Cryptic Causes of Neurological Conditions
Shandor Weiss, ND
One of the main principles of naturopathic medicine is Tolle Causam. To treat the cause a doctor has to find the cause … or causes. There is always a cause, and the cause can always be found, and the cause is always different than the diagnosis of the disease. These three principles are especially relevant and important when treating neurological conditions.
NDs and MDs
One of the main differences in types of health care is whether the doctor treats the diagnosis or the cause. And, there is a third possibility: treating both the diagnosis and the cause. NDs may treat the diagnosis, the cause or both. But medical doctors almost always only treat the diagnosis. Actually, the distinctions in practice are not between types of doctors, but in ways of practicing. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Different is as different does.”
Medical doctors claim that they focus on treating the cause as much as NDs do. Once I was on a call-in radio talk show in Washington, D.C. The host paired me with the director of the local medical society to provide contrast (or contention). Coincidently, this physician’s name was also Dr. Weiss. I tried to explain how naturopathic medicine is different, and one of the differences I described was that we treat the cause. The other Dr. Weiss took great exception to my statements. He asserted that MDs also treat causes. He used allergies and infections as two examples, and he explained how MDs try to find the allergens and remove them, or identify the pathogens and kill them. Then I said that, while these approaches are useful, NDs go further. They would ask and find out why a patient has allergies and why a patient is susceptible to infections. The other Dr. Weiss could not understand the differences in our approach, even though many people who called in to the show explained it better than I could.
The reason MDs believe they treat the cause is because the concept or definition of cause is different in naturopathic medicine than it is in conventional medicine. I’ll explain this difference in a moment. But first I want to clarify the use of some terms.
I use the term “conventional medicine” when referring to what is also called “orthodox,” “regular,” “allopathic,” “modern” and “traditional” medicine or doctors. “Traditional” should really be used to describe naturopathic medicine, not modern medicine, because the latter comes from traditions that are much older. People confuse the word “traditional” with “accepted,” “mainstream,” “conventional” and “in use.” I think “conventional” is the best term when discussing medical practice, because it means “pertaining to convention or general agreement; established by general consent or accepted usage; arbitrarily determined” (from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/conventional). In other words, conventional medicine is not necessarily more or less scientific, traditional, right or knowledgeable when compared to naturopathic medicine. It is merely more accepted as the established, dominant kind of medical practice and paradigm. I also like using the term “orthodox medicine” when referring to the organization or institution of medicine, since there is an “orthodoxy” in the medical establishment.
You may be wondering why I am talking about the terms we use when referring to or defining medical systems. The reason is that each medical paradigm (naturopathic and conventional) uses the same words, however those words can have different meanings attached to them. It is the difference in meaning of words like “cause” and “diagnosis” that we need to understand very clearly.
“Cause” vs. “Diagnosis”
In conventional medicine, the doctor generally thinks that finding a patient’s diagnosis is synonymous with finding the cause. That’s because conventional medicine is based on the disease model. In order to know what treatment to use, the doctor has to know what the disease is. It is assumed or believed that knowing the disease is similar to or the same as knowing the cause. That’s because the cause of a disease, in the disease model, is the pathophysiology of the disease. Take multiple sclerosis as an example. According to Fox and Sweeney, “Initially in the disease course, MS involves recurrent bouts of CNS inflammation that result in damage to both the myelin sheath surrounding axons as well as the axons themselves. Histologic examination reveals foci of severe demyelination, decreased axonal and oligodendrocyte numbers, and gliotic scarring” (online posting, n.d.). Once the conventional doctor has this information, he or she tries to find a treatment to slow down, stop or reverse the pathophysiology of sclerosing. This is a clear objective and a definable mission that can be duplicated and repeated in all patients with the same diagnosis. This is an important aspect of conventional medicine, because it is based on a research model that relies on the study of the same treatments for all patients with the same diagnosis.
