Psychological side-effects of medications are often overlooked or dismissed

January 2020

Disturbing information about psycho-emotional effects of commonly prescribed medications, including statins, acetaminophen, asthma medications, and anti-depressants. Also included are more amazing stats on how many pills we are taking every day: $1200 worth a year in America for every man, woman and child.
Pharmaceuticals have their place, but in practice, I see that medical professionals have become numb and disbelieving as to their risks. Recently, a medical professional I work with refused to consider magnesium for pain relief, because they wanted to use oxycodone first, and use magnesium if that failed. We need to review our beliefs about what makes a medicine safe to use, and listen to patients that inform us about their new symptoms that arise after starting a medication. This holds true for supplements and nutraceuticals as well. Here is a link to the article

The Only Resolution You Need To Make This Year!

reprinted by permission from the Angel Hands Wellness Website:
Why Self-acceptance Is The Key to a Happier Life

It is that time of year again, time to make resolutions you probably won’t keep for more than three weeks, and for most of you, time to feel guilty, shameful, and bad about your “inability” to stick to them. This year, make the only resolution you need: resolve to love and accept yourself.
There is no more revolutionary idea in our society, than the idea that self-acceptance is important, if not crucial, to health and happiness. To many, self-acceptance, and self-love, is indulgent, arrogant, sinful, and will lead to “laziness”, a terrible thing in a culture that values “busyness” and self-denial. “But if I accept myself, I will never change or improve”, is something I hear from my patients on a daily basis.

However, new research from neuroscience shows just the opposite. As Alex Korb explains in his book “The Upward Spiral” (2015), guilt and shame reward the pleasure centres of the brain:

“Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens. Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions — except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out. This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they’re activating the brain’s reward center.”

By attaching guilt and shame to our behaviours, we guarantee we will continue them. By detaching guilt and shame, we stop rewarding ourselves for “bad” behaviour. Every time someone criticizes us for our behaviour and we respond with guilt and shame, we become more attached to those behaviours.
In addition, guilt and shame become “payments” that allow us to continue those same behaviours. How many times have you felt shame, for example, for eating a “bad” food? How many times has it stopped you from eating it again? Instead, you make a deal with yourself: “I can eat this food, if I feel bad about it afterward”.

To explain further, and to answer the inevitable question, this does not mean that all behaviours are okay and healthy to continue. It just means you will never stop doing them simply by feeling bad about them, and by feeling bad about yourself.

So what is the alternative? Begin with self-acceptance of who you are right in this moment. Self-acceptance means saying to yourself “I see you. I hear you. You are not perfect, you may even be a little nuts, but I love you.” Accept yourself the way you wish others would accept you.
There are many good ways to practice self-acceptance. Here are a few:

1. Practice gratitude. Find one thing to be grateful for in each day. Again, neuroscience research has found that the act of gratitude stimulates production of both serotonin and dopamine, both of which are key to elevated mood. There will be days when you can’t find anything to be grateful for, and on those days, you can be grateful for breathing in and out. It is the act of searching for gratitude which stimulates the production of good-mood hormones (Korb, 2015). Gratitude also allows for positivity, which counteracts self-judgement.

2. Become more aware of your present surroundings. This is what is meant by “mindfulness”. When you are more present, your attention is focused on your sensations of, and interactions with, the world. This means you are less focused on regretting the past, or worrying about the future. Try to name emotions as you experience them. Naming emotions reduces their impact on brain function and chemistry (Korb, 2015). You may become aware that you spend a lot of mental energy in self-criticism. Sometimes, you become more aware that you are anxious, depressed, or in an unhappy situation, and this is uncomfortable, even distressing for some people. If this happens, seek out help, in whatever form you are comfortable with.

3. Question your own judgments about your behaviours. Are they in proportion to the behaviour? If you had a friend who did the same thing, how would you judge their behaviour? Are you minimizing or maximizing the behaviours’ impacts on your life and happiness?

Self-acceptance is the path to redemption. Once you accept yourself, warts and all, paradoxically you are better able to change, because you have lessened your emotional attachments to those behaviours. Once you accept and love yourself, you begin to treat yourself as you would a loved one. You opt for the best health possible, you choose things that support and nurture yourself, and you reject things, people and situations which are harmful to you. You know yourself well enough to make good decisions and take wise risks to improve and better your life. And your need for resolutions vanishes.

