A quick look at many fictional stories, especially those centered around a main character, will highlight a hero and a villain. While my story is certainly not fictional, and I am by no means a hero (other than to my two wonderful dogs), I have found myself amongst one of the biggest fights that mankind will ever face. Food. This may seem overstated, but I assure you it is reality. And while there are many facets which I will share with you that have lead me to my current passion of nutrition, one thing that I am hold dear and claim as my mission is that “Optimal Health is a Choice”.
When you are growing up, you don’t take time to realize the importance of your surroundings and how they will ultimately shape your view of the world. It is only until you are removed from it that you most truly appreciate what it provided. This exemplifies my story. I was raised in North Carolina in a small town. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all lived and farmed in the same area. Farming was life. It was how my forefathers had made their living. The connection to the land, growing our own crops and food and raising livestock was part of the genome. While not truly a genetic trait, the love of this lifestyle was bred into me without me knowing it.
Throughout my formative years, I can remember turning onto the dirt road where our farm was located. Summers were rich. They were a time of prosperity. Not financially, but with a bounty of produce.
Every year there was between 4-6 acres of garden with vegetables plentiful enough to keep you gathering all day. When I wanted fruit, all I had to do was walk out behind my grandparents’ house and pick apples, pears, peaches and figs or stroll along the muscadine grape vines gathering handfuls. There was literally a farmer’s market all around us on the farm.
Little did I realize it, but the summers I spent in those gardens and working on our farm deeply connected me to food. When you raise your own food, there is a sense of pride that goes into watching your crops grow and yield produce. The connection blossoms from the process of nurturing and caring for it and the time invested. Those vegetables and fruits were an accomplishment that supported my family through the year. It was inherent to share our abundance with our neighbors who also reciprocated. There is a peace of mind that comes from knowing you supplied what you and your neighbors needed.
There is a saying that I think is relevant to me. “You can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy.” That adage resonated with me without my acknowledgment of it. During my college years, I always yearned to be on the farm on the weekends. As I spent time in graduate school in Texas, I would take every opportunity to visit the farm. Breaks were for 3 weeks and I used every last day of them to reconnect myself to my beginnings. But along the way, my education had played a key role and allowed me to develop an appreciation for those crops we called food on a whole new level.
Starting out obtaining a degree in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina (Go Tarheels!) opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about plants and food. This expansion of thought grew in my second trimester of chiropractic school with the introduction to a more formal nutrition education. The newfound education sparked interest in topics and provided insight that I did not previously have. Suddenly I was asking questions that did not seem to have logical answers.
Allow me to backtrack for a moment to further align my journey with who I am. In the early to mid-1990’s, I remember walking down the row of one of our fields with my father. We had always planted our crops and then plowed them once or twice after planting to allow the crop to overcome any potential weed undergrowth. The seeds for these crops were either purchased from a neighboring farmer or supply warehouse or had been saved from the previous year. Now I vividly recall two things from this walk through the field with my father this sunny Saturday afternoon. First, since we were leasing out our farmland, the crop seeds did not come from us or a neighboring farmer, but from a single supplier linked to the agriculture industry. Second, and I remember this as vividly as the as if it was this morning, my father casually said to me, not fully knowing the extent of what he was saying at the time (none of us did), “They don’t even plow these beans (soybeans) anymore. They just spray them and that is it.” For the time being, it seemed like an improvement. The application of technology, that of course we did not understand, to reduce the amount of work necessary to raise crops. Seemed like a good idea.
With that in mind, other changes were being noticed. As I became more aware of various healthcare conditions, their beginnings and what factors influence their path, I began to see a parallel that the further we got away as a family from eating the food that we were producing, and eating like I did as I was growing up, that more diseases seemed to be riddling my family. The disconnect from food led to disease. I was bewildered by the correlation. Yet, when I talk to family members, never once did I hear anyone share that they had been told to make dietary changes to improve their health. I was witnessing it firsthand. Poor food and lifestyle equaled disease.
