This is a guest column by Dr. Kathryn Woodall for expressing health first. It was originally published in the RMAX Magazine, volume 7, issue 6. I thought it was such an excellent piece, and Kathryn was kind enough to allow me to republish it here for you. The knowledge she conveys in this article doesn’t come from mere education, it comes from in-the-trenches experience. You may be shocked or even scared to digest this food for thought, but I assure you that this is the reality we are facing today. We are in desperate times, and knowledge is the greatest asset we can share with each other.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” You’ve heard it thousands of times, but what does it mean when it comes to your health? It means you need to identify and take care of limiting factors.
We’ve talked about how the food you eat and absorb, the movement you do, and the thoughts you think (your paradigm) all work to create ‘you.’ If those basic components create your health or destroy it should you neglect or abuse them, then those are the first places you should look for weak links. With the exception of trauma and poison, the point at which your health begins to breakdown can almost always be traced back to those three components—they can be the limiting factor when it comes to the degree of health you create and enjoy.
In this article, I’m going to give an example of how something as simple as ‘the food you eat and absorb’ can be your weakest link. I’m not presenting an actual case history—it’s just one possible scenario designed to show you how interconnected your health is.
JD’s father died of a heart attack when he was in his 40’s. (JD is John or Jane Doe—but we’ll say ‘he’ for simplicity.) He does a little reading and discovers that the current research suggests a low-fat diet with soy added will help him avoid the same fate. His 20-something friends rib him about his eating habits, but health is important to him so he rides out the teasing and manages to successfully adopt his new diet. Plenty of processed foods are low-fat and contain soy, which actually works to his advantage sometimes because he can just grab a low-fat soy energy bar and avoid the hassle of cooking.
A few years go by, and JD starts feeling sluggish and tired. He’s not really sure why, but stress seems to get to him more than it used to. He and his doctor decide it’s probably just stress. After all, he’s barely 30 and exercises regularly. He’s probably just struggling to adapt to married life, kids, and the responsibilities that go with it. Nothing he tries seems to help decrease his fatigue, but he has to go to work so he starts drinking coffee to help him wake up each morning. The coffee seems to do the trick, as long as he gets a cup or 10 throughout the day.
Another year or two goes by and JD starts wondering if coffee was such a good choice. He experiences a touch of acid reflux from time to time, and has read that caffeine might contribute to it. He tries to kick the coffee, but has vicious headaches and has to set the alarm clock across the room or he won’t get out of bed each morning. He’s pretty sure the coffee is part of the heart-burn problem, so he switches to tea. There’s a bit less caffeine in it, but enough to keep him going throughout the day.
At about the same time, he notices his 6-pack abs have a little fat covering them, and his pecs seem larger than they should given his exercise routine. This concerns JD because his dad developed a beer belly before he had a heart attack. The fat on JD’s abs is mild in comparison, but he doesn’t want it to get out of hand. He increases his exercise and does a little research. New information suggests that a higher protein diet is the way to go. He decides to add more protein to his low-fat diet. He finds conflicting information about soy, but he decides to keep it in his diet because he really wants to protect his heart.
After a few weeks, JD’s acid reflux is going crazy and he has absolutely no appetite for protein. He visits his doctor, who prescribes an antacid. The reflux decreases but he still has no appetite for protein, and the amount of gas he has is increasing.
More time passes and JD is just not feeling right. His joints ache and he gets injured more frequently while exercising. The gas is awful, his shoulder and right upper back are hurting, and he’s packing on more weight. He goes to his doctor about the weight and the doctor draws blood. The test results show his cholesterol is too high, but the meds prescribed to lower it make him feel even worse. He returns to his doctor complaining about the side-effects, and the doctor recommends adding fish-oil to his diet to see if it helps. The doctor also prescribes an anti-inflammatory drug for the pain. JD’s joint pain decreases, but his stomach gets worse. The only thing he notices with the fish oil is that, in addition to the gas he’s been dealing with, he now burps what smells like nasty rotten fish. A few weeks later he gets a paper-cut that bleeds for nearly five minutes.
JD heads back to his doctor, who runs a test which shows his blood is slow to clot. Another prescription is provided to remedy that. After a couple months JD still isn’t feeling better, has put on a couple more pounds, and is frustrated. He decides to go off all his meds and the fish oil. However, the acid reflux is so bad that he can’t take it. He finds a new doctor.
The new doctor listens to his case history and decides to take a look at his gallbladder, which ends up being removed. For a few weeks, JD feels much better and is relieved to have finally found the problem. But it doesn’t last. The reflux comes back. He also notices that he only has a bowel movement every few days. He accidentally discovers that if he eats almost nothing but pasta, breads, and other carbohydrates, the reflux is less severe.
