If you ask a child where food comes from, he or she might answer that it comes from a can or box. That is how far removed our culture has become from the earth.
When discussing nutrition and the biochemistry of aging with naturopathic physician Lori van der Heydt, she will tell you that the majority of people in this country do not eat “real” food anyway.
Her definition of “real” food is that which doesn’t come with a long label of ingredients that you’ve never heard of, ones filled with chemicals and grown with pesticides.
“You are only as good as your digestion,” she explains, and “much of what the majority of people eat is not food anymore. It’s harder to get the average person to put their hands on real food that hasn’t been processed. It’s especially tough for people living in rural areas with only a mini-mart.” Who would argue against the notion that it’s not the years in your life but the life in your years that matters? What you eat makes the difference.
Van der Heydt focuses her efforts on biochemistry, “the physical aspect…that is affected by the mind, your beliefs and your feelings,” she says.
Biochemistry is the study of the chemical processes and transformations in living organisms. Many researchers are looking at how aging affects our bodies at the cellular level and what can be done to live a fuller, longer life as we age.
Van der Heydt believes that good nutrition plays a key role in the biochemistry of the aging process as our digestive system takes in food and then metabolizes it correctly so that enzymes and other nutrients are properly assimilated.
“Good digestion is lifestyle,” van der Heydt says, which means getting seven to nine hours of sleep a day; having work that fulfills you whether paid or volunteer; interests that feed your mind, soul and heart; and moving your body every day, whether it’s walking, yoga, swimming or some other activity.
“That is how you oxygenate your cells. It all affects digestion,” she says. “If you are uptight, stressed and anxious, you cannot digest your food. Just because something goes in your mouth does not mean you have digested your meal.”
One of the things she advocates for is more fermented food in the diet. Wild fermentation or lactose fermentation is essential for digestion. Among those foods most helpful are kefir, wild-fermented sauerkraut or miso.
Van der Heydt advises cutting down on sugar and being aware that sugar hides in fruits, fruit juices, soda pops and white starches. And she advises clients to connect with local farmers for their food.
Her approach to patients is individualized medicine.
“I usually start a consultation by asking what do you need most now,” she says. Her approach is a combination of counseling and recommendations as to how to support the body’s own capacity for healing. If sleep is an issue, she might suggest herbs or other homeopathic remedies or ways to quiet the mind through meditation, prayer or massage. The body should be physically tired, not just mentally, to encourage healthy sleep patterns.
Van der Heydt, who moved to Oregon from Arizona, began her interest in medicine as an undergrad pre-med student but was turned off by the competitiveness, the cheating and the fact class was “all about the grades.” So she pursued a biology degree and then became a research assistant on skin cancer prevention by doing patient intervention and lab data. What she enjoyed was advocating for people because it was a study rather than a doctor’s visit.
Library research on various medical fields led her to pursue naturopathic medicine.
“I found that the philosophy differed from conventional medicine,” she says. “Our belief is the body will heal itself if you remove the obstacle to healing. Achieving good health is first.”
The conventional approach is 15 or 20 minutes to see a patient for diagnosis and to write prescriptions. Her initial consultation is an hour and a half. She might ask you for a diet diary so she will know what you eat for breakfast and snacks, as well as what you crave and what you avoid, before determining what course of action would work.
Van der Heydt goes so far as to take a patient shopping so she can point out foods that should be part of your nutrition and what they look like, or she might send you to New Seasons so they can walk you through gluten-free products, for example, or cooking classes to learn how to cook “real” food.
As a general practitioner, she will refer a patient if they require the services of conventional medicine or work with their medical doctor if they are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy.
“We support lifestyle, such as supporting a patient before hip or knee surgery to get them off pain killers and moving again,” she says. “It is normal to age in a vibrant way, to be aware, curious, happy and learning, to be engaged in life. You do not have to settle for the status quo, lack of mobility, degeneration and other health factors.”
You can’t stop your body from the natural aging process, but the biochemistry of aging says you can have some influence over what happens.
“We all age in a general way, but it doesn’t have to be in a degenerative way,” van der Heydt says. “Plenty of people live into their 90s with their mind energized and a feeling of usefulness. That is normal. Unfortunately, most lifestyles do not support normal aging; we fight it. We get depressed; we look for superficial things like plastic surgery. We don’t expect a child to stay two years old, and we don’t get upset if the child learns to crawl. We should accept change. We have unrealistic expectations. Too many people blame age for the fact they can’t play tennis anymore or run or they say ‘it hurts too much.’ Bodies are meant to move. The mind and the immune system should be challenged. Retiring with a nest egg without physical exercise that helps your mood, your appetite, your weight and your muscles leads to immobility. Moving the body is number one to age in a graceful way.”
Van der Heydt bicycles to work and errands (she owns no car) or walks. If she wants to go backpacking in the mountains, she borrows a friend’s car. She would enjoy doing that five to 10 days a month instead of two, she says. Now 51, she realized when she turned 40 that one had to be physically active daily or lose stamina. “You cannot be a weekend warrior like you were in your 20s and 30s.”
Exercise must be a “daily habit, a routine. Get out and stretch your muscles,” she says. She also advocates spiritual practice as imperative.
She exercises daily, meditates or does qigong. She does research to challenge her mind, is active in the community and makes sure she has rest time.
“I am a bit of an introvert, so I need time to myself. I work in the garden or walk in the woods. I slow the pace.”
Van der Heydt points out that Europe is ahead of the United States in being “very anti-GMO. We have a disease maintenance care system not a health-care system in this country. Our medical system does not address the root of illness. It prescribes pills. It started with the invention of antibiotics that are incredible drugs, but that materialized into a pill for everything, such as high blood pressure and arthritis. The system does not support health. We need to get out of this paradigm.”
The best anti-inflammation support is Omega 3 fatty acids, for example, not Omega-6, and is helpful for arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Van der Heydt believes that improving the general health of the community goes beyond just improving nutrition. She says listening is a vital part of health care and that the conventional approach appears to put profit before health.
“There is consequence to every action,” she says. “I would like to see that overhauled and food advertising overhauled as well. The obstacle to a cure is a social system of inequality, and it’s all policy.”