New You: Exploring Functional Medicine
Dr Shania Lee was born and grew up in a mining town outside Johannesburg, South Africa, and it literally nearly killed her. Indeed, if it weren’t for functional medicine, she probably wouldn’t be here.
As part of our ‘New You’ series, we’re exploring ideas and opportunities that might inspire or positively challenge you in 2021. We know 2020 was a stagnant and difficult year for many, so we want to burn off any negative energy with a fresh look at a fresh year. As such, we’ve come to Dr Shania to learn not only about functional medicine, but also about her personal journey. A journey which involved discovering and, ultimately, working with this systems biology-based approach to identifying and addressing the root cause of poor health or disease.
The town that nearly killed her
All through her childhood, young Shania was the picture of good health. She was a naturally talented athlete and collected plenty of medals during her school years. She used to catch a bus to and from school every day, and vividly remembers peering out the window to the mine dumps. At the time, she thought nothing of it. It was her reality, it was her town’s reality. It was normal.
Getting very sick
What wasn’t normal, however, is what happened to Shania in her twenties.
She’d moved away from the town by the age of 13, and enjoyed good health right through her teens. But then she began to get sick. Really, really sick. At first, her poor health presented in skin conditions and other autoimmune diseases that left her weak and drained. It then developed into the most debilitating fatigue - she was unable to do anything.
During (and despite of) her deteriorating health, Shania qualified as a naturopath and homeopath. She combined her knowledge with the traditional medical system in a search to find out what was so wrong. Blood tests were run time and time again. They continued to return normal results. For all intents and purposes, the traditional medicine world objectively declared her healthy, yet even someone without any medical knowledge would have declared the contrary. Shania’s health became so tenuous, she knew she was going to die if she didn’t find the answers fast.
It became that serious.
The emergence of functional medicine in South Africa
When it comes to functional medicine, South Africa has been one of the most progressive countries to recognise this as a valid form of practice. That said, even South Africa was still in its formative functional medicine years when Shania fell ill. However, as any very sick person will tell you, when you are that sick, you do everything to find the answers. Shania found functional medicine, and it saved her life.
What is functional medicine?
For the most part, when we are sick in the UK, we enter the NHS system. We present with symptoms and these are examined. If we have a bad cough, our respiratory system gets attention. If we have stomach troubles, our gut is under the spotlight. A condition is diagnosed, and it is the condition that is treated. Full-stop.
Shania likens this to having a plant at home that is looking poorly. You don’t paint its leaves green and trust that because the symptoms have disappeared, so too has the problem. Instead, you consider the soil - does it need changing? Could it be in a sunnier spot, a shadier spot? Are you watering it too little, too much? Are you giving it attention and care, or leaving it to fend for itself? Is your pet perhaps contributing to its demise? There might just be one, or several of these factors that contribute to you saving the plant. The point is, you’ve taken a thorough and holistic approach to solving the problem. You’ve certainly not reached for any green paint…
Functional medicine avoids the green paint approach, too. It doesn’t get distracted by the symptoms, and instead looks for culprits lurking elsewhere. It acknowledges that the true root of any disease might lie with more than one cause. In other words, functional medicine is like the ultimate, all-encompassing detective. Assume nothing, investigate everything, and treat every case individually.
Heavy metal poisoning
So, what made Shania so incredibly sick all those years ago?
Functional medicine confirmed that toxic metals were poisoning her. Shockingly, it was the metals from her childhood, which she had absorbed and stored in her system. In what we can only describe as a double whammy, Shania’s genetic make-up unfortunately meant her system was not predisposed to filtering out these toxins. Instead, there they lay, lurking in the background. Perhaps they may have stayed under the radar, were it not for an incredibly stressful time in Shania’s life. This anxiety served as a trigger, releasing the toxins so they could run free and ravage her system. With the careful guidance of her Doctor, Shania began to cleanse the toxins from her body. The treatment process in functional medicine is every bit as bespoke as the detection process. No two people will be on the same path to recovery, because no two people are the same. Unlike conventional western, which is protocol driven, functional medicine is patient-driven, from start to finish.
Shania’s good health returned - she was a new person.
The experience saved her life, and forever changed it as well. Shania was resolute - she wanted to take this learning and experience to the world. She researched as much as she could, she studied everything relevant and it’s her personal story that led to her profession today as a fully qualified Functional Medicine Doctor. Shania loves the fact that her job makes people better. Forming relationships with patients and being a crucial part of their good health journey is incredibly rewarding. Staying with them, holding their hand all the way until they are ready to let go, gives this practice a real human element that sometimes isn’t always present in conventional medicine.
Functional medicine in the UK
When Shania moved to the UK, she estimates there were perhaps 15 functional medicine doctors practicing here. That figure is now significantly higher (as this listing of practitioners from the Institute for Functional Medicine demonstrates). Although she began her work treating patients directly, Shania now spends the majority of her time working for Nordic Laboratories and teaching doctors to, well, open their eyes wider. Once they truly see functional medicine, she explains, they can’t unsee it.
It is that convincing.
Prevention is better than cure
Shania has experienced an increase in the number of people turning to functional medicine before they need it. By understanding their family history, their circumstances, lifestyle choices and DNA, functional medicine can identify their well-being Achilles Heel. In so doing, doctor and patient can work together to minimise the likelihood of poor health eventuating. As a result, patients will come to Shania annually for a “full health MOT”, as she calls it.
The proof of the functional medicine pudding is in the…. data!
Despite functional medicine being somewhat of a newcomer, data already exists to demonstrate its positive impact. A study by Cleveland Clinic Researches published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open demonstrated that patients seen by the Center for Functional Medicine showed beneficial and sustainable improvements in their global physical health.
Unfortunately, functional medicine is not covered by the NHS. However, if you are interested and would like to know more, contact Shania at the Cavendish Wellness Clinic. Dr Shania also collaborates with other New You inspirations, nutritional therapist Sam Taylor and Psychologist Jessica Valentine.
If you are experiencing health challenges, then we hope this article with Dr Shania has offered some help to you on your journey. Edible Health remains committed to supporting you all, however we can. If you have any questions or would just like someone to talk to, then please just get in touch. Whilst we may not be qualified Doctors, we have huge hearts, endless compassion and tons of contacts and experience that might just be able to help. And who knows - maybe a ‘New Therapy’ could lead to a ‘New You’!
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