Is Illness a Battle?

January has been quite the month so far. It seems like a lot of people’s lives have been forever changed with new diagnoses or the death of a loved one. I personally experienced the shock of watching my 4-year-old dog have a seizure; he was later diagnosed with epilepsy. And of course there have been a series of deaths of beloved actors and musicians, most notably for me David Bowie, whom I grew up listening to.

One thing that permeates all of these diagnoses and deaths is the way we talk about them. Often you will see something to the affect of  “she is battling breast cancer” or “he is fighting off this cold.” To be clear, I do not deny that facing a terminal illness takes courage and strength. What I am curious about, and what I aim to explore in this post, is our relationship to illness.

In the following model, created by Drs. Zeff, Snider, and Myers, we see that disturbances in our health lead to some sort of reaction, which is often the acute disease we experience. This is followed by a discharge process, which, if all goes according to plan, results in a return to normal health.

disease as process.PNG

Naturopathic Physicians are trained to view illness as the body’s way of communicating to us that something is imbalanced, and we work to restore balance by determining the cause of the illness and removing it. This is easier said than done, but in order to fully return to normal health* this is necessary.

However, oftentimes what we see in medicine is that instead of determining the cause, we instead suppress the symptoms. We are used to seeing a fever or inflammation or mucus or a cough as “bad” and thus we take medications to make them go away. I believe this is how we have instilled the belief that illness is something to be fought and defeated.

Obviously having a fever or a cough is unpleasant and it understandable to want it to go away as quickly as possible. Taking cough syrup in order to sleep or a fever reducer to get through the day is sometimes necessary. However, I would argue that any time we cover up an unpleasant symptom, we are reinforcing the habit of ignoring what our bodies are trying to tell us.

Here is a quick review of ways we (myself included) ignore the messages from our bodies:

  • Tired? Coffee.
  • Muscle pain? Aspirin.
  • Acid reflux? Acid blocker.
  • Headache? Tylenol.
  • Menstrual cramps? Midol.
  • Dry skin? Lotion.
  • Chapped lips? Chapstick.
  • Dry hair? Conditioner.
  • Excessive body odor? Stronger deodorants, perfumes.
  • Upset? Anti-depressants.
  • Diarrhea? Immodium.
  • Upset stomach? Tums.

…and so on and so forth. Suppressing the symptoms is in effect shutting up our body’s communication with us, and not eradicating the cause of the symptom(s) can result in driving the illness deeper, leading to chronic illness.

So what I propose is this: next time you experience an unpleasant symptom, before you reach for something to make it go away, consider what your body might be telling you. Try to view the symptom as a message, and be curious about the messenger. Ask yourself, What is going on in my body that could be causing this? Consider how much you are sleeping, how much water you are drinking, your posture, and your stress level.

The more we can become curious about the sensations in our bodies, the more connected we can become to our bodies and work with them rather than against them. I find that making friends with our bodies and getting familiar with our anatomy is a great first step to overall better health.

Questions? Please feel free to ask me any questions in the comment section below, or email me! erin.hayford@bastyr.edu

 

 

*”normal health” refers to whatever is the typical baseline health for the individual, and it varies greatly from person to person. A person with diabetes, for example, has a different normal health than a person with asthma.

 

Death Inspiring Life: A Meditation for the New Year

A new year is right around the corner, and whether or not you are one to make resolutions I believe there is something to the practice of resolving to be a better person, to live a better life.

canada tree

Lately I have become interested in reading and learning about how to support my future patients through their dying process. One book I am reading on this topic is titled Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, written by Joan Halifax.

Death in our culture in the US is a complicated topic. We have the “death and taxes” adage, yet we seem to have only accepted the reality of the latter. My interest in death sprang from a realization of this fear/denial, and from the belief that if we were to have a healthier and more accepting attitude toward our death, our lives would likely be fuller because of it.

