9 Root Causes Of Disease
by Dr. Talia Marcheggiani
Dr. Talia Marcheggiani is a naturopathic doctor practicing in Toronto. She has a special focus in mental health and hormones and uses an individualized mind-body approach to uncover and treat the root cause of disease. She is registered with the College of Naturopaths of Ontario and is a member of the Ontario and Canadian Associations of Naturopathic Medicine.
Like many people I see, Sandra was experiencing debilitating fatigue and weakness.
I often get emails like this:
“Dear Doctor, please tell me your favourite natural cure for anxiety”.
To which I often reply:
Imagine you are a skilled gardener: you tend lovingly to your plants every day and you care deeply for their welfare.
You are the perfect gardener in every way, except for one: for some reason you don’t know anything about soil.
No one has ever taught you about the damp, dark world that envelopes the roots of your beloved plants, kindly offering to them its protection, water, and nutrients.
You are a gardener but are innocently oblivious to the fact that soil must be nurtured by billions of microbes, and that nutrients in the soil must be replenished. You have no idea that the other plants sharing the soil with your garden form a complex network of give and take, depositing nutrients into it while greedily sucking others away.
Now, as this soil-ignorant gardener, imagine your surprise when, despite your care and attention, the plants in your garden wither and die, bearing no flowers or fruit.
Imagine your frustration when your efforts to prop up tired stems fail. You apply water and fertilizer to buds, leaves and stems. You stand by, powerless, as your garden dies.
Notice the weeds taking over your garden, which you lop off at their stems, unaware that their roots reside deep inside the earth.
When the weeds pop up again and again, you slash at them, burn them, and you curse the skies.
Why you, indeed.
You are unaware of root gardening, soil gardening, just as many of us are unaware of root medicine—soil medicine.
You see, Anxiety, there are many natural remedies that can help.
However, tossing natural pills at twitching nerves, imbalanced blood sugar, unregulated stress responses, and various nutrient deficiencies, might be as naive a practice as spray painting your roses while they wilt in sandy earth, beneath their red paint.
It might be akin to prescribing anxiety medication or a shot of vodka to calm your trembling mind; you might feel better for a time, propped up with good intentions, before collapsing in the dry soil encasing you.
With no one to tend to your roots you eventually crumple, anxiety still rampant.
“Why me?” You curse the skies.
Rather than asking, “Why me?” it might help to simply start asking, “Why?”
While it is important to understand the “What” of your condition—What disease is present? What is the best natural cure for anxiety?—naturopathic doctors are far more interested in the “Why”.
As Dr. Mark Hyman, functional medical doctor, asks:
- Why are your symptoms occurring?
- Why now?
- And why in this way?
It's true, naturopathic doctors prescribe natural remedies for conditions such as anxiety.
However, naturopathic medicine is a medicine that first tends to the soil.
Naturopathic doctors first look for and address the roots of symptoms, working with the relationships that exist between you and your body, your food, the people in your life, your society, your environment—your soil.
Healing involves taking a complete inventory of all the factors in your life that influence your mental, physical, and emotional wellness.
It requires looking at the air, water, sunlight, nutrients, stressors, hormones, chemicals, microbes, thoughts and emotions that our cells bathe in each day.
Healing means looking closely at the soil that surrounds us.
It requires asking, What are the roots that this condition stems from?
And, What soil buries these roots? Does it nourish me?
Do I nourish it?
The causes of disease can be interconnected and complex. Very often, however, there are common root networks from which many modern-day chronic health conditions arise...
9 Root Causes Of Disease...
1) Confused Circadian Rhythms
For hundreds of thousands of years, all of humanity rose, hunted, ate, fasted, and slept according to the sun’s rhythms.
To align us with nature, our bodies contain internal clocks.
There's a central one located in the brain, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is susceptible to light from the sun.
And there are peripheral clocks located in the liver and pancreas, which respond to our eating patterns.
Our gut bacteria also respond to and influence our body’s clocks.
However, the invention of electricity, night shifts, and 24-hour convenience stores means that our bodies can no longer rely on the outside world to guide our waking and sleeping patterns.
This can confuse our circadian rhythms, leading to digestive issues, insomnia, daytime fatigue, mood disorders, and problems with metabolism, appetite, and blood-sugar regulation.
