Have you ever heard the term “functional medicine” and wondered what it meant? It’s taking the health world by storm, and I want to make sure you know why it’s such a vital part of healthcare.
Functional medicine is all about treating the whole patient, not dividing up their symptoms into a dozen unconnected subcategories.
Good functional medicine is backed by recent research. As providers of functional healthcare, we should be on the cutting edge of scientific research, implementing recent findings into diagnostic and treatment options.
I would argue functional medicine uses more 21st century research than conventional medicine!
At the same time, the functional medicine approach uses the millennia-old traditions of our ancestors to inform medical decisions. Just because people hundreds or thousands of years ago had no scientific journals doesn’t mean we should ignore everything they learned and believed. Many of their examples are literally the Hippocratic method in action.
Although this field is finding mainstream attention thanks to voices like Dr. Oz, Dr. Deepak Chopra, and Dr. Mark Hyman, functional medicine is still misunderstood by many. Let me take you through how functional medicine works, how to find a functional doctor, and what to expect once you’re there.
Functional medicine is an evidence-based, holistic approach to healthcare.
One of my favorite quotes is, “Health is not just the absence of disease.” This perfectly describes functional medicine’s approach. Functional medicine shifts the traditional disease-focused approach towards a patient-centered approach.
Functional medicine is both preventative and individualized. Compounded medicine is a term used in functional medicine to refer to a unique, personalized prescription treatment.
In functional medicine, patient care is everything. When treating chronic disease, functional practitioners acknowledge a patient’s biochemical individuality and involve patients in their healthcare plan. It’s the patient’s chronic illness, so it makes sense that they should be co-equal partners in planning their wellness, right?
In this respect, functional medicine gives patients more power. It’s frustrating when a conventional doctor scoffs at a patient when they ask about a more natural treatment or even when they simply ask a question.
Functional doctors are consciously more respectful of their patients and recognize the importance of not only drug treatments, but dietary, lifestyle, emotional, and even social impacts on health and disease.
Other terms synonymous or similar to functional medicine are:
It’s obvious to me that functional medicine is more interested in the long-term health of the whole person. It’s why I chose this approach to care. My patients aren’t just reversing disease — they’re living better lives!
There are several differences between functional medicine (FM) and conventional medicine (CM).
There are a few ways to find a functional doctor or a functional medical practice.
You can Google functional doctors in your area, but Google is not the biggest fan of functional medicine. Try other similar keywords, like “integrative medicine” or “holistic medicine.”
A more reliable method is to search a trusted database of doctors who follow the functional practice of medicine.
The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) provides “clinical spotlights” for various functional doctors. The IFM also offers a “Find A Practitioner” listing, providing the most respected functional practitioners near you.
IFM is my preferred method for searching for a new functional doctor, since all of us who have completed the program adhere to similar standards.
You can also look up Yelp or Google reviews for local health coaches, integrative specialists, or alternative medicine practices.
Some qualifications you should look for in a functional doctor are that he or she:
It can be intimidating to start something new without knowing what you’re getting into. So, here’s what to expect at an appointment with a functional doctor.
A conventional doctor will order laboratory testing related to the set of symptoms a patient exhibits. A functional medicine practitioner will examine several aspects of a patient’s overall wellness, such as:
A functional doctor might not test ALL of these, but these are the sorts of tests that give the doctor and patient a fuller picture of the patient’s wellbeing.
Diagnosis also takes into account family medical history. Though conventional doctors may ask about family history of heart disease, functional medicine doctors may ask your family history of stress, chronic pain, susceptibility to bacterial infections, or even spiritual health.
Ultimately, a functional doctor is more interested in the full picture of diagnosis and will order lab tests accordingly. Some describe this full picture as your “mind, body, and spirit” in conjunction with your physical and social environments.
Diagnoses can take a little longer since a full picture is being painted. However, a functional diagnosis can make all the difference.
A conventional doctor might suggest more exercise to lower high blood pressure. But a visit to a functional doctor may leave you with several unexpected lifestyle adjustments.
Here’s a great example: Stress and physical inflammation are definitely linked, but the exact way they’re connected remains unclear. Because their link is somewhat mysterious, conventional doctors stray away from mentioning stress-induced inflammation.
However, functional doctors will often suggest to a patient to cut down on stress in their daily life. Inflammation is the root cause of many medical conditions, and relieving stress may lead to less inflammation.
