Functional medicine is becoming more and more popular. But what is it exactly? More importantly, can it help your condition?
In Functional Medicine, the body is seen as an interconnected whole. You can’t treat one system without affecting the others. This whole body or connected approach is foundational to Functional Medicine.
Functional Medicine recognizes that in order to treat one part of the body, all other parts must also be considered. This breaks apart the artificial divisions of the body. There are not Functional Medicine practitioners for the heart, digestive tract, or brain. Instead, think of Functional Medicine practitioners as “super generalists”. This general or big picture perspective is what gives Functional Medicine its strength.
Functional Medicine looks at underlying phenomena that occur across specialties in order to understand the root cause of disease and find the right tools, at the right time, individualized for each person.
Functional Medicine is a new vision for healthcare. Some, in fact, call it a movement.
Compare this with conventional medicine where there’s a doctor for every part of your body: cardiologists for the heart, gastroenterologists for the digestive system, neurologists for the brain and nervous system, podiatrists for your feet, and ophthalmologists for your eyes. This compartmentalization of medical skillsets breaks our body down into specific categories or systems.
The problem is our body’s systems don’t work separately. You can’t treat one system without affecting another. When we focus on one system without considering its effect on the others, we lose sight of, or neglect to look at the whole person. Remember, to understand complex or chronic illness, one needs to view the body as an interconnected whole.
In Western medicine, symptoms are identified in order to hopefully name a disease, and then find a corresponding drug to treat that disease.
What’s the difference between functional and conventional medicine?
The table below compares seven key distinctions between functional and conventional medicine.
|Individuality||Everyone is treated the same way|
|Looks at underlying causes of disease||Diagnosis based on symptoms|
|Preventative approach||Early detection of disease|
Does Canada need Functional Medicine?
This is a valid question. When compared to their American peers, Canadians will generally classify themselves as healthy. Unfortunately, the statistics don’t agree with the typical Canadian’s rosy outlook. Consider the following Canadian health statistics:
- More than one in five Canadian adults live with one of the following chronic diseases: (1)
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic respiratory disease
- One in 25 Canadian adults aged 20 years and older reported having a mood and anxiety disorder and at least one of the four major chronic diseases.
- Approximately four in five Canadian adults have at least one modifiable risk factor for chronic disease (self-reported tobacco smoking, physical inactivity, unhealthy eating and harmful use of alcohol).
- Physical inactivity, sedentary behaviors, and obesity rates remain high, especially among children and youth.
- More than 90% of Canadian children are not meeting current physical activity guidelines in Canada
- Canada ranks amongst the worst of OECD countries for adult obesity rates. (2)
- The number of prevalent cases for diagnosed diabetes is projected to be more than four million people by 2020. (3)
More alarming than these statistics, the majority of chronic illnesses are preventable, lifestyle illnesses. Meaning that you have more control than you may think over your health. Take autoimmune diseases, conditions that are rarely present in developing countries. They are first world illnesses. The cause? Lifestyle factors – the food we eat, the toxins we’re exposed to, our stress levels, among others. For more information on autoimmune disease, please see this post.
When did your medical doctor last recommend diet and lifestyle changes? And if they were recommended, were you given the support needed to make these changes? This is the gap Functional Medicine fills. Functional Medicine recognizes the connection between our lifestyle and chronic illness.
The system of medicine practiced by most physicians is oriented toward acute care: the diagnosis and treatment of trauma or illness that is of short duration and in need of urgent care, such as a heart attack or a broken leg. Physicians apply specific, prescribed treatments such as drugs or surgery that aim to treat the immediate problem or symptom.
Unfortunately, the acute care approach to medicine is ill-equipped to address complex, chronic disease. In most cases, the model does not take into account the unique genetic makeup of each individual and does not allow time for exploring the aspects of today’s lifestyle that have a direct influence on the rise of chronic disease in modern Western society.
How long was your last doctor visit?
The latest research suggests it was probably 15 minutes. Of that 15 minutes, you likely talked for about 5 minutes and the doctor talked for about 5 minutes. Then 5 minutes was spent on your most pressing issue, while secondary concerns were likely talked about for only 1 minute. (4) Chronic illness has many variables and lots of moving parts. How can one uncover critical environmental stressors such as diet, sleep, exercise, or exposure to toxins in that amount of time?
