms may resurface and potentially worsen over time.
As Dr. Bland points out, this “one pill for all ill” approach of conventional medicine is not compatible with improving and preventing many of the chronic illnesses that our population suffers from today.
It is ineffective to treat symptoms to cure the root cause. But at the same time, the root causes of chronic health issues are usually not simple. Instead, Dr. Bland asserts that conventional medicine should be paired with functional medicine. Doing so addresses many issues at once. Three common issues addressed by conventional and functional medicine are as follows.
- Lifestyle/exercise (either alone or with the guidance of a physical therapy professional
This holistic and personalized approach is necessary for helping individuals overcome chronic illnesses. It sounds complicated, but it factors in the fact that no two diagnoses are the same between patients. To truly conquer chronic illness, flexibility with treatments is necessary.
What is Functional Medicine?
The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) defines functional medicine as a “systems biology–based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. Each symptom or differential diagnosis may be one of many contributing to an individual’s illness.”
The graphic illustrates that a diagnosis can be the result of more than one cause.
For example, depression can be caused by many different factors, including inflammation. Likewise, inflammation may lead to a number of different conditions, including depression. The exact severity of each cause depends largely on individual aspects like lifestyle, environment, and genes. Only treatments that address the right cause or causes will have lasting benefit beyond symptom suppression.
According to practitioners of a functional medicine approach, there is one surefire way to help conquer chronic illness. This happens when viewing the body as an interdependent set of systems (e.g. the nervous system, the digestive system, cardiovascular system, etc.) and understanding the interaction of genes, environment, and lifestyle.
What Can You Do to Conquer Chronic Illness?
If you’re suffering from a chronic illness or would like to take some preventive measures, you have options. There are important lessons and an abundance of clinical evidence to help you become healthier and conquer chronic conditions.
Ultimately, it comes down to a simple concept: your health is a function of your genes, environment, and lifestyle.
From there, you need to figure out what is within your control.
You cannot control your genetic makeup.
For many people, this realization is daunting or discouraging. But, not so fast!
You can influence which genes get expressed. We now know that genes can get “turned on or off” depending on environmental cues. Examples of this include consumption of drugs or exposure to pollution or toxins. These actions or exposures sometimes turn on genes that impact health negatively.
“Conventional wisdom has long held that our health is 70 percent heredity and 30 percent everything else. The breakthrough discovery at the heart of the functional medicine revolution—our genes are not our fate—flips that ratio on its head.”
— The Disease Delusion by Jeffrey Bland, PhD
Similarly, you can’t control in which city or country you were born.
However, as an adult you can certainly make decisions about where to live and how to set up your physical environment to be more conducive to good health.
For example, there is now an abundance of evidence indicating that access and proximity to nature promotes health and a sense of well-being. In Japan they practice something called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” This is an immersion in forests while disconnected from technology. It involves being present and letting your senses absorb as much of the natural world as possible.
Environment also includes those tangible items that are a part of your routine or living spaces. Examples?
- The fabrics and fibers in your clothing or throughout your home’s decor
- The material make-up of tools and containers you use to cook or store foods
- The dust or allergens in your home
Many of these elements in your environment are modifiable to influence your state of health and well-being. It won’t be simple to enact these changes, but it is possible.
What you can control is your lifestyle.
The daily choices you make matter. This means focusing more on
- Which foods to consume
- What exercise and activities to do
- The amount of sleep to get
These lifestyle choices can influence your genes and environment. Attention to them is crucial to living a healthy life while avoiding chronic illnesses.
It may sound hard to believe that lifestyle and environment could have such a profound impact on genetic expression. However, there are increasingly common examples of this coming to light in clinical research communities.
One such study shows that smoking (a common environmental factor) is a trigger for bladder cancer in certain people carrying specific gene variants (García-Closas M et al. Lancet, 2005). This reiterates the strong connection between environmental behaviors and gene expression in contributing to chronic disease.
Another striking example that Bland points out is the change in the prevalence of breast cancer in those people who have the BRCA mutation.
“Before 1940, the incidence of breast cancer developing in women with the BRCA mutation was 24 percent. By 2013, the incidence was greater than 85 percent. What changed? Not the gene, but the environment influencing the gene’s expression: diet, exercise and other lifestyle behaviors.”
– The Disease Delusion by Jeffrey Bland, PhD
Ensuring that modifications in diet, activity, lifestyle and environment are sustainable will lead to more successful results and improvements in health over time.
Seeking Support to Conquer Chronic Illness
A paradigm shift is beginning in healthcare. This shift leans toward a more holistic approach to health and healing. At the same time, it emphasizes and utilizes some key components of functional medicine.
One prominent pillar of functional medicine is diet and nutrition. It has risen to the forefront of holistic and integrative patient care. But why? It is the most closely intertwined with almost all of our bodies’ functions.
This is important that the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has recognized nutritional guidance within scope of practice for physical therapists. The Cleveland Clinic, another noteworthy healthcare authority, has also recognized the importance of functional medicine. To promote the use of the concept, they partnered with the Institute for Functional Medicine to open the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine.
As a leader in clinical nutrition, MEND embraces the tenets of functional medicine. These experts study how natural compounds and nutrition can accelerate healing of acute and chronic conditions and reverse sarcopenia to promote healthy aging. MEND’s products have been formulated and clinically-tested by leading researchers, medical practitioners, and physical therapists. MEND strives to fill the gap in conventional healthcare by providing clinicians with targeted clinical nutrition. This improves patient outcomes using a holistic approach to care.
Want to Learn More about Conquering Chronic Illness? Ask Your Physical Therapist!
If you want to learn more about using fitness and nutrition to conquer chronic illness, contact a physical therapist. Using functional medicine, your therapist will help you develop a personalized therapy program. By doing so, you’ll better identify individual areas of imbalance and need. One key assessment therapy program includes the “Four R’s” program in which patients (under the direction of their healthcare provider) adjust their diets in four consecutive phases. During this process, the patient removes, replaces, reinoculates, and repairs to reintroduce a healthy physiological condition via nutrition.
Are you unsure where to turn for physical therapy? Look no further than the BetterPT clinic location tool and mobile app. These tools allow you to type in relevant information and find a physical therapy clinic near you for treatment. Unable to make it to in-person visits? Don’t worry – there’s an option for you, too!
The BetterTelehealth platform allows patients (suffering from chronic illness or otherwise) to schedule and attend physical therapy sessions virtually. Not only is this more convenient for many, but quality of care isn’t sacrificed using this method, either.
Conquering chronic illness doesn’t happen overnight. However, with the right guidance and a willingness to include functional medicine and lifestyle change, it is possible over time.
Olivia Moore earned a BA from Duke University in 2014 and her STEM-designated MBA from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in 2020. Her experience allows her to effectively manage and plan omni-channel accounts, including Industrials and Healthcare. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her dogs.
Dr. Alexa Abdelaziz graduated from Rutgers in 2013, and received her Masters and PhD in Nutritional and Metabolic Biology from Columbia University in 2020. Her focus is on utilizing clinical nutrition as a viable treatment strategy with a specific interest in autoimmune disease. Additionally, her interests include outdoor team sports, as well as running, biking and weight lifting.