This point was driven home to me one weekday, later in the morning. On my three week trips home from school in Texas, I would often spend an extensive amount of time with my grandmother. My grandmother lived by herself and did not drive. She had been battling diabetes and high blood pressure. I knew on one particular trip that she needed me to escort her to her primary care doctor. Being an ambitious doctoral student with a deeper understanding of nutrition and health, I was eager to impart my knowledge in an effort to help my grandmother lower her blood pressure. So for two weeks every day, morning and evening, I recorded her blood pressure. It was logged at exactly the same time each day. I was emboldened and shared my enthusiasm with my grandmother that her numbers were stable. We were ready to go to her doctor to hopefully get her blood pressure medication lowered, or at least not increased.
As they called my grandmother back, I remember waiting for the nurse to usher my grandmother into the treatment room. As I stood there, a pharmaceutical representative shared information about a new medication at the desk just behind me. We walked on in the treatment room and waited for the doctor. I was anxious but kept it to myself for my grandmother. She had always had a tendency to become a little uneasy and anxious at the doctor. When the doctor walked in, the conversation led straight to glucose numbers and blood pressure. The doctor himself checked the blood pressure to make a final decision and told my grandmother that it was elevated. As I began to see the direction that the conversation was going to head, I asked the doctor if he would mind reviewing the blood pressure readings that had been taken over the previous two weeks. With little more than a glance, he started talking about increasing the medication or adding a new medication. To add insult to injury, some of the information that he was sharing was almost exactly what I had heard the pharmaceutical representative saying to him a few minutes prior. And when I inquired about considering nutrition and dietary changes to help my grandmother, he replied, “You can try it, but I doubt it will do anything.” My grandmother trusted in her doctor and followed his advice. But at that moment, walking out of that office feeling defeated and angry that I could not help my grandmother, the wheels of change began to roll.
It was at this time that I began to question conventional wisdom. Though at the time I had never heard the term functional medicine, this was the foundation for me and how I would apply it with my patients. Not long after the visit to the doctor with my grandmother I graduated chiropractic school and went into practice. Many chiropractors focus primarily on the musculoskeletal health of the body. But I had personally seen too much and the need to address more routinely echoed in my mind such that I had to share what I knew with patients. When patients presented I would ask questions about their nutrition and diet. It became obvious that those who followed the nutritional and dietary advice I gave saw much faster recovery from their injuries than those that did not. I also saw consistent patterns between a person’s physical, mental and emotional pain and stress and the connection that they had with food. The relationship between food, mood, demeanor and brain health were obvious.
These observations changed everything. It wasn’t only about treating bones and joints. It wasn’t only about making dietary changes. It was first and foremost about the relationship that someone had with food. I started realizing that a positive connection to food would help all areas of one’s life including their relationships, stress levels, physical well-being, and spirituality, all while keeping them more balanced. Having seemingly come full circle, when I was introduced to the term “functional medicine”, it made sense to me. After all, I had been practicing the tenets of it for years in my practice.
I realized that the healthcare that my grandmother deserved, but never received was obtainable. In fact, it was what fueled my vision of promoting wellness. That Saturday afternoon walk through the field with my father was later recognized as the beginning of the introduction of mass chemical use and genetically modified foods that unquestionably contribute to the chronic diseases my family was enduring. I had watched firsthand as the agriculture industry eroded the purity of farming. I witnessed the system of medicine fail my grandmother repeatedly. Both of these tore at my soul as a clinician and country boy. They were in opposition to what I knew as truth and neither of them spoke about the vitality of food for the body and soul.
But each experience in life is one to be learned from and used to make us better. “You are my last resort.” “I’ve tried the traditional medicine route and I am not any better.” “No one is listening to me about my issues.” These types of comments have become commonplace in my practice. The patients that make them evolve to have more energy, greater motivation, a redefined view on how health and wellness is achieved, all of which began by reconnecting with food. I have refined the process to help people create a healthy relationship with food so they can overcome the health challenges no one else has been able to solve. It all begins when we reconnect with food. I was fortunate to have grown up growing my own food and making that personal connection. To this day I continue to do so on our farm and in my backyard. It is my goal to have others make that same connection to food in their lives and change the trajectory of their health.