Lifestyle Health Tries To Find Underlying Causes For Conditions

Anne Magnuson’s future is very much undetermined.

The St. Cloud native already earned a nursing degree and is waiting to find out if she’ll be attending medical school this fall.

She’s driven and taking opportunities while she can, with no regrets. You wouldn’t know all of this from looking at her.

Nor would you know that she’s been living with chronic disease for nearly a decade.

How does she cope?

For a while, she didn’t.

When she was 15, she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome. She had suddenly gained 25 pounds, which for her 5-foot, 3-inch, 115-pound frame was a lot.

At age 17, she was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. The medication didn’t work for her and she never knew how long symptoms would last.

Later, she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. That chronic condition is easy for her to manage now, she said, especially as she’s gotten into better physical shape.

Since college, she’s been struggling to lose weight and to just feel better.

“Because as a nurse and eventual doctor, I do want to be a good example for my patients,” she said. “And I do understand … there are some health conditions that you have that just make it really hard to look healthy …  on the outside.”

Stress will continue to be a major determinant of her health. It can trigger and complicate her chronic conditions and make it it difficult to live healthy. She knows now is the time to learn how to manage it, for her long-term health.

That’s where functional medicine comes in. It’s a part of a wellness wave taking over medicine in the U.S. With the opening of Lifestyle Health, CentraCare has joined the fray.

The department opened last year in the the new St. Cloud Area Family YMCA Community Aquatics Center.

So what is function medicine and how can it help Magnuson?

Instead of popping pills or having surgery to fix chronic problems, patients are being asked about their lifestyle: what they eat, how they sleep, how they exercise, how they hydrate and how they relax.

It’s about finding new ways to cope with chronic pain and finding underlying causes for symptoms.

The trick?

There’s no one right answer to living a disease-free, pain-free life.

It’s a new way of thinking about health, said Dr. George Morris, physician vice president of performance excellence.

Instead of treating diseases and conditions, they hope to prevent them. That’s one reason you won’t find Lifestyle Health at St. Cloud Hospital or CentraCare Health Plaza.

“We’re challenging ourselves to think outside of the hospital and think outside of the clinic,” he said.

By finding and dealing with the underlying cause, a patient will hopefully find long-term relief, instead of temporary suppression of symptoms, said Kathleen Mahon, an advanced practice nurse and certified nurse practitioner trained in functional medicine.

“I think there is a move in that direction because what we’re recognizing is that we’re really facing an epidemic of chronic disease. We need some other ways to think about it,” Mahon said.

How does it work?

Instead of asking what’s wrong with you or what your symptoms are, staff will ask what your goals are.

“Some people aren’t so clear when they first come in. They’ll say, ‘I just want to feel better,’ ” Mahon said.

That was Magnuson’s experience with Mahon.

“One of the first questions she asked me was why did you come and what are you hoping to get from this,” she said. “I really appreciated that. … It really showed me how much they cared about what I was really wanting from this.”

For her, that meant wanting to resolve headaches and fatigue, to lose weight and, in general, live healthier.

“I’m 24. I do not need to be on the same medication that my 91-year-old grandma’s on,” she said.

From there, staff and patients go through a process of elimination.

“Because this is an important question in functional medicine, not just what you have, but why do you have it,” she said.

Because humans are complicated, there could be a combination of factors complicated by a person’s genes, environment and lifestyle. For Magnuson, they started with an elimination diet, gradually determining what types of food had adverse affects on her body.

Stress is an important factor, too.

“The mind-body connection is huge,” Mahon said. ‘When you think of it, stress in itself causes a whole physiologic response in the body. And there’s also the aspect that when we’re stressed we tend not to eat well, we don’t sleep well, we don’t exercise. So it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle.”

The work it takes to limit your diet, track systems and manage stress takes effort. Functional medicine is a type of practice where staff can’t help a patient if the patient isn’t willing to change.

“When we’re dealing with lifestyle things, people need to be behind that. People need to … own that responsibility. We help and guide them, but … they’re really driving the boat and we’re navigating,” Mahon said.

One major benefit of functional medicine is the sense of getting control of your body back.

“It’s really gratifying to see that change,” Mahon said. “When people come and they’ve had years of every moment of every day is about their health condition. And … that starts to change.”

How they make behavioral changes can also be patient-guided.

“We are collaborating with patients,” Mahon said. “I’m not saying, ‘I see you have X, Y and Z and this is going to be our treatment approach.’ “

For Magnuson, that was how they rolled out changes.

“I know for me, if I try to do too many changes at once, I get overwhelmed and I just don’t do it,” she said.

It goes beyond what a lot of self-improvement and health efforts have taken.

“It’s not just educating people. It’s allowing them to gain some awareness into their own health, their habits … habits in eating, exercise or habits of the mind,” she said.

Those habits can develop over a lifetime and can be deeply ingrained.

“We really look at people’s whole life. We look at a life history and we look to see where did imbalances start to occur,” Mahon said.

It ends up affirming the patient at the same time.

“I felt like I was heard and I was valued as an individual,” Magnuson said. “My input matter and my opinions mattered.”

People come to functional medicine a variety of ways.

Some see trends in their family they don’t want to follow: heart disease, cancer, other chronic conditions. Some patients come in with symptoms, but don’t have a definite diagnosis.

Some have long-established chronic disease, and hope to reverse or lessen symptoms. Some aren’t sure how limited their lives have become until they resolve a problem.

“Often, people live with things. and they just accept that that’s just a part of their day to daily life,” Mahon said.

The practice uses a number of methods to help patients make behavioral changes. Massage, acupuncture, and diet and exercise guidance are just the start. Patients can attend one-time or longer-term education classes. Topics range from healthy eating and sports performance to integrative health and mindfulness.

But a patient isn’t left having to make decisions alone.

“Listening to what their concerns are is really the most important thing to guide them in the direction that might be most helpful for them,” Mahon said.

Eventually, staff hope the principles of functional medicine can be used in conjunction with other specialties and departments.

“The broader CentraCare can learn from what was done here,” said Morris, the physician vice president of performance excellence.

Staff also hopes that insurance companies catch up with the medical community. Some aspects of treatment at the clinic are not covered, but that is changing.

And so is Lifestyle Health.

“I feel like we evolve every day,” said Laura Fritz, referral coordinator for Lifestyle Health. “It’s wonderful to have that kind of growth and to just see it evolve into something as wonderful as it has … I think it’s even changed since we opened our doors, a lot.”

Mahon agreed.

“We wanted to have that organic nature to it, so that it could grow and develop,” Mahon said, guided by the community’s needs.

Magnuson’s future is also still in flux. She’s already considering medical specialties: ear, nose and throat, neurosurgery or electrophysiology.

Just recently, she’s added functional medicine to that list.

“I didn’t know about functional medicine before this. It is one of the things I’m thinking about becasue of how positive my experience has been … the impact it’s had on my life,” she said. “Knowing chronic illness is such a problem in America, I would love to see transition from diagnostic care to preventative care.”