© Emily Kane, ND
Naturopathic physicians are specifically trained to help their patients find health promoting strategies to manage health concerns. We do not want to numb your pain; we want to eliminate the cause of it. And we want to uncover the highest potential for your own optimal mental, emotional and physical well-being, in partnership with you.
The central nervous system is comprised of the brain and the spinal column. The rapid and profound evolution of the CNS, which produced eyes and proprioceptive receptors on the skin and consciousness, is what distinguishes humans from other higher mammals. Much of the CNS, the domain of neurology, functions automatically. This is known as the autonomic nervous system and governs breathing, digestion, fight/flight responses and the ability to semi-hibernate during sleep. Neurologists often work in the arenas of pain, sleep disorders and premature cognitive decline, which will be briefly addressed here.
A healthy brain requires excellent nutrition including high quality cold-extracted oils, and may benefit profoundly from herbs such as Ginkgo and Bacopa, or adrenal tonics, or low dose naltrexone, and absolutely requires sufficient sleep, outdoor exercise, and purposeful work. These and other remedies promote healthy nerve function, which includes the production of endogenous endorphins. A spectrum of therapies, starting with optimal, individualized diet, and progressing through herbal and homeopathic medicines, glandulars, concentrated nutrients, and pharmaceuticals (usually as a last resort) are available to a well-trained naturopathic physician, who also offers the patient much more time than typical in a medical setting during each office visit. Because of unprecedented pressures on human health, including easy access to unhealthy food, chronic exposure to toxic chemicals including plastics, and drastically crowded living conditions, neurodegenerative diseases such as autism, ALS, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and Parkinson’s are increasingly common. As with all ailments, naturopathic physicians take a comprehensive approach to patient care.
The Journal Aging (Vol 6, No 9, pp 707-717) recently published “Reversal of cognitive decline: A novel therapeutic program” (Impact Aging) which outlines the magnitude of the problem, the failure of single drug therapies, and the researched premise that neural plasticity, specifically via fully functioning beta-amyloid precursor protein, when negatively impacted to a pathogenic threshold, manifests the many disparate aspects of Alzheimer’s disease. In this study the therapeutic approach is multi-factorial and includes optimizing diet (minimize simple carbs to reduce inflammation, 12 hours fasting daily to reduce insulin spikes, antioxidants, medium chain triglycerides such as coconut oil), reducing stress (the patient chooses from a menu of methods such as yoga or meditation or listening to music), improving sleep, exercise, brain stimulation, optimizing lab parameters (homocysteine <7, fasting insulin <7, CRP <1, serum B12 >500, D3 >50 ng/mL, rule out heavy metal toxicity), hormone balance, GI health, optimizing mitochondrial function (CoQ10, ALA, NAC, Se, Zn, resveratrol, ascorbate, thiamine), increasing focus with pantothenic acid (which is required for acetylcholine synthesis). This looks like naturopathic medicine. Several promising case studies are presented. From the conclusion: “Results from the 10 patients reported here suggest that memory loss in patients with subjective cognitive impairment, mild cognitive impairment, and at least the early phase of Alzheimer’s disease, may be reversed, and improvement sustained, with the therapeutic program described here. A more extensive, controlled clinical trial is warranted. It is noteworthy that the major side effect of this therapeutic system is improved health and optimal BMI, a result in stark contrast to pharmaceutical treatments. However, the program is not easy to follow, and none of the patients followed the entire protocol.”
Optimal health requires commitment. Naturopathic physicians aim to inspire their patients to make this commitment, every day. The rewards are enormous if you choose to honor your highest potential for good health.
Some blame Thomas Edison (who invented the light bulb), but there is no doubt that in modern society insomnia is legion, and frequently part of the picture of un-wellness a primary doctor will see in her clinic. Insomnia is associated with reduced quality of life, reduced productivity, depression, anxiety, obesity, impaired cognition and safety problems. The American College of Physicians (Ann Intern Med 2015 May 3; [e-pub]. opined that:
All adults with chronic insomnia should receive CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) as first-line treatment, and
Clinicians should use shared decision making to determine whether short-term pharmacologic treatment should be added if CBT alone is unsuccessful.
A naturopathic approach would have multiple options filling in the gaps between choices 1 and 2 above. Sleep hygiene is critical for establishing the probability of a good night’s sleep. This includes a regular sleep/wake schedule, a dark, cool and comfortable sleep environment, avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine, especially in the evening, daily exercise but not too late in the day, avoiding daytime napping, a winding-down sleep ritual that may include a warm bath or sauna, and avoidance of the bedroom for working, worrying or watching TV. Also, it is important to determine if there are specific reasons for poor sleep, such as hormonal changes including excess cortisol production, pharmaceuticals, unrelieved stress, apnea, or eating before bedtime, in order to individualize therapy. Besides CBT, other techniques such as biofeedback and progressive muscular relaxation can promote sleep durability. Poor sleep onset is often helped with low dose melatonin. Nerve soothing herbs such as Chamomille, Eleutherococcus, Humulus, Kava, Passiflora, Piscidia, Scutellaria, Valerian, in capsule, tea or tincture form may help significantly. Magnesium can promote muscle relaxation and thus sounder sleep. Amino acids such as 5HTP or phenylated GABA are often useful options to reduce inappropriate fight/flight responses which are anathema to deep sleep.
