Functional Medicine For The Athlete
Have you heard of Functional Medicine? Maybe you’ve heard of it in the terms of healing “chronic disease”, or in the context of people being “sick”. Which is true, it is a very effective way to treat chronic disease.
And although there are many athletes managing chronic illnesses like Thyroid Conditions, Epstein Barr Virus, Iron and B12 Deficiency Anemias, Autoimmune Diseases like Celiac etc. not all athletes fit into this category.
In fact, Functional Medicine used as a preventive medicine with an all-encompassing, specific and individualized sports nutrition program is quite possibly where Functional Medicine shines the best.
I have found most often that athletes fear failure and the embarrassment of spending all the time, energy and dedication to their sport just to have to quit or not participate due to an illness or injury – some of which can be prevented.
In 2008, Deena Kastor competed in the Beijing Olympics as a Marathoner. Unfortunately, she broke her foot mid race. Although we will never know the results if the circumstances had been different, she did have her blood nutrient levels tested afterward and found that her Vitamin D levels were half the optimal range. It often takes quite a while for an athlete to be that deficient, which means it is highly possible that it could have been caught and treated before her event.
Note: Bone health isn’t all about calcium. Vitamin D plays a vital role in bone strength and laying down healthy bone. In addition, Vitamin D may play a larger role than we think in overall health as well as athlete performance (2). There are several studies that show Vitamin D is helpful for preventing falls in the elderly (3). Not for preventing bone breaks, for preventing the elderly from falling.
So, when we apply this to an individual, a person, an athlete, making sure she or he has healthy nutrient levels is key for preventing “preventable” injuries, like Deena’s.
In another example, recently I was following an ironman athlete who won several events last year. She shared with her followers that she became anemic mid-season and chose to drop out of one of her events.
Ultimately, missing one event may seem like a “shrug”, no biggie. However, it could have been preventable. It’s very common for athletes to fear dropping out or not being able to complete an event. In many ways, Functional Medicine can give an athlete confidence and peace of mind that we have covered all the bases and ultimately optimized everything we can for peak performance.
COMMON CAUSES OF INJURIES AND ILLNESSES IN ATHLETES
There are many reasons an athlete may see a decline in their training and overall performance; however, there are a few that I see the most.
Gastrointestinal (or gut) health is the first and foremost key place to start with any athlete because it drives the immune system, plays a major role in nutrient absorption and utilization, as well as toxin elimination.
There are many causes for GI dysfunction from food sensitivities and allergies to an imbalance in gut bacteria (dysbiosis), to Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), to H Pylori infections in the stomach, low or high stomach acid or even perpetual inflammation from stress hormones that are raised and too much exposure to inflammatory foods. The key is to identify the cause, so that we know how to treat it.
The GI tract holds around 60% of your immune system. Optimizing its’ function may keep you from getting the common cold, but it also will help you with muscle recovery.
The Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (or DOMS) from tough training sessions is the result of an inflammatory process that occurs when the muscles are broken down and rebuilding from the damage. Although there is plenty we still need to learn about this process, there are key nutrients that are present in the gut that help to minimize and quickly restore function to damaged muscles from training.
Glutathione, Vitamin C, turmeric (curcumin) and other antioxidants and anti-inflammatories neutralize the oxidation and ‘Free Radicals’ caused by inflammation and cellular repair (1). Your body houses a good portion of its’ glutathione in the GI tract. In order to heal and reduce the inflammatory process, you must have enough of these antioxidants in your blood stream to restore optimal function.
If the GI tract is inflamed or unbalanced with “bad bacteria”, you may not be absorbing nutrients fully from your food. Mixed with an unbalanced, high processed food diet, it sets the body up for increased stress, inflammation and damage.
However, there are many ways to optimize the GI tract so that it can eliminate toxins and absorb nutrients through your food by repairing, restoring and re-balancing the microbiome and GI tract environment. Through key nutrition, supplements and lifestyle modifications, the changes can make a major difference in the energy an athlete feels through out the day and more importantly, in their workouts.
– The key to healing the GI tract is always to utilize specialized testing to establish a baseline, but to also ultimately discover and treat the cause of the symptoms to restore function.
