When I was 22 I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). This was after months of medication trials and diagnostic tests. (Parasite test – check. Endoscopy – check. Gastric emptying study – check. Ultrasound – check.)
Oh the disgusting barium I had to swallow, the poop I had to collect in little vials, the fasting and tubes stuck down my throat. All for a diagnosis of IBS (translated: “we don’t know what’s wrong with you, so we’re giving you the label Irritable Bowel Syndrome”).
Then I found an advertisement in the local newspaper for a new medication that was in the trial phase of production. They were looking for guinea pigs to do a double-blind placebo-controlled trial. I was psyched. I signed up for the trial, excited that there was a medication that would supposedly solve all my problems.
The “magic bullet” I was looking for didn’t cure my stomach pain. Instead it had me running to the bathroom every hour. I quit the medication (after the study was over).
Fast forward to 2006 – I was applying to naturopathic medical school and decided to be seen as a patient in the teaching clinic at Bastyr. I was really surprised at my experience. Instead of a ten minute visit, I got a 90 minute visit. Instead of a “one-size-fits-all” prescription, I got a number natural interventions, including some dietary advice that has literally changed my life. Three weeks after implementing their naturopathic treatment plan I ate my first meal without pain that I could ever remember.
So what worked? The answer is individualized care. My health is not the same as any other patient with IBS – because I am an individual! My naturopathic doctor personalized my treatment plan according to the best science for my complete picture. And it was awesome.
I see a lot of people who are frustrated with their prescription medications. The list of side effects is overwhelming. The medication itself works marginally well, or wears off after a time. Some patients switch from brand to brand, hoping that they will find something that works.
As a naturopathic doctor, it isn’t surprising to me that these medications aren’t working. The vast majority of pharmaceuticals are designed to treat a symptom, not a person. These symptoms are there for a reason – it is the body’s way of telling us that something is wrong. Covering up a symptom for a long period of time is not going to lessen the disease process – eventually it will only make it worse.
Many patients also have false hopes for pharmaceuticals, just as I did. I imagined my IBS drug to be a magic bullet – that it would take away my symptoms for good, so I could lead an otherwise completely normal life. But the side effects of the drug were crippling.
It isn’t surprising to hear of the side effects of many drugs – when you look at the chemical structure and pharmacology of these substances you quickly realize that these drugs are nonspecific. Your migraine medication acts on all your blood vessels, not just your brain (and can cause hypertension, serotonin syndrome or rebound migraines). Your asthma medication works on receptors not only in the lungs, but also a little in the heart (causing racing heart and palpitations). ADHD medication speeds up all metabolic processes, causing increased norepinephrine in the brain as well as the body (headache, insomnia, decreased appetite, and nausea are all extremely common symptoms). Your heartburn medication decreases stomach acid which limits your body’s ability to fight infections and digest proteins and absorb minerals (leading to diarrhea, frequent illnesses, muscle cramps and more).
My pharmacology professor put it this way: “These aren’t side effects of the drug. They are effects!”
Naturopathic medicine works a little differently. I work with the body, not against it. I recognize that symptoms are there for a reason, and though we may need to buffer them down a bit (to make your life more livable), the ultimate goal is to uncover the underlying cause. Once we treat the underlying cause most patients can throw away their pharmaceuticals for good.
I know a lot of you are on the fence about whether to come see a naturopathic doctor. “I don’t have time.” “I can’t afford it.” “Who is this crazy hippie doctor I keep hearing about?” These are the most common phrases I hear (well, at least the first two are).
So here’s a little advice I can pass on from my Dad, who was a successful financial planner for thirty years: “Invest in yourself.” You are worth the time and the money. Stop throwing your money into pills and potions. Stop spending your time feeling lousy.
You deserve to feel better.
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