When a person experiences an ongoing and complex illness, they may struggle to find solutions to improving their health.
“Western medicine has set up a great system for dealing with acute illness, but not for addressing chronic and complex disease. Those diseases include chronic fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia [a painful muscular and skeletal condition],” said Dr. Jim Cardasis of Taos Health Primary and Integrative Care. Cardasis said that these types of diseases are on the rise due to a number of factors, including increased toxins in our environment, stress and sedentary lifestyles.
A system referred to as functional medicine is one tool that can change the way that chronic diseases are diagnosed and treated. Functional medicine is holistic, meaning that it looks at the whole person, not just their symptoms or illness. Functional medicine arose in the 1980s about the same time other integrative approaches that looked at the whole person, including their emotional well-being, gained traction in the United States. Integrative and functional medicine look to science to determine what treatments work. Those that have been shown to have benefits are things like acupuncture, exercise, massage, meditation, yoga and improved nutrition. Unlike most conventional Western medicine that may just focus on symptoms and disease, functional medicine tries to create a fuller picture of health and well-being.
The Institute for Functional Medicine has developed a model that uses a tree to represent the whole person. In this model, the roots are lifestyle factors, including sleep and relaxation, exercise and movement, stress and resiliency, as well as trauma. Also part of the roots are environmental circumstances, such as exposure to pollutants. The trunk of the tree includes genetic heritage, as well as experiences, attitudes and influences – mental, emotional and spiritual. It is not until high up in the trunk of the tree that symptoms of illness appear. In the branches are the organ systems that can begin to experience dysfunction if the issues that arise from the root and trunk are not appropriately addressed.
Gathering a comprehensive picture
At Taos Health Primary and Integrative Care, new patients answer a comprehensive questionnaire about their health and background before their first appointment. Whereas the average Western medicine doctor is able to spend only about 15 minutes per appointment, Cardasis spends an hour with each patient at the first appointment. He seeks to understand their story and organize factors from their lives into a timeline and functional medicine model. These tools allow both he and the patient to see triggers that could be at the root of ongoing health problems, whether it be a childhood trauma, accident, severe illness like Lyme disease or exposure to environmental toxins.
“There is a saying that the body keeps score; the issue is in the tissues,” said Cardasis. “Functional medicine allows people to see for the first time the factors that may be causing their illness, rather than being told it is all in their heads.”
As the timeline and model are completed, the doctor looks for where the information is the most dense. “We look for where the ink lights up – where is there a relationship between life events and symptoms?” said Cardasis. “This is where we dig in and where we have leverage to make a difference. For instance, if there are many issues with digestion, such as diarrhea and bloating, we know that there may be a problem in what is known as the assimilation system.” He explained that with the information provided by the patient and the diagnostic tools of functional medicine, it is possible to go deeper, peeling away the layers until the deepest causes of illness are found.
Cardasis completed his medical training at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine and had 500 hours of additional training in osteopathic manipulative technique, an approach that involves using the hands to diagnose, treat and prevent illness using stretching, gentle pressure and resistance.
He also did training in holistic medicine before completing his residency in family practice medicine. The staff at Taos Health Primary and Integrative Care also includes family nurse practitioner Colleen Unkel and medical assistant Sheena Cannon.
When working with a patient who has stress-related illness, Cardasis often refers the patient to health coach Alana Grier of 365 Well, who has an office at Taos Health. She works with people to understand these causes and help them to develop health and wellness goals. She provides support – including suggested exercise programs, medical massage and hypnotherapy – to help people move toward their goals. Grier says, “In the past year since I have been working with Taos Health, I have seen more than 80 patients and helped them with health coaching to achieve their goals. Many of the patients come to me due to issues caused by stressed and fatigued adrenal functions. Some people I work with overtime, others I see just once or twice to help get them started.”
In order to help people who have had a heart attack or open heart surgery, Grier uses coaching and sometimes hypnotherapy to help people who are understandably nervous about beginning to exercise. She can help people safely and gently begin moving again in a healthy way. Through her 15 years of experience as a personal trainer, much of that devoted to working with seniors, she has learned how to help people create movement programs that they enjoy, incorporating such things as water aerobics and walking with their families.
Grier says that the programs she develops are individual and are based on the client’s goals. “Coaching is focused on making lifestyle changes in the present and goal setting for the future,” she said. “If there is a gap between where you are now and where you want to be, you can benefit from the support of a health coach.”
