I had been practicing Functional Medicine for a few months in Australia when a patient came for her usual repeat prescriptions, but instead of her regular doctor she saw me. She had multiple diagnoses, which were each being treated with different drugs. She was in her early 60s and was on 14 tablets per day! She was absolutely miserable when she saw me. She told me since she was diagnosed with Diabetes and Crohn’s disease; her health had been slowly plummeting downhill, as well as her weight, energy levels and mood. I did not say much the first time I met her, rather just listened: and I mean really listened (you don’t get ten minutes in Oz, you get as long as it takes!).
At the follow up appointment I did the same; listening to her version of events, tales of her childhood traumas, which included rape and death of her father by hurricane. By the 3rd meeting, she was getting annoyed at my lack of input, at which point I told her; the key to me helping her, was for her to trust me firstly and secondly for me to know EVERYTHING. That didn’t mean just her medical history, I had all of that information, I wanted to hear about her; what she thought was wrong with her, what lifestyle factors (be them sleep, diet, stress) made symptoms better, which made them worse etc. I wanted to hear about her family support, her diet, the kinds of activities she enjoyed. I knew instinctively that there were not multiple issues with different organs, but that they all had common roots and in her case this was severe childhood trauma. This cascade of events had contributed greatly to the broken woman I first met in Spring 2013. The death of her father in her 20s, had led her to comfort eating sweet, fatty and processed foods. This in turn led her to have a poorly functioning immune system which resulted in persistent infections, most of which would be (wrongly) treated with antibiotics. Decades of antibiotic use damaged her gut resulting in Crohn’s disease (there were other reasons too, but the antibiotic damage to her gut microbiome was severe). To manage her Crohns, she was put on daily oral steroids and eventually immune supressing drugs. Shortly after she developed diabetes. All the while, there was underlying depression as well. Now, this is not an uncommon tale at all. Patients get started on a roller coaster of drugs and interventions at an initial diagnosis, often when quite young with little understanding of the long-term side effects. Symptom suppression will only last so long before side effects make the medicines intolerable or they just stop working.
I explained to the patient, that lots of change was needed, and we would eventually start tapering off her medications. A positive side effect would be weight loss, better sleep and a more positive outlook. Over the next few months (I would often see her hourly twice a week) she started making small changes to her diet. I removed all processed foods, take-aways, grains, legumes, sugars, alcohol and dairy. I put her on a strict elimination diet and monitored her. I explained how important the quality of her food was and discussed common toxins that she should decrease her exposure to. I worked on her getting better sleep too. Within one week, she started to feel better. To quote her, “I don’t feel on fire as much as I used to”. And that’s because she had eliminated inflammatory foods. After 6 weeks of an elimination diet, she tried a small amount of dairy and her symptoms came back. That was enough for her to cut it out completely and for good. Over the weeks, we talked about bone broths and fermented foods, the power of vegetables and being well hydrated. Her improvement was dramatic. She lost 1 stone in 1 month and felt 10 years younger. Over the course of 10 months, I was her doctor, but mainly her health coach and counsellor. It was not an easy ride, but I have never met a more determined patient. When I left her in 2014, she was off most of her meds and had managed to completely transform her life.