What is Functional Medicine?
Functional Medicine is a buzz word in the health and wellness world.
But what is it?
- Is it woo woo herbal medicine and acupuncture?
- Energy healing, aromatherapy and Reiki?
- Or, is it one of the confusing definitions that many healthcare practitioners use on their websites—like:
“Functional Medicine is a personalized, systems-oriented model that empowers patients and practitioners to achieve the highest expression of health by working in collaboration to address the underlying causes of disease.”Or, “Changing the way we do medicine.
What the heck do those definitions REALLY mean?!
Answer: In layman’s term’s Functional Medicine is Real HEALTH CARE—not sick care.
Functional Medicine is an approach in medicine focused on improving health and preventing the progression or future disease, instead of treating and managing symptoms.
In practice, Functional Medicine identifies the root causes of disease and imbalances in the body, and uses lifestyle “factors” first as the primary mode of treatment to heal, instead of band-aiding or managing symptoms.
Here’s an in-depth overview and guide of the ins and outs of Functional Medicine (and how it can help you improve your own health).
FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE 101: REAL, PREVENTATIVE HEALTH-CARE
Functional Medicine is an alternative or “holistic” approach to health, used by wellness professionals in medicine, therapy, nutrition and coaching—viewing the body as a whole being, not parts.
Contrary to popular belief, Functional Medicine is not completely separate from “traditional” or conventional medicine, nor is it “woo woo” medicine. It does NOT neglect all things of conventional medicine, nor does it call conventional medicine, “bad,” recognizing you can have BOTH modes of practice in one.
Instead Functional Medicine compliments “conventional medicine.”
Functional Medicine uses a blend of knowledge (that we’ve known about health for years), plus the latest research and clinical evidence of disease and treatments.
Above all, Functional Medicine encourages all healthcare practitioners to get back to the roots of what healthcare is truly all about: The business of helping people FULLY improve their health—not stay sick or “get by,” managing disease.
Functional Medicine spurs conventional medicine to go a step further in its “treatment of disease” by:
1.) FIRST, getting to the root cause(s) that caused “poor” health in the first place, and then;
2.) Focusing treatment on restoring balance in the body through a combination of nutrition, lifestyle change, stress management, rest, movement and individualized supplementation or medication use (as needed).
Like a tire that is flat, instead of just patching up the tire and telling you to drive at 30-miles per hour on the highway indefinitely, Functional Medicine finds the nail inside—what caused the flat tire—removes it and then puts on a brand new tire altogether.
Or, like a raft that has a leak, instead of temporarily scooping water out of the drowning boat (hoping it doesn’t completely sink), Functional Medicine finds the stick that punctured the raft, removes it and refurbishes the plastic hole altogether.
How does Functional Medicine Get to the “Root?”
In order to get to the “root cause,” Functional Medicine uses comprehensive assessment, incorporating a blend of:
- Patient Report of current symptoms and goals
- In-depth Health & Lifestyle History Timeline (not just the immediate, but asking you questions about your lifestyle and health)
- Clinical Lab Testing and/or Manual Testing
- Initial Nutrition & Lifestyle Reset protocols to help decipher what symptoms are REALLY related to disease, as opposed to what symptoms are related to your nutrition and lifestyle (stress, sleep, movement, etc.).
And, unlike traditional health care (often defined by spending 45-minutes waiting room for a 10-minute appointment with your doctor, followed by making one appointment after another with different specialist), Functional Medicine is slow-health care—taking time to consider and understood the full-picture of your health.
From there, Functional Medicine treatment is NOT a cookie cutter mold or text book case.
Instead of focusing on treating symptoms (like high cholesterol with a statin drug; heart burn with an antacid; or unexplained weight gain with 1200 calories), Functional Medicine addresses the underlying inflammation causing your high cholesterol, your low stomach acid causing your heart burn, or your high cortisol (stress hormones) causing your unexplained weight gain.
Them Functional Medicine individualizes your treatment, giving you practical at-home application as the first line of defense for healing.
In short: Functional medicine is ALSO LIFESTYLE MEDICINE—taking conventional medicine by using lifestyle factors as the FIRST line of defense in healing, before medications and temporary symptom relief.
FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE AS LIFESTYLE MEDICINE
Functional Medicine uses lifestyle factors—like nutrition, sleep, movement, and stress management (physical and mental)—as the primary modes of treatment to help individuals heal from a myriad of diseases and imbalances, including:
- Gut “Issues” (IBS, bloating, SIBO, fungal overgrowth, Dysbiosis)
- Insulin Resistance, Blood Sugar Imbalance & Diabetes
- Inflammatory Conditions (Gout, Heart Disease, “High Cholesterol”)
- Hormone Imbalances (infertility, PCOS, amenorrhea)
- Skin Conditions
- Autoimmune Disease
- Thyroid Disorders
- Stubborn Metabolism & Weight Management
- Chronic Stress & Fatigue
- Alzheimers, Dementia & Stroke
- Autism & Sensory Processing Disorders
- Enhancing Sports Performance
- Eating Disorders
- Women’s Health “Imbalances”
- General Wellness
Some examples of “lifestyle medicine” in practice?
