Updated: Jan 10, 2021
There is nothing okay about this. Unfortunately, there is everything typical about this.
As a healthcare professional that is positioned on the ‘natural’ side of the fence, but always finds herself in the middle anyway, I always do my best to respect and work with the interventions and outcomes on the ‘western’ side. I do this because I know we are all humans and, despite the apparent fence between us, we are all on the side of trying to help other humans. I have a developed a deep need to understand and mediate between the two. Both sides have the same imperfect humans working in them and the only way to sort out the mess our healthcare system is in, is to work with what we have. As an MD friend of mine said to me recently, about those that pursue both forms of medicine and don't consider consequences of doing so without guidance, “They are gonna do it anyway, so we may as well try to figure something out.”
I agree with her. I believe we need to create some kind of bridge between the two worlds that has less landmines than the current trek. I also believe that we need to come to terms with the fact that no matter what kind of medicine a person is looking to for answers, it is the same underlying cause and effect that is messing everything up. The lack of awareness of that cause and effect, is very concerning.
The current crossover in Canada right now, from Western and Natural medicine is like an unregulated border crossing - full of perils and traps that most of those who wander across have no idea are there. I see the exact same problems on both sides, albeit manifesting in different ways. There is too much falling through the cracks, cracks that were made by lack of cooperation, and there are too many problems being poorly addressed by practitioners arrogantly working outside of their scopes. It's not okay. And it's expensive. The cost to our healthcare system is enormous and, what most people have not quite put together yet, is that it is Canadian companies alone, that are paying for the overflow of that burden. If you own a company and have employees, you are paying for this in the form of rising benefit costs, stress leave and absenteeism. The most invisible (and usually the biggest) cost, is in presenteeism, which slowly leads up to that nasty stress leave cost.
The way I see it, the only place where a solution can reasonably be delivered at this point, is in a company's wellness program and initiatives. Unfortunately, over the last 10 years, there have been SO many benefit companies or brokers, with no training in healthcare or wellness, that hopped onto the bandwagon to sell a cookie cutter version of a wellness program. That trend means that we are losing the opportunity to do something great with employee wellness programs in this country. There is very little strategy going into these things right now.
Here are some of the problems...
There are so many people that choose to use just one form of health care and ignore the other(s.) What they often don’t know is that they are losing the potential benefit, balance and perspective of the other. In the free world we live in, to lose the benefit of what those other perspectives could bring, is a tragedy on so many levels. It's also very inefficient. There are also those that do engage in both worlds of medicine, however, they do not understand how to register one with the other properly. The results of that can be unpredictable at best and at worst, can make the issue even more expensive in the long term. None of these options are ideal. The back and forth, and hopping to and fro, leads to very full cupboards with mixed results. Never mind mixed meds and supplements that cause new symptoms, that no one can figure out. Rarely are any permanent or long term solutions found.
Wanna know my biggest pet peeve in my practice?
People that are looking for a diet or supplement to get rid of the symptoms brought on by their prescription medications. Like. My throat is getting tight just thinking about the insanity of that.
A while back I headed over to the walk in clinic to get a perspective for myself, personally. I make the trek between different forms of healthcare all the time too. I was almost two years postpartum, I instinctively knew that I should not be battling the extreme fatigue I still experienced sometimes.
I also knew something else, which I asked the doctor about. I said:
“So I am way more exhausted than I should be. I already had PTS/trauma therapy, which took a lot of my symptoms away. However, I am still in that ongoing "high conflict situation" (which is the term that allows our family court system to pass off dealing with gaslighting and intimidation and typical narcissist behaviour that can destroy someone's life) and I get threatened and harassed on a regular basis. He stalks my business social media, even my sister's, he tells me he will ruin my career here, and other things that I don't want to talk about. Unfortunately, the threats are not bad enough for any law enforcement agency to protect me, so I am stuck with it right now, probably for years. I know that this kind of chronic stress is damaging to the body and could be the main cause of my exhaustion, but I was wondering if we could we do a basic blood test to rule out anything obvious like B12, or iron or whatever else could be causing this…?”
The doctor said “Sure, that makes sense to check, we can do that....”
And then she said something else... “Would you like something for the stress?” I replied without really thinking, I said, “No thanks, I don’t really want to medicate the fact that I have a huge asshole in my life.”
Walking out of that appointment I realized that I was on to something embarrassingly obvious about humanity and our society. It took saying it that way, out loud in real life, for the final pieces to fall into the puzzle for me.
How does medicating a person, because they understandably falter in a situation where anyone would falter, help anything? What does it do? Numb them so they can't feel the heat until they get burned so bad they may never fully come back from it? Does it give them an 'illness' to blame so they think something is wrong with them, not with the way they are treated on a daily basis? Where is the logic? When something like this situation, is at play, how much is your company paying for this? How many sick days is this person taking because they were up all night being yelled at? How many tasks do they not complete because the constant stress has disconnected them from their pre-frontal cortex (true story, that's what happens) and they literally cannot access the the rational part of the brain where we problem solve?
