Functional Medicine: Why It Works
You’re in a boat floating on a beautiful mountain lake. Suddenly, your boat springs a leak and starts filling up with water. You bail as fast as you can but your boat is still filling up with water. You’re worried that if you don’t bail fast enough, eventually your boat will sink.
What should you do? Find the hole and fix it.
This is functional medicine. We find and fix the underlying cause of your health issues so you can get back to living a happy healthy life.
Now let’s dig a little deeper into what functional medicine is and how it works.
What is Functional Medicine?
I like to think of functional medicine as “detective medicine”. We are detectives trying to figure out the underlying cause of patients’ symptoms or diseases.
Most, if not all chronic disease is caused by uncontrolled inflammation. It’s just a matter of trying to figure out where the inflammation is coming from. The most common causes of chronic inflammation in the body include:
- Nutrient imbalances
- Food intolerances (1)
- Gut infections (2)
- Gut flora imbalances
- Impaired stress response (3)
- Disrupted circadian rhythm (4)
Instead of simply suppressing symptoms with medications, we do the detective work of figuring out where the inflammation is coming from – and we fix it.
I also like to think of functional medicine as the perfect blend of conventional and alternative medicine.
It is grounded in science and evidence-based practices and also utilizes in-depth lab testing to help identify underlying causes of disease. Our motto is “test don’t guess”.
But functional medicine is also holistic and patient-centered.
We understand the importance of listening to our patients’ stories and all of the factors that may have contributed to their health from conception through the present.
Additionally, we focus on treating with dietary and lifestyle modifications, as well as natural herbs and supplements. We do sometimes utilize prescription medications but try to leave these as a last resort.
How Does This Differ from Conventional Medicine?
Conventional medicine typically focuses more on patient symptoms and symptom suppression with medication (i.e. bailing water out of the boat in the example above).
Whereas functional medicine sees symptoms as clues to other things that might be going on in the body – and then we investigate.
For example, in conventional medicine, if a patient comes in with a complaint of depression, there might be a basic set of labs drawn and a brief discussion about diet and exercise (maybe). The visit will most likely end with a prescription for an antidepressant.
If that same patient comes to see a functional medicine provider, that visit will look a whole lot different.
We see symptoms of depression as a sign of something bigger going on. It makes us wonder:
- What else is going on with this patient?
- How is their gut health?
- What is their nutrient status?
- Are they getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night?
- Are they getting enough movement throughout the day?
- What do they do for stress management?
- Do they make time to play and have fun?
A workup will typically include:
- A blood panel to assess body systems and screen for nutrient imbalances
- Stool, breath, and urine testing to assess gut health and other metabolic functions
- Saliva testing to assess cortisol rhythms and other hormones
This more thorough workup helps us understand what is really going on in the body below the surface of the symptoms.
The beauty of this process is that sometimes in just 1-2 visits, we can actually fix the root cause of the issue, rather than the patient succumbing to taking medications for the rest of their lives.
Another huge bonus is that by fixing the root cause of one problem, oftentimes people will see improvements in other areas of their lives. (5) Possible areas include:
- Better sleep
- Clearer skin
- Improved digestion
- Less fatigue
- Improved endurance
- Better mood
It’s really a win-win situation and can save people from years of suffering and unnecessary medications.
It can also save people money. Yes, it does cost money up front to pay for these tests and services, but in the long run, it can save people SO MUCH money!
How is Functional Medicine Different from Other Types of Alternative Care?
Most other forms of alternative health care including acupuncture, energy healing, chiropractic medicine, and massage therapy are all aiming to treat the underlying cause of disease too.
So how is functional medicine different?
A functional medicine workup casts a wide net to help identify where the problems are. We have an abundance of tools in our toolbox to try to help figure out what is going on.
Think of other alternative medicine providers as more like specialists. They each have their special way of getting to the root cause of a particular problem – whether that be balancing meridians with acupuncture, aligning the spinal cord with chiropractic care, or loosening tight muscles with massage therapy.
Functional medicine providers may refer you to these specialists if they feel that you need some additional help in these particular areas. We work together to help fix the root cause of your problem.
For example, if after a thorough evaluation of your issue, including lab work and saliva cortisol testing, we discover you have significant HPA axis dysfunction. In addition to dietary/lifestyle interventions, herbs and supplements, we may also refer you to an acupuncturist to provide additional help in calming the nervous system to help you achieve faster and better results.
How is Functional Medicine Different from Naturopathic Medicine?
Functional medicine and naturopathic medicine have very similar ideals and practicing principles. Each one is trying to bring the body back into balance so it can heal from within.
However, the biggest difference is that functional medicine tends to use more in-depth lab testing. Once again, our motto is “test don’t guess”. Also, our treatment protocols are typically more systematic and focused.
Naturopathic providers on the other hand tend to have a broader knowledge of all of the available herbs and natural medicines available for various diagnoses.
If a patient with asthma comes to see a functional medicine provider, they will likely have similar testing as that of the patient with depression mentioned earlier. Using a systematic approach, we can identify the most common triggers of inflammation in the body.
If this same patient went to see a naturopath, they might get some testing but the plan would likely focus on treating symptoms with specific herbs to help calm the respiratory tract.
Now it’s not always this cut and dry. There is a lot of cross over. Some naturopathic providers utilize more in-depth lab testing and some functional medicine providers have a ton of knowledge on a wide variety of herbs. It just depends on who you see and what their background is.
Now that you have a better understanding of what functional medicine is, let’s move on to what to look for when choosing a functional medicine provider.
What to Look For in a Functional Medicine Provider
There is a growing number of functional medicine providers out there – and thank goodness! This is the type of medical care that is actually going to reverse chronic disease and fix our healthcare system. (Which is a topic for a whole other post.)
But just like in conventional medicine, each provider is going to practice a little different from the rest.
Therefore, it’s important to find one that practices utilizing an ancestral lifestyle approach.
What the heck is an ancestral lifestyle approach? That sounds complicated!
It’s quite simple. Our biology has not adapted fast enough to embrace our modern lifestyle. At the heart of chronic disease, there is a mismatch between our genes and our current environment.
For thousands of generations our bodies have had plenty of:
- fresh air
- unprocessed food
- natural light
- lack of chronic stress
Our bodies are not designed to live the way we live now – and it is killing us!
A functional medicine provider with an ancestral lifestyle approach can help you find simple easy ways to incorporate more of the way our ancestors lived into our modern world.
And most of the time, these changes alone have a significant impact on reversing chronic health issues.
Some testing is often also required to help us dig a little deeper into the underlying causes. However, it’s important to place our primary focus of treatment on these ancestral dietary and lifestyle modifications.
Admittedly, sometimes functional medicine providers order lots of expensive lab tests from the get-go which often results in lots of unnecessary expensive treatments. They get too caught up in the biochemistry of disease and make things way more complicated than they need to be.
While at times this may be necessary, it doesn’t typically have to be this way. Let’s keep it as simple as we can. Find a functional medicine provider who feels the same way and understands the importance of an ancestral lifestyle approach.
Functional Medicine in a Nutshell
To sum things up – functional medicine is a blend of conventional and alternative medicine that primarily utilizes in-depth lab testing to identify triggers that cause inflammation in the body.
It then removes these triggers primarily with dietary and lifestyle modifications, herbs, and supplements. It provides real solutions with long term effects.
Finding a functional medicine provider with a thorough understanding of the importance of an ancestral lifestyle approach is key to finding and fixing the root cause of health issues in the simplest and most efficient way possible.
Now that you have a better understanding of what functional medicine is, it’s time for you to decide:
Are you ready to find and fix the hole in your boat?