Malnutrition for an athlete is generally not from under-eating. Although eating disorders are common amongst this population, malnutrition in this sense, is more often the result of lack of nutrient density in food choices. It is not uncommon for me to hear of a professional athlete’s diet and not want to overhaul most of it.
You may be thinking of an incredibly thin person who looks fatigue and starving when you think ‘malnutrition’. However, Deena Kastor in the example above suffered from malnutrition. Something in her training, diet or quite possibly her genetics caused a deficiency in Vitamin D, which could be argued was part of the cause of her breaking her foot at the Olympics.
There are several causes of malnutrition in an athlete (or any person). First, it starts with the type of foods an athlete is consuming. Processed foods, fried foods and standard American diet foods are nutrient poor. They take up a lot of calories, yes, but they offer up nothing for the body to utilize to heal, recover and perform.
They are also usually pro-inflammatory, meaning they will contribute and perpetuate the natural inflammatory processes in the body, which can lead to the body (and muscles) breaking down and can result in injury and disease.
Nutrient dense foods are generally organic vegetables and plants. Also included are well-sourced proteins, healthy fats and a mix of starchy vegetables and whole grains. The right plan tuned in for your body, training plan and goals with a well balanced diet, a few necessary supplements, and a full lifestyle plan can heal disease and help restore optimal function and performance.
TOXICITY/ HORMONAL IMBALANCES/ LIFESTYLE
There are many other areas in the body that can cause injury or illness. It is important to look at the body how Functional Medicine does. Each organ and system functions fully and in harmony with all the other organs and systems in the body. An approach to healing disease that only looks at one organ and gives one medication for that organ, misses a great deal of the bigger picture.
For example, many patients present to their doctor’s office with unexplainable fatigue and weight gain. The physician runs a lab test that tests the thyroid and a general CBC and Chem Panel and discovers the patient may be hypothyroid. So the patient is sent on their way with a prescription for levothyroxine and that’s that. You’ll go back and have your thyroid tested every 3-6 months and medication levels adjusted as needed.
But WHY is the thyroid not functioning properly? What is happening in the body that is causing the thyroid markers on the lab test to be out of “normal range”? The thyroid can be affected by an imbalance in the GI tract and/or chronically high stress and cortisol levels from the adrenals. If those are never identified or treated, then the lab test numbers may be restored by the medication, but the coals are still burning underneath the surface and damage is still occurring.
Toxicity and lifestyle (lack of sleep, high stress, poor relationships etc.) can all play a part in the overall health and performance of an athlete.
Focus on the whole body, not just one organ or system, to promote optimal health and performance.
TEST, DON’T GUESS
Lab testing is a very key part of nutrition programs for athletes (2). Athletes are part of a special population because their energy requirements often are more than the average person. In addition, the average or recommended daily requirements are based off of an average person, which can be quite different than the needs of an athlete.
Even further, there are genetic factors that can play a role in whether you require more Vitamin B, D or C or another mineral from supplements or food because you don’t have the particular enzyme that helps you absorb or convert it into a useful form. This is just a complicated way to say, your genetics play a role in this, too.
Lab testing should go beyond the typical CBC and Chem Panel. Testing Cortisol levels with Adrenal Stress Tests, every single individual Vitamin, Mineral and Organic Acid should be part of an overall performance package for an athlete, which needs to be tracked over the course of the season. Food sensitivity tests, GI or hormone panels, even genetic testing when needed can reveal major areas to target for restoring optimal health and performance for athletes.
– You specialize in a sport and in your training. Make sure your nutrition and overall health is individualized and tuned in specifically for you.
CREATE THE PLAN
Then we create the plan and keep you accountable. Based on your lab results, your goals and health history, we create an individualized nutrition plan based also on your training and competition schedule plus a supplement and lifestyle plan that we track over time, so that we can tune in and optimize your health. You get peace of mind and confidence in your health and you’ll see it in your performance.
Ready to get started with a Functional Medicine Approach?
We offer a free 15-minute consultation to see if it’s the right fit for you.
We offer 60-90 minute one on one sessions to help you form good habits, stay accountable and ultimately feel and perform at your best.
With monthly and bi-monthly lab testing you can track and measure your progress, so that you can have confidence with your health.
Working with a Functional Medicine Physician means you can take a whole body and life approach to your health and training to catch “potential issues” before they become big issues giving you peace of mind that you’re doing everything you can to optimize your performance.