The Power of Functional Medicine
There are so many descriptive words in healthcare these days that it can be easy to dismiss them as trends or fads or group them all together as one modality. Between alternative, Eastern, Western, conventional, allopathic, complementary or functional, how is anyone supposed to make sense of the varied approaches?
Functional medicine is a newer branch of medicine, most often confused with alternative or complementary care. These terms describe healthcare models like naturopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and the like. The term “alternative” implies a that the practitioner is using a different healthcare approach to treat or improve symptoms, while “complementary” infers a method that can be supportive to the overall goal of healing, in partnership with other care.
What makes this even more confusing is that functional medicine can be practiced by many healthcare providers including naturopaths, chiropractors, MDs or DOs, nurse practitioners and the like. Even more entangling is that a functional treatment plan may be prescribed by a naturopath or MD and could include acupuncture or chiropractic.
So, what exactly is functional medicine?
Functional medicine is an approach to patient care based in the same science and in-depth understanding of biochemistry that conventional or Western medicine is. The difference is that when a provider applies a functional approach, we don’t treat symptoms or a disease, we look for the cause of the symptoms or disease and work to “fix” the underlying root of imbalance. I often tell my patients that we use the “fix what we find” model of care.
How Functional Medicine is Different from Conventional Medicine
Conventional medical approaches developed long ago, largely based on treating injury, urgent health crisis, and infectious disease. However, today the conditions that overwhelm our healthcare systems are not broken bones, infectious diseases like polio, or even acute situations like heart attacks. In fact, the majority of healthcare dollars are now spent on ongoing management of chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and autoimmunity.
Don’t get me wrong, take me to the hospital if I break my leg or contract meningitis. Although, if I’m suffering from symptoms like pain, lethargy, digestive issues, arthritis, brain fog, headaches, poor sleep or any other ongoing symptom that negatively impacts my life, I want a functional medicine provider.
Where Conventional Medicine Fails
Chronic disease is general term for complex and long-term diseases that develop over time due to environmental exposures, lifestyle habits, and genetic susceptibility (which only accounts for about 5% of chronic disease risk). These conditions don’t have one singular cause or one magic pill that can make them go away. In fact, the only way to heal from a chronic disease is to address and improve the imbalances that created illness in the first place.
This is where conventional medicine loses its effectiveness, because it aims to mask symptoms instead of identifying the root of the disease. Western medicine stops short of asking WHY! Conventional (allopathic) providers are trained to identify and treat symptoms, often by finding the correct drug cocktail to alleviate the immediate discomfort, a system that mirrors their approach to urgent care and injury.
Think about it.
What happens if you go to a doctor with chronic migraines? They give you a prescription for Imitrex or something similar. What about low thyroid disorder? They give you thyroid replacement. But, did the doctor ever stop to ask herself, why? Over time, you will develop a growing list of symptoms and be given more and more drugs to quiet those frustrating symptoms because the cause of the symptoms is never addressed. One of the most classic analogies used in functional medicine is that if you step on a nail, conventional medicine gives you an aspirin, while functional medicine removes the nail.
“WHY” Functional Medicine Works
In comparison, if you visit a functional medicine provider because of chronic migraines, that provider’s first question is going to be “WHY”. Why is the body exhibiting such a painful symptom? What is the body trying to tell us? What potential imbalances, infections, or irritations that could lead to migraines? Could it be a singular cause like a food allergy or a combination of problems like imbalanced blood sugar, exposure to mold, chronic infections, a micronutrient deficiency or more?
The task of a functional medicine provider is to first ask WHY. Then, apply a thorough and strategic investigation into the possible causes of our patient’s symptoms. We do this by spending ample time with our patients; taking an extensive health history, performing comprehensive testing, and devising a systematic healing program. From there, we educate our patients about how to repair their body using nutrition, stress management, supplementation, good sleep hygiene, exercise and more. Eventually, they become their own health expert. By coaching and supporting them through their treatment, they heal the root of their condition and reach optimal health.
When I tell people that they can heal and regain their health, they often fall into tears because they have been led to believe that their only option is symptom management. They are convinced that their conditions are permanent and, in many cases, will only get worse.
Functional medicine is patient-centered.
The functional medicine model is patient centered and highly individualized. It’s a far cry from treating symptoms and summarizing those symptoms as a diagnosis. Instead, it’s about partnering with patients to investigate what is really happening under the surface of their bodies. It’s about treating the patient, and not the symptoms.
However, this means that aspects of the patient’s life that are overlooked by conventional care must be addressed. Factors like the health of the patient’s mother during childbearing years, childhood trauma, antibiotic use, exposures to cigarette smoke or growing up in an agricultural area all provide clues about how and when the body was compromised. Many of my patients are surprised to learn that if their mother smoked or drank soda everyday while she was pregnant, that may be affecting their current health. Being born C-section or being bottle-fed is scientifically proven to increase the risk of chronic disease. Each body is constantly navigating and responding to its environment from the moment it begins to grow. The more information we have as functional medicine providers, the better we can correct course when it goes off-track.
Functional Medicine Considers the Mind-Body Connection
There is more to wellness than diet and exercise. Stress, emotional state, relationships and community are figured into each patient’s story. Consider a person that goes home to an abusive or high-stress environment each day. We know that this causes a cascade of hormones to be released within the body, causing a fight or flights response. Those hormones can cause inflammation, digestive dysfunction, thyroid imbalance and more. If we truly want to understand why a patient is suffering, we have to understand the patient’s state of mind and spirit, and not just their symptoms. This means that at every encounter with a patient, I bring my expertise as a doctor and they bring expertise about their body and experiences. Together, we are an expert team.
Together, we create a plan and implement it with an open mind. If something does not feel right for either one of us or if it isn’t working, we change course. We must be open to the reality that the body is dynamic and ever-changing so if needed, we may shift course or throw the plan out the window and start again.
Functional Medicine is Individualized
Functional medicine also diverges from Western medicine in that no two treatment plans are alike. We call this individualized care or precision medicine. Each patient’s care plan is as unique as their body is. For example, while there are guiding principles that can be applied in every diabetes plan, just because two people share the condition of high blood sugar, it does not mean that their conditions developed for the same reasons or even with the same underlying biochemical patterns. To effectively care for each patient, functional medicine providers must tailor treatment and stay engaged to make sure that the patient responds favorably.
Not just symptom relief, but optimal health
This intentional and comprehensive approach is why functional medicine is reversing tragic diseases like diabetes, autoimmunity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and even cognitive decline. By understanding the interconnectedness of every system in the body and applying evidence-based medical practice, each body has to opportunity to heal. This is what our bodies innately do, otherwise we wouldn’t survive a paper cut. Using scientific principles to tap into this innate wisdom is how functional medicine is answering today’s chronic disease epidemic. Functional medicine not only heals disease, but it sets the foundation for optimal health and longevity!