Your Annual Physical Just Isn't Enough

“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:

  • glutathione

  • CoQ10

  • alpha lipoic acid

  • catalase

  • superoxide dismutase (SOD)

The ones that are found in our diet are:

  • vitamin C

  • vitamin E

  • 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.

If You've Ever had an Abnormal Pap, This Article is for You

HPV (The Human Papillomavirus) is the single most common STD in the U.S., affecting upwards of 79 million Americans. It is so common that approximately 14 million people become infected every single year.  Based on my own experiences when counseling my patients about their HPV diagnosis, most people do not realize how much they can do themselves to help their body eliminate it.

HPV is screened for on routine Pap smears, which is of course only a fraction of the reason why seeing your healthcare provider routinely is so critically important.  The HPV virus causes genital warts, abnormal Pap smears, and ultimately, if left untreated, cervical cancer.  HPV is also responsible for several other less common, but unfortunately on the rise, cancers.

When HPV is found on a Pap smear, the conversation usually goes something like this: "You have an STD called HPV. Sometimes your body gets rid of it on its own, and sometimes it doesn't. We would like to get a better look at your cervix to see if the virus has caused damage. Be sure to schedule that test, which is called a colposcopy, before you leave. The procedure is quick, but it is not painless. You’ll want to take ibuprofen ahead of time to help with the discomfort. If left ignored and untreated, it could cause cervical cancer." Yikes! Is it any wonder that most people leave these appointments confused and mortified!?

Here is the part of the story that rarely makes it to prime time.  With so many other important topics to go over on you routine doctors visit, there is often not enough time for this. There are in fact things you can do to help clear the infection up.  I’ve outlined them below for you.

1) Eat your folate! Folate is a B vitamin found in dark green leafy vegetables, and it has been proven to  help rid the body of HPV.  It is always preferable to obtain your vitamins through food, but there are supplement options as well. Dosage and formulations vary, and make a huge difference, so I don't recommend navigating this one on your own.  It’s important to know that some people have a gene that actually makes synthetic folate (folic acid) dangerous. There is, however, no risk to experimenting with that new kale, swiss chard, broccoli, or spinach recipe you've been wondering about - your body will thank you!

2) Quitting cigarette smoking is also proven to help clear up the HPV virus.  If you smoke, your body is constantly fighting an uphill battle to stay healthy. The HPV virus loves smokers! My patients that smoke seem to be perpetually HPV positive despite their best efforts to heal the infection.  

3) Stress and poor sleep make recovery from HPV more difficult.  High emotional stress levels are associated with increased oxidative stress.  Oxidative stress is linked to an increase rate of progression of HPV to cancer.  If you needed one more reason to learn to meditate and get a good night's rest, perhaps your abnormal Pap smear is it.  Learn more about fighting oxidative stress here

4) There is convincing evidence that other essential vitamins and nutrients also play a role in healing from HPV. Some of those other supplements include Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Retinol, Beta and Alpha-Carotene, Lycopene, Lutein/Zeaxanthin, and Cryptoxanthin.

5) Long term use of hormonal contraceptives (the pill, the ring, the patch, etc.) is linked to persistent and aggressive HPV infection.  There are safe effective contraceptive options that do not involve the use of systemic hormones.  Talking to your provider about them is never a bad idea, especially if you have HPV.

The most important piece of advice I can give you is to rethink your body's relationship with the HPV virus.  You are not a helpless victim of this virus, you are at war with it - and if you work with a knowledgeable physician to make a few adjustments in your diet and lifestyle, you can win.   

Allison Fox, M.D.