Updated: Sep 28
According to IFM.org, "functional medicine determines how and why illness occurs and restores health by addressing the root causes of disease for each individual." And according to one of the pioneers of functional medicine, Dr. Mark Hyman, "Functional medicine is the future of conventional medicine–available now. It seeks to identify and address the root causes of disease, and views the body as one integrated system, not a collection of independent organs divided up by medical specialties. It treats the whole system, not just the symptoms."
Let us compare and contrast the functional medicine philosophies and values with those of conventional (aka standard) medicine. Many of you have experienced this scenario first-hand, whereby you visit your conventional physician with some chronic complaint and walk out with at least one prescription for a pharmaceutical drug. You were likely in and out of the physician's office very quickly, excluding waiting room time, with very little verbal information exchanged between the two of you. Just enough information for the physician to determine which pharmaceutical names to jot down on the prescription pad. Very little time, if any, was offered to you to discuss what's going on in your life. Your extremely vital data on lifestyle factors such as nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress were completely ignored.
Now the functional medicine physician is basically going to exhibit the exact opposite of the previous scenario. While they may recommend a pharmaceutical, depending on your unique circumstances, they are concurrently going to perform root cause analysis. In other words, they will do everything they can to get to the root cause of your condition, with the intention of removing prescription drugs, if applicable, after you have implemented some of the appropriate lifestyle changes. The reason that the pharmaceutical drug can usually be removed is that over time, lifestyle modifications can and will naturally resolve your chronic condition.
The exact timeframe that you and your physician would need to resolve your conditions and symptoms will vary depending on your unique circumstances, such as disease type and complexity, genetic factors, epigenetic factors, adherence to the treatment plan, and more. The take home message here is that the functional medicine practitioner has a deep comprehension of the concept of biochemical individuality and that a one-size-fits-all approach--for example, everyone getting the same prescription for the same symptom--simply does not work. Moreover, they understand that prescribing a drug will usually only mask symptoms and will not get to the root cause of your condition. When symptoms are covered up by a drug without implementing lifestyle modifications, people tend to get sicker over time. You cannot fool biology with a synthetic pill, it's that simple.
Take the hypothetical case of a 28 year old man, with excess weight and hypertension who visits his conventional doc. The man is placed on a treatment protocol consisting of blood pressure medication, and that's it. He receives no additional advice regarding lifestyle modifications which could have helped him to lose some weight, along with the potential to naturally bring down his blood pressure numbers. As time goes by and this man ages, the risk of other chronic conditions, including cardiovascular and / or cerebrovascular events (i.e. heart attack and stroke), increases significantly because root cause was never accessed and, therefore, never addressed. Ultimately, the patient was not guided in the right direction on how to achieve a better state of health by his conventional physician.
Take a second hypothetical case of a 36 year old female with Grave's disease (an autoimmune condition that results in an overactive thyroid). Conventional doc wants to remove her thyroid and place her on a life-time supply of thyroid medication, essentially setting her up for a poorer quality of life down the road, due to increased risk of additional chronic conditions. On the other hand, functional doc will have a high rate of success resolving the autoimmune condition and getting the woman back to a normal state of health. All this by educating the client around the significance of lifestyle choices and behaviors, while avoiding the invasive surgery and toxic treatment approach that conventional doc was trained to utilize.
So what would your visit look like with a functional physician? In general, the length of time that you spend with the functional doc will be much longer compared to the conventional doc. Your intake form will look very different with questions that you've never been asked by your conventional doc. The functional doc wants to know as many details about you, from birth to current times, so they can put all of your life time puzzle pieces together. This will allow them to determine which additional lab testing may be warranted and how to create the most appropriate treatment protocol for you. Functional treatment protocols often involve modification of some or all of the following lifestyle and behaviorial factors:
Nutrition (both quality and quantity of food intake, adequate hydration, appropriate supplementation, etc.)
Movement (aerobic and anaerobic exercise, high intensity interval training, stretching, yoga, pilates, etc.)
Sleep (both quality and quantity)
Stress management (meditation, breath-work, mindfulness-based practices, prayer, etc.)
