Gut, Brain & Hormone Health: An Interview with Amber Wood, R.Ac and Functional Medicine Practitioner
Amber began studying Functional Medicine and Acupuncture in 2003 after her own health crisis. She returned from Asia with more pathogens in her gut than the lab tech had ever seen. After having a “gut” or intuitive response to conventional medicine’s approach to gastro-intestinal distress, she decided to change her life and move to Nelson BC. This is where she met her doctor and teacher. As her understanding grew and her strength returned, she committed to a year long barefoot doctor training. She wanted to help others with gastro-intestinal distress. After working in community healthcare and education for years, she decided to return to school to become a licensed practitioner. She’s treated hundreds of patients over the past eight years and now works with people around the globe. She’d dedicated to ongoing study, research, and sharing what she learns with you.
Check her out at amberwoodhealth.ca – Pssst; she offers free 15-minute in-person and remote consultations!
Hi Amber, thanks so much for meeting with me and I’m stoked that you said yes. I’m going to just go ahead and dive in. I’d love to hear a little bit more about what got you interested in functional medicine and acupuncture – and how you got your practice started.
I moved to Toronto to continue my dance training when I was nineteen but got really sick. It was all gut stuff and I had to quit dancing. I ended up coming back to dance, but to a different form. Around that that time, I met my functional medicine doctor – he showed me how to heal my gut. That was almost twenty years ago. I studied with him for a year and worked in community health for a long time. Eventually i went back and got my license. Basically, I followed in his footsteps. He helped me, so now I help others. It’s such a gift to get to work with people in this way.
What an interesting journey to where you are! What kind of stuff do people come to you with? Is it usually things they’ve tried through the medical system already? Other things?
I focus on Women’s health, and gut and hormone health. Because they’re two areas that are really not handled well in the system right now. And, so a lot of people come to me at a loss. They say they’ve talked to their doctor, they’re told they’re fine their labs look fine; and they know they’re not okay. So they come to me. And I look at things differently, and use different diagnostics and treatment methods than the conventional system. It’s all based on research, so it’s not airy -fairey. It’s evidence based, natural, effective… In school, we learn about pharmacology; we learn about labs. But my functional medicine training goes into that in much more depth. I’ve been practicing for eight years, here on Salt Spring Island, BC for nearly five years; and transitioned online about four years ago.
Can you tell me a little bit about what types of symptoms people come to you with? What does hormonal and gut health look like?
It can be anything form I haven’t had my period in six months to I have really heavy cycles or really painful periods; it can be anything to do with cycles. But a lot of times it’s multiple things; I’ve been told my thyroid is fine but have all of these symptoms. Thyroid is another hormonal imbalance that is really common. A lot of gut stuff – it’s not like these things are separate. One woman yesterday was saying she is losing her memory and doesn’t know why. And when I inquired a bit more, it’s really likely to do with cortisol and stress response. That’s another hormonal imbalance. I mean there’s multiple layers to everything that presents. II kind of frame it as gut, brain, and hormones. And then these things overlap – someone might have really painful gut stuff there was endometriosis that was undiagnosed; so we need to tease out what is going on.
And it seems that very often it is women’s issues that are sometimes overlooked in the normative system.
Research really shows that. And that goes even as far as a woman having chest pain; going to emergency; getting dismissed and having a heart attack at home, because cardiovascular disease doesn’t tend to affect pre-menopausal women; but it still can. And extreme gut pain – there isn’t much they can do in the ER. Unless you have Irritable Bowel Disease, you’re likely to be told it’s in your head. And really, that term comes up a lot. It’s in your head.
Wow! How dismissive is that? And the research shows that women who bring a male counterpart to their appointments are more likely to be taken seriously. So that patriarchy is still much within our conventional medical system. There’s research on all of this. Women were left out of tons of research into the 1990’s. Any woman of childbearing years was left out of research. Since women are more prone to gut disorders; autoimmunity; thyroid disease these things are really unresearched. If clinicians don’t know about them, the next logical thing is that they don’t exist. It drives me crazy. I hear it every week – people come in and report that they had terrible experiences with their doctors. They offered me antidepressants and won’t even do blood work. I heard that two days ago from a young woman.
What types of things do you think women can do to equip themselves for a system that is not necessarily designed to be aware of their issues?
The internet is amazing. There are people putting this information out there. So getting a sense of what’s going on can be great. It can also be overwhelming – so when someone has decided to work with me I ask if they’ll put it down for the three months that we work together. A lot of the success I see with people is when they can turn inward and work with someone they trust. That therapeutic relationship is a touchstone for checking in with our own body and knowing. Because our wisdom of what the body needs is the gold standard above labs looking fine. How are you feeling? I’ll go with that subjective information above perfect lab work. If you’re still experiencing something; then there’s something we’re missing. We have to keep digging. I also don’t want to get too hard on the conventional system because there are very innovative mechanisms. I have a patient who was recently referred to a Women’s Clinic in Vancouver for chronic fatigue, and I was so curious. And that program seems really, really thorough, multidisciplinary, and is representative of the kind of system we are going towards.