I have also seen soooooo many clients who have been trying to solve serious physical imbalances in the body, with a box of ‘natural’ supplements. When that is the case and has been for years, in my limited opinion, they could have benefited from an intervention on the Western side of things.
I also see people medicating the effects of childhood wounds and trauma that is still stuck in their amygdala and/or nervous system (also true story.) Talk therapy doesn't move trauma out fo the body. Talk therapy does not put the right food that has the right building blocks for neurotransmitters to balance mood, into their blood stream either. I see people medicating or supplementing a taxed nervous system cause by a job or personal strain that is figuratively and perhaps literally, killing them. When it’s pretty clear that they are in a chronically stressful situation, usually the last thing they need is a medication to tell their feelings to shut up. What they really need is to be able to feel the full heat of the situation so they can get out before they get seriously burned. On the other hand, sometimes the trauma or the loss or the situation is so severe that they need the support of a medication to get them from A to B, to a place where they can handle feeling the heat in order to heal. Totally valid. However, if that medication is not viewed as an intervention to get them to a place where they can heal and find balance, it can become a crutch that turns into a prison. We seem to have formed a habit of medicating life in general. Medicating life and pushing feelings and grief down is fucking expensive. And, it creates more illness later.
When a past or personal situation is medicated in a way that keeps the individual where they are now - when the intervention displaces the other changes that need to happen to restore balance - something is wrong. And don’t kid yourself, ‘natural supplements’ can create the exact same situation. I also find myself saying things like “I don’t have a supplement or diet for your joint pain, you need a physiotherapist.”
There is also another layer to this problem. It’s a very human one and it's getting to be a very expensive one - a burden placed not just on our healthcare system but on the companies that employ the people that are cared for in that system.
Many doctors, nurses, therapists and other practitioners, express the state of feeling like a failure after a day of seeing patients that just want a quick solution. The patients don’t want to listen to anything about life style changes, dietary adjustments, all of which could reasonably solve their issues without a pill. So many are not interested.
Why are they not interested?
They are not interested because it’s all too much already. For some, the childhood trauma that was never resolved keeps a part of them locked in fight or flight forever, it’s exhausting. If finances are an issue, the debt they have makes them feel like they are drowning some days. All the sugar they eat has them locked down in a vicious cycle of looking to the next hit of sugar or caffeine that will make them feel okay. The effect this has on the nervous system, the stress response and blood sugar regulation can be debilitating. Or a substance like alcohol to help them get through that hour of the day when they feel the worst. The disappointment that their life is nothing like what they thought it would be never helps either. The death of a loved one. The loss of something important. The divorce that took their self-worth away - because if that’s gone, then why would they do anything for themselves if they don’t even like themselves and don’t think they are worth it?
People are hurting, they are drowning on some days, there are no pills for that kind of pain. But we keep trying and our heads are literally aching from hitting the same wall over and over.
I have had all this confirmed for me over and over in companies that I work for. When I go into a boardroom of a company that wants to talk to me about employee wellness the same conversation always comes up. They talk about things they have already tried. Maybe a ‘healthy’ food vending machine (we all know my hashtag is #nosuchthingashealthyfood, but I bite my tongue - sometimes.) They have done walking challenges, nutrition challenges, maybe even social media/phone time limit challenges. They have done team-building events, they have a great EAP program that almost no one uses, and perhaps they built a gym for their employees or offer free passes to gyms.
Time and time again I say, "So let me guess, your participation rate is what, around 10%?" They look at me and do the math in their heads and look surprised. Yup. Always. It was 12% once, it was 8% at another company, but it always hovers around 10%. Someone once thought I was wrong and pointed out how many employees had picked up the free gym passes from reception. I already knew the answer but I gently asked "Have you followed up with the gym to see how many have actually been used?"
And then I break it to them:
“Anything from the outside, like a ‘challenge’ or a healthy lunch delivery or a free pass to the gym, is only going to be used by the people that are already taking care of themselves... For the rest of the population, that is completely overwhelmed with day to day survival, all you’re doing is adding another layer to the pressure - life pressure that already feels like a threat to them.
If you can’t figure out a way to take some of the other pressure off, figure out a way to help them help their little Suzie with her anxiety ,or little Johnnie with his IBS, or how to manage their debt, or give them tools to manage some of the stress, they are not going to have the wherewithal to help themselves. They won't be able to tackle their own anxiety, high cholesterol or hypoglycemia or sugar addiction or reliance on coffee, mood swings, brain fog, or back pain.
If they need coffee to wake up, an anxiety med to cope after lunch and a glass of wine to put the kids to bed, they don't have spare energy to cook more or move more or meditate. It's not going to happen."
