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Body Wisdom

Do your muscles know what you should and shouldn’t eat?


Published June 1, 2011 at 11:40 a.m.


Good food can fill our lives with pleasure. But what we eat can also have a darker, more fraught side — bringing us excess weight, parasites and allergic reactions, to name a few. As a food writer, I often ingest rich, sugary and greasy foods — caramel, burgers, aioli, wings, cocktails. Sometimes those morsels fight every inch of their way through my digestive system.

Chiropractor Suzy Harris knows well how certain foods can both please and aggravate us. Harris has seen enough gunked-up digestive systems over the past eight years to attest that your habitual morning meal, afternoon coffee or even tap water can be a slow, cumulative drag on your health. I sought out Harris for her unorthodox counterpunch to the debilitating effects of overconsumption.

But Harris doesn’t use blood tests or traditional diagnostic methods to find out what taxes this food writer’s digestive system. Rather, she straps a sensor to my belly to measure heart rate, and presses gently on my arm muscles — dozens of times — to unearth the layers of my personal food story. Her logic is that those muscles are nervous-system barometers that know what’s good for your insides — whether you’re sensitive to gluten, for instance, or have heavy metals in your organs or fungus tucked somewhere out of sight. (Ew.)

Harris pinpoints these conditions through nutrition response testing, a branch of applied kinesiology. NRT operates on the premise that we are what we eat. Developed in the 1990s by chiropractor and nutritionist Freddie Ulan and his colleague Lester Bryman, it’s an unusual tool for diagnosing health imbalances and disease.

NRT is based on the muscle testing of applied kinesiology, an alternative therapy created by George Goodheart in the 1960s; and practiced by more than a third of U.S. chiropractors. NRT dictates that if you touch a substance that aggravates your body, your nervous system will register a change — usually, a strong muscle goes weak. Conversely, if you hold a food that strengthens you, your muscles respond accordingly. By touching meridians on the body and applying gentle pressure to your muscles, an NRT practitioner can determine whether you have toxic buildups from eating the wrong foods, or being exposed to chemicals or heavy metals. Once you clear these, indigestion, extra weight, low energy and some diseases could dissipate, at least according to NRT logic.

Applied kinesiology has never definitively survived a controlled test of its principles, though by its nature it is difficult to test. Most physicians judge a therapy by its success in double-blind studies, says Colchester osteopath Carol J. Gardner, who does not use AK — though some doctors do, she says. Gardner, who stops short of refuting or endorsing the therapy, does give practitioners props for “thinking out of the box.” “A lot of people don’t feel it’s scientific,” she says, “but just because it’s not scientifically proven doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. It’s another modality for helping people find the supplement that might resonate for them.”

A thick binder in the waiting room of Harris’ practice, Cedar Wood Chiropractic, holds the written testimonials of dozens of patients who swear by NRT to ease digestion and clear up physical and mental health conditions. Harris, an upbeat and athletic-looking woman with close-cropped gray hair, does not claim to deliver medical diagnoses, but the word-of-mouth success of NRT has made her practice swell.

During my first visit, Harris straps a sensor across my torso to record my heart rate and blood-pressure change while I go from prone to standing positions. This measures the interplay between my sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which are at cross-purposes, Harris says, so she sets about discovering the “blocks” causing this confusion. The culprits could be anything from processed sugars to hydrogenated oils to lead in lipstick to mercury in fish, as well as food preservatives, parabens and parasites.

I raise my right arm, and Harris presses it lightly to assess my baseline strength. Then I blindly touch a series of tiny glass vials that contain the essences of foods, metals, fungi and chemicals. According to NRT logic, the ones that inflame my tissues will cause my muscle to falter. I hold my arm strong for several rounds of vial fondling, but then it shakes and trembles slightly as Harris presses it toward the table. I cannot control the weakness, no matter how hard I try, and we’re caught in a sort of light arm wrestle.

My internal picture starts to emerge. “You’re testing positive for lead and mercury,” says Harris. She also detects chlorine, and asks, “Do you drink tap water at home?”

Um, yes. But how could she know that? Before I have time to answer, she also detects a condition caused by an excess of sugar in my diet.

Once these “blocks” are on the table, Harris tests my muscles against whole-food supplements to unstick the cogs: Spanish black radish and Parotid PMG to start, as well as wheat-germ oil to rub into a nose-piercing scar that apparently sits on an important meridian. She also directs me to begin a daily diary of food and liquid intake.

The diary keeping is illuminating. I begin every morning with green tea, an egg, bananas and orange juice, and drink wine with dinner almost every night. Because the amounts were so small, I never considered them significant. But when I bring my journal back the following week, Harris circles these sugary offenders, 20 in all. Could I bring it down to, say, 15? she asks.

