Functional medicine is, I firmly believe, the future of healthcare. Last year I went to my GP with a series of health issues. We discussed my cough but, when I started to tell him about the other problems, he held up his hand to stop me. ‘You’ll need a separate appointment for each of them,’ he said. What? Whatever happened to looking at a person as a whole? I had, it seemed, become a pair of lungs, rather than a body. My chest was thoroughly investigated (X-rays, CT scans, sputum tests) and I was put on a vast array of medications. The cough remained. In fact, it got worse. After nine months of paroxysmal coughing I was exhausted.
Then I met Dr Lucie Wilk who is not only an NHS consultant, but also a practitioner of functional medicine (otherwise known as lifestyle medicine). She explained that doctors like her work like detectives. They gather up all the clues, not just from your symptoms, but also from your environment, relationships, stress levels, diet, exercise and sleep habits. They delve right back in your personal and health history – as far as your life in the womb. Armed with all this information, they dig deep to find the underlying factors that are leading to your health problems. ‘It’s an evidence-based holistic approach to help you live a healthier life,’ she says. ‘We take the time to understand your story, use state of the art diagnostic tests to get to the root of your health problems, and work with you to create a personalised plan.’ It’s an approach that combines the latest science with age-old wisdom to provide conscious health care.
Dr Wilk points out that conventional medicine can be superb when the problem is acute – a broken bone, a heart attack, an overwhelming infection. However, when the problem is a chronic illness, it is less successful. ‘The illness developed over a unique lifetime in a unique body,’ she says. ‘And the cause of the illness, and therefore the treatment, will also be unique to the individual.’
It made total sense to me so I signed up. Not only was I coughing non-stop but my sinuses were on fire and I was totally exhausted. Dr Wilk went through my life with a fine tooth-comb and came up with two underlying issues for the inflammation in my body. Firstly I had an imbalance in my gut bacteria which was affecting the health of my gut, causing immune problems. Secondly I had HPA (Stress) Axis Dysfunction. My body was stuck in a permanent state of high alert stress which can cause a whole host of issues including reduced stress resilience and chronic inflammation. Just talking to Dr Wilk was therapy in itself. For the first time in nine months someone had actually listened, really listened to me, rather than being in a race to fob me off on someone else or with yet another drug.
Dr Wilk’s prescription? A gut healing diet and a series of supplements. She also asked me to carve out time each day for meditation, visualisation and gentle exercise. Above all, I was to practice deep abdominal breathing. ‘It’s absolutely vital,’ she said. ‘It signals to the body that you’re safe, that the parasympathetic nervous system [rest and repair] can take over from the sympathetic nervous system [flight, fight, freeze]. It sounded too simple to be true but within a week my cough had improved and my sinus pain had vanished. By the time I went back a month later, the cough had nearly disappeared and I had more energy than I’d had all year.
Functional/lifestyle medicine is certainly expanding with more health professionals opting to take a more holistic approach to wellbeing. It’s timely and much needed – although you will need to be willing to take responsibility for your own health, rather than abnegating responsibility to your doctor. Sadly it is not available on the NHS so you’ll need to fund yourself. It’s not cheap, even without tests, but the procedure is time-consuming for the practitioner. I kept putting it off but then I finally rationalised that, if my car or house had serious problems, I’d pay a mechanic or builder. Yet I wasn’t willing to lay my cash on the line for my own health? I couldn’t really afford it but it was the best money I ever spent (borrowed!). My sincere hope is that, in the future, the NHS will wake up to preventative and holistic health care – in the long run, it would save billions.
One thing to note. If you have major health concerns, do ensure that the practitioner you pick is also a medical doctor (not all of them are). For more information see The Institute for Functional Medicine and The British Society of Lifestyle Medicine
Photo by Edgar Castrejon on Unsplash