Takeaways from the Institute for Functional Medicine’s Annual conference
The 2017 Annual IFM Conference was probably one of the most inspiring events I have ever had the pleasure of attending. It was like the Woodstock of medical pioneers, any one of the speakers from the first day could have been the keynote. In the face of much controversy, these scientists, academics and doctors are challenging the way we look at medicine and forcing us to question the fundamentals of disease.
To condense 3 days of content into one blog post is impossible, so I’ve decided to give you some inspirational takeaways from the conference that certainly made me think about the concept of neuroplasticity. Sorry in advance if this post is too detailed/geeky, I’ve tried to simplify the concepts and put links to unfamiliar terms as much as possible.
1. We need a new type of Doctor
Professor Bredesen is perhaps one of the most well-known disruptors to conventional thinking regarding neurodegenerative disease. His 36 point protocol published in 2014 demonstrated his theory of being able to reverse, or at least significantly improve dementia, using largely lifestyle medicine principles. Using a targeted personalised approach incorporating dietary change, exercise, nutraceuticals and yes pharmaceuticals, he was able to demonstrate some staggering results. I highly recommend you read it.
Calling on his wealth of experience in the lab, Bredesen has never been patient-facing up until relatively recently. Using his breadth of knowledge and experience of what goes wrong in Alzheimer’s he likes to pull up a slide in his lectures that paints a picture of what the perfect Alzheimer’s drug would look like:
(courtesy of Prof Bredesen)
Using this information, it’s no wonder our current drugs that target single chemical processes have lacklustre results. Dedicating his life’s work to the study of what can potentially go wrong in an Alzheimer’s patients, his protocol requires physicians to appreciate the immense complexity of our human brain and physiology. And this is why he is so convinced that a “functional medicine” approach that appreciates the importance of metabolomics, gene technology and pharmacotherapy with the wisdom of ancient medicine principles, is the only way to at least attempt to prevent and reverse dementia.
As a GP trainee I’ve had experience in Elderly Care Psychiatry and so I know exactly what kind of investigations we perform on patients before diagnosing and directing therapy. After a GP has recognised symptoms and referred to a Psychiatric service, the initial assessment usually revolves around a thorough history, cognitive scoring test, brain imaging and bloods with specific attention to some minerals, vitamins and infectious diseases. After all the information is collected, monotherapy (i.e. using a single drug such as donepezil) is usually started if appropriate. Dementia is seen as a condition of gradual decline, so we make sure to support these patients as much as possible with carers, psychotherapy and counselling if required. It’s a distressing diagnosis for all involved and if the predictions are correct we are going to see an explosion of dementia sufferers over the next few decades which means an incredible strain on social and community services, not to mention families.
If Prof Bredesen can prove that his protocol works on a larger scale then I agree, we need to train a new kind of physician. One that appreciates both conventional medicine, the incredible utility of pharmaceuticals as well as an integrative approach. If his papers and research are anything to go by, I have at least some hope for preventing and potentially reversing some cases of dementia.
2. Your brain is not clean .. and neither is it designed to be
Vice chair of Aging and Genetics at Massachusetts general, Dr Tanzi also has a specialist interest in integrative care and was recently voted Time’s top 100 most influential people.
There was has been a recent discovery (or perhaps realisation) that our brains are not sterile. What was once thought to be a completely microbe free environment, RNA analysis has reveals that our brains carry viruses, bacteria and even yeast. This has opened up discussion for a ‘Brain Biome Project’ where we attempt to discover what’s inside our skulls.
The generally accepted theory in Alzheimer’s is that B amyloid plaques form, creating tangles leading to disruption of neural pathways in the brain and the typical symptoms of dementia. His theory for why B-amyloid plaques form in Alzheimer’s patients is potentially in response to inflammation caused by microbes. By looking at B amyloid plaques in the lab, there is a clear resemblance to “antimicrobial peptides”, these are proteins that respond to infection in the body before your immune system kicks in. And looking at mouse studies where they injected bacteria into their brains, B amyloid was shown to appear overnight.
The concept that our brains are designed to exist alongside microbes is fascinating and I’m sure this research may open up novel therapeutics for management and prevention of dementia in the future.
3. Sensori-genomics is Specific and Immediate
I’m finding it quite hard to explain in words just how incredible this lecture was. Titus Chiu is a doctor, a practicing chiropractor and a functional neurologist. His explanation of neural pathways involved in his practice of “Sensorigenomics” made me want to dust off my old neuroanatomy books from medical school and revisit all the information I’ve not looked at in years.
Calling on his personal experience, the scientific literature and our neuroanatomy Dr Tsui beautiful described (and demonstrated using videos of consenting patients) the immediate and specific effects of sensorigenomic therapies on patients with traumatic brain injury. Using subtle yet calculated interventions with sensory modalities such as sound and light, we witnessed dramatic improvements in patient symptoms akin to ‘miracles’.
The videos and explanation of treatment was inspiring and mind boggling. We’re hoping to bring him to the UK soon and I would love to see all practitioners (particularly those with a specialism in Neurology) to engage in an open conversation about how this therapy works and whether it is something we could potentially scale in the NHS?
4. Our environment is the elephant in the room
Dr Joe Pizzorno, scientist, researcher, author and is also known as the scariest man in functional medicine for his depressingly clear talks about the state of our environment and the impact of pollutants on health.
We witnessed the furious speed of respected and motivated scientist who has spent his life dedicated to his research, gallop through slide after slide of information, articles and published research looking the links between environmental pollutants and chronic disease. Utilising population studies and lab studies he painted a clear picture of why he advises a pragmatic and precautionary approach to novel agricultural chemicals, personal care products, the use of BPA and its alternatives as well as other synthetics in food production.
It’s becoming pretty clear that our environment is really important for health and with the backdrop of Flint Michigan, most people left the lecture feeling doom and gloom. But it’s important to remember that our bodies are incredibly resilient, self-sustaining and our organs do fantastic jobs of ensuring we thrive on a daily basis. We have evolved beautiful and complex mechanisms to detoxify environmental pollutants so whilst I’m very wary of the poor state of our planet and food production, I wouldn’t let it keep you up at night. It certainly makes me want to choose organic where possible, but it won’t dictate my choices when I’m at a friend’s house or eating out.
Incorporating good sleep patterns, a diet focused on varied and colourful plant foods, regular exercise and mindfulness are still the most important aspects to help your body thrive, not a detox tea.
I recommend health professionals attend some of the online seminars if they are interested in lifestyle medicine and I’ll definitely be going to the 2018 AIC in Florida!