When you have an illness, the typical scenario goes something like this: You notice some symptoms, visit your primary care physician, and he or she attempts to get rid of your discomfort by prescribing you medication. You take the pills as instructed, and, after some time, the symptoms disappear. Functional medicine, on the other hand, approaches disease by finding – then remedying – the underlying cause, as opposed to only managing and masking symptoms. The idea is that the doctor views the patient as a whole being influenced by numerous factors, including genetic, environmental, and lifestyle, and also understands that disease often doesn’t come from a single source – but as part of a complex bodily system. 1
Functional medicine doctors (who, by the way, are legitimate MDs) look at seven biological systems that affect imbalances in the body. These core imbalances are the foundation in which functional medicine practitioners evaluate the mechanisms, along with the symptoms and diagnoses, of disease. The key here is that an issue does not always derive from a single imbalance but often, a combination of them: 2
1. Assimilation: digestion, absorption, microbiota/GI, respiration
2. Defense and repair: immune, inflammation, infection/microbiota
3. Energy: energy regulation, mitochondrial function
4. Biotransformation and elimination: toxicity, detoxification
5. Transport: cardiovascular and lymphatic systems
6. Communication: endocrine, neurotransmitters, immune messengers
7. Structural integrity: sub-cellular membranes to musculoskeletal integrity
To understand the main differences between conventional and functional medicine, it’s also important to understand the core principles of the latter.
According to the Institute For Functional Medicine, their six guiding principles are: 3
- An understanding of the biochemical individuality of each human being, based on the concepts of genetic and environmental uniqueness;
- Awareness of the evidence that supports a patient-centered rather than a disease-centered approach to treatment;
- Search for a dynamic balance among the internal and external body, mind, and spirit;
- Interconnections of internal physiological factors;
- Identification of health as a positive vitality, not merely the absence of disease, and emphasizing those factors that encourage the enhancement of a vigorous physiology;
- Promotion of organ reserve as the means to enhance the health span, not just the lifespan, of each patient.”
Knowing these core principles, you can expect a different experience during a visit with a functional medicine doctor.
What Functional Medicine Means to You as a Patient
You will be assessed as a totally unique person. A functional medicine doctor will not view you the same way as any other patient – even if your symptoms are the same. Rather, the doctor will spend time with you to learn about your lifestyle, history, current circumstances, environment, social life, beliefs and attitudes, stress levels, day-to-day activities, and health concerns, as well as take into account your genetic makeup and other individual physiological characteristics. This is why most initial consultations last an hour or more.
You will not automatically be prescribed drugs. Functional medicine doesn’t completely rule out medication (it’s still science-based, after all), but since the goal is to fix the core issue rather than disguising symptoms, your doctor will likely suggest other ways you can bounce back and sustain good health. After taking laboratory tests (if necessary), your doctor will help you design a treatment plan to not only remove your illness but to prevent it from recurring. Treatment may include a mix of diet and exercise and stress management changes, along with drugs, botanical remedies, supplements, therapeutic diets, or detoxification programs. 4
Expect to take a holistic, preventative approach to health. Again, since the objective is to address the underlying issues, the ultimate hope is to cure – then prevent – any illnesses by altering what goes in, around, and on your body. The preventative method also emphasizes overall wellbeing over your lifetime – not only the treatment period spent with your doctor.
Can Functional Medicine Help You?
If you’re experiencing any health-related issue, no matter how minor, and can’t seem to regain full energy and vitality no matter what you’ve tried, you may want to see a functional medicine doctor. Many people, for instance, suffer from insomnia or fatigue, and find that taking sleep medication only helps temporarily – without restoring the body’s natural ability to sleep restfully. Working with a doctor who takes into consideration all of you, and not just your symptoms, may finally be the solution you need.
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2. Jones, David. “Introduction To Functional Medicine”. P.widencdn.net. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.
3. “About Functional Medicine”. Functionalmedicine.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.
4. “What To Expect From A Functional Medicine Practitioner”. Functionalmedicine.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.