In this example, finding the cause of sclerosis in a particular patient is irrelevant to the conventional doctor because the doctor is only interested in treating the disease (the pathophysiology and its results). When asked “why” the pathophysiology of sclerosis is occurring, the conventional doctor will reply (to the patient), “We don’t know.” The “we” is the orthodox medical establishment that approves the knowledge that clinicians learn and use. In actuality, there are others who call themselves “we” who feel that they do know what causes the pathophysiology of sclerosis (and other diseases). These may be epidemiologists, toxicologists, cellular biologists and other kinds of scientists. These other “we” are bona fide scientists, and sometimes they do know why certain illnesses happen, rather than only how they happen. But the scientific knowledge of other fields does not exist to conventional clinicians. By definition, a conventional doctor is one who only uses information obtained from conventional sources. This means the information has to become part of the medical orthodoxy before it can be used. The issue is not whether or not the information is scientific. It is whether or not it is orthodox. Once the “why” from other disciplines makes its way into the orthodox medical system, this information is added to the pathophysiological “how” of the disease.
In contrast, NDs are often more willing to use scientific information from any field of science in their clinical practice. NDs often make use of the most current research in the actual treatment of patients. In addition, NDs generally don’t look for the same cause of a disease in all patients.
Tracking Down Causes
Ironically, some causes of neurological diseases are accepted as diseases in their own right, but are not recognized in conventional medicine to be causes of other diseases. For example, conventional medicine recognizes lead poisoning as an illness or disease. There is a specific list of symptoms associated with lead poisoning. Conventional doctors may find these symptoms and may even treat the cause of lead poisoning. But they will not find that lead poisoning is a cause of other diseases unless this information is listed in the orthodox description of lead poisoning’s pathophysiology. Thus, conventional doctors will not think of, look for or find that lead poisoning may be a cause of dementia, ADHD, epilepsy, Parkinson’s or MS in any particular patient. There is no cross-linking between the pathophysiology of one illness and the cause of another. NDs are more likely to make such ecological or interdisciplinary connections.
I have spent countless hours looking for scientific research articles on lead toxicity. Thousands are available. Some actually describe how lead causes sclerosis, genetic changes, hormone disruption, enzyme pathway changes, cancer and other pathophysiological mechanisms. But most of this information is, for now, outside of the field of medicine. “They” who know about such research do know how or why lead causes various diseases, or at least they can speculate on it. But those “they” are not the “they” or “we” of conventional medicine.
NDs have to practice in two medical paradigms: First, we have to honor the convention of finding the diagnosis of the disease. We have to do this for legal and medical reasons. There is a value in knowing the diagnosis of a patient’s illness. The diagnosis conveys useful information, such as the pathophysiology, associated symptoms, natural course and prognosis. Knowing the pathophysiology helps with determining how to treat the patient. Knowing the associated symptoms helps with determining what to expect or observe from the disease itself. Knowing the prognosis helps also. But once we know a patient’s diagnosis, we also believe in and try to treat the individual cause of that disease in each patient. This is the second paradigm. To the extent that we treat the disease with disease-specific protocols, we are practicing in the paradigm of conventional doctors, even if we use natural medicines. To the extent that we go beyond the diagnosis as a definition of cause, and look for deeper meanings and levels of cause, we are practicing in the paradigm of NDs.
When a doctor accepts the diagnosis of a disease as being synonymous with the cause, this is like the criminal justice system accepting the name of a crime without looking for the perpetrator. Imagine if the police and the attorney general’s office were satisfied with just classifying crimes as murders, thefts, frauds and so on, without looking for who committed the crimes. Imagine if they told victims of crimes that they would do what they could to make their lives better: assault victims would be hospitalized, theft victims would recover their losses with insurance and murder victims would be buried. If that is all that was done, it wouldn’t be very satisfying or effective at reducing crime. Yet that is exactly what it is like when doctors don’t track down the causes of diseases on a case by case basis, like detectives do.
