My functional medicine journey, Part I: Foundations

photo of assorted vegetables

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve had digestive problems and gastric headaches for a large portion of my life. I’ve tried various things but nothing has worked for long, and last year things escalated to the point where I had to have my gallbladder removed. My regular family doctor saw “malfunctioning gallbladder” as the cause of my problems, but I did not think this was the case. What caused this organ to malfunction in the first place, if not a congenital defect? What was its role in the whole complex system of digestion, and indeed in my vastly even more complex total organism of body, soul, and spirit? Had it been stressed and overburdened till it gave out? How could I restore balance to the system as a whole?

I had proof that my gallbladder was not the source of the problem when my headaches continued, and even got worse. And after some more experimentation, I got tired of DIY diet and lifestyle management and decided to turn to a professional. Clearly my regular doctor was going to be no help, so I looked for a functional medicine practitioner. A friend had recommended functional medicine as it had helped her with her own mysterious health issues, so I was hopeful it might do the same for me.

I’m posting this here because it’s been a very interesting journey so far, and I’d like to keep a record of it for myself. Maybe it will help someone else, or be interesting to you as well. Naturally it’s all my personal experience and not to be taken as scientific research or advice. That said, I think that all effective medicine must be personal; some wise doctor once said “it’s more important what patient has the illness, than what illness the patient has.” In the end, I hope this process will help me to learn more about myself. So far, it already has.

According to the Institute for Functional Medicine, “Functional medicine is a systems biology–based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease.” A single diagnosis may have many contributing root causes; likewise, a single cause can present as many different symptoms or diagnoses. Seeing things in a more systemic, relational way helps to put the pieces together, stop treating surface presentations rather than root causes, and quit chasing symptoms while ignoring deeper issues.

The functional medicine doctor I found is not an MD, but a chiropractor with a lot of experience in diet and lifestyle management as well. I picked him for the simple reason that every other practitioner I found in Switzerland is in the Zurich area, but this one comes once a week to a place that is nearer to me (one hour away rather than two!) He’s also recently relocated after living in California for some time, and so although Swiss himself, along with being able to speak English he knows well the American cultural differences and what it’s like to adjust to life here.

We mostly meet via video call, but it was good to meet face to face for the intake. I gave a detailed history of my symptoms, and he recommended testing to follow up with data before making any treatment plan. Functional medicine relies a lot on very detailed testing, which, alas, like most of the other parts of the practice, are not covered by insurance. However, I am getting desperate enough to be willing to spend serious money to be able to function better and get my life back. It’s not going to be more than I’ve spent over the years in dribs and drabs on many different things, but it is a lot all at once.

After a week of tracking my usual food intake along with symptoms like mood, sleep, and gassiness, I did a three-day, six-sample stool test. This meant I had to collect my stool and put a scoop of it in various little bottles, plus a urine sample that had to be frozen, and then send everything by overnight mail to the lab in Denmark. While waiting for results, I was advised to follow a no-grain, no-dairy, no-sugar diet that eases the burden on the gut and reduces causes of inflammation.

photo of assorted vegetables
Food I can eat: vegetables! Photo by Vo Thuy Tien on Pexels.com

After a few weeks we met online to review the test results. It was clear from these that my main issue was dysbiosis, imbalance in my gut bacteria. There’s a parasite riding along in there, which may not be the worst there is but could be making me uncomfortable and prone to diarrhea. My oxalate level is too high, which puts me at risk for kidney stones. And I have too many bad bacteria and not enough of the good ones. Lactobacillus is nowhere to be seen, which surprised me as I try to eat lactic-acid fermented foods and also have been taking a supplement. But for whatever reason, it’s not working, and that really has to change.

An option is to use antibiotics to reduce the bad stuff and then build up the good. But I was interested to try without pharmaceutical antibiotics, given that I think these were largely what contributed to the problem in the first place. My practitioner assured me he has had success with this although it takes longer — six months, perhaps, as opposed to three months. After 52 years I think I can wait a few extra months. So I’m going to try.

