In August, I received a scary phone call. My mom was on her way to the hospital with symptoms of a stroke. Thankfully her symptoms fully resolved, and all of the testing showed no damage, but we were all shaken. One of my sisters asked the question, “What made this happen?” This question recurs over and over in my discussions with patients, and while we often do not know what makes an event happen at the moment it occurs, there are clues in each of our stories that can answer this question and offer hopeful remedies for healing.
When a symptom or health crisis occurs, our instinct is to react and treat the presenting problem. But often, this does not correct the underlying issue, and in fact, can make things worse in the long run. For instance, I have arthritis in the joints at the base of my thumbs. It used to be that my thumbs only hurt when I ate a lot of sugar. My diet is pretty clean, so most of the time, I was pain-free. I often thought of my thumbs as my barometer for the inflammation level in my body – if I had no pain, the inflammation was low, and if I was in pain, the inflammation was high.
After many years, the pain became more constant even though I continued to avoid sugar. It was a clue for me to look further for other causes of inflammation. As I dug deeper, it became clear that the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) that caused me to have mono when I was a teen had re-activated, and this was increasing inflammation and immune reactions in my body. Treating the virus by boosting my immune function and increasing my healthy habits has lowered the arthritic pain in my thumbs. This approach also has the benefit of improving the health of all of my body systems. In contrast, if I had only treated the symptom of thumb pain – the traditional options would have each had small detrimental effects. Long-term use of an oral pain medication would have risked stomach upset, bleeding and reflux, and injections of a steroid into the joint would have caused elevation of blood sugar for approximately six weeks after each injection. Elevated blood sugar places an increased strain on the pancreas and raises systemic inflammation and cholesterol; thus another set of problems can eventually occur.
It is small choices that add up to further health or greater illness. When we look at stroke or heart attack risk, we now have evidence of cholesterol deposits in blood vessels beginning as early as age 10. We know that the combination of cholesterol deposits, inflammation and stress creates a triad of risk for these cardiovascular events. The foods we eat, the hours we sleep, the stress we hold, the toxins we ingest, and the relationships we develop all impact our future wellness.
I relay this point to emphasize that every choice matters. You can take back your health by seeking the root causes of dis-ease and taking small steps in your healthy choices.
Ask yourself, “What is the kindest thing I can do for myself right now?” Usually, that answer supports long-term health.
Dr. Brossfield is the founder and physician of XO Health and medical director of Brain Treatment Center, both in Rancho Mirage. She can be reached at (760) 573.2761 or www.BrainTreatmentCenter.com and on Facebook @XOHealth.