When doctors only diagnose a disease rather than find its cause, it can be like leaving the criminal at large. When a patient’s illness has a cause that is still present, treating only the disease will not find or remove the cause. Thus, the disease process will continue, despite the best efforts of the doctor. I can’t think of any system of the body in which this happens more than in the nervous system. So many neurological diseases have unknown, cryptic or only suspected causes … or, even worse, wrongly identified causes. When the cause of a neurological disease is present but not found or treated, the prognosis is poor. This is why conditions like MS, ALS and Parkinson’s disease (PD) are considered incurable or progressive and terminal. But when the cause of each disease in each patient is found, the conventional prognosis is no longer relevant. If the disease and its cause can be treated early enough, many cases can be stopped or even reversed. In fact, doctors can find causes of neurologic diseases before the disease has clinically manifested and prevent them from becoming a disease.
Searching for Neurological Causes
To look for causes, NDs must think and work like detectives solving a crime. Who is the perpetrator? When was the crime committed? How was it done? Why did it happen? Were there any accomplices (associated causes)?
NDs can also work like archeologists and ecologists. The real causes of health problems come from the whole person and the person’s whole life. To find them, we can dig down through each patient’s life’s layers, like an archeologist sifting through a site. We can look for clues like a detective trying to solve a crime, or like an ecologist studying the complexities of an entire ecosystem. We can also work like we are putting together the pieces of a puzzle. The pieces can include environmental toxins, electromagnetic exposure, nutrition, stress, brain function, hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances, psychological dysfunction and spiritual dilemmas. These are just some of the many possible pieces of the health puzzle. When all the pieces of each person’s puzzle are found, the picture of health can be put together. Then the healing process can proceed.
To begin with, NDs should feel that all information about a patient is waiting to be revealed. This is true whether it comes out through talking, body language, examination, symptom surveys or testing techniques that access the body-brain connection. One way or another, the clues and evidence reveal themselves and show the real causes for each person’s health problems. If you read about or watch how history’s (or fiction’s) great detectives have worked, this is what they do. It begins with an attitude or belief. In fact, it is valuable training to read books (or watch movies) about Sherlock Holmes and other detectives. It is at least interesting that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, was a medical doctor.
Most of what I have learned comes from my patients. Actually, when I work with patients, most of what they learn from me comes from themselves. I believe that patients are the ones with all the information necessary to achieve their own healing. Sometimes the patient knows exactly what is wrong, but is embarrassed to say. They may have tried to tell someone and been told that their idea is ridiculous, or what they’re saying is impossible or that they’re crazy. Sometimes, the patient has a feeling for what is wrong but can’t put it into words, or at least into words that someone else can understand. In other cases, the patient doesn’t consciously have a clue as to what his or her health problem is or what’s causing it. But they still have all the necessary information, because the body and brain are completely inter-connected. The nervous system is constantly receiving information about the body’s state, responding to this information and regulating, correcting and remembering what the rest of the body is experiencing. For example, we don’t “know” what our blood sugar level is, but the brain is monitoring it all the time. We may know when we’re hungry, but we don’t “know” if it’s because we have low blood sugar, feel stressed or have high insulin levels. But the brain knows the answers to these questions. The patient is the complete repository of everything that has ever happened to him or her self, right up to the present moment. Our body-brain can even tell us about future trends and tendencies based on past events and patterns.
Once I have gathered as much information about a patient as I can, I use electrodermal testing to check for the most likely suspects of causation. But in addition to learning from the patient, I try to learn as much as I can from scientific research. I can then use what I know from research when testing causes, sources, mechanisms and other factors with patients. The goal is always to answer the detectives’ questions. I keep asking “why” in particular, and looking for the answer until there is no longer anything to learn that would help solve and treat the case. Very often, having more knowledge helps to ask about and find the answers to the “why” questions. On the other hand, sometimes the “why” answers come from the patient, and later are confirmed with research after searching for more answers.