It is not uncommon for someone to have a brush with death, either of a loved one of perhaps even of their own, and to vow to live a better life because of it. So how do we implement this vow – this resolution – into our every day lives in order to fully take advantage of the time we have?

cherry blossoms

Each chapter of Being with Dying ends with a meditation to help the reader assimilate and embody the lessons and ideas presented on the previous pages. One such meditation asks that you imagine yourself on your deathbed, first in the very far future, then in 10 years, then 5 years, 1 year, a month, a week, tonight. I found it to be a very powerful and eye-opening experience, and believe that it is an appropriate meditation to keep in mind when making resolutions for the coming year and in our every day lives.

I have included the meditation here for those who are interested. It is a long one that requires a lot of thought, so perhaps working at it bit by bit is best.

I wish you all a happy 2016 and hope that as a human family, we all together move toward a more loving, accepting, and peaceful way of being in this and the coming years.

Happy New Year!

Meditation: Contemplating Our Priorities by Joan Halifax

(Brief note for those who are new to meditation: this is not a religious practice, and actually meditation fits quite nicely into all religions and non-religions. To get into a meditative space, find a quiet room where you can be free of interruptions for about 15 minutes. Close the door, find a comfortable seat, and allow yourself to feel your body as it is in the moment along with your breath. Relax, connect, and let go.)

The meditation that follows is a way we can explore our priorities, given that death may come at any time. Do this practice in a spirit of genuineness as you get in touch with your own impermanence in a very personal way. And don’t hesitate to do it repeatedly; we may need to remind ourselves of our priorities in light of the fact that we don’t know when our moment to die will come.

Please look at your life and your priorities. What is really important for you to do now? What do you want to complete or let go of right now? Offer your life to realizing these priorities.

Recall that we will all die. Each evening we go to bed and are convinced that we will wake up in the morning. We make plans for the next days, weeks, years, and even our old age. Most of us are probably convinced that we will live until old age. Most of us go to bed with this same feeling. Yet many people do not wake up in the morning – Death has taken them.

Now we have the opportunity to really set our priorities. Let the posture settle. Breathe deep into the body.

Imagine that you are an old person on your deathbed. Probably you have more wrinkles on your face, more stiffness in your limbs. Imagine your body is tired and frail. Ask yourself, What goals would you like to have achieved by this stage of your life? What was most important for you in sustaining your daily life, your work, your relationships, your creativity, your spirit? What things are around you and where are you? Who is with you? What do you want your life to be like when you are an old person?

Now ask yourself, what can you do today so that you can be fulfilled at the end of your life? What do you need to let go of now to create a life filled with meaning? What do you need to take care of now so that old age may be a little easier and freer?

Imagine you are ten years older than you are now and are lying on your deathbed. How old are you? Who is standing by your bedside? What do you wish to have realized and achieved by this time? What are your inner and outer goals? What must you do today to achieve these goals? What must you let go of? What is wasting your time? What is important for you do to now? What hinders you from realizing what you really want to for your life and the lives of those you love? What can you do today to support a good death?

Imagine that you are 5 years older than now and you are facing your death. Imagine you are peacefully in your bed and have just a few moments more to live. What do you want to have realized? What state of mind will support you in a peaceful death? What can  you do now to help you strengthen your mind and heart so that you can bring this strength to your dying?

Now imagine that you will die in one year. You will probably not look very different from the way you do right now. You are lying peacefully in your bed and are prepared to die. What can you do at this moment to support your peaceful death? What gave your life meaning? What would you do differently right now, with the thought that you will lose your life in a year? What can you do tomorrow to realize the best death possible?

Imagine that you will die in one month. What would you change in your daily life? What do you need to do so you won’t leave so many problems behind? What do you need to let go of, what habits do you need to break, in order to die peacefully? Which relationships need to be addressed? From whom do you need to ask forgiveness? Who do you need to forgive? What in yourself do you want to nurture at this time? What can you do tomorrow to support a peaceful death?

Now imagine that you will die next week. Who do you want around you, to share these last moments of your life? Who do you need to talk to about how you want to die and what should happen with your body? To whom do you want to express your deepest love and gratitude this week?

You go to bed tonight. No big deal. As you are falling asleep, you realize you are going to die. What is the most important thing you can do today in light of this possibility? What has been the biggest gift you have received in this life? With whom do you want to share your love for the last time?