Depending on what the client hopes to achieve, Grier may take baseline measurements, such as weight, blood pressure and waist circumference, but only if those markers are important to their goals.
Follow-up appointments and rechecks provide people the information they need to see if they are making progress. Some of her clients want to improve balance, strength, flexibility and posture. She says, “I had one client who improved their posture and regained 1.5 inches of height.”
For some people, the main goal is to manage stress in a healthy way, so those measurements are not crucial. Grier has helped people identify and remedy such stressors as domestic violence, lack of housing and economic pressures. “When I partner with my client’s physician, I get compressive understanding on the current and past health issues, and this helps the client to set meaningful goals,” she says. “I do not currently take insurance, but offer a sliding scale for those in financial need with the low end of the sliding scale costing the same as the average insurance copayment.” She provides a free 20-minute health consultation to help potential clients see if they might benefit from health coaching.
Grier teaches integrative health coaching and yoga teacher training – among other topics at University of New Mexico-Taos – and has a background in dance, Eastern medicine, meditation and is a licensed massage therapist.
The right tool
A comprehensive approach to health care, such as functional medicine, can help people understand and address their chronic health conditions, in partnership with their health care providers. As science provides new tools – such as genetic research – that reveal issues at the cellular level, doctors are able to understand even more about the root cause of disease and how to address these factors to help people heal and feel better. “The science may be quite complex, but the solutions are often simple and can include taking appropriate minerals and vitamins and lifestyle changes. I can sometimes help people get off prescription medication or I can prescribe something if it is needed. My years of medical training help me understand the difference between an acute condition and a chronic disease. I’m not going to prescribe fish oil if someone is having a heart attack,” said Cardasis.
For more information, contact Taos Health Primary and Integrative Care at (575) 751-8961 or visit taosprimarycare.org.
Health coach Alana Grier offers some tips for transitioning into fall.
Try to buy locally grown food in season
Taos Farmers Market is a great resource on Saturday mornings at Taos Plaza through Nov. 18. Enjoy the foods that autumn offers, including pumpkins, parsnips, yams, winter squash, sweet potatoes, turnips, apples and pears. Fall foods are colorful and nourishing. The more colorful the garden fresh produce, the better it is for your health and your immune system.
Boost your immune system
Avoid tobacco products and if you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation, not daily. Maintain a healthy weight and pay attention to your blood pressure. Get the regular medical screening tests for people in your age group and risk category. These tests are often covered by insurance and can help you to understand any health risks you may have, nipping them in the bud rather than going on for years undetected.
Get adequate sleep
We need between six to eight hours of sleep each night. Sleep deprivation prevents your immune system from building up its forces. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body may not be able to fend off invaders and it may take longer to recover from illness. Long-term sleep deprivation increases the risk for chronic illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease. If you are having trouble sleeping, you can look at nutritional support, environmental support and relaxation techniques to help you get the sleep that you need to maintain your optimal health.
Keep fall bugs out of the home
Washing your hands frequently can keep you from getting all the contagious colds and flus going around during the fall. Make it a habit to wash your hands as soon as you come into your home so that you are not spreading any of those gems around the house. Use products to clean your indoor environment that are healthy and natural. A homemade and affordable spray with natural essential oils can be more effective in killing germs than many of the dangerous chemical sprays of the market.
Too many people stop exercising and spend more time sedentary indoors when the weather gets colder. One way you can keep moving during the cooler season is to bring your activity inside. Find an enjoyable way to gently move your body, so that this year you keep yourself fit and healthy through fall and winter. There are many affordable and even free solutions in Taos to get moving safely, from group fitness classes at our wonderful local fitness businesses to free classes for seniors at Ancianos and free options for families and kids at Taos Youth and Family Center.
The cold outdoors and heated indoors make for dry skin in the fall and winter months. Some natural ideas you may already have in your kitchen to soothe your dry skin this fall include olive oil, which contains many antioxidants and healthy fatty acids that are good for your skin. Honey is considered one of the best natural moisturizers loaded with antioxidant, antimicrobial and humectant properties.
Yogurt is an excellent skin-hydrating agent; its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties help soothe dry and itchy skin. Its lactic acid content helps get rid of any germs or bacteria that may cause dryness or itchiness. Before taking a bath or shower, rub olive oil, honey or yogurt on dry skin and leave it on for five to 10 minutes. Repeat daily to enjoy well-moisturized skin.