When it comes to gastroenterological issues, the first line of attack is to look at diet. But discovering what foods a given patient is sensitive to is a lengthy process that physicians don't have time to do.
That's when health coaches can contribute, according to Rebecca Mills-Anderson, CHHC (certified holistic health coach). "We believe if you give the body the right tools, it will heal itself," she said. "We work as part of a team with doctors. I serve as a health coach, allowing doctors to do their job."
Diet and lifestyle can have significant impact on treatment for patients with gastric issues. "A study on one particular diet had a 75 percent reversal rate on IBD. Although it was a small study, that is still impressive. And that's just one dietary problem," Mills-Anderson said.
As an autoimmune and neurological specialist, Mills-Anderson does rely on a variety of tests to help determine how she works with her patients. "I run a complete stool test that will check for infection, yeast overgrowth, parasites and inflammation markers," she said. "One of the markers I look at is SigA. It tells me about the immune system."
She also runs gene tests to help determine a course of action. "I gene test based on the Shoemaker protocol," she said. "This test tells me what toxins a person is unable to neutralize. What toxins may be triggering disease if this person has been exposed to them? It helps me find the culprit of what could be causing widespread inflammation. After finding out someone carries a certain gene, I'm going to take out foods that are suspect because of that gene."
Mills-Anderson, clinical director of BringingSozo in Birmingham, is clear about her role as a health coach working with patients and physicians. "I don't use the test results to diagnose, treat or prevent illness," she said. "A doctor has seen test results and gives me feedback. I use that feedback to determine the best approach for a diet and lifestyle to support the patient's healing."
Working in concert with a physician can make a critical difference for the patient, since most insurance doesn't cover tests she orders. If a doctor requests the tests, however, insurance is more likely to pay for them, and she and the physician have laid the groundwork for a team approach.
"Most people have food sensitivities," she said. "I start every patient on some kind of food elimination diet. The big question is, which one? It depends on the person, and I only work with people who are very motivated.
"Different people with the same disease may need a different approach to bring balance back to their body. One may be a suppressed immune system and one might be an overactive one. One might be lacking enzymes and another lacking good bacteria. What it takes to put a person back in balance is very individual. I tell my clients I'm helping put the puzzle together."
As a bottom line, she generally begins with eliminating dairy and gluten. "There's tons of research that says even one meal with gluten can cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, whether you are having symptoms or not," she said. The test results, along with information from both physicians and the patient, may mean other foods are added to the elimination diet.
Then food is slowly added back one at a time to determine if it may be the cause of the problem. "My goal is to begin adding some foods back within 30 to 60 days," Mills-Anderson said. "Although it can take six months, I'm very calculated about what order we introduce food back into their diet and when. There's an art to this, as well as a science."
"Health coaches can take the time to sort out the puzzle and put it together for improved health of the clients. At the end of the day, I'm having clients eat more vegetables, more healthy fats, drink more water and take care of themselves. I'm not going to give them anything they can't buy at Whole Foods. But it's not an easy fix. If it were, everyone would be doing it."