Dr. Satchin Panda, PhD, a researcher at the Salk Institute in California, found that mice who ate a poor diet experienced altered circadian rhythms.
However, he found that when these mice were fed the same diet in accordance with their natural rhythms, they weighed less, had lower incidences of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, had better cognitive health, and lived longer.
These findings indicate that perhaps it is not what we eat but when that may impact our health.
Perhaps it is that an unnatural diet disconnects us from nature, or that this disconnection tempts us to choose non-nutritive foods, but the research by Dr. Panda and his team reveals the importance of aligning our daily routines with our bodies’ natural rhythms in order to experience optimal health.
According to Dr. Panda’s findings, this involves eating during an 8 to 12-hour window, perhaps having breakfast at 7am and finishing dinner early, or simply avoiding nighttime snacking.
For many of us, this may involve making the effort to keep our sleep schedules consistent, even on weekends.
For most of us, it involves avoiding exposure to electronics (which emit circadian-confusing blue light) after the sun goes down, and exposing our eyes to natural sunlight as soon after waking as possible.
2) Starving Gut Bacteria
It was Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who first proclaimed that “All disease begins in the gut.”
Our digestive systems are long, hollow tubes that extend from mouth to anus and serve as our body’s connection to the outside world. What enters our digestive system does not fully become the body until the cells that line that digestive tract deem these nutrients worthy of entering.
Along their 9 metre-long, 50-hour journey, these nutrients are processed by digestive enzymes, broken down by trillions of beneficial bacteria, and sorted out by the immune cells that guard entrance to our vulnerable bodies.
Our immune cells make the judgment call between what sustains us and what has that potential to kill us. For this reason, about 70% of our immune system is located along our digestive tract.
Our gut bacteria, containing an estimated 30 trillion cells, outnumber the cells in our body, the most recent ratio being estimated at 3 to 1 (the ratio is often cited at 10 to 1, but that's wrong, and note that we still don't know the ratio for sure).
Science has only just begun to write the love story between these tiny cells and our bodies.
These bacteria are responsible for aiding in the digestion of our food, producing essential nutrients, such as B vitamins and fat-soluble vitamins, and keeping our intestines healthy.
However, this love story can turn tragic when these little romantics are not properly fed or nurtured, or when antagonists enter the story in the form of pathogenic bacteria or yeast.
Our microbiome may impact our health in various ways.
Studies are emerging showing that obese people have different gut profiles than those who are normal weight.
Our gut bacteria have a role in producing the hormones that regulate hunger, mood, stress, circadian rhythms, metabolism, and inflammation.
They regulate our immune system, playing a role in soothing autoimmune conditions, and improving our ability to fight off infections and cancer.
Psychological and physical stress, inflammation, medication use, and a diet consisting of processed food can all conspire to negatively affect the health of our gut.
This can lead to a plethora of diseases: mood disorders, psychiatric illness, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain and inflammation, obesity, hormonal issues, such as endometriosis, autoimmune disease, and, of course, chronic digestive concerns such as IBS, among others.
As Hippocrates long knew, one doesn’t have to dig for long to uncover an unhappy gut microbiome as one of the primary roots of disease.
Our gut has the power to nurture us, to provide us with the fuel that keeps our mood bright and our energy high. However, if we fail it, out gut also has the power to plague our cells with chronic inflammation and disease.
To be fully healthy, we must tend to our gut like a careful gardener tends to her soil.
This involves eating a diet rich in fermented foods, like kefir, and dietary fibre, like leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, and black beans. It also means consuming flavonoid-rich foods like green tea and cocoa, and consuming a colourful tapestry of various fruits and vegetables.
Healing our gut requires avoiding foods it doesn’t like. These may include foods that feed pathogenic bacteria, mount an immune response, kill our good bacteria, trigger inflammation, or simply those processed foods that fail to nurture us.
To heal ourselves, first we must feed our gut.
3) Nature Deficit Disorder
Nature Deficit Disorder is a phrase, coined by Richard Louv, in the 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods.
According to Louv, a variety of childhood problems, especially mental health diagnoses like ADHD, are a direct result of our society’s tendency to increasingly alienate children from nature.
With most of humanity living in cities, nature has become a place we visit, rather than what immerses us.
However much modernization might remove us from nature, our bodies, as well as the food, air, water, sunlight, and natural settings they require to thrive, are products of nature, and cannot be separated from it.
