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Reflections on a Journey of Understanding

By Michael Sharp, MD

I’ve been writing for Health&Healing for over 17 years. This coincides with my migration out of academic medicine and into the world of integrative/ wholistic/functional medicine. My very first article in this series in the summer of 2005 described my rocky first encounter with Chinese Medicine. I remember the difficulty I had loosening my more mechanistic, material, and reductionistic understanding of disease and healing that came from my traditional western medicine training. Qi seemed so immaterial! At that time, I considered substance more powerful than understanding, a pill more substantial than compassion.

Michael Sharp, MD

Chinese Medicine is a poetic understanding of the energies that determine well-being with the core belief that yin and yang, understanding, balance, interconnectedness, and flow underlie resilience and longevity. I believe a fundamental dialectic inhibits the understanding of how healing works in western medicine. It is the belief woven into the materialism of western medicine that illness is either mind or body and mind is the weak force, and the biochemistry of the body is the strong force.

My migration towards the “energetics” of healing included a passage through believing in the power of the biochemistry of the body as seen from a systems perspective: all things are connected. And there is power in this viewpoint; digestion, nutrition, mentation, mood, detoxification, energy storage and use, immune function, and cell health are all related and illness cannot be truly understood without understanding how each of these functions is working in relation to each of the others. If we can grasp the deep levels of interconnectedness and the origins of the breakdown of normal function, we know enough of how the biochemistry works to intervene in repair mode. Pharmaceuticals tend to block normal function; supplements tend to nurture and support the return to harmonic inter-relatedness. And it is undeniably true that lifestyle, diet, exercise, stress reduction, good sleep all have powerful effects on our biochemistry. Every bit as powerfully as medication.

I spent many rewarding years working with clients repairing the functional breakdowns of their physiology. There have been many happy turns of events. Restoration of normal micro-flora in the gut, healthy balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, elimination of toxins through the digestive system, support of normal mitochondrial function, addressing activation of the stress hormone cascade, repairing leaky guts and healthy sleep cycles has led to profound effects on troubling symptoms of fatigue, IBS, painful muscles, migraine headaches, and high levels of anxiety.

But over the years I’ve noted a troubling tendency of people whom I’ve helped to come back with either a relapse or the appearance of some new symptoms that seems to defy a diagnosis or effective treatment. In my persistent quest to understand the root of disease, I’ve realized that the common denominator was always a dysregulated autonomic nervous system. The stress hormone cascade has been hard at work trying to identify and address threat. Hypervigilance and anxiety are ever present.

Western Medicine tends to put anxiety into the category of illness, like depression. I think that’s wrong, and I’ll tell you why. These things don’t come from nowhere! They are present because the person has experienced some reason to feel insecure. Anxiety should not be treated; it should be understood. The more anxiety, the deeper the wound. The deeper the wound, the more difficult the path to discovery and understanding. And only with understanding will come the compassion that turns the anxiety into acceptance.

This is my last column for Health&Healing. I hope my words over these years have been helpful and healing.  I will continue my work as a trauma therapist and functional medicine practitioner and hope to meet many of you on this road. It is important work and worthy of our continued best and most happy efforts at discovery together. And a parting word of deep gratitude to Josh Hartford and his wife and partner Sheilah Thomas—the heart and soul behind this publication. What a contribution they have made over the years to the well-being of our community! Josh's inspiration and support have been especially meaningful for me over all these years. He believed in what I did from the very beginning and that has always been important to me and kept me upright when things felt iffy.

Warm best to each of you. To your health!