Shortly after his 40th birthday, JD sees himself in a picture and is stunned by how much he weighs. Worried that he’s going to have a heart attack just like his dad, he visits a new doctor. His new doctor diagnoses him with diabetes and talks to him about the increased risk of heart attack, as well as his already decreasing bone-density levels. He’s tired, has to drink tea to get going, is eating almost nothing but carbohydrates, exercises very little because it hurts, has lost most of his sex-drive, is fat, feels cold, and is about as far away from his health goals as he can imagine himself being. His doctor sees a fat man with diabetes so severe it has affected his sex-drive, and who eats a high-carb diet but won’t exercise because of pain. The doctor doesn’t believe it when JD tells him he was trying to avoid being this unhealthy. Given all that he initially tried to avoid dying from a heart attack the way his father did, JD decides that it must just be genetic and his attempts at better health have been in vain.
How did JD get so unhealthy? Where was his weak link?
Let’s go back in time and look at where everything started to go wrong.
JD switched to a low-fat diet and added as much soy as he could. He didn’t know he needed healthy fats to produce hormones, or that soy contains phytoestrogens which are thought to block thyroid hormone function and which would interact with the rest of his hormones. He didn’t know he needed plenty of vegetables and some fruit in order to have the vitamins and minerals necessary to rebuild his structure and allow his metabolic pathways to function. Nor did he know that decreased hormone function would decrease the amount of HCl (hydrochloric acid) in his stomach, which would make it more difficult to digest food.
Minerals and protein digest best in an acidic environment. Both are also vital to the function of your body and its structure. JD’s ability to digest them was decreasing, and he wasn’t getting great sources in the first place because whole foods were rarely part of his diet. Thyroid hormone also helps thin the bile of the gallbladder, but JD’s wasn’t functioning well so he began losing the ability to digest fat as easily as he could before. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble, so they began to decrease. Vitamin K is required for blood to clot.
Thankfully, the ‘good’ bacteria in the colon can also make it. However, JD no longer had adequate stomach acid to prevent ‘unfriendlies’ from making it past his stomach and killing off some of the ‘friendlies,’ so he still couldn’t make adequate levels of K. He didn’t know that fish oil acts as a blood thinner. Nor did he realize that if fish oil isn’t processed properly, it goes rancid and comes with mercury contamination (the good stuff should taste like the best sushi you’ve ever had if you break open a capsule and eat it).
Enough time passed and JD’s vitamin and mineral stores fell, so his digestive enzymes had difficulty forming adequately to deal with his needs. (That and his low-fat diet caused hormone production to slow down.) The body must have glucose in order to function, so JD could extract the sugar from the carbs he was eating, but since he wasn’t able to digest the minerals he needed, his metabolic pathways were no longer working as they should. He is becoming insulin resistant and starting to add fat.
As you’ll recall, JD decided to increase his exercise to combat the added belly fat. The increased exercise also increased his need for vitamins and minerals in order to rebuild his body, but he wasn’t getting what he should from the foods he ate, even if he was eating vitamin and mineral rich foods (which he wasn’t). He was taking medication to deal with some of his problems, but he didn’t have adequate amounts of nutrients to detox them from his body, nor did he have adequate amounts of fiber to trap them in his colon so they couldn’t be absorbed again. His shoulder and right upper back hurt because that’s where the gallbladder refers pain. There was so much sludge in it that it was becoming diseased. Removing the gall bladder decreased his pain because there was no longer a gallbladder to refer from, but bile helps encourage colon contraction—JD started becoming constipated, which allowed his colon to absorb even more toxins that there weren’t enough vitamins and minerals to adequately deal with.
No one tested JD’s estrogen levels, partly because he’s a man and partly because only the basics are taught in medical school prior to specialization, so it’s hotly debated as to what affect more or less of any one hormone can have on overall function. There’s speculation that estrogen blocks thyroid hormone to the extent that the body can produce adequate amounts of it, but the cells won’t receive it. Thus, a person can appear to have normal values but still have symptoms of low thyroid function. Other research suggests this is a bunch of hooey.
Regardless, JD was getting phytoestrogens from the large amounts of soy he ate daily, and that in turn altered the function of many of the rest of his hormones. Phytoestrogens can protect the heart, especially if estrogen values were low when it was added to the diet, but too much estrogen—phyto or otherwise—is thought to lead the body down the road to the opposite effect.
After years of failing to adequately digest enough fat, minerals, vitamins, and protein to form adequate quantities of the hormones, enzymes, and building materials he needed, JD was caught in a vicious cycle. He was breaking down but couldn’t digest the very things he needed in order to rebuild.
The above example will seem drastic to some, while the progression might seem way too familiar to other readers. The foods JD ate and could absorb were his weak link, but the effects of what he did and didn’t eat took enough time that it was difficult for him to make the association. For JD to have any hope of returning to health, those things must be addressed.
I hope you can see just how far-reaching any one of the three components can be when it comes to your overall health. Until next time, may your choices and actions today create a healthier ‘you’ tomorrow.
Kathryn Woodall, DC is a CST Instructor and Senior Editor of RMAX Magazine. She is also co-author of a soon-to-be released RMAX Nutrition book. Visit: www.satisfactionandbeyond.com for more information.