The Blog of Jon Guerrera

Thoughts about health, goals, and anything else I'm nerding out to.

Why I Dismissed Conventional Medicine for My Chronic Health Issues (and Why It Backfired)

I was hit with some difficult chronic health issues in childhood, so I take my health pretty seriously. I’ve tried almost every diet under the sun (including AIP Paleo, my current favorite), invest thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket lab work and alternative medicine, and spend hours each week in the gym (or, at least I try to).

Yet, for all of my dedication, I’ve let one serious mental block get in the way of optimal health…

Disqualification of conventional medicine.

Many of us who have struggled with chronic health problems have also been burned by the conventional medical system. Unfortunately, this can cause us to avoid seeking conventional medical attention when it's in our best interest to do so.

For example, as a teenager, I struggled with severe duodenal ulcers and IBS. Given my haggard appearance and low BMI, my gastroenterologist insisted I start drinking weight gain shakes in addition to my cocktail of prescription drugs. The first two ingredients in the shakes they recommended? High fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil (trans fat). Needless to say, these shakes made my symptoms worse and caused additional suffering. My poor experience with gastroenterology from the early 2000s was enough to make me want to avoid it for the rest of my life.

Another example: like many teenagers, I also had very bad acne, and my dermatologist at the time insisted that diet had absolutely nothing to do with skin health, and put me on a long term prescription for broad spectrum antibiotics to try and clear my acne up. Did he bother to ask me if I had any sort of health condition that could be made worse by broad spectrum antibiotics? Nope. (Though to be fair, I don't think medicine understood the microbiome at all ten years ago). These antibiotics likely compounded my IBS problems; to this day, I'm still working to undo the damage done to my gut from things like unnecessary, extended antibiotics use.

After experiences like this, I swore off conventional medicine. Unfortunately, this bitter mindset lingered when I started experiencing foot pain a few years ago. It turns out, I was developing something known as hallux limitus/rigidus.

Had I caught it earlier by going to a "conventional" podiatrist, it would've been relatively painless to manage through custom orthotics. Unfortunately, I waited too long and didn't seek out multiple opinions when I should have; as a result, I did irreversible damage to my feet. (I wrote about my experiences here.)

Both your body and the field of medicine are constantly changing. Bad experiences with medicine of the past are common, but are also an irrational excuse to give up on the system entirely.

Another issue I've seen with conventional medicine that discourages many of us with chronic health issues is how isolated conventional medicine feels. Chronic issues are multi-variate and hard to pin down. Any one medical specialty seems poorly equipped to diagnose these issues given how many systems are in play for chronic disease.

In my case, what’s a gastroenterologist going to do when I report that when I eat food certain foods that I can't pinpoint, my joints hurt 1-3 days later (a problem for an orthopedist), my energy tanks (super vague), and my skin breaks out (a problem for a dermatologist)? It doesn't help that my allergist reported I have no food allergies and a food journal yielded no clear correlations.

This is why so many flock to certain forms of alternative medicine -- they treat you holistically, which makes more sense for certain issues.

But don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Although conventional medicine can feel symptoms-driven and myopic, a little bit of research to find the good doctors and asking the right questions can get you lots of data in the form of lab tests that are more likely to be covered by insurance vs. tests ordered by an alternative medicine practitioner. And the more data you can acquire within your budget, the better you'll be able to get the help you need.

I found a gastroenterlogist in San Francisco who could've ordered me $1,000+ of lab tests under my insurance that I had paid for out of pocket a year earlier because I ordered them through an alternative practitioner. I've come to realize it's worth it to deal with conventional medicine if it allows you to get the data you need with the help of insurance. Out-of-pocket medical expense is something I wish on no one in this country.

The last barrier I've encountered is specific to chronic conditions too. Since they start out so subtle, so mild, it's easy to keep dismissing them -- especially if you're working through more serious medical challenges at the same time.

I was so focused on healing my gut and diet problems that I endured my foot pain for way too long. I rationalized this behavior by claiming that I didn't have enough time to be managing both issues at the same time. Obviously that line of thinking is backwards, as avoiding feeling "too busy" in the short term is not worth permanent damage to your joints.

No matter how subtle or hard to pin down a particular issue feels, if it isn't going away on it's own, see the doctor now.

Despite learning all of these lessons the hard way, it's still difficult for me to take my own advice. Even as I write this post, I have some mild back pain that was made worse by trying out a chiropractor a year ago. Yet I still haven’t seen a doctor about it despite having the insurance coverage to do so.

Mental blocks take time to undo, but it all starts with awareness. Hopefully this post arms you with some awareness you can use to get the treatment you need before it's too late. Stop putting off your doctor's visit!

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