Updated: Nov 14, 2022
Some phrases are really scary.
Just thinking about them sends shutters through the hearts and minds of even the toughest individuals. To many, there is nothing scarier than:
Chronic. Neurological. Illness.
Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism… Of all the chronic illnesses on the rise today, nothing seems more daunting than when your brain, or that of a loved one, starts to change.
What if that didn’t have to happen? What if we could fight back?
There is no question that we are in the midst of an unprecedented, epidemic rise in chronic illness over the past several decades. There are several causes:
Diet Specifically the Standard American Diet (SAD!), full of highly processed and preserved foods that have managed to reduce the nutritional content (see more here and here) while increasing the concentration of pesticides (citation needed).
Toxic Chemicals The industrial revolution brought many good things, but one side effect has been a constant and continually increasing exposure to chemical toxins.
The impact is staggering:
300% rise in Alzheimers over the past 40 years. (Some experts predict 160,000,000 people will have Alzheimer’s by 2050.)
1,000,000 adults will battle Parkinson’s Disease this year
Autism Spectrum Disorders have risen from 1: 10,000 in the 1980’s to 1:64 in 2014. (That’s a 15,000%+ increase.)
Autoimmune diseases and metabolic diseases (Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, etc.) are also appearing at an exponentially increasing rate.
Our current acute care model, with prescription-based medicines as the primary tool, is poorly equipped to treat most of these diseases. Drugs are difficult to develop and have thus far shown only limited success.
Just as one example, 244 experimental drugs have been tested for Alzheimer’s Disease between 2000 to 2010, and only one (Namenda) was approved in 2003 for moderate to severe depression.
Functional and Integrative Medicine, a better way:
Functional Medicine holds tremendous promise in our fight against these diseases.
In medical schools, MDs are trained in silos. As a neurologist, I have been taught to focus on the brain, spinal cord, nerve roots, nerves and muscles, all the while ignoring the other body systems. But the body doesn’t work in isolation. One system can’t be changed without affecting all the others.
As a Functional Medicine specialist, I now consider myself a "super-generalist." It takes a truly ‘whole systems biology’ approach to understand how complex and chronic illnesses behave and how to optimally treat them.
“But I HAVE a brain issue. Shouldn’t I go to a brain expert?” Many patients ask me something like this.
“Yes! And if that person doesn’t understand the gut, then he isn’t a brain expert.”
In fact, the majority of your neurotransmitters are manufactured in your gut including:
95% of your serotonin
50% of your dopamine (the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter)
GABA (the main calming neurotransmitter) is widespread throughout the gut
There is a definite and bidirectional link between the gut and the brain, known as the “gut-brain axis”.
We’ve intuitively understood this for a long time. We rely our ‘gut-instinct’ to make decisions, or counsel friends with advice to ‘follow their gut’. Medicine and science are now catching up with answers about why and how.
So what does all this mean for fighting chronic neurological illness? It means we suddenly have more tools to use.
Lifestyle choices can help, as they all change our system’s neurotransmitter production:
Exercise and movement
Calibrating your diet to your genetics and gut
Additionally, Integrative Neurologist will use a host of other tools to fight and reverse cognitive degradation:
Optimizing hormone and nutrient levels
Correcting metabolic imbalances
Eradicating chronic infections
Addressing toxic exposures
When taken together, this broader arsenal of tools helps me to help patients achieve exciting and encouraging outcomes, particularly when patients begin their work early on in the fight with the disease.
The human mind is exceedingly complex and constantly changing and evolving. There is no way that a pill stands a chance at repairing one that is malfunctioning.
However by looking at all the inputs into a healthy brain, like I do as a Integrative Neurologist, we have a much better shot at putting an end to that scary little phrase. We can end chronic neurological illness.
Rana Mafee, MD