As a functional medicine practitioner, I consult patients about a particular health issue that is concerning them. But when we dig deep with a comprehensive health history and labs, we often time find a whole slew of underlying dysfunctions that are contributing to their symptoms. So, the one truth you need to know to solve all your health woes? There's very rarely a smoking gun. Because while some pieces of the puzzle are bigger than others, health problems are almost always multifactorial. In other words: It's not just one thing making you sick.
At first, this might make you feel discouraged or overwhelmed, but this isn't bad news, and here's why: The inextricable connections among all the cells of your body mean that simple lifestyle changes can be prolific, making an enormous difference when it comes to getting healthy. If health problems are interconnected, then so is the ripple effect of healthy change. By fixing one issue, you are putting yourself on rewind mode, and other issues will start healing themselves. Here are the 17 most common pieces I see contributing to people’s health puzzle:
1. Microbiome imbalances.
The wonderful world of your microbiome! This collection of bacteria located in your gut affects almost every aspect of your health. A common misconception is that you have to be having gut symptoms in order to have gut problems, but that is simply not the case. Bacterial imbalances have been implicated in everything from hormonal issues to weight-loss resistance as well as digestive problems like leaky gut syndrome. It has been also been shown that the health of your microbiome is key for proper metabolic function and immune system function.
Inflammation is one of your body’s natural defense mechanisms; however, chronic inflammation is a driving factor behind almost every health problem. Most inflammatory diseases can be traced back to the health of the microbiome, including chronic health problems such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and even asthma.
You can down kale and kombucha like a champ, but if you're serving yourself a huge slice of stress every day, you won't be feeling optimal. This is because what happens in your mind can manifest in your body; for example, the gut-brain axis is directly affected during times of increased stress, and this can lead to a variety of digestive problems such as IBS and leaky gut syndrome. The gut-brain connection is so strong that additional research has supported that a healthier microbiome can positively affect brain health and the symptoms of PTSD. Just one more reason to practice mindfulness!
Chemicals are more widespread than ever in our food, beauty products, house cleaners, and more. Our genes have not been able to tolerate the onslaught of constant exposure, and studies have shown that the growing use of pesticides in food is correlated with neurological and reproductive problems. Sadly, children are affected the most because exposure can hinder their development and increase the risk of developing health problems later in life. Just by being conscious about the products you are using—and changing your lifestyle with simple detoxing tools—you can start to minimize these health stressors.
5. Food intolerances.
Hidden food sensitivities are a major contributor to ongoing health problems. Just because you're eating "healthy" foods doesn’t mean you're eating foods that make your body thrive. Histamine intolerance,
Doing an elimination diet is my gold standard for finding out what your body loves and hates. Removing the most common troublesome foods for a period of time and then slowly reintroducing them into your diet is an easy way to determine your best food plan.
6. Blood sugar problems.
Insulin resistance is the main force behind many of the blood sugar problems we see today. Your body needs glucose (sugar) to get inside your cells to create energy in the form of ATP. In order to get glucose inside your cells, you need the hormone insulin. Insulin resistance happens when your cell-receptor sites are blocked and then you’re left with a backup of insulin and blood sugar.
7. Adrenal fatigue.
Your adrenal glands release your stress hormone (cortisol) through a complex web of communication called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). This hormonal imbalance occurs when your brain does not properly signal the release of cortisol through the HPA axis, causing this hormone to be either too high or too low. When it's high, your blood sugar and blood pressure levels rise, and when it's low they will also be low. With this imbalance, it's no surprise that your blood sugar levels are off as well, which can lead to symptoms of feeling "hangry" and leave you craving sweet and salty foods. A direct correlation between blood sugar levels and HPA axis function has been demonstrated by research.
8. Methylation impairments.
Methylation is your body’s biochemical superhighway. Certain impairments like the MTHFR gene mutation make it harder for your body to complete this function and can inhibit proper detoxification pathways. You can support methylation through B vitamins found in grass-fed liver as well as sulfuric vegetables.
9. Leptin resistance.
Leptin is a hormone produced in your fat cells that tells your brain to use your body’s fat stores for energy. Problems occur when the hypothalamic cells of your brain do not recognize leptin, causing your body to think it’s in starvation mode like a bear storing up fat for winter hibernation. This hormone-brain miscommunication can be traced back to chronic inflammation, which dulls the brain’s leptin receptor sides and causes your body to produce more leptin than necessary.
10. Thyroid dysfunctions.
Thyroid hormones are the queen of all hormones, as all the cells in your body need them to function properly. Unhealthy thyroid function can lead to autoimmune conditions, hormonal problems, and even seemingly unrelated issues like depression. This mental health issue has been shown to be significantly helped by thyroid hormone regulation and treatment.
11. Autoimmune problems.
Your immune system is designed to defend your body from foreign bacteria and viruses in order to fight off disease. Autoimmune problems occur when your immune system decides to attack your own healthy cells. It’s like a case of mistaken identity. Around 50 million Americans have an autoimmune disease, and millions more are somewhere on the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum. But there's good news! Stanford estimates that up to 77 percent of your immune system is determined by controllable factors like inflammation, toxins, and the food we choose to eat.
12. Sex hormone imbalances.
When your testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone are out of whack, it can lead to a slew of health problems such as infertility, PCOS, weight gain, weight-loss resistance, and low sex drive. Whether you're a man or woman—your body demands a balance of all of these hormones.
13. Viral infections.
Viruses are often a huge missing piece of the health puzzle. They can lay dormant in the body for years before triggering a cascade of health problems and uncomfortable symptoms. The most common viral infections I see are all part of the herpes family:
- Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)/HHV-4
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV)/HHV-5
- Varicella zoster virus (VZV) and Human Herpes Virus (HHV)-3
- Human herpesvirus type 6 (HHV-6)
Most people actually have one or more of these viruses present in their bodies, so the important variable is not IF we have a virus but WHEN it will be triggered. Anything from microbiome imbalances to stress can awaken the sleeping virus, and once active it can wreak havoc on your body in the form of brain problems, autoimmune conditions, and thyroid problems.
14. "Healthy" junk foods.
It’s hard not to be swayed by the well-designed packages of "healthy" gluten-free products. And while these may be a great alternative, eating too much of these junk foods can leave you devoid of essential nutrients. Plus, they are usually still processed to some extent and filled with sweeteners and other additives.
15. Nutrient deficiencies.
Without proper nutrients, your body is unable to function optimally. Vitamin D, magnesium, B vitamins, and iodine are all nutrients that, if lacking, lead to hormonal, thyroid, and methylation impairments. Sticking with a well-rounded diet filled with grass-fed organic meats, seafood, dark leafy greens, and sea vegetables will provide you with all of these key nutrients.
I often see my patients get prescribed a drug to treat a particular health problem, only to come away with more health issues than when they started. My advice to patients is to always ask questions and do your research before you start a new drug and focus on treating the root cause of whatever you are going through. You may find that your medication needs will be reduced or eliminated entirely—along with any side effects.
17. Neurological problems.
Your brain controls more than just your thoughts. Your gut-brain connection is crucial to your health; in fact, your gut is often referred to as your second brain as 95 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin is made and stored in your intestines.
As we can see, your body is like a well-oiled machine. Each individual part plays its own role, and when one goes awry, the entire machine begins to deteriorate as well. Luckily—although you may be experiencing multiple health problems—when you really look at your body as an entire system and treat the root cause, a few lifestyle changes can set the trajectory and give you a lot of momentum toward healing.
Need more evidence of the gut-brain connection? Here's why your sugar habit is making you anxious and depressed.