Dr. Will Cole on easing chronic inflammation in individuals and in society as a whole.
Dr. Will Cole would like to put a cool compress on the forehead of a flushed, writhing America. Not literally, but as a leading functional medicine specialist, Cole spends quite a bit of his professional time quelling inflammation. It’s the subject of his latest book, The Inflammation Spectrum: Find Your Food Triggers and Reset Your System. In the book, he connects the dots between inflammation and many of the chronic conditions Americans suffer from, such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, poor digestion, hormone imbalances, diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune conditions. And his work has a bigger “why,” positing that if we as individuals are healthier, our dysfunctional, hopped-up culture can also calm down and heal. Anxiety, for example, is rampant: According to a survey done by the American Psychiatric Association, more than two-thirds of Americans are “extremely or somewhat anxious.”
You may be surprised to read that anxiety and inflammation are linked, but it’s likely you have heard Dr. Cole’s name before. Based in Pittsburgh, he is also the author of Ketotarian (a bestseller that covered a mostly plant-based approach to ketogenic living) and a familiar voice on podcasts. Dr. Cole is a functional medicine practitioner, which in his case includes a Doctor of Chiropractic degree, with post-doctorate training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition.
To see where you are on the inflammation spectrum, take Dr. Cole’s quiz at drwillcole.com.
Up to 90 percent of Cole’s work is done via telemedicine, consulting with patients around the world. The Inflammation Spectrum, he says, is a book version of what he does on consultations, determining where inflammation is developing in the body and addressing that with nutritional and lifestyle changes. In the book, readers take a quiz, then do either a four- or eight-week plan, depending on their needs. A Core4 Track Step-Down, for example, slowly eliminates grains, dairy, added sweeteners, and inflammatory oils like corn and soybean for four weeks, then reintroduces them while closely watching the body’s reaction.
“I wanted The Inflammation Spectrum to start with food, as it’s one of the fundamental areas functional medicine practitioners will focus on,” Cole says. But he’s quick to point out that nutrition isn’t the end-all and be-all of the book, or of his work in general. Many other aspects of our life impact our physiology. Take, for example, what Cole calls “inflammatory habits.” These eight behaviors include prolonged sitting, staring at screens too much, toxin exposure, negativity, monkey mind, emotional eating, social isolation, and lack of a higher purpose. Replacement behaviors, therefore, include goals like creating an altar for contemplation, using natural personal-care products, and making elixirs like a gut-soothing ginger and slippery elm tea.
Dr. Cole also suggests using mantras as part of the anti-inflammatory toolbox. People working on their brain and nervous system, for example, might repeat, “My thoughts are aligned with perfect health, and I become clearer and happier each day,” for 5 to 15 minutes in the morning and evening as a form of meditation.
Check Engine Light
Most of the time people hear the word inflammation and associate it with an acute situation, like appendicitis (“-itis” means inflammation). Inflammation is indeed our body’s immune system responding to an irritation, but it’s so much more complex, involving changes in the vascular system and at the cellular level. It’s not that inflammation is of itself bad—without it, you wouldn’t get over that sprained ankle. It’s that too much inflammation, or inflammation that never gets resolved, can cause problems. “It’s having an imbalance,” explains Cole. “Imbalance breeds destruction. Having inflammation at a level that doesn’t serve the body can lead to issues such as anxiety, fatigue, and even tight muscles and soreness.”
Some out-of-control inflammation is readily apparent to patients, such as rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease. But for many of us, chronic inflammation may be more insidious. Problems like thinning hair, irritability, background anxiety, depression, or chronic constipation get dismissed. Instead we should regard them as a check-engine light that is flashing on the body’s dashboard. “We equate ubiquity with normalcy,” Cole says. “People think, ‘That is just how my body is,’ or ‘It’s just me getting older,’ and they may have even been told this by their doctor. But when you run the labs, you’ll find something that is not optimal. You need to get to the root cause of the problem.”
Just as inflammatory foods—sugars, artificial trans fats, and more—and habits can affect our health, so too, can our relationships. “If someone has an unhealthy relationship with their spouse, their kids, their coworkers, it will impact that person’s health,” says Cole. “Someone who is in a toxic work environment or bad marriage, I can see it on their labs, because it will change when that person who is giving them chaos is away, or they have been relaxed on a vacation, you can see it. You can measure it. Labs are a snapshot in time that you can corollate to what is happening.” Because of the strong connection between health and family, Cole tries to get spouses involved with a patient’s health journey, ensuring they are on board with the changes.
The bigger “why” behind Cole’s work is that each human is a microcosm of a larger macrocosm, and that calming personal inflammation—and feeling better—spreads out into society, soothing what has become a toxic culture and allowing us to be better neighbors, coworkers, friends, parents, and spouses. Think about how you might interact with someone in the grocery store, for example, when you are feeling at your best physically versus how that same interaction goes when you’re under-rested, hangry, and chronically constipated. Are you going to be patient and a good listener?
Are you even seeing the other human fully? Probably not. Multiply that times 300 million people in the United States alone having daily interactions.
It’s also true on a planet level. “We are part of Earth and we are a component of Earth,” says Cole. “There are so many similarities between our bodies and the planet. The state of our own inflammation correlates with what we’re seeing in the level of toxicity in the soil, with climate change. It’s not a coincidence,” he says. “Neither are sustainable. We have to do something different to see something different. We need to heed the warning.”
The good news, he says, is that “on a health level, we are amazingly resilient and our Earth and the body both want to thrive and live.”
We may not always see eye-to- eye with others, and we may be in a challenging work or family situation. Still, addressing inflammation helps control whatever factors are controllable, and that which we can’t solve, at least we are aware of. As Eckhart Tolle says, you can “change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.”
Radical acceptance? Sounds like another good tool in the fight to create anti-inflammatory habits.
Is Functional Medicine the Future of Health Care?
More patients—and doctors—are turning to integrative medicine and functional medicine, according to the American Board of Physician Specialties. Functional medicine features a patient-centered approach, with emphasis on bio individuality, lifestyle, and treating root causes upstream rather than homing in on single symptoms. Functional medicine specialists also tend to spend more time with their patients’ histories, considering how lifestyle, genetic, and environmental factors may come into play. They tend to do more extensive lab workups of patients, compared with traditional Western medicine, such as a microbiome stool test or testing toxic loads. And they come from many backgrounds, including MD, Doctor of Chiropractic, and Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.
Despite the differences, “It’s not us versus them,” says Dr. Cole. “It’s a realization that we have to do something different to help people. Major hospitals like Cleveland Clinic now have integrative medicine centers.” (The Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine is a collaboration between the Cleveland Clinic and the Institute for Functional Medicine, led by Dr. Mark Hyman—who just happens to be the cover subject for the November/December 2019 issue of Spirituality & Health.) “That doesn’t negate medicine,” says Cole. “That’s why it’s called integrative, or complementary. We’re not replacing their primary-care doctor or specialists who may be managing their medications. There are some things we don’t do, like a physical exam. We give patients guidance based on our functional health medicine perspective.”
The goal of functional medicine, he says, is to “give people agency over their wellness.”