This is not the fault of the physician, but of the system which is not positioned to deal with chronic illness. As a result, most physicians are not adequately trained to assess the underlying causes of complex, chronic disease, nor to apply strategies such as nutrition, diet, and exercise to both treat and prevent these illnesses in their patients. Nor are they allowed the time.
Functional Medicine is a different approach, with methodology and tools that are specifically designed to prevent and treat chronic diseases. (5)
How does Functional Medicine address chronic illness?
Let’s use fibromyalgia as an example. After being diagnosed with this autoimmune disorder, Western medicine will follow the traditional pharmacological treatment paradigm, beginning with the use of simple painkillers. Other pharmacological treatments include antidepressants (to deal with the mental fatigue resulting from having an incurable disease), opioids (for the pain), and sleep aids (for the sleepless nights due to the other symptoms). Often, other medications will need to be prescribed to help combat the side effects of the pain-relieving medication. (6)
For example, amitriptyline, an antidepressant commonly prescribed to help with pain levels has the following common side effects:
- Weight gain
This stacking of medication will continue until the patient has some level of symptom relief. Does this sound like a long-term solution to you?
Functional Medicine looks to the root cause of fibromyalgia. A practitioner will typically start with diet and lifestyle strategies, identifying potential food allergies and adding in stress reduction or meditation practices. Fibromyalgia patients have shown to have a higher prevalence of gut issues and gluten sensitivities. (7, 8) The simple removal of gluten in fibromyalgia patients results in a significant reduction of symptoms.
If a fibromyalgia patient simply had an undiagnosed gluten sensitivity, this would be missed by conventional medicine. Functional Medicine looks at the environmental factors that could be contributing towards the illness, which sometimes is as simple as the food consumed. Other times, it could be heavy metal exposures, gut infections, or hormone imbalances.
Functional Medicine practitioners like to say they take a 30,000-foot view of illness. They look to see how our environment – the food we eat, our stressors, toxic exposures, among many other factors – interact with our body. Conventional medicine zooms in; looking for bacteria, viruses, infections that could be causing the symptoms.
Who should see a Functional Medicine practitioner?
As I mentioned earlier in the post, Functional Medicine is well positioned to deal with chronic illness. Initial appointments with Functional Medicine practitioners are typically 1-2 hours. A thorough history helps the practitioner identify the multiple exposures your body has experienced. This includes items such as chemical or toxic exposure, periods of high or prolonged stress, dietary, exercise, and sleep habits, as well as a complete family history to determine which illness(es) you may be at higher risk for developing.
Much like primary care physicians, Functional Medicine practitioners likely have interest and specific knowledge or skills in certain areas. At Flourish Clinic, we specialize in the gut, fatigue, fibromyalgia, and gluten-related disorders.
Regardless of the practitioner’s specialty, Functional Medicine thoroughly investigates how your environment may be causing illness. For many patients, this starts with food. Functional Medicine practitioners will look to see how the food you regularly consume may be contributing towards your illness. From there, the treatment and testing options are unique to each case.
In general, Functional Medicine is well positioned to treat the following conditions:
- Chronic fatigue
- Fibromyalgia and chronic pain
- Thyroid illness
- Adrenal fatigue or HPA-axis dysfunction
- Gluten-related disorders
- Stress management
- Gut infections
- Anxiety and depression
- Autoimmune diseases
- Hormone imbalances
- Migraines and headaches
If you feel like you’ve tried everything – from conventional to alternative medicines – Functional Medicine is likely a great fit for you.
How to find a Functional Medicine practitioner near you
Those practicing Functional Medicine may be medical doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, naturopaths, or nurses. While each background of study has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, the education your Functional Medicine practitioner has is paramount to their understanding.
There are two resources to help you discover well trained Functional Medicine practitioners:
1. Chris Kresser – The Kresser Institute
Chris is a pioneer in the Functional Medicine world. His training program is the most thorough and in-depth training program available.
2. The Institute For Functional Medicine
The IFM set the foundation for Functional Medicine. They continue to be the leading resource for all things Functional Medicine.
Now you should have a clear idea of Functional Medicine and whether it’s a good fit for you.
Please reply in the comments section if you still have any questions about Functional Medicine!
Also published on Medium.