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The Web of Health

September 29, 2008

When I tell people I am a Naturopathic physician I am often asked, what is your specialty? This is an understandable question since most of medicine today is divided into specialties. We have specialists in the heart and cardiovascular system, specialists for the skin, specialists for eye, the liver, the kidney, etc. But what if an illness crosses over into more than one system of the body? What if, in the case of diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis and Diabetes Mellitus, all systems of the body are affected? Who do we turn to then?

It appears from the outside that our bodies are solid, formed, and distinct. In this form we can identify organs, vessels, liquids, gases, etc. We even know the function of these distinct parts that make up our physical body. What is not readily apparent is the inherent interaction within every aspect of our body. Every thought, every idea, every experience plays a vital role in making up who we are. Not only does each cell communicate with each other, but each cell communicates with the outside world. From the air we breathe and the food we eat, to the things we see and emotions that wash over us, we are constantly interacting with all that is around us. There is no separation. I’ll repeat that: there is NO separation. Who you are is a direct result of a beautiful, web-like process of all systems of your body and all interactions with your environment.

Consider the complexity of the hormone insulin. Insulin is widely known for its role in blood sugar balance. It binds to cells and “unlocks” them to allow glucose inside. In other words, high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood cause insulin levels to rise so the glucose can enter the cells. When the cells are “full,” insulin levels decline and excess glucose is stored. Problems arise when the cells do not respond to insulin. Cells lose their sensitivity to insulin when they are constantly exposed to it. Take for example what happens when you walk into a smelly room. Right away you can smell whatever it is that stinks, but over time you don’t. You “get used to it” because your body has down-regulated receptors for the smell. The same thing occurs with insulin and leads to glucose in the blood that cannot get into the cells. The cells think that there is problem with not enough insulin so they stimulate the production of more insulin from the pancreas leading to a state called hyperinsulinemia. Hyperinsulinemia for a long period of time is a risk factor for many chronic conditions that we see today including Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, Cardiovascular disease, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, and Hypertension (high blood pressure).

So how does this relate to the web-like interactions mentioned above? Elevated glucose in the blood and the resulting hyperinsulinemia are not caused by one thing. That is to say, there is no one root cause. They are caused by a variety of different mechanisms all interacting together. For example, a diet of highly processed foods and sugar leads to quick rises in blood glucose. A sedentary lifestyle prevents the muscles, which are huge consumers of glucose, from utilizing glucose efficiently. Stress upregulates the body’s use of glucose stores. And toxicity causes inflammation and impairs cellular function. It is a complex web with many components and interactions. If we only focus on one system that is dysregulated, we miss many other factors.

Health and wellness cannot be limited only to single systems. Now more than ever, medicine must move from a focus on single systems and adopt a more holistic and functional view. This is why I am so excited to be a Naturopathic physician. Inherent in the philosophy of Naturopathic medicine is this focus on the whole person. By treating the whole we honor the amazing web that makes us who we are; perfect and amazing beings destined for great things and open to endless possibilities. Be well.

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