This piece was written by a guest contributor, a cardiologist who wished to share her story of professional transformation.
By Colleen M. Coughlin, MD FACC
Growing up in a military family, I lived in some interesting places that taught me that our environment has a potent impact on our quality of life and health.
When my medical training was complete, with a sense of adventure, I moved to Anchorage, Alaska where I was the only female cardiologist in the state for ten years. At that time recent information revealed that not only did women get heart disease, it was their number one killer.
Since the vast majority of my patients were female, I began informally collecting data about the combination of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and coronary artery disease. My patients and I worked hard to improve their outcomes by exercise, diet and medication. I started noticing the positive impact on outcome.
While providing medical care to Alaska Natives new questions arose. Why did Native Alaskans, who for centuries were without heart disease while eating traditional diets consisting of whale blubber, have a lower incidence of heart disease (and other chronic diseases) than their white counterparts until they were exposed to a typical American diet? Perhaps the recommendation not to eat fat was a little less clear than the dogma had us believe.
Discussions around systemic inflammation as a player in the pathogenesis of plaque formation began. Real life scenarios illustrating the close connection of food and the function of our brain and mental health solidified when I watched the demise of my father from Alzheimer’s and the behavior of my own children while ingesting various “kid friendly” food.
I took a mini sabbatical in Colombia studying regenerative medicine learning how to optimize the body’s own intrinsic system to heal itself little by little. Turning fifty, injuring my ankle and starting to put on unwanted weight despite not changing my diet really challenged me to understand the relationship between food and lifestyle and the contribution to this underlying messenger system. With all these questions, I needed some answers.
Over the course of the next two years, I enrolled in online courses, attended medical nutrition conferences and independently researched the interplay between health and nutrition.
From these experiences and new research, I gleaned information that was not taught in medical schools at the time of my training. I thought the gastrointestinal tract‘s primary responsibility was nutrient absorption. When I learned that 70% of the immune system is in the gastrointestinal tract, the relationship between food and health started making sense. Intestinal bacteria, known as the microbiota, do more than synthesize a couple of vitamins. They actually have a significant impact on our health.
Another really optimistic concept, epigenetics, was that our genes are not our destiny With a healthy environment, we can optimize the way our genes are expressed to improve our health. A complex interplay exists that we don’t entirely understand between the environment (what we put into our mouth) and our overall health and wellbeing.
Empowering people with education will enable people to improve their own health little by little.