This is the stage I’m at now. I’ve started a protocol of supplements and herbal remedies and I’ll have to work with them for a month before assessing how it’s going. Again, expensive!!! — but if it works it will be worth it. I do have more hope that this will work than anything I have tried in the past. Nobody ever even looked at my gut bacteria balance before. I am quite sure that it could have affected my gallbladder, caused headaches, food sensitivities and even some of my episodes of depression and emotional upset. Then there is the issue of gut permeability, or “leaky gut.” The outer boundary of our small intestine is only one cell wide, and it is vital that it remain intact so that the right substances can penetrate through it, in either direction. But many things can interfere with its integrity and cause all kinds of issues — the bacterial balance being essential to keeping it in good shape.

cutout paper composition of bacteria on green background
Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com

The most current research is finding a clear connection between gut dysbiosis and all kinds of other diagnoses, from autism to diabetes to depression to dementia. It’s the cutting edge of medicine, I feel certain. We have to build a healthy community of cooperative creatures, inside us as well as among us. In my own small way I’m part of the research as to how to do this. It’s quite fascinating, although uncomfortable at the moment.

The good news is that other than my imbalanced array of critters, I don’t have any other markers for more serious conditions, like Crohn’s Disease or celiac. My underlying system is actually quite healthy and strong. Well, this is good and bad, because my strong system is likely what kept me going for so long without treatment of any kind, thus a longer time to build up internal dysfunction and let the bad bugs continue to party hearty. However, it does mean that if I can get them under control, I will probably be feeling pretty good.

With fingers firmly crossed, I’m headed into phase two of the process. In six weeks or so, I’ll know enough for an update. Thank you for following me on this journey, if you do!

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19 thoughts on “My functional medicine journey, Part I: Foundations

  1. I have a friend who is a microbiologist and talks sometimes about her research into gut bacteria. She’s written several SF books about it; the most relevant is entitled Brain Plague, in which a colony of microbiotic people work with an artist symbiotically.

    1. Microbiotic people? Like, microscopic people? There is no limit to the fascinating and weird possibilities to be found in this field … your friend is on the cutting edge of fiction as well as science.

  2. Thank you for this post, Lory. I have had enormous success following suggestions from a functional doctor. I hope you do too. ❤️

  3. You have been through so much, but I have to hand it to you for persevering.

    I am extremely interested in gut bacteria health when I had to go on medication that really affected my digestion. I had never been bothered by any stomach issues before, but of all the side effects possible, these were the ones I got. I did try probiotics, but they didn’t work. Then I tried skyr and Greek yogurt which has helped immensely. I guess the medication killed off the good bugs and getting them back in a more natural way is what worked for me.

    My limited understanding is similar to what you are saying about the importance of gut bacteria. It’s sure isn’t understand in allopathic land, at least at this time. But it’s making headway in other circles and with some of the general public, at least it is here.

    Thank you for sharing your gut journey. While I find it fascinating in general, I hope it gives you positive results. 🤞👍

    1. I think it’s getting closer to mainstream. The research evidence is there, as far as I can tell. But it takes time to change people’s ingrained prejudices. There is so much potential to really change people’s lives for the better, I can only hope that that becomes more powerful than holding on to ideas from the past.

  4. Sorry to hear about your problems Lory. I hope this approach begins to work for you soon! Good luck with it.
    I’ve been fascinated by our gut microbiome for ages and read several really good books about it – including The Diet Myth by Prof Tim Spector, which was mindblowing in the way he looks at what we eat and how it affects us (all differently). It’s hard to adjust my diet though to benefit from the good advice therein, but I’ve started taking curcumin to reduce inflamation, and adding inulin (pre-biotic fibre) to feed my gut bacteria.

    1. Thank you for your sympathy, I will get through this I am sure. What keeps me going as usual is that there is so much to learn and it’s so interesting. Challenging, though, when I try to wrap my mind around what it actually takes to keep a body functioning! I have to be amazed that it works as well as it does, considering the punishment I often subject it to.

    1. No, it should be an art. And a spiritual practice too — the human body is a temple of mysteries. That always bears keeping in mind, for doctor and patient both.

  5. I’ve not heard that expression “functional medicine” before but it sounds much more effective than the traditional approach of treating symptoms not causes. There’s is so much focus now on “gut health” and the concept that the gut acts like a second brain

  6. I am wishing you the best on this journey, and I sure hope it works well for you! I’ll be following closely. Gut issues interest me too; one of my brothers has Crohn’s and there are a lot of food allergies in the family.

    1. It’s a fascinating area of research and I think we are going to find out much more in the next few years and decades. Hopefully it will translate into ways to treat people suffering from such ailments.

  7. Interesting and I do hope that you gain a good measure of health with this help you are receiving and actively pursuing.

    1. Thank you Silvia, yes I feel I am making progress, although I’ve had to change course somewhat (I want to write about that soon).

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