We can see the same thing in psychology when it comes to gaps in research.
And I think it’s really important to focus on where the solutions are. You know, it’s so easy to get bogged down. But the majority of the people who come to see me, they’re really so delightful. And I love my work, and I personally have friends who work in the conventional medical system. I wholeheartedly admire their work. It’s not like there’s bad people there, it’s just the system needs to change and it’s hard to change that old boys’ kind of system. There’s so much power embedded in it.
I so see that – seeing holistic medicine as a companion to the existing system; something that doesn’t need to be at odds with it.
That’s the definition of holistic medicine. But Western medicine is explicit. It says it’s the best, there’s nothing better. But we see again and again, as they start to do research on these other actual, traditional, healing modalities that there is some evidence that it does work and it can fold into treatment plans. That dialogue needs to happen. It’s just unfortunate that belief of “This is the only way” because science knows that it’s wrong. And that’s good science – do adjust; to say we thought that was bad for people; and we were wrong. It’s like cholesterol levels are not affected by eating eggs. We know that. But the system is so slow at admitting that and changing what it’s saying, especially when it’s industry and politics involved. And then the pharmaceutical industry plays a role too.
Speaking of women’s’ health issues not necessarily being research or being used as subjects in studies; that remains especially true when it comes to sexual health. We didn’t even have good scans of the clitoris until very recently; which to me is shocking. In the context of this discussion it’s less shocking. I’d love to hear the types of things that come up with women’s sexual health for you here.
So my prior career was doing work with all populations, and I was talking to someone who was still doing that work. She does sex education outside the system for youth, and she said when she draws female anatomy for a group of teenagers they don’t know what the clitoris is, or where they pee from. They don’t have words for it. I went and spoke to a group of young women at a high school recently and talked to them about the birth control pill and what it does, and menstruation. And they were like, what? No one explained this. There is also an important bridge between mental health and hormonal health. I just see it over and over; women are given birth control, then diagnosed with a psychiatric something – whether it’s bipolar, or something like PMDD, anxiety… There’s such a relationship between these medications suppressing ovulation and our health. So that’s just completely ignored. Every single young woman is offered sometimes coercively the pill. In my personal experience, it was coercive. At least we have fertility awareness now on sexual health forms when you go to a sex-ed clinic. That’s just one piece – young women, shame, silencing around cycles, and a lot of young women changing their activity level because of menstruation. Being like, oh I can’t swim, dance, train, because we’re not talking about how to train with the cycle. How the different phases of the cycle can optimize different phases of our training. The first half of our cycle is really when we build muscle, because estrogen is really good at that. The second half is a good time to work on mobility, and a time when you’re more likely to injure yourself. I’m really excited about that – keeping young women engaged in sport, dance, or whatever. Look at the difference between erectile dysfunction and how much attention that gets and female sexual dysfunction whether it’s pain, or inability to orgasm or any of that. That is totally ignored. Yet the stats are astonishing. Way more women have that experience than men, and yet men have access to the conventional medical system. It’s astonishing.
Have you come across much of connection between sexual health and hormonal health? Does that come up for you because you’re dealing with folks who are dealing with hormonal imbalances.
Absolutely! I do have a whole part of my intake about menstruation because it’s such a determinant of health. And again, some birth control suppresses that. But in terms of sexual pleasure, it’s not really part of my intake form – it doesn’t come up as a conversation piece that often. It has – I recently wrote an article about a woman who asked me about how can I have more orgasms. I see sexual expression as a creative source of power. I know for myself when I’m sexually active, when I’ve tested my hormones, they’re great! It’s healthy to have an outlet for sexual expression. It doesn’t have to be partnered, it can be self-love, dancing, so many things.
To me that ties into what we’ve been talking about, subtleties, space for experience, communication. In a really beautiful way, making another choice from the dominant information we’re given.
Right, the consumer mode that’s hell bent on making you feel less than so you buy.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I really love geeking out on the science of hormones too, and I think it’s empowering to get hormone testing that’s really hard in our system so I like co-relating that. We can do preventative work when we have thorough testing. There’s lots of tools and that sensitizing piece and is why I focus on somatic meditation with my patients that are open to it. Because it can really help you tune into your body and get to know yourself fin a different way. Get to know the body inside-out. Because we’re always assessing ourselves; how do I look in this picture? Turning that inward is really empowering. I don’t think pictures are bad, they speak to the right side of the brain. But we have to be careful what we’re communicating in terms of body image, because that’s another thing I have to say, like 90% of women that come in here, body image and eating disorder is part of their journey, whether it’s in the past or current. So shifting things round that somehow. Getting to know yourself in a different way.