Think All Disease Begins In The Gut? This Functional Medicine Expert Disagrees

Image by Zheng Long / Stocksy

Talk to most functional medicine providers, and the majority will tell you that health begins in the gut. Well, I disagree. Health begins in the environment. Allow me to explain.

In the early 1990s, researcher Dr. Bruce Lipton discovered that he could take a blank human cell and turn it into any type of cell he wanted: heart, liver, muscle, you name it. He found that there was one factor that determined the fate of these undifferentiated cells: their environment. Dr. Lipton discovered that by changing the type of media (cellular food) he grew the cells in, he could influence how they developed. This was a HUGE discovery.

What Dr. Lipton uncovered is what we refer to now as epigenetics, which is the study of how environmental factors influence the expression of genes. The implications of this discovery are profound.

For decades, doctors have told their patients that their medical conditions were a result of genetics and that there was nothing they could do except take medication. Well, we now know that only a small percentage of medical conditions are entirely genetic (roughly 5 percent, according to Dr. Lipton), while the rest are controlled by environmental factors.

When we refer to environment in this context, it means anything that can influence the expression of genes, including air, food, water, EMF (electromagnetic fields), light, heavy metals, stress, sleep, pesticides, medications, and heat and cold exposure.

When working with my clients, these are the first things we focus on—not the gut—because these factors are what contribute to the development of disease, and it doesn't matter how clean your diet is or the quality of your supplements if your environment is breaking you down:

1. Make sure you're breathing clean air.

The average human takes about 16 breaths per minute, which is roughly 23,000 breaths a day. The main purpose of breathing for humans is to supply the body with oxygen and to rid the body of carbon dioxide. Simple enough, right? Everyone is aware that certain chemicals in high enough concentrations can be harmful. (For instance, you probably know that at high enough concentrations carbon monoxide is deadly.) But do you ever stop to think about the chemicals you inhale if you live in the city or close to a highway? How about the chemicals in air fresheners or those found on most furniture and mattresses?

With few exceptions, every chemical we inhale makes its way into our bloodstreams and must be bio-transformed and detoxified. This processing requires a significant amount of energy, nutrients, and antioxidants. If you are struggling with a health condition, you need all the nutrients and antioxidants you can get and don't want to be wasting them detoxifying your body because you live in a toxin-filled environment.

To improve your air quality and support your health, try replacing air fresheners, cleaning products, hygiene products, carpets, and mattresses with green alternatives. The Environmental Working Group has a comprehensive list of recommendations for all categories. Next, allow your house to breathe. Open the windows for a least 15 minutes a day to allow the air in your house to circulate. And finally, purchase a high-quality HEPA filter and run it for a few hours before bed, but not in the bedroom while you are sleeping, as it can disrupt restful sleep.

 2. Drink plenty of well-filtered water.

I think we all know how important water is or, at the very least, we hear about it often enough. It seems like every health expert is telling us to drink more water to detoxify, lose weight, or slow down the aging process.

But is what they say true, and do you really need to drink half your weight in ounces of water a day? We could go on for pages about this, but let's start with the facts. Scientific data suggests the following recommendations for water consumption:

Men: 3.1 Liters or 100 ounces daily

Women: 2.8 Liters or 90 ounces daily 

You should keep in mind, however, that a lot of water is found in a whole-foods diet. So if you are avoiding processed foods, you should be aiming for at least 64 ounces of water a day. And when I say water, I mean pure water. Not Gatorade, soda, fruit juices, or even coffee or tea.

I also recommend getting a high-quality water filter since municipal water providers don't always do a great job of regulating water purity; for my clients, I suggest a reverse-osmosis (RO) water filter with a remineralizer. This is because RO filtration removes minerals as well as contaminants; you will want to make sure you are adding minerals back in. The best way to stay hydrated throughout the day is to start your day off on the right foot. Upon waking, drink at least 16 ounces of water with a pinch of sea salt for minerals. You can also add a squeeze of lemon for taste.

Image by Zheng Long / Stocksy

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3. Make sure your light exposure supports your body's natural rhythm.

There is little in this world that we take for granted more than light. Light from the sun is essential to the survival of all species on our planet.

For us humans, light not only keeps us warm but it directs our circadian rhythm, also known as our internal clock). And until recently in human history, it has been the sun that dictates when we rise in the morning and when we go to sleep at night. Not only does light affect our periods of wakefulness, it also strongly influences the production of hormones like melatonin and cortisol that regulate our body.

When we do not get adequate sun exposure throughout the day (or are exposed to artificial light at night), it can throw off our circadian rhythm. When this happens, we are at risk for a whole host of issues including insomnia, fatigue, depression, anxiety, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and more.

This is why it is imperative that we address our light exposure throughout the day. In the morning, within the first hour of waking up, you should go outside for 15 minutes to get adequate sun exposure. The light from the sun at this time of day is more on the blue end of the spectrum, which will help wake you up and set your circadian rhythm for the day.

In the afternoon, you should get at least 15 to 20 minutes of time outside. In the warmer months, I recommend exposing as much skin as possible for maximal vitamin D production but not exposing yourself so long that you burn.

In the evening, you should have no blue or green light exposure two to three hours before bed. This means no TV, cellphones, or computers. If you are going to use any of these devices at all, then you should be wearing blue-light-blocking glasses.

 4. Be aware and mindful of sound exposure throughout the day.

Along with light, sound is another under appreciated factor that affects our health. In fact, everyone has experienced the transformative power of sound when they listen to a certain song that immediately transports them back to a certain time period or event. We utilize music for motivation at the gym, as well as chants on the sports field. Certain tones are used in spas because they are known to be relaxing.

Depending on the source, sound can be either therapeutic or harmful. The World Health Organization has found that as ambient noise increases above 40 decibels, so too does the incidence of high blood pressure, heart attacks, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbances, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Those who live in a city or by trains and airports are more likely to be exposed to sounds consistently above 40 decibels and are at a greater risk of developing these adverse health outcomes.

My recommendations for sound start with getting outside in nature often. Recent research indicates that spending time in nature is associated with a decreased risk in many health ailments, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and asthma. It is believed that at least part of this benefit is due to the sounds and/or lack of sounds experienced in nature. You should aim to get outside in nature daily, even if it's just to a local park.

I also recommend finding time for 20 minutes of silence every single day. You can do this at any time of day and couple it with a silent meditation. Making your bedroom a quiet place is another important factor in the sounds we experience every day. Your bedroom is for sleep and sex—that's it! Not TV or cellphone use. I even advise against white noise machines, which have high decibel levels. Instead, I recommend the Pzizz app which produces isochronic tones that can promote deep sleep.

By following these tips and suggestions, you can create an environment that fosters healing, healthy hormone production, better sleep, and even reduces anxiety. Then, all your other healthy rituals—like exercising, eating well, and healing your gut—will go a whole lot further.

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