Are You a Horse or a Zebra?

I have always been a slightly unconventional thinker. It doesn’t always serve me, and there are times when I have lost sleep recounting something I have said that might have offended, or an opinion I might have stated too strongly.This way of thinking does serve me, however, as a physician. I have to be willing to look at a person’s health from multiple angles, to consider contributing factors that might have been missed. I am a primary care provider and a naturopath. I have a foot in both worlds of medicine, and I am an Integrative Medicine Practitioner. Or as I like to call it: a doctor. I no longer consider myself to be an “alternative” medicine practitioner. Everyone from MDs to chiropractors to health enthusiasts are studying and practicing functional medicine, which is essentially naturopathic medicine for non-naturopaths.

What is wonderful about this shift in thought is that many people are now willing to think outside of the box. What is frustrating is that the alternative medicine community is in some ways becoming as hard-nosed and unwilling to think outside the box as the standard medical community historically has been. What I am seeing is that every health complaint is now attributed to the rare and trendy diagnosis- SIBO, candida, etc- while basic diagnoses and health concerns are bypassed. This could be because basic health concerns are more boring, and are often not quickly fixed. They require time, education and attention.

In medicine, when a patient is worked up for a health concern, we generate a list of possible causes. There is a saying that you don’t consider a zebra- a more rare condition- to be the cause until the horses- the common, most likely conditions- have been ruled out. These days everyone walks in wanting to be a Zebra. The reality is that most people respond very well to getting back to the fundamentals of health, and this requires daily work that is a lot more boring than throwing an armful of supplements at a patient and having them pay more money to be retested in three months.

I sell supplements as a part of my business. I am honestly terrible at this. I don’t think everyone needs supplements and I don’t think supplements cure every condition. It is so easy to be unhealthy in America today. It is HARD- and I REALLY MEAN IT IS HARD WORK- to actually try to live in a state of health. Our world does not make it easy to access healthy food. Our world tells us to eat food that is not good for our bodies, and to eat too much of it. And then when we don’t feel good, we are sold supplements to help offset our bad habits. There are so many practitioners out there who want to sell you testing that is not covered by insurance, and then want to sell you a lot of supplements to treat those results, because we all want to feel like special, dazzlingly striped zebras.

The truth? You are probably just a beautiful horse. And that means that every day you need to move your strong body. You need to nourish that body with a lot of plant-based food that requires time and energy to prepare. You need to sleep and to turn off your damn phone. These basics apply to all of us including myself, and sometimes I just want to be a special zebra who can get away with eating ice cream and checking my phone in the middle of the night. If your doctor is not spending time talking about these basic issues with you, in my opinion you are not being properly treated.

Some of my patients really are zebras! It is my job to figure out which ones. Some actually do have candida. They really have overgrowth of yeast in their digestive systems. Some require special testing and some require referrals to specialists. But the reality is that most don’t actually qualify for this testing or this diagnosis. Most have the same symptoms that you will read about on the internet for candida overgrowth: they are fatigued, have gained weight, crave carbohydrates and are gassy. The reality is that without aggressively treating a candida overgrowth (with medications or supplements), basic lifestyle changes will improve all of these symptoms.

It is so wonderful that our understanding of the human body is expanding every day. I love that so many practitioners are willing to be unconventional thinkers. We have to be willing to be creative with our approaches to healthcare, and we have to stay humble and always continue to learn. We also have to remain willing to take the time to consider the root cause of health concerns. Most often this means being willing to work with the daily grind of taking good care of our patients, who are usually healthy, strong horses without any stripes at all.

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