Now take this love and thankfulness and go back to your breath. Gather this practice in the heart and mind and experience its essence. In your heart, share this practice with all beings, and hope that all beings will transform their fear of death and impermanence so that we can use our lives creatively to foster stability and beauty and to truly be of benefit to others.

I am… a carrot, a chicken, and some grapes?

Nutrition is a subject that is near and dear to naturopathic physicians’ hearts. We understand that you really are what you eat. This is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, and in this blog post I would like to explore why it is so much more than a catchy saying.

Picture this: in your hands you hold a long, flexible tube. You put a ball into the tube at one end, and watch it pass through the length of the tube. As it passes through, you see that it is changing shape, color, texture… it is being completely transformed. Finally, the ball comes out the end of the tube, looking totally different than when it went in.

Of course, this is an analogy of your digestive tract; you put food in your mouth, it passes down through your esophagus, into your stomach, through your small and then large intestines, and then out through the anus. So what happens to our food as it passes through our digestive “tube”?

Digestive "tube"

Unlike the tube in our example, our digestive tract has other tubes feeding into it. For example, in our mouths, there are small tubes (or more correctly, ducts) that allow saliva to enter our mouths which helps to moisten our food and make it easier to chew and swallow. In the small intestine, there is a tube that allows the entry of bile and enzymes from the liver/gallbladder and pancreas, respectively. Bile helps to emulsify fat and enzymes help break down nutrients into smaller pieces, making them more easily absorbed.

All the while things are entering the digestive tract, things are also exiting the digestive tract. When substances leave the digestive tract, we call this absorption. Absorption is important, because it is how we take what we need from the food that we eat. Thus, our digestive tract is really a conduit of exchange.

YouAreWhatYouEat-13100It is clear then why we are what we eat: the individual molecules of our foods literally become part of our cells, thus becoming what we are. These nutrients help our cells perform vital functions necessary for our survivalThey provide our cells with energy so that they can perform their countless jobs. They are converted to fat to help keep us warm and cushioned. They keep our bones healthy, our eyes sharp, our brains engaged, and our nails smooth and hard. They keep our heart pumping, our lungs expanding, our immune system on its toes.

This is why naturopathic physicians often consider the diet of the patient to be one of the most important determinants of health and why foods that provide us with the nutrients our body needs are crucial. As a future naturopathic physician I plan to work with patients to meet their dietary needs while keeping in mind food preferences, budget, and time available to dedicate to cooking and/or other means of food preparation.

Questions? Please feel free to ask me any questions in the comment section below, or email me! erin.hayford@bastyr.edu

The Guiding Principles

Upon graduation from an accredited naturopathic medicine program, future Naturopathic Physicians take an oath in which they declare to follow the 6 Principles of Naturopathic Medicine. These principles guide our practice with every patient and are the foundation from which this system of medicine is built.

1. First do no harm (Primum Non Nocere)

Just like Medical Doctors, Naturopathic Physicians take this oath, promising to aid in the healing of their patients in a way that will cause them the least harm. For Naturopathic Physicians, this means the following:

  • Utilize methods and medicinal substances which minimize the risk of harmful side effects, using the least force necessary to diagnose and treat. As naturopaths, we are trained in a number of healing modalities which gives us flexibility and options for treating our patients, rather than a one-sized-fits all type approach that may not be the best fit and/or may have side effects that can be avoided with other treatments.
  • Avoid when possible the harmful suppression of symptoms. Symptoms are the body’s way of telling us something is wrong. If we suppress symptoms, we are essentially ignoring the body’s cry for help. The problem does not go away if we cover symptoms, but rather it is driven deeper.
  • Acknowledge, respect, and work with the individual’s self-healing process. Again, every body is different and every person’s healing journey is different. Naturopaths work hard with each patient, tailoring a treatment plan that best fits their situation, their comfort, and their wallet.

2. The Healing Power of Nature (Vis Medicatrix Naturae)

Naturopathic medicine recognizes an inherent self-healing process in every person which is ordered and intelligent (we refer to it as our Vis). Naturopathic physicians act to identify and remove obstacles to healing and recovery and to facilitate and augment this inherent self-healing process. Have you ever wondered how your skin heals after a wound? The cells of your body are programmed to return to their original, functioning state – and naturopathic physicians are trained to facilitate that process.