A Japanese practice called Shinrin-Yoku, or "Forest Bathing”, developed in the 1980’s to attempt to reconnect modern people with the healing benefits of spending time in a natural setting.
There is an immediate reduction in stress hormones, blood pressure, and heart rate when people immerse themselves in natural environments, such as a forest.
Whether we like it or not, our roots need soil. It is possible that the components of this soil are too complex to manufacture. When we try to live without soil, essential elements that nourish us and the various relationships between these elements are left out.
When we remove ourselves from nature, or ignore it fully, we become like gardeners oblivious to the deep dependency their plants have on the soil that enshrouds them.
Connecting with nature by spending time outside, retraining our circadian rhythms, connecting with our food sources, and consuming natural, whole foods may be essential for balancing our minds, emotions, and physical bodies.
4) A Lack of Key Building Blocks
Our bodies are like complex machines that need a variety of macro and micronutrients, which provide us with the fuel, building blocks, vitamins and minerals we need to function.
As a child, I would play with Lego, putting together complex structures according to the blueprints in the box.
When I discovered that a piece was missing, I would fret. It meant that my masterpiece would no longer look right, or work. If I was lucky, I might find a similar piece to replace it, but it wouldn’t be the same.
After looking long and hard for it, sometimes the missing piece would turn up. I’d locate it under the carpet, my brother’s bottom, or lodged in a dark corner of the box. Often our bodies don’t get that lucky.
Nutrients like vitamin B12, or a specific essential amino acid, or a mineral like magnesium help our body perform essential steps in its various biochemical pathways.
These pathways follow our innate blueprint for health. They dictate how we eat, sleep, breathe, and create and use energy. They control how our bones and hair grow. They control our mood and hormones. They form our immune systems. These pathways run us.
Our bodies carry out the complicated instructions in our DNA to will us into existence using the ingredients supplied from food.
If our bodies are missing one or several of these ingredients—a vitamin or mineral—an important bodily task simply won’t get done.
Dr. Bruce Ames, PhD, theorized that when nutrient levels are suboptimal, the body triages what it has to cover tasks essential to our immediate survival while compromising other jobs that are important, but less dire.
For example, a body may have enough vitamin C to repair wounds or keep the teeth in our mouths—warding off obvious signs of scurvy, a disease that results from severe vitamin C deficiency. However, it may not have enough to protect us from the free radicals generated in and outside of our bodies.
This deficiency may eventually lead to chronic inflammation, and years later, even cancer.
According to Dr. Ames’ Triage Theory, mild to moderate nutrient deficiencies may manifest later in life, as diseases that arise from the deprivation of the building blocks needed to thrive.
In North America, despite an overconsumption of calories, nutrient deficiencies are surprisingly common.
25-50% of people don’t get enough iron, which is important for the transport of oxygen, the synthesis of neurotransmitters, and for proper thyroid function.
One-third of the world’s population is deficient in iodine, which affects thyroid health and fertility.
Up to 82% of North Americans are vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D regulates the expression of over 1000 genes in the body, including those involved in mood regulation, bone health, immunity, and cancer prevention.
Vitamin B12 is commonly deficient in the elderly, vegans and vegetarians. It is important for lowering inflammation, creating mood-regulating neurotransmitters, and supporting nervous system health. Deficiency in vitamin B12 can result in fatigue. Severe deficiency can lead to irreversible nerve damage, dementia, and even seizures.
Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in over 300 chemical reactions, including mood and hormone pathways. Over 40% of North Americans do not consume enough magnesium, which is found in leafy green vegetables.
Our bodies have requirements for fats - which make up our brain mass and the backbone of our sex hormones - and protein - which makes up our enzymes, neurotransmitters and the structure of our body: bones, skin, hair, nails, and connective tissue.
Our gut microbiota require fibre.
Our cells need antioxidants to help protect us from the free radical damage from our own cells’ metabolism and our exposure to environmental toxins.
We certainly are what we eat, which means we can be magnificent structures with every piece in place, thriving with abundance and energy.
Despite reasonably good intentions, we can also suffer from nutrient scarcity, forced to triage essential nutrients to keep us from keeling over, while our immune health, mood, and overall vitality slowly erode.
In summary, we need to eat a diverse array of highly nutrient-dense foods in order to get the nutrition our bodies need. In addition, many of us need supplementation, based on our individual deficiencies, which very often are too far out of whack corrected through food alone.