Recommendations for additional alternative modalities (chiropractic, acupuncture, physical therapy, etc.)
Unfortunately, too many people today, in 2022, have still not been educated on the fact that risk of chronic disease is significantly reduced with lifestyle factors and behavioral decision-making alone. This includes the cancer spectrum, the autoimmune spectrum, metabolic diseases (type 2 diabetes, NAFLD, PCOS, etc.), neurodegenerative conditions (ALS, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, etc.), cardiovascular and cerebrovascular conditions, other immune dysregulation (allergies, asthma, eczema, chronic infections, etc.), gastrointestinal disorders (GERD, IBS, IBD, SIBO, etc.), and the list of chronic diseases goes on and on.
All of these chronic conditions are primarily environmental and metabolic in origin, and functional medicine knows this, which allows the functional practitioner to empower their clients. In contrast, the conventional system wants you to believe that these diseases are primarily genetic in origin, which is a disempowering context and leaves you helpless, a victim that has to rely on multiple toxic drugs for a life time. Now this is not to say that genetics does not have a role in chronic illness. Genetics always has a role, genetics sets the stage. But, epigenetics--environment, biochemistry, and metabolism--are the active participants on that stage.
One limitation of functional medicine is that it has still not found its way into the hospital, so you will still have to see the conventional doc for most emergency situations. Although I do remain optimistic and I envision a future of functional medicine hospitals. While I will not cover the history of how the conventional medical system has become what it has in this article, in general, just know that the three external systems that dictate the conventional doctors decision making are the healthcare insurance system, the pharmaceutical system (aka, yup you guessed it, Big Pharma), and administrative policies (i.e. politics).
And speaking of healthcare insurance system, another limitation of functional medicine is that many practitioners do not participate with in-network insurance policies because they do not want to be limited by insurance company dictates. However, you can and should find out which practitioners are covered in- and out-of-network, beforehand, by calling your insurance company. If out-of-network, don't forget to request a detailed summary of services from your practitioner so that you can submit this to the insurance company. As more people begin utilizing functional medicine, insurance companies will have no choice but to modify their policies, and procedures, and test menus, and so on.
To summarize my overall viewpoint, functional medicine is sustainable, empowering, and humane, while conventional medicine is often the opposite of these qualities. If conventional medicine continues to be the dominant health system, chronic disease will continue in its logarithmic upward trend with a concurrent decline in the quality of millions and billions of lives. In my opinion, the opposite trend would be true with the increased use of functional medicine.
Needless to say, a complete paradigm shift at the political, economic, and educational levels will be needed to transform the current conventional model to a more sustainable model of medicine, like that of functional medicine. This will be an incredible uphill battle and will require grass roots movements. Conventional medicine will only begin to change its inadequate practices if the people demand it, and the people cannot demand what the people are unaware of.
My ultimate vision is a healthcare system that is fair and just to people of all socioeconomic levels. I plan on continuing to promote the hell out of this alternative model called functional medicine and I hope you decide to join me in this revolution. Please consider visiting the Institute for Functional Medicine website to search for a functional doctor in your area when considering the next doctor visit for yourself or a loved one. Salud!
Find a functional practitioner in your area: https://www.ifm.org/find-a-practitioner/ (you can also do a general internet search for functional medicine in your area, since not all functional practitioners are registered with the The Institute for Functional Medicine)
Here are a few of my favorite pioneers within the space of functional, integrative, and alternative medicine for you to explore:
"Integrative Medicine" is a similar concept and an integrative physician is also a better option than a strictly conventional doc. The overall idea is you want a doctor that will offer the less invasive methodologies first (lifestyle modifications), and save the more invasive and toxic techniques as an absolute last resort (surgery, pharmaceuticals, etc.).
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Disclaimer: The information within this blog is for educational purposes only and is not meant to be interpreted as medical advice, or to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. The articles within this blog are simply a sharing of knowledge and information based on research and / or experience. If you feel the need to see a doctor for your condition, then you should definitely follow your instincts and do just that. Please do not alter your dose of any prescribed medications without the direct supervision of your healthcare practitioner. The information contained herein is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare practitioner. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.