Identifying the underlying causes of symptoms and feelings of imbalance begins by taking a closer look at our diet, lifestyle, exposure to toxins, and stress levels. This holistic approach combines functional medicine and integrative nutrition, and allows us to heal, prevent, and recover from the disharmony that has been created between our genetic predispositions and our current state of health. Eating whole foods as the primary source of vitamins and minerals has become more challenging with busy lifestyles and limited access to non-GMO, organic, and nutritionally balanced foods. For convenience, we place our trust in pre-packaged foods that lure us in with buzz words such as “organic”, “gluten-free”, or “natural”. Many of these foods that appear to be healthy are made with produce that contains pesticides, artificial ingredients, or a whole bunch of “organic” sugar. These pre-packaged and processed foods, which holistic nutritionist Kinsey Van Druten refers to as “Phood”, are essentially synthetic and unbalanced items that have found their onto shelves by pretending to be healthy.
The concept of “Phood vs. Food” is one that perpetuates a cycle of imbalance in our bodies, and we turn to a quick fix to fill in the gaps of the vitamins and minerals we are not getting from our diets. As a result, we often turn to synthetic generic vitamin supplements or fortified foods, which are often made with cheap ingredients, toxic fillers, and are often not easily absorbed or assimilated into the body. When we aren’t getting proper nutrition from foods OR good quality whole food supplements, nutrient deficiencies and imbalances can begin to cause an entire spectrum of physical and mental health problems-many which we feel so overpowered by that we turn to prescriptions to “fix” our problems.
To begin the journey of learning and insight into our own nutrition and wellness, it is important to understand some of the basic ways the body interacts with the foods we consume, the environment around us, and our unique genetic and biochemical blueprints. Learning about our bodies through self-observation will give us a better set of tools to help our health care providers and specialists understand the complex “big picture” that is contributing to illness or imbalance. Rather than labeling a set of symptoms with a diagnosis, we can shift our focus towards discovering the origin of our health problems. Most illnesses are not things we have to be stuck with or accept-we can make large strides by changing our diets, decreasing stress, and avoiding environmental toxins. While prescription medication certainly has important roles in treating disease, it often causes a whole new set of problems while it masks the original problem. Somewhere in this cycle of modern diagnostics and treatment, we have lost track of the importance of digging deeper to determine the underlying causes of our symptoms so that we can make dietary and lifestyle changes to heal and sustain long-term health.
Medicine and nutrition should not be a generic or universal approach-the approach we take should be unique to what is actually going on inside our bodies, not a bell-curve of everyone else’s bodies. Consider an example of three women who are experiencing migraines. Physicians excel at diagnosing illnesses based on symptoms, and all three women have been given the same diagnosis because they are experiencing the same symptoms. Most of the time, all three women will also be given a generic set of treatment options, which usually includes recommendation for a prescription or over-the-counter medication, or perhaps increasing their intake of water. Since migraine medications were designed to decrease migraines, they usually are successful in decreasing or eliminating that particular set of symptoms. As a result, those three women usually continue on with their daily lives, since their symptoms have been under control. A few months later, one of those three women may start to have new symptoms, such as nerve pain, difficulty sleeping, or fatigue. The second woman may come back to the doctor complaining of muscle aches, anxiety, or depression. The third may schedule an appointment with a fertility specialist because she is having trouble conceiving. At this point, we should begin to realize that the cause of the migraines is rarely addressed. Magnesium deficiency, low iron, hypothyroidism, insulin resistance, PCOS, heavy metal toxicity, leaky gut, candida overgrowth, or methylation pathway mutations were probably never discussed. Even more unlikely to be discussed were a nutrition analysis or daily food journal that could reveal important patterns linked to nutrient deficiencies or malabsorption.
Most physicians do not make suggestions for making changes to the diet or quality of nutritional supplements because they are not trained in nutrition or functional medicine. Therefore, more diagnoses are made, more prescriptions are written, and more problems will likely evolve from the side-effects of those prescriptions. In the meantime, the root cause of the original problem still remains undetermined. While these are merely hypothetical examples of common symptom/treatment cycles, they are far too common. Teaching a patient with low iron to choose foods that are rich in iron, and to consume those foods in the same meal as foods containing vitamin C to ensure iron is absorbed would be much more beneficial to the patient than having to take an iron supplement made of synthetic ingredients (which could lead to more serious and unpleasant side effects, such as constipation, nausea, or heavy metal imbalances that could increase the risk for Parkinson’s Disease). Functional medicine and nutrition practitioners understand the importance of these concepts, and can be helpful in ordering lab and genetic tests that can help patients to optimize their nutrition or choose more appropriate medications and treatments.
Below is a resource that will give you a starting point in understanding the roles and sources of the most fundamental vitamins and minerals. It will also serve as a guide to help you make informed decisions when selecting supplements or fortified foods.