When Harris was studying at the New York Chiropractic College in Seneca Falls, applied kinesiology was part of her training, but she didn’t use it to detect nutritional issues until she attended a Boston lecture by Ulan. NRT meshed with the reason Harris went into chiropractics in the first place: to treat chronic health conditions that were difficult to solve.

After months of training, Harris introduced NRT to her practice, initially treating relatively benign conditions such as bad digestion and chronic headaches. Though she stresses that she does not hand out medical diagnoses, she says the frequent culprit is toxicity due to our diet. The biggest causes of long-term internal distress, in her experience, are gluten, dairy and sugar.

As word spread, more serious conditions appeared in her office, infertility, fibromyalgia and Crohn’s disease among them. “I said, ‘Wow,’” she recalls — and sought further training. Harris believes NRT can detect imbalances before they’ve become disease. “By the time it shows up [in a medical test], the pathology is 80 percent under way,” she says. “Monitoring stress based on your symptoms is not a good strategy.”

One of Harris’ patients is Steve Fuchs, owner and coach of the Burlington Adventure Boot Camp for Women. Three years ago, he wasn’t feeling great. “It would take days for me to recover from workouts that I used to take hours to recover from,” says Fuchs, who was 45 at the time. “I knew what good felt like, and I just wasn’t there.”

He sought out Harris, who uncovered a raft of internal issues. It took an initial “leap of faith,” Fuchs says, but one office visit was particularly convincing. After he spent a weekend cleaning with powerful agents, “Suzy found chemicals, and I hadn’t told her [about the cleaning]. I had a lot of things lurking under the surface that I had no idea about.” For instance, Fuchs had a dozen mercury fillings in his mouth, and mercury showed up during his testing.

Fuchs began clearing his system of metals and parasites. “I also took out some grains that weren’t doing me any favors, and really got going with fruits and vegetables.” His energy surged back, he says.

The treatment doesn’t come cheap. Harris is up front about the time and financial commitment required — weekly visits for the first few months can add up to $250 monthly, including supplements. Once you’re in the program, you’ll meet with Lauren Clark, a patient advocate and nutritional consultant who herself came to Harris after she lost 65 pounds but still struggled with health issues. Now Clark helps patients adjust their diets, suggesting substitutions such as almond milk for cow’s milk, stevia for sugar and spelt for wheat. She brings small groups to Healthy Living Natural Foods Market, where she shows them how to shop for and cook these sometimes alien ingredients.

Clark also has a list of dos and don’ts: Chew your food at least 10 times before swallowing; don’t sip liquid between bites of food; don’t drink from a straw (too much air in the digestive system); don’t use electronics while eating; don’t…

The directions are hard to follow while I’m simultaneously cutting back on bananas and orange juice, my morning staples, as well as refined sugar, gluten and wine. I consider wine a fifth food group, and without its promise at dinner, my desire to cook fades. Suddenly I obsess about food all the time — specifically, what I can’t eat.

Apparently, I’m thinking about this all wrong. “This is a process and not an event. It’s not a race,” says Harris. People should ease into dietary changes slowly, so they don’t detox too quickly and don’t rebel against the new regimen. “When you have ‘indiscretions,’ don’t freak out,” she says. “Mediate.”

But some people do freak, especially when they have eating disorders. After all, eating can be a highly emotional act. Each sugary thing in my food diary feels like a failure of will. I succeed in cutting out refined sugars by using stevia, and switch to berries for a morning snack. I cut down on wheat and halve my wine consumption. In two weeks, I’ve lost three pounds and some minor eczema has cleared up; I feel less full and bloated. I test for lower levels of metals on my third visit, and feel some triumph. But I wonder whether the change is psychosomatic — so I seek out a few nutritionists and exercise scientists for their take.

Not many of the professionals I speak with know enough about applied kinesiology to comment, though Molly Fleming, a naturopath and acupuncturist, uses it occasionally in her practice.

“It’s a tool, basically, and as a tool it has limits, just like anything else. It can be a useful way to outline where treatment should be focused,” she says. But Fleming notes that in her experience, the technique’s accuracy can shift based on temporary reactions to food or other passing environmental factors. “I don’t use it all of the time because of those limitations.”

I am nowhere near chronically ill (knock on wood), just beset with the digestive discomforts of occupational indulgence. For me, NRT so far seems invaluable. It’s a no-brainer that the food we consume has direct consequences on our health. Some foods are laced with carcinogenic compounds and empty calories, and excess sugar consumption is a culprit in diabetes, obesity and a raft of other diseases.

If I had a more serious illness, would I still use NRT? Alongside medical treatment, yes. Whether or not it’s “working,” the mind is a powerful healer, just as food can be. I trust the body to know what’s good for it.