A Functional Medicine treatment plan may “prescribe:”
- Identifying Food Intolerances and removing inflammatory foods
- Enhancing digestion through probiotics, enzymes and anti-microbial if needed
- Addressing underlying gut “issues” (SIBO, fungal overgrowth, Dysbiosis, low stomach acid) through testing and appropriate treatment
- Teaching you how to prepare delicious, nutrient-dense home cooked meals
- Sustainable nutrition plans (not extreme diets)
- Improving sleep hygiene (i.e. completely dark room, cool room, evening routine)
- Prescribing 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night
- Identifying underlying melatonin and cortisol patterns, and treating accordingly
- Retraining your circadian rhythms (ie. adjusting coffee intake, sleep-wake times, eating schedule, etc.)
- Sipping herbal tea or magnesium in water before bed to relax
- Moving most days of the week
- Varying your movement with strength, HIIT, and endurance
- Incorporating flexibility
- Incorporating NEAT movement (non-exercise ,daily lifestyle movement)
- Not overtraining or under-training
- Commencing “talk therapy” or mindfulness-based therapy
- Identifying cortisol patterns in the body and treating accordingly
- Eliminating toxic exposure in plastics, personal care and household product use
- Removing as many unnecessary stressors from your life
—Just to name a few.
Many “protocols” in Functional Medicine are simple (yet effective) “hacks” that humans have been using since the beginning of time.
FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE IS OLD MEDICINE
Functional Medicine is ALSO OLD Medicine.
Another misnomer about Functional Medicine is that it is “cutting-edge” and “new”—however, Functional Medicine is NOT new medicine at all.
Functional Medicine is old medicine—the way humans practiced medicine and treated disease as an “imbalance”—before the DSM-V V and textbook diagnoses came onto the scene.
Similar to how real food is the type of food humans ate for billions of years before Starbucks and McDonald’s existed—Functional Medicine is Real (Old-School) Healthcare, or Medicine, that humans used for billions of years before Lipitor, fluorescent lights, insulin medication, Tums, Weight Watchers and Plexus.
Functional Medicine views any disease or imbalance (regardless of the name) as simply just that—a disease or imbalance.
Asking: How do we heal from disease or imbalance?
Answer: Address the root cause, and always look to lifestyle first that influences disease.
FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE IS RESEARCH-BASED
Functional Medicine is continually looking to the research and science to determine best-practice for treatment.
In addition, Functional Medicine, questions conventional wisdom.
Similar to how humans believed the world was flat at one time; Functional Medicine cautions us not believe everything we hear—helping healthcare practitioners and patients alike sift through myths and truths in health, medicine, nutrition and treatment protocols.
FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE IS WHOLE BODY MEDICINE
Lastly, Functional Medicine is Whole-Body Medicine.
Instead of seeing you as a body part, a diagnosis or disease, Functional Medicine considers you, the WHOLE PERSON, taking into consideration all aspects of your health and life that contribute to how you feel and the presentation of disease.
Unlike an endocrinologist who just looks at your hormones and thyroid, an ENT doc who just looks at your ears, nose and throat, or a psychologist who just focuses on your mental health—(not considering how nutrition and physical health may influence your brain), Functional Medicine acknowledges a respect and awareness of how ALL body systems impact one another, including:
- Gut Health
- Brain Function
- Hormone Health
- Detoxification Pathways
- Cardiovascular Health
- Thyroid & Metabolic Health
- Mineral & Vitamin Status
FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE VS. CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE
How is Functional Medicine Different from Conventional Medicine?
- Uses laboratory reference ranges (blood work, urine, stool analysis, etc.) that reflect the progression of disease (in order to help reverse it early)
- Often not insurance dictated for testing, treatment and health
- Views the body as a whole (not parts)
- Focuses on identifying the root cause of disease
- Nutrition, movement, stress-management and natural supplements often “prescribed”
- Disease Management-focused
- Uses laboratory reference ranges (blood work, urine, stool analysis, etc.) that reflect “disease” state if out of range
- Often dictated by insurance (for testing and treatment)
- Divided into specialties (heart doctor, brain doctor, etc.)
- Focuses on treating and suppressing symptoms
- Medications often prescribed
WHO BENEFITS FROM FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE?
People often stumble upon Functional Medicine as a “last result”—after they’ve been down the rabbit hole of visiting multiple doctors, or they’ve been told that their disease is “incurable,” by other practitioners.
Many people also find Functional Medicine after growing sick and tired of just “managing” their symptoms with medications, therapy or treatments—that don’t help heal, but instead, band-aid.