5) Constant Fighting and Fleeing
Like inflammation, our stress response is essential to our survival.
When facing a predatory animal, our body is flooded with stress hormones that aim to remove us from the danger: either through fighting, fleeing, or freezing.
Our stress response is affectionately called our “Fight or Flight” response.
However, like inflammation, problems arise when our stress response refuses to turn off.
Traffic, exams, fights with in-laws, and other modern-day struggles can be constant predators that keep us in a chronically stressed-out state.
Chronic stress has major implications for our health: it can affect the gut, damage our microbiome, alter our circadian rhythms, mess with mood and hormones, and contribute to chronic inflammation.
Stress gets in the way of our ability to care for ourselves: it isolates us, encourages us to consume unhealthy foods, and buffer our emotions through food, alcohol, work, and drugs.
We also know that stress has a role in the development of virtually every disease.
Like chronic inflammation, it has been found to contribute to chronic anxiety, depression, digestive concerns, weight gain, headaches, heart disease, insomnia, chronic pain, and problems with concentration and memory, among others.
The first step to dealing with stress in this day and age is to make doing so one of our number one priorities. Just like eating a healthy diet and exercising, we should be taking time every day to de-stress, as well as building our capacity to handle stress through practices such as meditation.
6) A Body on Fire: Chronic Inflammation
When we injure ourselves—banging a knee against the sharp edge of the coffee table, or slashing a thumb with a paring knife—our immune systems rally to the scene.
Our immune cells protect us against invaders that might take advantage of the broken skin to infect us.
They mount an inflammatory response, with symptoms of pain, heat, redness, and swelling, in order to heal us. They recruit proteins to the scene to stop blood loss. They seal our skin back up, leaving behind only a small white scar—a clumsiness souvenir.
Our inflammatory response is truly amazing.
Once the danger has been dealt with, the immune response is trained to turn off. However, when exposed to a stressor, bacteria, or toxin for prolonged periods, our immune system may have trouble quieting. Chronic issues can contribute to chronic inflammation.
Scientists argue that an inflammatory response gone rogue may be the source of most chronic diseases, from heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, to schizophrenia and major depressive disorder.
The gut is often the source of chronic inflammation as it hosts about 70% of the immune system.
When we eat something that our immune system doesn’t like, an inflammatory response is triggered. This can cause digestive issues such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and the more common irritable bowel syndrome.
It can also lead to more widespread issues like chronic pain, arthritis, migraines, and even mood disorders like Bipolar.
Ensuring optimal gut health through nurturing the gut microbiome and eating a clean diet free of food sensitivities are both essential for keeping the body’s levels of inflammation low.
7) Discomfort with Discomfort
To assess its impact on health, it helps to determine between two key types of stress: distress, the chronic wear and tear of traffic, disease, and deadlines, and eustress: the beneficial stress—the short-lived discomfort of intense exercise, the euphoric agony of emotional vulnerability, or the bitter nutrients of green vegetables—that makes the body more resilient to hardship.
Whenever I feel discomfort, I try to remember the ducks.
Several years ago, on a particularly frigid winter day, I was walking my dog.
Bundled against the cold wind, we strolled along the semi-frozen lake, past tree branches beautifully preserved in glass cases of ice.
Icebergs floated on the lake. So did a group of ducks, bobbing peacefully in the icy waters.
With nothing to protect their thin flippers from the sub-zero temperatures, they couldn’t have felt comfortable.
There couldn’t have been even a part of them that felt warm, cozy, or fed.
There was no fire for them to retreat to, no dinner waiting for them at home, no slippers to stuff frozen, wet flippers into.
This was it. The ducks were here, outside with us, withstanding the temperatures of the icy lake. A part of them must have been suffering. And yet, they were surviving.
Far from surviving, the ducks looked down-right content.
I think of the ducks and I think of the resilience of nature.
We humans are resilient too. Like the ducks, our bodies have survived temperature extremes. Our ancestors withstood famine, intense heat, biting cold, terrible injury, and the constant threat of attack and infection, for millenia.
You were born a link on an unbroken chain of survivors, extending 10,000 generations long.
Our bodies have been honed over these hundreds of thousands of years to survive, even thrive, during the horrendous conditions that plagued most of our evolutionary history.
