Chronic illness is on the rise, with half of adults in the United States reported to suffer from at least one chronic condition. According to the CDC,  the most commonly reported chronic conditions include autoimmune and thyroid disorders, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, and asthma. Chronic conditions not only cause you physical pain, but they also cause a significant strain on your emotional, mental, and financial well-being.
There is little dispute that traditional medicine is a vital tool in curing sickness, infection, and disease. However, it is not the only tool that is available today. Too often, traditional medicine works to simply mask the symptoms of illness; and we, as patients and consumers, have grown to accept this as the role of modern medicine.
Traditional medicine takes a disease-centered approach to wellness, which does not work to fully restore the body to a natural state of wellness, nor does it tap into why a disorder, disease, condition, or illness is occurring in the first place. With the rising rate of chronic illnesses, something needs to change, not only in the way illness is treated, but also in the way it is diagnosed.
Enter functional medicine.
What is Functional Medicine?
Functional medicine practices a patient-centered approach to wellness. Still rooted in science, functional medicine aims to empower patients and encourages a collaborative relationship between patient and practitioner. This partnership will allow both parties to investigate and diagnose the root cause of a disease so that a patient may then go on to achieve optimal wellness.
Functional medicine treats every patient for what they are – a unique individual each with his or her own genetic, biochemical make-up. In other words, when being treated by a functional medicine practitioner, each patient receives a treatment plan optimally tailored to his or her individual issue and needs. Functional medicine takes into account the physiology, lifestyle, metabolic processes, symptoms, and medical history of the patient.
The aim of functional medicine is to bring the body into homeostasis, or balance; to bring it into its natural, well-functioning state. It is a biology-based approach that moves beyond prescribing medication, which only serves to mask symptoms and oftentimes, larger health issues. By taking a more comprehensive approach to treating illness, functional medicine looks at the root cause of disease rather than symptomatically treating illness. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that treating the right cause of disease has a more lasting effect than suppressing symptoms.
Take depression for example. Depression can be a by-product of a deeper issue such as inflammation. Treating depression without looking at its root cause, in this case inflammation, will do little more than providing a band-aid would for a cut that needs stitches. Treat the inflammation, however, and the depression also becomes a thing of the past.
Principles of Functional Medicine
Think about your last visit to your family doctor or general practitioner. Chances are, the visit went something like this: You filled out pages of paperwork, on your own and in the waiting room. Once you were escorted back to an examination room, the mounds of paperwork you filled out was plunked into a holder by the door. When the doctor arrived, you heard the extraction of your paperwork from its holder and the rustle of papers as your doctor flipped through the information you diligently provided. The doctor enters the room seconds later, and you think to yourself, He or she couldn’t possibly have read everything in my chart that quickly. Your doctor then asks a few pointed questions while giving you a brief examination before you receive a diagnosis and a script, and you're ushered out the door, ruminating over the fact you spent more time in the waiting room than you did in the exam room.
Functional medicine has one priority in mind: the patient. Whereas traditional medicine treats every patient in largely the same way, functional medicine treats every patient on an individual basis. Everyone is “biochemically unique,” and therefore, cannot be treated the same way as everyone else.
Instead of asking, “What prescription drug can be paired with this disease?” which is commonly asked by a traditional medicine practitioner, some questions asked by a functional medicine practitioner may include:
- From where is the problem originating?
- Why is lost function occurring?
- How can function be restored?
Functional medicine examines how the systems in the body work together and contribute to your overall health. At the same time, functional medicine also seeks to bring mind, body, and spirit into alignment by bringing into balance a patient's internal and external worlds.
In addition, the body has an incredible power to self-regulate and to heal itself. Therefore, when all the systems of the body are working together and working in harmony, ultimate wellness and disease prevention is possible. Functional medicine recognizes health as a positive vitality and not simply the absence of disease. As a result, functional medicine treats the individual and not the disease by encouraging the healing mechanisms of the body to work in accordance with each other rather than go into attack mode and launch an all-out assault on the disease, itself.
The Difference Between Functional and Traditional Medicine
As mentioned previously, the biggest difference between traditional and functional medicine is in the assessment of patients. The average appointment with a traditional doctor lasts five to seven minutes. In a traditional medicine scenario, you fill out copious amount of data with little input, feedback, or conversation with your doctor. However, in a functional medicine scenario, you and your doctor will create a dialogue focusing on your history and lifestyle. This may include discussing mood, diet, stress level, exercise, digestive health, sleep patterns, food sensitivities, environmental factors, dental health, and personal relationships.
