Functional Health and Positive Psychology



Wade Jacklin

Some things just go really well together – steak and salad, milk and cookies, music and dance, etc. We believe that there is also a synergistic relationship between Functional Medicine and Positive Psychology as both approaches to wellness focus on more that symptom reduction.  Support for the interplay between mind and body is now emerging in the cutting edge field of ‘embodied cognition’ that may result in a radical shift in the way mental health issues are understood and treated.  A basic tenet of embodied cognition is that “states of body modify states of mind”.

A helpful metaphor to better understand the interplay between physiology and psychology with respect to mental health is to think of the psychological aspect as the ‘rider’ and the physiological or body aspect as the ‘horse’.  The rider is required in order to direct the horse, without the riders behavioural instruction the horse will not respond.  The rider in this analogy is made up of the thoughts and behaviours that can serve to trigger, maintain, and intensify negative emotional states. However, the riders efforts will be stunted if the body (or horse, in this analogy) is out of balance. Functional medicine focusses on restoring health and balance to the systems of the body that contribute to mental health issues.

In African wild life sanctuaries many go to see the ‘big five’ (leopard, lion, elephant, rhino, and buffalo), in mental health, the ‘big three’ are depression, anxiety, and stress. Unfortunately, the prevalence of mental health issues is increasing at a faster rate than the speed at which wildlife is declining in Africa.  In the next article, the first of the ‘big 3’ we will explore is anxiety.

A ‘whole person’ approach to treating anxiety

Anxiety plays a role in signalling that self-protective action is required to ensure safety and thus cannot be labelled as globally pathological. However, when we experience anxiety in the absence of any real threat our capacity to function effectively is impaired and quality of life is diminished. Anxiety is not our default state and chronic anxiety that is always there impairs optimal functioning.

Three specific psychological mechanisms that are often a focus in treatment include:

  1. Reducing ‘future orientation’. Anxiety is a ‘future-oriented state’. Mindfulness skills can enable us to become more ‘present focussed’.
  2. Behavioural strategies to manage hyper-arousal. Diaphragmatic breathing is one important behavioural strategy. When the body is tense breathing is affected even before panic begins.
  3. Identifying and influencing thought patterns related to anxiety. Thoughts can be both the result and trigger for anxiety states. Thus the relationship between thoughts and feelings is bidirectional. Consciously influencing thoughts can result in a significant reduction in anxiety. Catastrophising thought patterns often begin with “Oh no!”. These cognitions block us from a realistic appraisal of threat. Anxiety is often associated with difficulty in perspective taking that has been referred to as a tendency to ‘over care’. For example, nobody likes the idea of sudden unemployment, however, becoming preoccupied with this future possibility amplifies distress.

Three physiological mechanisms in the body that are related to anxiety include:

  1. The HPA axis is the communication between our hormones and stress. Anxiety confuses our hormonal system and elevates stress levels even when we are asleep. Anxiety related hormones such as cortisol can easily be measured in the blood or in saliva and might be a key factor in solving the underlying cause of chronic anxiety. Once diagnosed, hormonal imbalances can be significantly reduced by supplementing with Magnesium, as it has a direct effect on lowering stress hormones in the blood.
  2. The brain and the gut are connected through a ‘nerve highway’ called the Vagus nerve. The gut is covered with many nerve endings and researchers now call it our second brain because of the tight-knit connection the brain and the gut share. Anxiety releases stress chemicals which affect the nerve endings in the gut. This results in an inability to digest food properly. Stress chemicals switch off digestive juice secretion which often results in cramping, bloating and bowel habit changes. Long term IBS is often a result of Anxiety and can be treated successfully by restoring the gut lining with Glutamine, probiotics and Food therapy. Gut Function tests and Food sensitivity testing can be useful in restoring healthy function.
  3. Low levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA is implicated in anxiety. Low levels of GABA contribute to anxiety and sleep issues. GABA is made from Protein sources such as meat and eggs but we need Vitamin B6, Magnesium and Zinc. If these are lacking, anxiety and agitation are often more prevalent. Get your levels of Vitamin B6 and Zinc checked regularly to rule out imbalances.

Authors: Sarah Henschel & Wade Jacklin