Investigations into the human genome have revealed genes that get turned on in periods of eustress: bursts of extreme heat/cold, fasting, and high-intensity exercise.
When our body encounters one of these stressors, it activates a hormetic response to overcome the stress. Often the response is greater than what is needed to neutralize the threat, resulting in a net benefit for our bodies.
These protective genes create new brain cells, boost mitochondria function, lower inflammation, clear out damaged cells, boost the creation of stem cells, repair DNA, and create powerful antioxidants. Our bodies are flooded with hormones that increase our sense of well-being.
It’s like the old adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Our bodies were made for discomfort. In fact, we have entire genetic pathways waiting to kick in and heal us as soon as they experience hardship.
There are a growing number of studies on the healing power of small troubles:
- Fasting may have a role in treating autoimmune diseases, decreasing the signs of aging, and as an adjunct therapy for cancer
- Sauna therapy boosts detoxification and may prevent dementia
- Cryotherapy, or exposure to extreme cold, has the potential to heal arthritis and autoimmunity
- High Intensity Interval Training has been shown to boost cardiovascular health more than moderate-intensity exercise
Plants may benefit us through flavonoids, which, rather than serving as nutrients, act as small toxins that boost these hormetic pathways, encouraging the body to make loads of its own, powerful antioxidants to combat these tiny toxins.
Mindfully embracing discomfort—the bitter taste of plants, the chilly night air, the deep growling hunger that occurs between meals—may be essential for letting our bodies express their full healing potential.
8) Not Minding Our Minds
Our ability to withstand powerful emotions may have healing benefits.
Many of us avoid painful feelings, allowing them to fester within us. We buffer them with excess food or drugs, leading to addictions.
Mindfulness can help us learn to be with the discomfort of the emotions, thoughts and physical sensations that arise in the body as inevitable side effects of being alive.
Research has shown that mindfulness can help decrease rumination, and prevent depressive relapse. It also helps lower perceived stress.
How we perceive the stressors in our lives can lower the damaging effects they have on us. Research has shown that those who view their life stressors as challenges to overcome have lower stress hormone activation, and experience greater life satisfaction.
According to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), our thoughts create our emotions. Becoming more aware of our thoughts, through CBT or mindfulness, allows us to identify which thoughts may be limiting us or exacerbating our reactions to stressful situations.
When we learn to observe our thoughts, we create some distance from them. We become less likely to see the dismal thoughts in our minds as absolute truths.
Practicing mindful meditation, CBT, or cultivating positive thoughts such as engaging in a daily gratitude practice may improve our resilience to chronic stress.
According to Stephen Cope, yoga teacher and author of The Great Work of Your Life, “You love what you know deeply.
Get to know yourself deeply”. We get to know things deeply by paying attention to them.
Georgia O’Keefe’s admiration for flowers, or Monet’s adoration of landscapes, is apparent to anyone who sees their work.
In order to commit images to canvas, the artists gets to know their subject matter deeply. Their art celebrates what they took the time to pay attention to, and eventually came to love.
As a naturopathic doctor, I believe that healing begins with attention. When we become aware of our bodies, we begin to know them deeply.
Awareness allows us to respond to symptoms lovingly, the way a mother learns to skillfully attend to her baby’s distinct cries.
When I first meet a new patient, the first thing I have them do is start to pay attention.
We become curious about their symptoms, their food intake, their sleep patterns, their habits and routines, the physical sensations of their emotions, the thoughts that run through their heads.
Through paying attention, with non-judgmental curiosity, my patients start to understand their bodies in new ways. They learn how certain foods feel in their bodies, how certain sleep habits affect their energy levels the next day, and how specific thoughts contribute to their feelings.
Once we begin to open up this dialogue with our bodies, it becomes impossible not to answer them with love. It becomes hard not to eat, sleep, and move in ways that convey self-respect.
A gardener who pays deep attention cannot ignore the obvious—her plants have roots, embedded in soil. The gardener quickly learns, through careful observation, that the health of this soil is vital to the health of her plants.
And so, back to the original question, “What is your favourite natural cure for anxiety?”
My favourite remedy isn’t a bottle of pills we reach for, it’s a question we reach for from within:
“What do I need to heal?”
After asking the question, we wait.
We wait for the answer to emerge from some primal place within, just as a gardener waits for new buds to rise out of the mysterious depths of the dark, nutritious soil.