For example, when I first started using electrodermal testing I found that people with Parkinson’s disease often had pesticide and herbicide toxicity as a cause. Then later I found that an herbicide commonly used in the 1960s, cyperquat, was found to induce Parkinsonian syndrome in people exposed to it. This was discovered when a batch of street drugs was made incorrectly and produced a chemical called 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP) … the same chemical that makes up cyperquat. Ingestion of this chemical caused instant Parkinson’s disease. (This story is wonderfully – and tragically – documented in the 1995 book The Case of the Frozen Addicts, which was later featured in two NOVA productions by PBS.) First I found a cause of Parkinson’s on my own, then I found scientific support. This allowed me to investigate with even more sophistication and certainty. For example, the areas in which cyperquat was used widely are known. Patients who lived in any of these areas may have had a high enough exposure to cause Parkinson’s disease. Even if such patients do not have PD now, they may be at a higher risk of developing it and should be treated to prevent it.
Now, the toxicity connection to Parkinson’s disease is well established. But it is not just MPTP that can cause Parkinson’s, even if it may be the only chemical that causes it within hours or days. Almost any exogenous toxin (like lead, mercury or DDT) can cause destruction of cells in the substantia nigra. This destruction from toxicity is then added to by damage over time from aging, high levels of free radicals and low levels of antioxidants, essential fatty acids and so on. When the substantia nigra reaches about 80% destruction, the symptoms of PD arise. The toxic component of PD in any one patient must be determined. If the toxic effect was in the past and if the patient is no longer toxic with that substance, then the focus has to be on treating what is left in the patient. If the toxin is still present, it has to be identified and detoxified correctly.
Using PD as a model of many neurological illnesses, we can see why the orthodox model may never find “the cause” rather than just the pathophysiology of PD. There may be dozens, even hundreds, of causes. In fact, there are as many causes as there are patients with any particular illness. That’s because each person is unique in the who, what, when, why and how of their illness’s crime.
Common Causes for Neurological Disease
I have found that most neurological diseases have environmental toxins as the primary or secondary cause. However, there are some other causes that bear watching for. Here are a few examples:
- Lectins from foods or other sources that agglutinate with a particular blood type are a significant cause. I have found pork lectin to be a cause of Tourette’s Syndrome in a blood type B patient; chicken lectin to be a cause of MS in a blood type B patient (who ironically gave up eating red meat and ate chicken almost every day in order to be more healthy); and gluten lectin to be a cause of Alzheimer’s disease in a blood type O patient. I have found numerous other neurological cases caused by lectins. However, rather than repeat them all here, the point is that each doctor should think of and look for lectins as a potential cause.
- Head trauma and other causes that result in brain wave dysfunction can be a cause of addictions, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, migraines, depression, ADHD, panic attacks and many other conditions. To cause pathological brainwave dysfunction, head trauma does not have to be diagnosed by an MRI or CT. Many patients have pathological brain wave dysfunction whose cause was a relatively mild head injury. Such patients might have had an MRI and been told that “nothing was wrong,” but in most cases they didn’t even go to the doctor (at least not for head trauma). Injuries that can cause brain wave pathologies include shaking and whiplash, falls from a horse/bike/rock climb/skiing/etc., assault, martial arts, playing soccer, sports injuries, and many other kinds of minor accidents and traumas. In many cases the patient does not remember the trauma. In others, once prodded by the results of electrodermal testing, there is a memory of the trauma that caused the brain wave pathology. Also, often the trauma consists of multiple events, such as a history of repeated abuse or accidents.
