Food makes for good medicine

Local health professionals say prevention and even addressing ailments can start with how you eat.

A man came into Dr. Kevin Ritzenthaler’s office with severe stomach pains. The 20-something-year-old already had been to a doctor several times and diagnosed with pancolitis, an inflammation of the inner lining of the large intestine. He was told to go home and see if the symptoms persisted. Not only did they persist, they got worse. He was prescribed some anti-inflammatory medication and sent home again. That didn’t do the trick, and he was still in pain and not finding a way to get any better. His symptoms were so severe he was missing work and could barely leave the house. 


A friend who had similar issues referred him to Ritzenthaler, a chiropractor and nutritionist in Weston who practices functional medicine. Ritzenthaler ran the man through a series of food sensitivity tests, and found that of 154 foods that people often have issues with, he tested positive for about 20 of them. Ritzenthaler took a complete patient history and found out at one point this patient had been on heavy antibiotics, which may have affected his gastrointestinal tract (GI). A stool analysis revealed that the man’s bacteria inside his stomach, important to good health, was askew.

“My focus isn’t necessarily on his symptoms but why he had those symptoms,” Ritzenthaler says, relating his experience with a patient he treated in his Weston office. “It might seem like an odd statement, but what I’m treating is not the problems, but why he had those problems in the first place.”

Ritzenthaler wrote a nutrition plan that removed potentially problematic foods from the man’s diet while introducing foods known to help reduce inflammation. Ritzenthaler then recommended some nutraceuticals (pharmaceutical grade supplements) to help promote healthy gut bacteria.

All told, the man suffered stomach pains for about three months before stepping into Ritzenthaler’s office. About four weeks after following a nutrition plan, nearly all of his symptoms were gone.

Practices focusing on nutrition outside of traditional medical settings are increasingly cropping up in the area. Whether that is through a functional medicine practitioner and nutritionist at a chiropractor’s office, yoga therapy, health stores or even hospital sponsored grocery trips as Aspirus has conducted in the past, places to learn about and improve your overall nutrition abound.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates once said all health starts in the gut. As nutrition science advances, studies seem to espouse what practitioners are increasingly saying today: Eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains in their most natural state possible is still the best answer to the question, “How do I eat healthy?”

None of the local providers interviewed are making miracle claims to the power of nutrition—for example, that the right foods can cure cancer or reverse every ailment. And none is claiming to replace conventional medicine. What they are saying is that the right nutrition can have a huge impact on improving a person’s health, and that might mean incorporating food not commonly found in a modern, conventional American diet.

Eat and stretch

Mary Hilliker is best known in the Wausau area as a yoga teacher and owner of 5 Koshas Yoga and Wellness. But she’s also a registered dietician and nutritionist who has been involved in public health for 30 years. She’s seen a lot of fad diets come and go, and isn’t a big fan of the trendy diets that pop up from time to time.

When Hilliker started 5 Koshas in 2015, she almost immediately offered nutrition counseling at her studio because she saw such a demand for those services. While people seek out yoga and other exercise classes because they want to maintain their health, people who enroll in nutrition counseling usually are looking to address some kind of health problem. As a result, Hilliker says, she’s helped people with things ranging from poor body weight or body image to arthritis.

Those nutrition services and her yoga therapy overlap a lot, Hilliker says. One of the problems people have in weight management is stress, which can cause people to overeat. Guess what kind of exercise helps with stress? Yep, it’s yoga.

“It could be mood issues, anger, anxiety, stress or even more depressive types of symptoms,” Hilliker says. “Those types of symptoms are important to manage to improve a person’s relationship with food.”

Eating more fruits and veggies is about more than just getting vitamins. Healthy foods help manage inflammation, which often sparks many health problems, Hilliker says. She encourages eating a variety of vegetables in a multitude of colors, because each vegetable has different properties with different effects.

What are those effects? You may have heard the advice to eat your broccoli as a child, but scientific studies show it has far more benefits than previously thought. Broccoli contains sulforaphane, which according to a recent study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry has anti-inflammation properties and can help reduce depression symptoms. Sulforaphane is even higher in broccoli sprouts.

For Hilliker’s practice, nutrition isn’t the end-all to her approach, but rather an important aspect of it. She brings up the example of a woman she helped who had arthritis. Besides an anti-inflammatory diet consisting largely of different kinds of vegetables, she also introduced this client to a series of yoga techniques meant to target the joints where she was experiencing pain. The woman quickly started feeling better after just a couple of sessions, Hilliker says. Other clients she managed might take much longer.

Hilliker isn’t the only yoga studio offering nutrition services. The growing interest in nutrition is something that Community Soul Yoga Studio owner Kirsten Holmson has noticed in her own practice. After enough yoga students began asking about her approach to nutrition and the foods she likes to eat, she decided to host a workshop. The demand was high enough that she ended up hosting another.