Pain is a major reason driving patients into medical settings, and we are all by now aware of the tragic consequences of medicating pain with narcotics. Opioid death overdose occurs more frequently on a daily basis in the US than fatal car crashes. Self-medicating with intoxicating levels of drugs including alcohol presents a significant burden to individuals, their families, and their communities. Governing boards and police officers can look to the supply side of ill-advised and illicit pain management strategies, but health care workers must comprehensively address the demand side of the pain epidemic. We are not just talking about physical pain. Pain is a complex problem. Luckily, it can be mitigated by physical fitness, flexibility (mental and physical), anti-inflammatory diet, good sleep, pacing stressful activities, avoiding prolonged sitting, good body mechanics for lifting heavy objects, finding outlets for mental/emotional stressors such as meditation/prayer/chanting, cultivating a purpose, cultivating compassion, cultivating gratitude, working on harmonious relationships, getting help when needed, and maintaining a safe, clean, infection-free, adverse event-free home and work environment.
While a naturopathic physician can help you develop a strategy to reduce your pain, based on diagnosing the causes of the pain and creating a protocol which addresses the most urgent aspect of the problem first, you the patient will need to be engaged in your own self-care. This involves finding a balance between exercise, activities of daily living, muscle tension, and emotional health. Dealing with pain requires a steady awareness of energy expenditure, energy reserves, family/work obligations and whatever “comes up” during daily life. A fibromyalgia patient who was successfully managing her pain once told me a “key” for her was to recognize that she had a small bucket of energy reserves for a given day. She would carefully consider the risk/benefit of whether or not to spend some of this energy when demands arose. The more self-care is practiced, the more efficient one becomes in its implementation.
CBT is mentioned above as a sleep aide. This technique, and similar ones that aim to make one aware of unhelpful or self-defeating thought patterns, can also successfully reduce pain. A common cognitive distortion is “all or nothing” thinking. Diaries for self-reflection, tracking stressors and symptoms, setting priorities and limits and boundaries, all will help the pain patient evolve more health-positive thoughts and behaviors.
Sometimes numbing pain is critical for survival, short term. However, numbing rarely addresses the cause of the pain, and can lead to addiction and loss of motivation to pursue a fulfilled life. Naturopathic physicians excel at spending the requisite time with a patient to uncover the causes of pain. An underappreciated cause of pain is a group of chemicals dubbed “excitotoxins” which basically include all artificial food colorants and flavors, and artificial sweeteners. As an example, a popular chip snack contains at least 11 excitotoxins. Carrageenan is used in lab rats to induce pain (GI bleeding) for assessing analgesic drug efficacy. Best to just avoid eating carrageenan. Modified food starch, MSG, smoke flavoring and soy protein isolate are a few more of the hundreds of these irritating chemicals. Read labels before putting anything in your mouth. Ideally most of your food is “whole” – comes straight from the soil to your plate. Other root causes of pain that may take thorough investigation to unpack include physical or emotional trauma, structural nerve impingement, or cancer.
Once the causes of pain are determined, and triaged by urgency, a protocol that aims to restore optimal function, as much as feasible given that we are all aging, will be established, and assessed frequently. Reviewing the pain plan is what I tell my patients is the “reality check.” Are they sleeping better and moving better and enjoying better relationships? Are they becoming more aware of factors (foods, situations, movements) that worsen or improve pain? Are they reducing inflammatory foods (sugar and animal protein, and junk food) in their diet, and using daily nerve nutrients daily especially high Omega-3 fish or flax oil, and high potency B vitamins? If they use vasoconstrictors like nicotine or caffeine, or drying agents like anti-histamines, or nutrient blockers like PPIs, can they stop? Non-addictive, extremely safe natural agents that reduce pain include plant medicines, usually in tincture or capsule form, from aconite, avena, bryonia, cannabis, cayenne, eleutherococcus, escholzia, gelsemium, ginger, leonorus, scutellaria, urtica, valerian, viburnum, and many more gifts from Nature. Naturopathic physicians are specifically trained to help their patients find health promoting strategies to manage health concerns. We do not want to numb your pain; we want to eliminate the cause of it. And we want to uncover the highest potential for your own optimal mental, emotional and physical well-being, in partnership with you.