How a functional medicine approach and curcumin helped heal my chronic hip pain

Interview with Elise Spofford

Hello everyone and welcome to Field Notes, an exploration of functional medicine. I’m Rob Downey, a family practice MD and Institute for Functional Medicine certified practitioner. I’m coming to you from Seaworthy Functional Medicine in Homer, Alaska.  Today it’s my pleasure and I’m very grateful to have Elise Spofford with us this evening to talk about some of her experiences with functional medicine. Elise, thanks for being here!

Thank you very much for having me!

Elise, you are here to share how functional medicine has helped you on your healing journey. There’s a functional medicine clinic in the lower 48 called The Living Proof Institute, which I think is a beautiful concept that functional medicine can move us forward in certain specific ways that are very important. In your case, I was the lucky one to get to wield the toolbox for your behalf. From my perspective it wasn’t me but rather the principles of the Institute for Functional Medicine that moved you forward. This is a chance to share your experiences with other people that might have issues like yours. They may see the world the way you do, or want to know more about functional medicine, or they may want to hear about what was happening before you tried a functional medicine approach and the changes you experienced after. They also will probably be interested to know what your life is like now after pursuing a functional medicine approach.

Hmm. It sounds like a loaded question, or at least a three part question!

Don’t worry! I’ll try to properly play my role as host to pick up each thread. 

My story with functional medicine begins about four and a half years ago. At that time I was experiencing hip pain that shifted in location and changed in terms of intensity for me. Um, what initially started as pain on the posterior right side of my hip region moved, in the course of time, to the left anterior region of my hip. I am both a yoga teacher and a massage therapist. I practice a lot of self care, but I was bamboozled with what was going on. I sought out a chiropractor. I tried a specific type of soft tissue massage called Rolfing®, but nothing seemed to change for me. I started hearing stories and testimonials about Dr. Rob Downey, a functional medicine practitioner who happened to be in my area. I thought, “Well, what exactly is this?” I heard wonderful things about you, regarding your demeanor, the respect with which you treat your patients, and the opportunities or the “toolbox” that you carry with you.

I made an appointment to come in and from the time I first met you I felt like I was being heard. I felt like what I said had value and meaning. I also felt that you brought a unique skill set and brought more than just a pill to the table to treat what I was experiencing. You offered an integrative approach rather than a purely allopathic approach. I remember that day, during my first appointment that you ran some diagnostics. You came up with a great analogy. You talked about a construction team.

You said that if we liken an inflammation in a particular area of our bodies to a construction team that comes in to do some work, and the team doesn’t really know what the specifics of the job are, or the origin, or what initiated the inflammation, then they basically had to stay on the job 24-7 because they didn’t know exactly what they were doing and they hadn’t been told that they could go home. Thus the inflammation continues to be active because the project is never healed, never completed, never resolved. That just turned a light on for me! I thought, “Oh, that’s really interesting!”

I think a lot of us in this contemporary modern day world struggle with inflammation issues in, in some way, shape, or form. My visit to you thus started a journey for me. During the course of that same conversation I remember going through so many questions, because you explained that the answers that I gave would be put into an IFM Matrix. You explained that life, as in our lifestyle, our choices, and all that we experience, all correlates in terms of  our overall health. That made very good sense to me. I had been seeing a homeopathic doctor for around 15 years, although I’ve currently put that on hold because we can only do so much at once. So I’m very familiar with homeopathic care as well.

The idea that all aspects of our lives are integrated and manifests in particular and unique ways made sense to me. During the course of that appointment, I spoke about being anemic. Most of my life I have struggled with iron deficiencies and getting enough sleep. That conversation and first visit started a journey in which you are now a very important part of my healthcare plan for my own wellness. I appreciate being able to check in with you and letting you be the part of my wellness team where I bring information from other practitioners, and together we can oversee my health from a holistic point of view. I am so grateful for that and to be a patient of yours, and  to have access to your toolbox.

Thank you! I didn’t realize that the hard part of testimonials would be being one hundred percent at ease with such positive feedback. I think some of that comes from having a depression era father, right? Who was like, “Just do a good job and don’t bring the spotlight!.”

Well yes, “Keep your head down.” You’re very humble. I think it’s important for us to have humility in our roles, but also it’s important for us to say, “Thank you.” It is the overarching paradigm of functional medicine within which you are operating, but you are the component of that system that makes it accessible to your patients. The stories you offer, the presence you give to your patients, it means all the difference. If you are an expert at something, but you have no communicability, there’s little that can happen. It’s all about the strength of our relationships through which the best things can happen.

Thank you!  I’m sure our listeners will want to know what you think was going on with your hip pain, and how did it get better? What was the “secret sauce,” because you were kind of stuck with trying some other types of approaches. What cleared that up?

Yes, of course! I integrated lifestyle changes and also elected to take a number of supplements, specifically those from Pure Encapsulations. I’ve been taking CurcumaSorb, and initially I took three every morning and three every evening. We eventually dwindled it down to one per day. During the course of taking supplements I made other changes. I slowly have integrated lifestyle changes, thinking more about what I drink and eat, and what the stressors are in my life. I began to think about how I can alleviate stress, although some stress is good in our life. 

I told my daughter just the other day that if you can feel a little excited and nervous about something every day, that’s actually good for you! That means you’re moving in the direction you want to be moving because you’re excited. If you’re totally fearful or nervous, then that’s something we need to work with a little bit. A small amount of stress due to excitement that you’re leaning into, and moving towards something that you value, is good. But when it becomes this heavy weight on our shoulders that restricts us and weighs us down, then that has an adverse effect. 

