“Whole”istic medicine — Jill’s story

The body heals better with good nutrition, and it is an unfortunate fact that when our lives become stressful our eating habits can worsen.

by Dr. Thomas Alexander — 

It’s almost midnight. Jill tosses around in bed unable to fall asleep. The events of the last two years flash through her mind as she thinks about her doctor’s appointment in the morning. She’s not sure exactly when it all happened. She remembers what was probably the initial trauma in this cascade of events: she changed jobs. The family had been going through tough financial times, and she found a job with longer hours that paid more. It was a difficult work environment, and her manager was hard to get along with from the beginning.

The mistrust appears to have started with a seemingly small incident but now feels as though it is spiraling out of control. She cannot afford to lose the benefits of the job and does everything she can to improve the relationship she has with her supervisor. But it does not seem to be working. The harder she tries, the less happy he seems to be with her work.

The situation at home is not good either. Jill gets home tired, frustrated and sometimes angry. Her husband Paul also has a stressful job with his own issues and finds himself temporarily unable to support Jill through her challenges.

Stress triggers the adrenal glands to secrete hormones called adrenalin and noradrenalin. These hormones send a signal somewhat like a fire alarm to the body, indicating that there is an emergency at hand. Adrenalin causes the heartbeat to strengthen and speed up, and there is increased blood flow to certain parts of the body, like the brain and the muscles. Hence the thumping heart when you get up to speak in public or when you asked someone out for the first time in school.

Think back to the kind of stress our ancestors experienced. This kind of a response was essential to survival because it helped them think on their feet, fight harder and run faster.

Stress also releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is made in the cortex of the adrenal glands. Its release is more sustained and potentially more damaging to the body over long periods of time. Now imagine the kind of signal Jill’s body is receiving. Regardless of whether stress is emotional or physical, the body responds similarly. Jill probably has been making cortisol in high levels for months on end.

Cortisol breaks down body tissues to make glucose which provides for the extra energy we need during stress. It prevents our tissues from using proteins in the blood to heal, as it perceives this protein will be needed for energy purposes. This increasing effect of adrenalin on the body can cause hypertension. It also makes the body less sensitive to the action of insulin, causing a condition called insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome — a condition that can eventually include weight gain, depression, impaired immunity and osteoporosis.

Jill had a difficult childhood. Her father was controlling, and she was never encouraged to discuss her feelings or emotions. Some of her relationships at work and even that with her husband started to resemble this dynamic, and she felt a helpless sense of déjà vu. Unconsciously her childhood coping mechanisms were now working against her. Many studies are showing that certain personality types tend to have higher levels of cortisol throughout the day which in turn leads to poorer health.

With her busy life, Jill is unable to take the time to cook for herself and her family and relies on fast food take-outs and restaurants to survive. The body heals better with good nutrition, and it is an unfortunate fact that when our lives become stressful our eating habits can worsen.

Jill’s health starts to deteriorate. She feels tired and angry. Her sleep is poor, and her social interactions are deteriorating. One of her friends suggests she might have clinical depression, so she goes to see her doctor. She is shocked to find her blood pressure is high, and blood tests suggest her cholesterol is elevated and she has higher than normal blood sugar. A close friend suggests she seek the help of a holistic medical practitioner. And Jill does so.

At the appointment, Jill listens in amazement as they sit and put together the pieces of the puzzle. Understanding the reasons for her current situation gives her the knowledge and power to make proactive changes for the better. Over the next two to three visits, they put together a plan that includes diet, exercise, communication techniques, and her chosen form of spiritual and psychological work. Jill has come a long way from feeling like a victim to feeling more in control of her life. In a few months, Jill is already feeling significantly better.

Like Jill, we all make choices, daily. These choices can be physical, like the food we eat or the amount of physical activity we allow ourselves. How we cook, where we buy our food, where we live, the kind of job we are in determine, among other things, our state of health. But they also are choices about how we respond mentally and emotionally to life’s circumstances.

To simply go in and get a drug for your high blood pressure or a pill to help you sleep is to miss the point completely. As the old saying goes, “To do the same thing over and over again and expect different results is insanity.” Healing is a process of understanding how the choices we make affect our lives. Healing has the potential to be an inspiring journey, instead of painful surrender to the status quo.

Using Jill’s example, we can see how the combination of her mental conditioning and the events of her life contributed to a vortex of increasingly bad health. Once Jill decided to become proactive and seek lasting changes, her life improved dramatically.

We have a choice in our lives — let’s make that choice for better health and a better life today.


Thomas Alexander, M.D., is a board-certified internal medicine doctor, who now practices holistic/integrated medicine in Scottsdale, Ariz. While he has done further studies in endocrinology, his passion is “looking at the whole picture.” talexandermd@gmail.com or 480-626-2034.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 27, Number 2, April/May 2008.

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