- Electromagnetic fields (EMF) can cause and/or mimic almost any neurological illness, including MS and other diseases with pathognomonic diagnostic features. The types of EMF may include radio frequencies (RF), electric fields, magnetic fields, ultra low and extremely low frequencies (ULF/ELF), harmonic fields, geopathic stress zones and ionizing radiation. Cell phones are a common source of RF that causes neurological conditions. For example, I found cell phones to be the cause of a condition that looked like MS in a patient (on MRI), even though she was told by several neurologists that she did not have MS. They didn’t know what she had beyond calling it a “non-MS demyelinating disease.” Actually, this patient had the early stages of ALS. The signs seen on the MRI were not related to the patient’s symptoms (muscle twitches in the upper arms and thighs); they were merely a concomitant finding. The real problem was demyelination of spinal cord and peripheral nerve tracts. This pathophysiology can at least be stopped by avoiding the cause, thus turning a fatal diagnosis into a hopeful one. In this way, even the disease does not behave as the disease if the cause is found and removed.
- Infections like Lyme disease, syphilis, parasites and infections from many other kinds of micro-organisms can cause neurologic illnesses, and are often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. For example, I have a patient who has been told by doctors for many years that he has MS, yet what he really has is neurological Lyme disease.
- Pain is a neurological phenomena. Most patients with moderate to severe chronic pain (or even some patients with severe acute pain) have widespread functional changes in how their brain works. Neurotransmitter levels are abnormal. Brain waves are dysregulated. The brain processes pain experience in many more areas than it does in someone without chronic pain. We should be aware of and remember that fibromyalgia (FM) is a neurological disorder, even though rheumatologists “claim” this illness as being within their domain. This occurred as a historical anomaly, because the first FM patients were sent to rheumatologists more often than to other kinds of doctors. This happened before the real pathophysiology or mechanisms of FM were understood. Later it was learned that FM is caused by increased levels of Substance P being secreted by the peripheral and central nervous systems. This occurs as a self-regulatory response to pain that has been suppressed, ignored, denied or insufficiently treated. The increased levels of Substance P causes increased pain sensitivity (up to 10 times more than normal), neurotransmitter changes, histamine release (allergic reactions to pain) and other metabolic shifts. Actually the increased sensitivity to pain is an increased sensitivity to all sensory nerves and pathways. FM patients are more sensitive to pain and to light, noise or sound, touch, vibration, heat, cold, taste, smell and emotional feeling. The heightened “awareness” of the sensory pathways accounts for many of the symptoms of FM patients, such as insomnia. In addition to having trouble sleeping due to pain, FM patients can wake from the slightest sound or exposure to light, or even from the sheets being too rough or the temperature changing. We should understand and treat FM patients with this model of it being a neurological disorder. As detectives, we have to track down the original source(s) of pain that led to the nervous system’s upregulation of sensory nerve sensitivity.
These are just a few of the cryptic causes that may lie hidden behind a diagnosis of common or rare neurologic diseases.
To find these or other causes in each patient is the work of a detective. The best clues usually come from the patient. The more information one has as a doctor, the more clues one can find from the patient. But “detective doctors” have to be careful not to impose their knowledge onto the patient or the patient’s illness/diagnosis. If we think we have all the knowledge, information and answers, we won’t be able to find the real causes in each patient. At the same time, if we don’t have enough general information, our investigation won’t be broad enough, and we might miss important clues and causes.
Shandor Weiss, ND started the Arura Clinic in Ashland in 1989. Licensed by the state of Oregon as an ND and acupuncturist, he also has specialty training in homeopathy, environmental and body-mind medicine. Dr. Weiss received his undergraduate degree in ecology and environmental studies from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., then moved to Berkeley, Calif, to study natural and holistic healing. He completed his education in Portland, graduating in 1988 from NCNM and the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. Dr. Weiss served as a research consultant to the NIH’s Office of Alternative Medicine; has written many lay and professional articles on health; and enjoys reaching the public through lectures, teaching, radio and television. As an ND, Dr. Weiss integrates environmental medicine and an ecological model of evaluating patients as an integral part of his practice.
Fox RJ and Sweeney P: Multiple sclerosis – pathophysiology. Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education web site: www.clevelandclinicmeded.com/medicalpubs/diseasemanagement/neurology/multiple_sclerosis/