“What?? How could she be sick? She just had her annual physical and everything was fine!”
It may seem perfectly logical when somebody says this, but here’s the surprising truth: Neither the standard annual physical exam, nor the routine blood tests associated with it, have ever been shown to make a measurable difference in helping people detect life-threatening diseases at an early stage.
If you’re shocked by this, you’re hardly alone. Although in many cases disease can be halted or reversed if detected in the early stages, the most intentional thing that most of us do to protect ourselves is to go for our annual checkup. And sadly, that annual physical won't keep you from getting sick, or help you live longer -- at least according to every study ever done on the subject. Luckily, the answer isn’t simply to despair, or sit idly by and wait for illness to develop.
The human body is capable of healing itself. When we are exposed to stress (think radiation, toxins in our air and water, tobacco smoke, certain drugs, ozone, charred foods, etc.) that stress damages our cells. That cellular stress is called oxidative stress, and it is the very thing that triggers aging and illness. Yes, you heard that correctly - oxidative stress is exactly what makes you age, and get sick.
The only way to prevent oxidative stress is with something called an antioxidant. Some antioxidants are found in our diet, and some our made in our cells. If, in addition to maintaining healthy levels of your own antioxidants, you also eat a diet high in the food-based antioxidants below, it is the cellular equivalent of doubling your defense budget.
The ones that are made in our cells are:
alpha lipoic acid
superoxide dismutase (SOD)
The ones that are found in our diet are:
carotenoids (carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, dark leafy greens, broccoli, peas)
polyphenols (ginger, dark chocolate, cloves, elderberry, raspberries, blackberries)
But that leaves us with a million-dollar question: If our body's are so capable of fighting disease, why do we still get sick? Simply put, when the sheer volume of stress surpasses the bodies ability to heal itself and recover, the scale tip over (and not in your favor). You can picture it like a game of Jenga – when all of the pieces are together and the tower is complete (your body at full capacity) it takes a whack to knock it over. But once a whole bunch of blocks have been pulled out (your body under extreme stress), just breathing the wrong way can send the tower toppling.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear the usual suspects that stress the body and rob it of its self-healing ability: inadequate sleep, emotional stress, untreated depression, immobilization, and exposure to toxic substances like pesticides, some medications, food dye, artificial sweeteners, or even plastic..
Scary? Well, sure, it can be. But my hope is that this information will empower you and encourage you to take your control back. Knowing that there are highly sophisticated systems in place in your body to fight disease is the first step to regaining your health. The second step is to shore up your defenses by testing your antioxidant levels and correcting any deficiencies through diet and supplements. This type of specialty testing is available through Functional Medicine, an approach to care that is rapidly disrupting the entire healthcare industry in its approach. Functional Medicine physicians test for cellular levels of antioxidants and create customized plans to improve them. Not something you were offered during your last physical, right?
While it might be tempting to just take a boatload of antioxidants in supplement form as opposed to precisely measuring and carefully replenishing them, there is good evidence that too much of a good thing… well, it might not be a good thing at all (actually, it might be plain dangerous).
Once you've tested your antioxidant levels and brought them up to a healthy range, it is critical to remove any toxic substances from your body that might currently be making you sick. There are now tests available that can check your levels of heavy metals, pesticides, BPA, phthalates, parabens, VOC's, and PCBs. If your levels are abnormally elevated, which is pretty common given the sheer number of chemicals we are exposed to every day, a Functional Medicine physician can then create a plan to remove them from your body once and for all. Flushing cancer-causing chemicals from the body will help prevent depletion of your antioxidants, which ultimately means preventing disease.
After increasing your antioxidant levels and flushing out disease-inducing chemicals, taking a thoughtful look at your lifestyle from the perspective of inflammatory triggers is next. This means really focusing on sleep, exercise, diet, and your overall happiness as a means of maintaining or restoring health.
It is easy to see why these lifestyle factors are the focus of most health advice. However, science has come much further than this. If it is as simple as eating well and exercising, why do people who do both still get cancer? While looking at the triggers for disease, and the mechanisms that worsen or progress it, there is no smoking gun.
All sickness begins with health. It is a spectrum, and it is multi-factorial. There is a widespread belief that one day a switch gets flipped and you go from being well to being sick. Everything we know about science and medicine actually refutes this and instead validates that illness begins at the cellular level.
The Functional Medicine approach also begins at the cellular level, and then it expands from there to ultimately address our day-to-day lifestyle choices that either keep us well or make us sick. This new paradigm ensures that the patient is no longer in the passenger seat. This new paradigm helps you to reclaim your health, your vitality, and your control.
Allison Fox, M.D.