Self-contained examples are flawed, though. Because functional doctors look at the full picture of lifestyle factors when diagnosing and prescribing treatment, two or more lifestyle adjustments will often be given in tandem.
A great example is exercise therapy. A 2018 study confirmed that exercise can reduce depression and inflammation. This study was conducted on university students, where the control group (no exercise) experienced steadily declining mental health.
Functional doctors look at this research and may suggest exercise to a patient who is experiencing depression as well as an inflammation-related disease.
Other quick examples of lifestyle changes include:
A functional doctor might even suggest you stop taking or change the dosage of a pharmaceutical. These drugs may not be addressing the root cause of your problem, and the side effects can trigger long-term damage.
A patient’s diet can alter their entire life. A 2018 paper opens with the line, “Diet is the single most important risk factor for disability and premature death.” Functional doctors understand this, and believe nutrition is an important means of treatment and prevention.
As reported on harvard.edu and in the Washington Post, American medical students seeking to go into conventional medicine need less than 25 hours of nutrition education to earn their degree. Up to 20% of medical schools don’t even require a single nutrition course.
Functional doctors, on the other hand, tend to do their research on nutrition beyond what is required by college curriculum.
Most Americans do not follow the dietary guidelines set by the US government — guidelines that are based more on financial interests than solid science. Many of their diets are flawed, focusing too heavily on weight loss and not enough on detoxification and preventative care.
That 2018 paper I mentioned earlier suggests the Mediterranean Diet as a great way to promote overall health, which is similar to Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate (a more evidence-based approach to nutrition).
Functional medicine physicians may suggest less sweeping dietary changes, too.
For example, a functional doctor might see a patient at risk for heart disease. They could suggest the heavy use of spices such as ginger, turmeric, and garlic — as well as a glass of red wine each evening.
Dietary supplements may also be prescribed in certain situations, depending on risk factors and lab tests. There’s quite a bit of research suggesting certain dietary supplements can significantly decrease a patient’s risk of disease.
However, a healthcare provider should always be consulted. Some manufacturers are less than honest about the contents of their supplements, and functional doctors can lend their expertise on the subject.
Also, some supplements may react poorly with drugs or other supplements. Consulting a healthcare professional about dietary supplements is a necessity, especially if you want to address a health condition or are taking other drugs or supplements.
It astounds me that “mainstream medicine” is still in denial about stealth pathogens. Stealth pathogens are any pathogenic microorganisms that remain in your body by hiding — usually by misdirecting or suppressing your immune system.
Stealth pathogens are associated with several medical conditions:
Functional medicine’s holistic and individualized approach is ideal for treating stealth pathogens, as symptoms tend to “move.” Because of stealth pathogens’ effect on multiple systems, primary symptoms can ebb and flow. One day, fatigue is your dominant symptom. A few days later, the same stealth pathogens primarily cause depression.
Research into specific stealth pathogens, such as T. pallidum and Bartonella species, has begun to pour out of the scientific community. However, conventional medicine is all about waiting for a huge body of evidence — and pharmaceutical companies to approve.
Functional doctors take the science that is currently available and treat their patients accordingly.
Conventional medicine is great for emergency rooms and surgical tables. But it’s seriously lacking perspective on long-term, overall wellness of the whole person. This is why functional medicine is a necessity.
In American, up to 40% of deaths from the top five leading causes are preventable. This is where the importance of functional medicine’s focus on prevention over reaction really sinks in.
Also, I cannot stress enough how flawed conventional medicine is. Because conventional doctors rely on Big Pharma and the FDA for their information, they’ll never have access to the full picture of a patient’s total health.
The functional medicine model is based on science. The main difference from conventional medicine is that functional medicine is not based on the whims of pharmaceutical companies and outdated ideas that the medical community requires you to believe.
Functional doctors prescribe effective treatments to treat and prevent real health problems. That those treatments won’t usually be picked up at a pharmacy should be a point in its favor.
Here are some examples of functional medicine research from this past year:
Does functional medicine really work? A mountain of research says, yes! Millions of patients say, yes!
Maydych, V. (2019). The Interplay Between Stress, Inflammation, and Emotional Attention: Relevance for Depression. Frontiers in neuroscience, 13. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6491771/
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