Another major difference between the two types of medicine is in the type of lab work conducted by a traditional medicine practitioner compared to that conducted by a functional medicine practitioner. A traditional practitioner will often only order lab work when there is a specific issue or to gather data about your overall, general health. Again, it goes back to disease detection rather than root cause. There is rarely a focus on predictive labs or root cause labs. That’s where functional medicine shines.
A functional doctor typically orders more extensive lab work and use “functional ranges” versus “lab ranges.” Functional ranges look at patterns, predictions, and “trends toward disease” rather than the existing presence of disease. The goal is to find disease before it grows into an irreparable and damaging issue. Issues like thyroidism and diabetes, for instance, present signs long before they are diagnosed and simply reading lab ranges will not be predictive.
Bloodwork performed in a functional medicine capacity also uses more markers which widens the search and allows for detection of issues that could easily go undetected by standard lab work. Functional ranges can also provide information as to whether an issue is chronic or acute and can determine what an immune reaction is being caused by, be it an infection, allergies, a virus, or a parasite.
While functional and traditional medicine differ in their approach to treating disease, the two are not mutually exclusive of one another. When treating acute medical issues, antibiotics, vaccines, and prescriptions are tools in helping patients achieve wellness - any functional medicine practitioner will acknowledge that fact. Take a sinus infection or something more severe, such as high cholesterol; prescription medicine will help cure or regulate symptoms. However, with functional medicine, the overarching goal isn’t to just relieve the current symptoms; rather the focus is on providing a lasting solution to chronic, ongoing conditions, and getting the body to function properly so it can achieve a long-lasting state of wellness.
Choosing a Functional Medicine Doctor
You've made a commitment to achieving optimal health and now you need a functional medicine practitioner to get you there. How do you find one and how do you find the one who is right for you?
First and foremost, narrow down the type of practitioner you're looking for. There are several types of functional medicine practitioners, ranging from a medical doctor who added functional medicine to their repertoire, to chiropractors, nurse practitioners, and naturopathic doctors.
Once you hone in on the type of functional medicine practitioner that’s right for you, use that information to narrow your search. Search for a local functional medicine practitioners via the Internet; or search for a practitioner based on your condition or ailment. Look for a functional medicine practitioner who makes you feel comfortable and supported. You should never feel judged. Instead, an effective functional medicine practitioner will really listen to what you are saying, will be supportive, and will help you feel empowered. You should never feel uncomfortable or made to feel hopeless about your situation.
A good functional medicine practitioner should spend time with you and view you more as a partner in health rather than as a patient. Look for someone who will provide you with a detailed plan from outlining expectations to prioritizing health decisions.
Avoid functional medicine doctor and practitioners who do not think diet is important or who recommends expensive supplements and tests; also be aware of functional medicine doctors who promises that seem over the top or unattainable.
Also, be wary of any doctor who promises you a miracle cure or influences you to embark on any sort of drastic detox; and always check their credentials. Ensure the practitioner you are interested in seeing holds proper credentials and is a legitimate, licensed physician. It is an unfortunate reality that scam artists are out there, and your health is one area of your life that cannot be compromised by someone who is not who they say they are. Read any reviews available to see how other patients benefited, or didn't benefit, from a practitioner's care.
Can’t find a practitioner in your area? Expanding technology has made it easier to connect you with a doctor located on the other side of the world. Labelled “telemedicine,” many functional medicine practitioners are available via the internet. The same rules apply, though, as they do when looking for a local practitioner – be sure to do your homework and ensure the practitioner is credentialed and legitimate.
Traditional medicine has its place in today’s society, but, more and more, it is being replaced by functional medicine. Think about your health. Do you find yourself going to a traditional doctor for the same issue over and over again without improvement or hope of a cure? Perhaps there is a deeper issue at work, one that could be remedied by an in-depth assessment that includes extensive lab work and a thorough conversation with a functional medicine practitioner.
Be sure to do your due diligence when looking for a functional medicine practitioner. Read reviews, check credentials, and search for a practitioner according to your health goals or symptoms. Use the practice of functional medicine to take control of your health and wellness, once and for all. Doing so will yield lifelong results, restoring your body to its natural, optimal state.