The Top Three Things That Promote Longevity


Getting older is a fact of life. For many of us, the prospect of aging is a fearful experience. We worry about losing our looks, our health and our power in a society that promotes and celebrates youth and ridicules wisdom and experience. Yet I would argue that growing older can be a joyous and rich experience! Good health is key to better aging, and my patients often ask me what they can do to maximize their health and resilience into their elder years. Having done extensive research into the key factors for enjoyable longevity, I came up with my Top Three Things you can do to live better longer:

Normalize Your Blood Sugar

High levels of sugar in your blood cause a host of problems, including diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, kidney failure, circulatory diseases, blindness and death. The normal range for blood sugar after fasting, is 3.90 mmol/L to 5.5 mmol/L. Research shows that even levels above 4.4 mmol/L are linked to health problems. Regulating your blood sugar is the best way to prevent disease, reduce your weight and further your healthy lifespan. We can test your fasting levels of blood sugar and related markers, and design a diet that regulates blood sugar, and works for you and your health goals.


After the age of forty, movement is the only way to prevent muscular atrophy, giving truth to the old adage, “use it or lose it”. In addition, regular movement prevents injury and improves balance, elevates mood and regulates hormones. Daily activity of at least 30 minutes in length is key to maintaining and improving your overall health. Regular activity also stop telomeres (the part of our DNA that regulates cell reproduction and death) from shrinking, effectively extending the life span of each cell in our body. Movement can and should be enjoyable and sustainable, and we can help you find a workout or activity that is right for you.

Community Involvement

Research from all over the world, especially in the so-called “Blue Zones” (areas with a greater than average number of centenarians), shows that connection to, and involvement in, the greater community is key for longevity and happiness. Loneliness is a killer. In areas where grandparents are involved in social groups and caring for grandchildren, they live longer and have more fulfilling and enjoyable lives, as do other seniors who are active and supported by their community. What is your “sense of purpose”? Dr Handford practices brief counselling methods to help you regain your purpose and find joy in day to day living.

It is not about living longer, it is about living well longer!

Spotlight on the Lab: Food Allergy and Sensitivity Testing

Many of my patients come to me initially for food allergy and hypersensitivity testing. However, they are often unclear as to how the test is taken, what it is testing for, and how it will help them feel better. In addition, there has been an increase in media attention to naturopathic approaches (also called “functional medicine” by MDs) to treating digestive, autoimmune, and other diseases and syndromes which are affected by diet.

Naturopathic doctors have been at the forefront of allergy and hypersensitivity testing for over 30 years, and our knowledge and expertise have helped thousands of people feel better through elimination or reduction of offending foods and substances. One thing we help people understand is the difference between a food allergy, a food hypersensitivity, and other forms of food intolerance.

Food allergies are anaphylactic-type reactions to foods, and are mediated by an immune molecule called IgE. These allergies can be life-threatening (in 1% of cases), causing difficulty breathing, rashes or eczema, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, swelling and hives, and symptoms appear immediately after eating the offending food. We can test for total IgE, or for IgE reactions to a broad spectrum of foods, by taking a blood sample from the patient and extracting the serum for analysis. Unlike other kinds of testing, eating foods you may be allergic to is NOT recommended before testing for IgE. In addition, the type of testing we provide is good for assessing non-acute reactions, such as digestive distress or skin rashes, but is NOT recommended to find life-threatening acute reactions (that requires a referral to an allergist MD, as they have access to the appropriate tests). This test costs between $275 and $475, and includes both IgE and IgG testing, as well as an option to test IgA, an immune marker associated with damage to the gut lining.

Food hypersensitivities are controlled by another immune molecule: IgG. These molecules are specific to the offending food protein, and attach to it in the bloodstream, making an “antibody-antigen complex” and marking it for destruction by white blood cells. With repeated contact, these complexes build up and are deposited in tissues such as joints, the digestive system, the nervous system, skin and cause reactions like joint pain, bowel diseases, migraines, psoriasis and eczema and weight gain/bloating.
We test for this by taking a small amount of blood. These symptoms usually show up between 30 minutes and 72 hours of ingestion, so we encourage people taking this test to eat all the foods they would usually eat twice a week for 3 weeks before testing, including foods they are avoiding because they cause symptoms. Because the immune system removes these complexes over time, foods that are avoided will not usually be positive on the IgG test. IgG testing for 96 common foods costs 275$, with options to add additional foods for testing, or a vegetarian-only food panel.

Food intolerances are usually due to a lack of a given enzyme to break down a food. The most famous is lactose intolerance, which can be tested with a breath test. In BC, we can send you to Life Labs to have this tested for $75.

Celiac Disease (CD) is an immune response to the presence of gluten and gliadin, two related proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, resulting in severe inflammation and destruction of the gut mucosa and villi, problems with absorption and a host of digestive, neurological, ocular, joint and skin symptoms, and can be life-threatening. We can do testing for CD with a blood sample taken in-office, which tests for IgG and IgA reactions to gliadin, as well as anti-tissue transglutaminase, a test for an enzyme present in CD. Positive results lead to a referral for biopsy to confirm CD. This test costs $195.