3. Identify and treat the causes (Tolle Causam)

Naturopathic Physicians seek to identify and remove the underlying cause of illness, rather than to merely eliminate or suppress symptoms. Using the above example of a cut, if a person continues to cut their hand on something sharp, it wouldn’t make sense to just bandage their hand and give them pain killers but not remove the sharp object. It’s a silly example, but it can be applied to any system in the body. Without removing the cause, a person can’t ever truly heal and regain health to their fullest potential.

4. Treat the whole person (Tolle Totum)

Naturopathic Physicians treat each patient by taking into account individual physical, mental, emotional, genetic, environmental, social and other factors including spiritual health. Because we are trained to treat whole-persons, we take into account all aspects that make a person who they are when developing a treatment plan.

5. Doctor as teacher (Docere)

Naturopathic Physicians educate their patients and encourage self-responsibility for health and we understand the importance of developing a therapeutic alliance with our patients. We believe it is more beneficial for the patient to become familiar with and gain an understanding of their bodies, how they work, and how they can become sick, rather than blindly follow our recommendations. With this knowledge, the patient is empowered to take control of their health while we provide support along the way.

6. Prevention

Perhaps the most well-known aspect of naturopathy is the emphasis on the prevention of disease through the assessment of risk factors, heredity, and susceptibility to disease and by making appropriate interventions in partnership with their patients to prevent illness. Once health is obtained, future visits work to prevent illness from occurring again.

Questions, comments, ideas? Please comment below, or email me! erin.hayford@bastyr.edu

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver

It’s a quiet, rainy, meditative Sunday night. School begins tomorrow and vacation is over. I spent my day getting ready for school and also reflecting on this past year of my life and the one that is to come. More specifically, I thought about what is working in my life and what isn’t, and how to emphasize the former and change or eliminate, if necessary, the latter.

The start of a new year always arouses in me a desire for a fresh start, a new beginning. Of course this is a common feeling, as is the feeling that resolutions made on January 1st will inevitably be abandoned sometime mid-month and then it’ll be business as usual.

Since naturopathic medicine is all about assisting patients on their journeys to overcome the obstacles to their health, it is especially important that I figure out how to do so myself. I believe that one has to walk their talk, so I’ve been thinking a lot on how to best stick to the goals I set for myself. How does one find the motivation to make the changes necessary to reach optimal health?

Something I read a while back from the wonderful website zen habits (which I would highly recommend you check out) was a suggestion to make a list of the five things you would choose to do with your life if you had to limit your options. My list looks like this:

  1. Take care of myself through meditation/journaling/reading inspiring and thought-provoking articles/books etc. to continue to learn and grow as an individual, prepare and enjoy nourishing foods, drink lots of water every day, and exercise: walk my dogs, go for a hike, jog through a park, do a bit of yoga… anything to get my body moving. Oh, and get plenty of sleep!
  2. Spend time with my loved ones, stay connected with my friends and family near and far, and make sure to let them know how much I love and appreciate them.
  3. Volunteer and give to those less fortunate to increase my selflessness and humility.
  4. Study – anything! – to further my knowledge in my field. There is so much to know and understand.
  5. Explore somewhere new as often as possible. Travelling opens my heart and my mind, and for me it is a necessity to explore as much of this world as possible before I die. As such I have a goal of visiting a new place locally once a month (at least) and a new country once per year.

Now that I have this list, what’s next? If I find myself doing something that isn’t on this list, I will (ideally!) stop and change course. The Mary Oliver quote that is the title of this post drives home the underlying message here: life is short. Knowing what is most important to me gives me direction when I’m feeling lost.

It is important to note that I am not planning on beginning all five of these tasks immediately. Some of these things I am already doing. The ones that I’m not doing I will add in slowly and, most importantly, in a way that is obtainable and realistic for me. For example, my first goal is to wake up 5 minutes earlier for a brief morning meditation, nothing more, nothing less.