I also find that most companies still haven’t sat down and thought about how much presenteeism is really costing them. A great way to figure this out is to think backwards from the day someone takes 'stress leave.' Right? How long was the lead time? How much did you lose before they left for a while? For the most part companies have never wondered how much their employee's kids, that are following in their parent's sugar coated, caffeine fuelled, anxious footsteps, are going to cost them 5-10 years from now. (Dental, teenage anxiety and insulin costs anyone?) The owners and managers of companies are generally overwhelmed in one way or another - often doing the job of 1.5 people (because stress leave, or poor or stressed out management in general,) so they haven't had the headspace to take a moment and consider how much the company is paying to medicate or placate exactly what I am talking about here.
Someone has to start asking these questions, so I ask them, lots of them.
How many absent days, stress leave and sick days occur in this country because of an employee that is in a controlling relationship or hasn't dealt with events and painful things in the past that are now making them sick? How many parents have children with such high mental and emotional needs, sleepless nights, that they have less than 0 energy to care for themselves?
As these meetings move along I may throw in a few informative questions such as "Did you know that the feeling of shame, all by itself, as a single feeling, is a powerful activator of the HPA axis?" (just ask Gabor Mate, he knows lots about this) and then I explain: "when triggered, the HPA axis, which manages our stress response, releases damaging cortisol into the body making people sick, depressed or anxious. It also depresses the immune system and raising blood pressure. Debt can create a feeling of shame. Living paycheque to paycheque can create a feeling of shame. Not knowing how to help your anxious child can make you feel like a failure, which can create shame. Past trauma can create shame - you could literally be paying some of the price for something that happened to your employee 20 years ago."
By this point I usually have everyone’s attention in the boardroom. They tell me I am worse than tax season, but they are also grateful.
People are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Some are starting to give up, some are looking in other less safe, and/or more expensive places, for help. So many are in search of holy grail of all pills (be it drug or supplement or the latest antioxidant) to solve their problems. That pill doesn’t exist on any side of the fence. To think that there is one single answer for all the symptoms produced by all the sad, scary, disappointing, heartbreaking, toxic, polluted, refined, altered, chemical-ized, industrialized, modified, confused, dysfunctional, disconnected, terrorized, or traumatic things that make up the current state of our world, is the very definition of insanity. But that’s the bill of goods we have been sold - and we literally pay out of our own pockets to have it sold to us just so we can pay for it again and again and again.
Take another look at the photo above, the cupboard full of supplements. It's real. My client sent it to me and gave me permission to use it. Now imagine a medicine cabinet full of pain killers, cholesterol and blood pressure meds, eczema cream, muscle relaxants, Tums and Nexium, appetite suppressants, Tylenol cold and flu, and ask yourself this: What’s the difference?
It looks different, but the pile up comes from the same need that is continually not being met.
Over the years I have had a lot of people tell me a lot of things about supplements and new discoveries and a lot of people trying to sell me the latest and greatest. It’s all the same, I don’t bite anymore, I know better. It really is all the same.
One memorable and short conversation I had sums it up best:
"Frankincense kills cancer.’"they said.
“Not if you eat white bread, drink diet coke, don't like yourself and spend 4 hours on your phone every day it doesn’t.” I replied.
It’s not the doctor’s fault. It’s not the massage therapist's fault. It’s not the government’s fault. It’s not the specialist's fault. It’s not the system’s fault. It’s not natural medicine’s fault. It’s not Chinese medicine’s fault. It’s not the Iridologist's fault. It’s not even the drug company's fault. (I hate saying that last one, but people, it’s true. They have their faults, some worse than others, but it is not what drives what has happened to us)
We are overwhelmed. Our world has made so much progress that it has backfired on us. We thought we were so great when we pushed our life expectancy up with the interventions of conventional medicine. Except it is now those very interventions, that were used in places where prevention should have been implemented, and what has happen to our food supply, that is the key catalyst for the reversal of our life expectancy. The generation growing up now is on the downward trend.
It’s time we started looking at our health and happiness differently. There is clearly no answer down the road that we’ve all been travelling on for the past hundred years. If it was around here somewhere we would have found it already. The answer is somewhere else. We have to allow ourselves to individually and collectively feel the pain of it, the cost of all the so called ‘progress.’ If we can understand it while resisting the urge to medicate life as soon as it inconveniences us, and not get stuck it in endless interventions, then we can find a way out.
We will need more than one moment, one pill, one supplement, one diet, one book, to get back to the balance and happiness and function that we crave. In my experience, a map of all this and a strategy is needed. Once an individual or a company has that, it all looks a little more manageable.
We all have a cupboard like the one above. It may look a bit different, it may be in a different room and be full of different things, but we all have one. If these cupboards had actually had the answer we were looking for at some point, then they wouldn't be so full.
Sonia Funk is an International Employee Wellness Analyst & Strategist, Corporate Speaker and a Nutritional Therapist. If you're curious about a Wellness Strategy for your company, you can read about those sessions here. Some of her topics for keynotes and presentations are here, on her corporate page.