Candida is a yeast normally present in low levels in the gut and associated tissues. Overuse of antibiotics, high sugar diets and stress can all lead to an overgrowth of candida and symptoms such as recurrent yeast or urinary tract infections, rashes, sugar cravings, bloat and other digestive problems, and brain fog. We can test for IgG, IgM, and IgA antibodies to candida with a blood test taken done in-office. This test costs $175.

Deciding which type of test is right for you requires an understanding of your symptoms and history. A qualified naturopathic doctor such as I, can take a good clinical history and recommend the appropriate test that will get you feeling better fast!

Why travel is good for your health!

Recently, my family and I spent two weeks on Oahu, and it got me thinking about the challenges and joys that travel brings to our lives. Here is a list of the great things travel does for your health, both physical and mental (if you let it!):

1. It gets you moving. Whether it is hiking, sightseeing, swimming or working out at the hotel gym, travel offers many opportunities to get physically active and challenge your stamina and abilities. You may even want to prepare before your trip with extra walking or swimming so that you can enjoy the trip without being exhausted.

2. It challenges your brain’s ability to learn and adapt to new surroundings. Too often, we get “stuck” in routines and habits, leading to boredom, stress and mental stagnation. In a new environment, these routines are broken, and we are forced to pay conscious attention to things like securing food, finding our way around new places, and avoiding new dangers (like pickpockets). In my experience, and watching my boys after their adventures, the mental challenges of travel bring fresh perspective upon your return to “normal” life.

3. It exposes you to new foods. Sampling locally popular foods can be a great way to try something you never have before. Eating a wide variety of foods is a great way to make sure you are getting all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need for health without the need for supplementation. The Hawaiian favorite “poke” (marinated raw tuna or salmon) was a big hit with our family, as was fresh pineapple and taro chips, none of which the kids ate beforehand.

4. It exposes your immune system to new viruses, bacteria, and parasites. This may not seem like a good thing, and certainly no one enjoys getting sick on holiday, but exposure to a wide variety of immune challenges can strengthen your immune system and increase its adaptability. If you do get sick on holiday, be sure to see your naturopathic doctor or other health care professional upon your return, for a health evaluation.

5. It exposes you to new cultures, and new ways of doing daily activities. As the travel writer Bill Bryson puts it, “one of the small marvels (of travel is) the discovery that the world could be so full of variety, that there are so many different ways of doing essentially identical things”. Too often, we see only one way of life as the “right” way, and it can be both challenging and delighting to see that people in another part of the world do things very differently. You may even find something you want to bring home and incorporate into your own daily routine.

6. It reduces stress and improves enjoyment. Our trip featured beach closures, high surf and occasional thunderstorms, but working around these not-ideal things gave us a feeling of accomplishment and enjoyment, and we still had an excellent time. Whether it is sitting on the beach with a good book, as is my preference, or visiting world famous landmarks, or whatever you enjoy most, travel is great way to love life!

2 Minutes on Diet with Dr Handford

As a naturopathic doctor, diet is a central part of my treatment plans for patients. With over 150 hours of nutrition training, NDs are health leaders when it comes to understanding diet and its impact on our health. But these days, patients are flooded with nutritional tips, info, research and news on the latest diet claiming to solve all health problems, promote weight loss, prevent disease etc. How do we then design a diet that works for our patients? Here are some of the principles of diet design I use:

The most important principle is to know yourself, what you like, what you crave and why. Your social and ethnic background will influence your food choices, as will your personal history with food. And that is all okay! The more you honour your intuition and tune into signals from your body, the better your diet will work for you.

In almost all cases, you could stand to eat more veggies. Raw works for some, but not everyone, especially those with compromised digestive systems. Aim to eat 3 platefuls, or 6 cups of veggies a day. Try to make them colorful cups, eating from a range of red, green, yellow, blue and purple choices.

In almost all cases, you should cut out highly processed food. For a sensible, layperson approach to whole food eating, check out Lisa Leake’s site

In almost all cases, you should not eat food that causes you digestive distress. Humans are unique individuals, whose digestive capacities change throughout their lives. If most foods are causing you problems, or if you feel sick after eating but have no idea why, see your local naturopathic doc to help you identify and eliminate food triggers or allergens. We are the “digestion doctors” for a reason!

In many cases, you should drink more water. If your urine is colored more than a light yellow, you are not getting enough water, and should increase your intake, up to a max of 3-4 Litres a day. If your urine is clear, you are drinking enough.

There are compelling reasons to eat organic, humanely-raised foods that do not cause species extinction (like tuna, for example). However, everyone has different access to these foods, so do your best without making yourself crazy.

Too many drugs, not enough health for today’s seniors.