The workshop started with a 60-minute yoga class, followed by a discussion on raw foods and juicing, Holmson says. The workshop attendees learned how to make three different juices that were meant to improve skin health. They’re concoctions Holmson uses on a regular basis. Holmson also demonstrated how to make a raw food snack, entrée and dessert.

Eat the kimchee

Stephen Hittner has owned Family Natural Foods in Wisconsin Rapids for several years, and has worked at the family health business since he was 10 years old, first helping his parents stock shelves. As he worked, he began getting the lay of the health food and supplement store, learning what each product was, how it works and their effect on the human body.

Hittner completed a minor in dietetics at UW-Stevens Point, and studies his products and general health religiously, even traveling to India for several months to study Ayurvedic medicine. He’s also spoken at the Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg and has appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio as a fermented food expert.

Hittner’s health advice to customers at the store echoes much of what Hilliker and Ritzenthaler say: A diet rich in fruits and vegetables as close to their natural state as possible is the best for maintaining good health.

Hittner adds one twist: He believes people should eat at least one fermented food every day. Why? Fermented foods tend to be loaded with healthy probiotics—good for stomach health—and are easily digested because the fermentation process already has partially broken down the food.

“If you look at any culture around the world, they ate something fermented,” Hittner says. “It was a way of preserving food and it was part of this symbiosis on so many different levels between our health and food.”

Most people are familiar with the probiotics of yogurt. But other fermented foods to consider are kimchee (Korean fermented cabbage and vegetables), sauerkraut (traditionally fermented but often found in non-fermented form these days), plus lesser known foods such as natto (Japanese fermented soy beans) or kefir (fermented milk originating in India).

Each item the store carries is carefully curated, Hittner says, so he can help ensure customers are getting quality products. Yogurt is a good example of that. “So many of them are loaded with extra ingredients: sugars, fibers and sweeteners,” Hittner says. “If I can show them a couple of the yogurts, help guide them to one that they will like the taste of and that are healthier, they’re more likely to use it on a frequent basis.”

A complementary practice

Ritzenthaler describes his approach to helping patients as a raging river in which people are constantly falling into the water. Traditional doctors pull people out of the river with their life rafts and resuscitate them; but he’s going upstream to find out why they’re falling into the water in the first place.

Ritzenthaler wants to make clear he’s not intending to disrespect medical doctors. He doesn’t see what he does as competing with traditional medicine, but rather as complementing it.

Hilliker agrees with that assessment and is careful not to over-promise what her approach can do for people. She gets a lot of potential clients who might have unrealistic expectations about how much changing their diet will help them. “The physician is the person diagnosing and directing treatment,” Hilliker says. “Nutrition might be one aspect of that strategy.”

Nutrition plays a large role in the education of new doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin, says MCW Campus Administrator Theresa Gutsch, who also is a registered dietitian. Gutsch says first year medical students study nutrition through biochemistry and physiology, and nutrition is covered in the second year as students study body systems such as the cardiovascular or renal systems. Second-year students take an entire block of education in gastro-intestinal health and nutrition, Gutsch says.

MCW’s approach might be more of a rarity than the norm. A 2014 article in the American Journal of Medicine bemoaned the lack of nutritional education in traditional medical training generally in the U.S. It states that, “A recent survey of medical schools revealed an average of fewer than 20 hours over 4 years devoted to nutrition education—most of which occurs in the early years when basic science courses are taught, typically with little apparent connection to human diets or common diseases.”

That report also points out that “only 14% of resident physicians believed they were adequately trained to provide nutritional counseling,” and states that, “With the epidemic of obesity and related chronic disease now burdening our health care system, it is past time to start taking nutrition education seriously.”

At the Medical College of Wisconsin, Gutsch stresses that, “As an RD [registered dietician] I can safely say that I won’t let this topic get lost at our campus.”

MCW’s doctor training includes community outreach, and that can incorporate nutrition, Gutsch says. For example, MCW students last summer hosted a healthy eating event at the Boys and Girls Club of Wausau. Gutsch has held a healthy cooking seminar at the college’s Wausau campus, and many of medical student’s projects likely will involve community health organizations and wellness, Gutsch says.

Still, even holistic-based counselors caution that self-study about health shouldn’t countermand the advice of a trained doctor, Hittner says. But learning about health should be a life-long practice. “It’s important for people to know that they don’t have to know everything today,” Hittner says. “Just learn a little more each day and you will be healthier in the end.”

Hilliker is a big proponent of making gradual changes when it comes to diets. She’s not a big fan of fad diets, because they often call for quick overhauls that aren’t usually sustainable. “The restrictive approach to eating usually leads to rebounded weight gain. Unless the person is able to manage the stressors and triggers associated with poor diet, and can change their lifestyle to match.”