In addition to CurcumaSorb, I take iron supplements and vitamin D. Because I live in Alaska, I take 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 every day. That has been really helpful, as well as taking a good, honest look at what the arc of a day is for me, and what feels manageable. I’m a big time planner. I’ve always been a “to do” list person, yet I think something has changed, especially in the last few years. The shift is that I have mobility to shift and change, so if I come to that “to do” list item but in the end the energy, motivation, inspiration, or time isn’t there, then I am at peace with the fact that it’s not the time to do it. It gets shelved for the next day. I think there’s even been a mindset change in terms of what I feel good health looks like. It’s freedom! Within that freedom is the discipline of making good choices. There are times where I make both planned exceptions and unplanned exceptions. 

I was telling my daughter that sleep has been a huge issue in my life during 2019. It was my biggest concentration, because for much of my life, I have woken up in the middle of the night and spent three hours awake. Sleep is where we integrate, on a social and emotional level, all that we consciously experience in a day. It’s where we integrate that. On a cellular level, we’re repairing and we’re regenerating. When we’re lacking in sleep for one night that may affect our attitude, mood, or relationships. Over the course of time that weighs into pathology and to disease and dysfunction, or at least as a contributing factor. I don’t think we can isolate and say, “Oh, it’s because of ‘X’,”, because we hardly ever say that. I read a book called The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington, and in that book she has a lot to say about sleep and studies.

Wonderful, and thank you so much!  I want to just stop for a moment and feel a sense of gratitude that you took the time and had the vulnerability to let people hear part of your experience so they could benefit. I really appreciate you doing that!

For those listening or checking this out, I feel they should get to “look under the hood” of functional medicine. The hip pain that you described ended up being in the sacroiliac joint. That’s where the sacrum meets the bowl of the pelvis, and some people get inflammation in that region. We made sure you didn’t have frank autoimmune disease, and did some conventional medicine workups to make sure you didn’t have a genetic predisposition for that.

Functional medicine always includes good solid conventional medicine. We talked about how you can be taking good care of yourself and still be inflamed, and we also discussed that we live in an inflammatory age. We have many factors that stir up our inflammatory systems, including low-grade grade sleep deprivation, more stress than our hunter-gatherer predecessors had, and harmful substances in our environment and food that we’re exposed to. All of these stir up our immune systems. 

This discussion brought into focus the fact that curcumin might be a good agent to help reduce your sacroiliac inflammation. People might love knowing that curcumin is just one of a small handful of botanicals and nutraceuticals that works so far upstream on inflammation that they don’t distort any of the signaling. That’s how botanicals and nutraceuticals used for inflammation avoid causing kidney problems or ulcers, or backfiring in other ways.

The stand out quality of curcumin comes from its chemical structure. Everybody who sees a curcumin capsule knows it’s that same bright orange as turmeric, and because turmeric contains curcumin. Turmeric powder by itself doesn’t contain enough curcumin to be therapeutic. If you’ve ever eaten saffron rice, part of its gorgeous color pop comes from saffron, which is a very expensive spice made only from the stigmas and styles of the saffron crocus flower. The stigmas and styles are the little thread-like structures in the center of the petals. There are only three tiny threads per flower, so harvesting it is labor intensive. It retails at over $500 per ounce and is aptly called ‘red gold.’ Saffron rice gets its color and taste mostly from saffron, but many people will also add turmeric to enhance the color and reduce the amount of expensive saffron threads needed for the dish. 

Turmeric is also known as the ‘poor man’s saffron,’ but actually it contains something that brings us the wealth of health, which is curcumin. Curcumin turns down this inflammatory master control knob called NF Kappa B. We’re actually able to go directly to the volume knob and turn down all the inflammation just a titch. We all tend to be a little too inflamed.  Your sacroiliac joints wanted to be able to hit the reset button, but there was probably a little too much background inflammation for them to get unstuck and get everybody “cleared out of the job site,” going back to the construction team analogy. I think getting your sleep back was anti-inflammatory also. 

Wow! Yes, I definitely agree, and thank you! I always appreciate that you offer this wealth of knowledge from the medical standpoint, so I appreciate that clarification. The idea of getting under the hood of functional medicine. I love that! I just love that analogy.

Well, we probably should close by saying that you, like so many people I’ve taken care of over the years, have suffered having to wear those hideous blue exam shorts made out of paper that I keep in my exam rooms. It’s from necessity so that people can move their extremities, such as if they have their knee examined or whatever.

Yes, you’ll have to get those changed!

I always say to patients, “Okay, I’m going to step out of the room. Please change into these fashionable men’s NBA-style shorts.” Or I’ll say ‘fashionable women’s NBA-style shorts.’ When I walk back into the room the patient is always scowling at me.

Yeah. I mean, for me it wasn’t even the embarrassment of having to disrobe and put them on, but it was the actual wearing of the garb. That was the source of embarrassment. I was like, “Oh my gosh, Dr. Downey has to see me in these.” Yes, that would be the only recommendation I would make for change. Maybe change the ‘wear’ in your exam rooms.

When I was the physician for Seldovia Village Tribe Health and Wellness Center, they were gracious enough to buy a variety of shorts. They were cotton shorts, and the extra small shorts were orange, the smalls were yellow, the mediums were blue, and the extra-larges were navy blue. They had around three of each size folded and stacked neatly in each corner. That would be a great thing to go back to!

There you go, and that sounds great. Well, thank you!

I know you’ve got some family coming home soon, and you have given us a big chunk of your evening. Thanks a million, Elise!

Thank you, Dr. Downey! Take good care!

Rob Downey, MD

Founder of Seaworthy Functional Medicine