(This picture is my Dad, age 69, on a recent hike in Manning Park)

You may recently have seen news about the typical number of drugs that a person over 65 is prescribed in BC, and about how common it is to have our seniors on as many as 12 different medications. How did this “polypharmacy” come to be? I believe it is the result of the standard medical model of care when it comes to dealing with aging and chronic diseases. I also believe we can and must do better for our elders, and for our health care system.

One of the main problems with the standard model of care is that it “solves” every problem with pills. As we get older, and develop more problems, we therefore are given more pills to deal with those problems. Of course, each medication comes with complex drug-drug interactions, and side effects, for which more pills are given. It is easy to see how even a relatively healthy senior can end up on 5 or 6 medications.

For example, take my patient Ed. (His name has been changed for privacy). He is a generally healthy 75 year old, with high blood pressure (BP), and some osteoarthritis in his knees. He was prescribed up to 3 blood pressure medications which made him dizzy and imbalanced, as well as dehydrated from the diuretic, while not controlling his BP as measured in his MD’s office. Upon questioning, it turned out that he is afraid of his doctor and stressed by their appointments together, so his blood pressure was always very high while in the office. When he was asked to self-monitor his BP using a home machine, it was actually in the high normal range for his age. I suggested a change of doc, and he also chose to stop 2 of the 3 BP medications. I followed up with a natural product to reduce his BP, suggested dietary changes and stress management tools, and did acupuncture weekly. Soon his pressure was normal or even low-normal (again, for a 75 year old), and he was only on one medication, which did not give him any side effects.
When Ed got shingles, he was again given three medications, one of which he continued to take for months afterward for pain in his leg. Then he was given a prescription for anti-depressants, because the pain medication can cause depression as well as other more serious mental health side effects. Again, through investigation (not available in a 10 minute MD appointment), it was revealed that the pain was not related to the shingles, but was a recurrence of sciatica he had had previously. He was treated by a chiropractor and myself to cure the sciatica, and the “shingles pain” disappeared. He was then able to get off the pain med and refuse the anti-depressant.

What happened to Ed happens to seniors in our community every day. They are hurried through brief medical appointments and prescribed more and more pills. These pill regimes become onerous for seniors and their care givers, resulting in missed medications, terrible side effects, overdoses, and loss of enjoyment of life. Instead, I believe our elders need longer appointments, a more thorough medical history, and an emphasis on non-pill solutions which can fix or relieve many common complaints of aging. We also need to switch our thinking, from seeing aging as a terrible thing, to one which values our seniors and their contributions. Then we will help them live happier and healthier lives.

Why I love naturopathic medicine

This spring has brought many positive changes to my practice, for which I am very grateful. My biggest gratitude has been how it has reminded me of why I became a naturopathic doctor in the first place: I love this medicine! I still remember my tears of happiness in my first week of naturopathic medical school, as I met inspiring teacher after inspiring teacher, and got to know my fellow students. I had never been in a school with so much truth and compassion in every aspect, from the dedicated NDs and their allies who had created the school from nothing, to the alternative practitioners who taught for low wages, to the support staff doing their best to help us first year students get settled in.

The message was the same, no matter who delivered it: do no harm, treat the whole person, recognize the healing power of the human body and of nature, teach others how to heal themselves. What a contrast to my previous experiences with the medical profession, both as a patient and as a student worker in the UBC Family Practice Residency Program! This was not medicine that disregarded humanity, suppressed the natural healing work of the immune system, or broke up the body into parts to examine.

As I continued on in my education, my love grew. As I began my clinical training, I saw how all the knowledge, clinical pearls, tips etc I had learned in my first two years worked in practice. I met amazing people who were ill, in physical or mental pain, and who got better using the techniques, treatments and supplements prescribed. It seemed like magic, but it wasn’t, it was the application of the principles of observation and experimentation done over millennia. One of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett, wrote that “it doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it happens”. To this day, I am constantly surprised and heartened by the power of the” vix naturae”, the healing I see in my patients and in myself because of this medicine. May it continue to change lives and flourish.

Dr Handford

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Are your worries keeping you up at night? Do you feel chronically overworked and overwhelmed? Have you started to have symptoms like stomach pain, TMJ, fatigue, and irritability? Do you find it hard to keep “going through the motions” while you feel sad or anxious? Find out what your stress is doing to you, your health, your family, and your life and discover new treatments and strategies to help. Naturopathic medicine (and Dr Handford) has many options to support better mental health, so come and let us find the combination that is right for you!

Digestive Health

Are you suffering from digestive problems? Gas, bloating, constipation and other complaints are signs that your digestion is in trouble. We can review your particular situation, suggest and perform appropriate testing, treat your symptoms and get you feeling better fast! Dr Handford also effectively treats more serious problems like heartburn and GERD, ulcers, IBS, Ulcerative Colitis, and Crohn’s Disease.