Knowing the desired frequency of your goals is also important. Some of them will be daily (drink water) while others will be weekly (talk with family), monthly (volunteer), or yearly (travel abroad). This helps to determine which ones will be the most challenging (often those that occur daily), and which ones to plan ahead for (saving money for a trip or setting aside a day to volunteer).

Perhaps the post challenging part will be eliminating everything else. But knowing what is most important is a place to start, and I will no doubt have to bring myself back to these five things over, and over, and over again, until it becomes a habit. And a habit means I’ve reached my goal.

Finally, knowing what to eliminate and what to keep in your life can be determined by these two questions (thanks to Mystic Mamma): (1) Does it limit or liberate?, and (2) Does it raise or reduce my energy? The answers to these questions will make very clear those things worth eliminating. So, dear reader, what’s on your list?

What is Naturopathic Medicine?

I suppose an appropriate first official blog entry is one defining what naturopathic medicine is. Here’s the short answer:

“Naturopathic medicine is a distinct primary healthcare profession, emphasizing prevention, treatment and optimal health through the use of therapeutic methods and substances which encourage the person’s inherent self-healing process.” -Dr. Pamela Snider and Dr. Jared Zeff

And here’s the long answer:

Naturopathic physicians understand that health is the natural state of being, therefore ill health or disease is an adaptive response to disturbances of our health. A naturopathic physician thus seeks to remove these disturbances, creating the foundation needed for the return of optimal health.

The intervention the naturopathic physician uses to assist the healing process (herbal medicine, massage, water therapy, pharmaceutical, homeopathy, etc.) should involve the least force necessary. “Least force” means that the physician will use an intervention that will assist in the healing process but will not be too drastic or too harsh given the condition; it will be the least harmful to the person and still produce results. You know the oath all doctors take, that states “First do no harm”? Naturopaths take that very seriously!

The primary question a naturopathic physician seeks to answer when helping a patient heal is, “What is determining this person’s health?” Our health, whether optimal or not, is determined by a multitude of factors. These Determinants of Health include any combination of the following:

  1. Inborn factors: Genetics, maternal health/nutrition/lifestyle, maternal exposures (drugs, toxins, etc.), and so on.
  2. Disturbances such as illnesses (past and/or present), medical interventions (or lack thereof), physical or emotional stresses or trauma, and/or toxic and harmful substances.
  3. Hygienic and lifestyle factors: These include environmental, lifestyle, and psycho-emotional influences such as water and hydration, sleep, nutrition and digestion, nurturing relationships, a sense of purpose and meaning, structural integrity, exercise, education, culture, and economic status, to name a few.

Health is not a static state; it is a dynamic and ever-changing entity. Our lives are also ever-changing and therefore there is a constant flux of influences, both good and harmful, which affect our health status. A phrase most of us are familiar with is “balance is key.” All disease states are generated by imbalances in the Determinant of Health. For example, not drinking enough water can lead to dehydration, but drinking too much water can be damaging to your kidneys.

Thus, naturopathic physicians assist patients in regaining optimal health by finding balance with the things that determines that person’s health – and what those things are are unique to each person. Naturopathic medicine believes in treating the whole person, not just a liver, or a rash, or a headache… therefore, a naturopathic physician takes into account an individuals physical, mental, emotional, genetic, environmental, and social health, as well as others. This is why a naturopath will often spend an hour and maybe more in their first visit with patients – they need to get to know you in order to know how to treat you!

So what is this optimal health? Again, it varies for every person, and it is the best health a person can achieve when considering what they have been given to work with in life (a person with diabetes has a different experience of optimal health than a person without diabetes, for example).

Every single day our bodies go through physiological and biochemical changes due to changes in diet, water intake, sleep, psychological states, and so on. Our bodies are constantly seeking to be in balance, which is referred to as homeostasis. In response to the changes we undergo, our bodies compensate, readjust, and discharge, the latter of which includes normal discharges such as exhalation, feces, urine, sweat, menstrual blood, vocal expression, lymph and tears; and discharges associated with disturbed function such as mucus, vomit, and skin discharges (showing up as rashes, dryness, acne, and so on).