Maybe they heard a podcast or read a book about the impact that nutrition can have on brain health, or what “going gluten free” can do for their chronic IBS, and they are interested in learning more.
Or maybe, they knew a friend or colleague who experienced their own Functional Medicine healing journey for themselves, and they are intrigued to look into a new way of “doing medicine.”
However, if you are human (living and breathing), you can benefit from Functional Medicine—both for preventing and recovering from heath imbalances.
People often come to Functional Medicine for help with:
- Figuring out why they are constipated or bloated all the time
- Healing from IBS
- Treating anxiety—naturally
- Figuring out their “stubborn” metabolism
- Regaining their period back
- Overcoming infertility
- Addressing thyroid imbalances holistically (not just relying on medication)
- Clearing up their skin
- Improving their energy levels
- Progressing their gym performance and athletic goals
- Healing from eating disorders outside of traditional, medical model treatment
- Gaining the tools and education to take their health into their own hands
Finding the right practitioner and resources is essential to benefiting from Functional Medicine.
CONNECTING WITH A FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE PRACTITIONER FOR YOU
Functional Medicine Healthcare Practitioners are individuals with a credentialed, licensed background in a traditional healthcare field, including:
- Medical Doctors
- Osteopathic Doctors
- Naturopathic Doctors
- Doctors of Chiropractic
- Occupational Therapists
- Psychiatrists and Psychologists
- Physical Therapists
- Nutritionists and Dietitians
- Physician Assistants
- Nurse Practitioners and Registered Nurses
Functional Medicine is not completely separate from “conventional medicine,” and more and more conventional doctors and healthcare practitioners are adopting Functional Medicine as a complimentary approach to their traditional training and starting their own practices.
In addition, as the model of Functional Medicine expands, other “allied health” professionals, including Health Coaches, Massage Therapists, Chinese Medicine Practitioners, Aryuvedic Practitioners, Acupuncturists, Life Coaches, and Fitness Trainers, are incorporating and adopting Functional Medicine principles into their practice.
While the educational credentials can influence the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience your practitioner has, this is not necessarily the case either.
Just like you maybe had a Biology professor in college who just lectured from the textbook and had never worked outside the classroom setting, and another professor who lectured from personal experience as a former Biologist, or Cardiologist, no two Functional Medicine Practitioners are alike.
How to Pick the Right Functional Medicine Practitioner for You
Many practitioners—from MD’s to therapists to coaches—may claim to practice “Functional Medicine,” but their business model is highly intertwined with a cookie cutter approach, selling you private-labeled supplements, hormone replacement therapy, genetic testing, Multi-Level Marketing vitamins and shakes, and HCG diets (extremely low calorie diets) as the “cure” for healing and treating your imbalances.
While supplements and various nutrition protocols, therapies and testing CAN be beneficial in the practice of Functional Medicine and healthcare, when any healthcare office seemingly has a one-size-fits-(most) approach or “cash cow” look and feel, there may be more to the story.
In addition, since Functional Medicine training, to date, varies vastly from program to program, or experience to experience.
Some practicing Functional Medicine Practitioners simply read a book, take a weekend course or listen to health podcasts themselves and decide to re-brand themselves as “Functional Medicine Practitioners,” whereas others spend hours and years in training under leaders in the Functional Medicine industry as well as years of clinical practice, integrating functional medicine (lifestyle) principles before slapping a label on their business.
Some legit training programs out there?
- Institute for Functional Medicine
- Chris Kresser’s ADAPT Training Program
- Nutritional Therapy Association
- Kalish Institute
- Wahls’ Trained Practitioners
- Moss Bredesen
- Functional Medicine Coaching Academy
Regardless of credentials, a “legit” Functional Medicine Practitioner takes a whole-body and whole-person approach to your personal health assessment and treatment—considering all factors that play a role in your health (mental, physical, health history, current nutrition and lifestyle, current biological presentation, etc.)—and individualize your treatment plan, within their scope of practice, and sometimes in partnership with other practitioners, or a “team,” as well.
(For example, a Functional Medicine MD, Nutritionist or Chiropractor may provide a physical assessment via blood work, stool testing, or hormone lab testing, then set you up with a Functional Medicine Coach or Therapist to work on making the lifestyle changes prescribed in your treatment plan).
The Bottom Line: Know when to smell a rat, and look for someone with legit training and a whole-person approach in Functional Medicine, versus a marketing-ploy; a podcast and book reading trained practitioner; or symptom-focused practice.
Finding a Functional Medicine Provider
Where to find the “one” for you?
Google certainly can help here, and a beautiful thing about many functional medicine providers is that they provide healthcare via distance and tele-medicine.
Hello 21st century!
In addition, there are several directories online to help you in your search:
- Chris Kresser’s ADAPT Training Program
- The Institute for Functional Medicine: Functional Medicine Directory
- Functional Medicine Coaching Academy
To health and healing!