Imbalances to the Determinants of Health show up as signs and symptoms, which is the signal to us that something is wrong. It is important to recognize that symptoms are our body’s way of telling us something is out of balance. They are not in and of themselves the illness! A naturopathic physician works to determine the underlying cause of the illness, i.e. determining what is the disturbance in the Determinants of Health – also known as the obstacles to cure.

Naturopathic medicine will very rarely suppress the symptoms, which is often the mechanism of action of pharmaceuticals. Blocking or eradicating signs and symptoms without correcting the underlying imbalance will suppress your body’s attempt to compensate for the disturbance to the Determinants of Health.

If we listen to our symptoms, we can figure out where we are out of balance, and then support our body and aid the healing process to regain optimal health once again. On the flip side, blocking, ignoring, or eradicating signs and symptoms will often additionally compromise our health and recuperative ability. Furthermore, regular or prolonged disturbances can generate stronger and/or worse signs and symptoms.

If the underlying imbalances are not corrected, the compensatory reactions will become chronic and lead to degeneration. An example of this could be observed in a person who is allergic to milk but continues to consume milk products; chronic inflammation would be the compensatory reaction and could eventually lead to degeneration of the intestines.

However, there is still hope! Even if degeneration has occurred/is occurring, optimal health can still be regained. This is accomplished by correcting the underlying imbalances (there seems to be a repeating theme here!). Moving from degeneration to optimal health will often cause acute reactions and discharges from the body which should be viewed as a positive sign. Naturopathic medicine teaches that discharge is a necessary step in the healing process.

Naturopathic physicians seek to educate their patients in order to encourage them to take responsibility for their own health and healing. A big piece of this education involves working to create appropriate interventions to prevent disease from occurring in the first place. Once optimal health is achieved, prevention for future illness becomes the focus.

Curious about seeing a naturopathic physician? Check out The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians webpage to find a naturopath near you.

Questions, comments, ideas? Please comment below, or email me! erin.hayford@bastyr.edu

An Introduction

Hello, and welcome to Your Future Naturopathic Physician! Allow me to introduce myself…

As you may have read in my About Me section, my name is Erin, and I am a medical student at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. When I graduate in 2016, I will be a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine.

It took a few schools, a few areas of study, and several years after graduating high school for me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. When I was 20, I got a job as a waitress and also as a farmer on an organic farm. The former fed my wallet and the latter fed my soul. I felt at peace working outside, and I felt connected, not only to the plants and the dirt but also to myself. I found great joy in watching something begin as a seed and grow into something beautiful and healthy. I was introduced to many healing plants in the form of herbs, vegetables, fruits, and flowers.

It was around this time that I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which is an autoimmune disease of the gastrointestinal system that can affect any part. It is often characterized by inflammation, pain, constipation and/or diarrhea, loss of appetite, ulcers, weakness, fatigue… and so on.

When my symptoms were almost unbearable and I found myself unable to do even the simplest tasks around the farm, I went to see a gastroenterologist. The diagnosis came with a whopping 14 pill-per-day prescription consisting of steroids and supplements. When I asked the doctor what I should eat, he told me to take my medications and not to worry about food.

The culmination of working outside and understanding that food is medicine, a basic introduction to herbs, and the nonsensical advice that food does not have anything to do with a disease that is directly related to the digestive tract left me searching for answers. I knew there had to be more to health than just taking pills to make my symptoms go away. Enter: Naturopathic Medicine.

With the help of an ND in Maine, I no longer take any medications, and manage my condition with healing foods, water, sleep, exercise, herbs, and persistently working on positive self-talk (the latter of which I suspect is the most important!). I am no where near perfect in this, and I certainly have periods of relapse. But what I learned is that with the proper support, the body can heal itself. Because of this experience, I decided that I want to become a naturopathic physician in order to help others heal and become whole again.

My goal of this blog is to share with you information I learn about while in school, things I am passionate about, and what makes me curiousThrough my entries, I hope to demonstrate what naturopathic medicine is and why it is different from and also similar to other practices of medicine. It is my hope that through this blog I will be able to show the relevance and validity of naturopathic medicine and by doing so spread awareness of this profession.

With that, I welcome you to Your Future Naturopathic Physician. I hope you find value and inspiration in what is shared here!