Functional Medicine: A Guide To The Future of Healthy Living
It looks like we aren’t doing so well. The United States spends more than $3 trillion each year on health care (more than what the next 10 countries spend combined!) and yet, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, (1) out of 13 industrialized nations, the United States is dead last when it comes to several critical health issues: premature death from chronic disease and infant mortality rates. Specifically, the World Health Organization and the National Research Council claim (2) that out of 16 industrialized nations, the United States has the highest chance that a child will die before age 5, the highest rate of women dying due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth, and the second-highest rate of death by coronary heart disease and lung disease.
How can such a wealthy, educated, and technologically advanced country be doing so poorly in managing these very basic measures of good health? One prevalent theory is that mainstream medicine has gone down the wrong path, providing little in the way of effective care for the millions of Americans struggling with chronic diseases. The standard model of care for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, low thyroid, acid reflux, and autoimmune disease is inadequate, to say the least.
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3 Ways Mainstream Medicine Is Failing Us
1. It does not prioritize or consider individualized care
Mainstream medicine has become a colossal “one-size-fits-all” system of matching a diagnosis to a drug. The problem with this medicine matching game is that it doesn’t take into account bio-individuality. Every person is genetically and biochemically unique, so clusters of symptoms or even a diagnosed disease in one person will not necessarily respond to a given drug the same way they would respond in the next person. Unfortunately, there are no “magic pills.”
Without a consideration for individual genetics, lifestyle factors like diet and exercise, microbiome composition, age, gender, and many other factors, in designing a treatment plan, the chances that one particular approach will work for any given person is slim. To progress, modern medicine is going to have to take into account biological variability and tailor solutions for the individual.
2. It focuses on treating symptoms rather than discovering causes
Pharmaceutical drugs are, for the most part, not designed to heal, but to manage symptoms. Because this is the case, patients with chronic conditions are often told to take a medication indefinitely, or symptoms will return. Other medications are frequently prescribed to deal with side effects of the first medications, and as the body becomes tolerant, dosages may gradually go up and up. How is this achieving health?
Instead, modern medicine must learn to see symptoms as the body’s “check engine light.” What would you think if I covered up the check engine light with a piece of tape and kept on driving as usual? This is equivalent to what most medications do. Instead, while symptom relief should be a component of care, the focus should be to find out why the symptoms are there in the first place. Clinical investigation of the underlying issues so those can be fixed is the only way this can be accomplished.
3. It results in too many side effects
When deciding what kind of health care treatment to choose, a good question to ask is: “What can I do that will be most effective with the least number of side effects?” If a drug fits this criteria, then it might be the best option for you. However, in my experience, most medications do not fit this criteria.
Have you ever watched a drug television advertisement before, with that soothing voice quietly mentioning the many, often disturbing, side effects possible with that drug? The scary fact is that prescription drugs killed more people in 2009 than heroin and cocaine combined, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the Journal of American Medical Association, more than 100,000 people die each year (3) from the proper use of prescription drugs – not from overdosing or taking the wrong drug, but from the side effects of taking the “right drug” exactly as prescribed. That sure doesn’t sound like the safest option! There are many, many ways to address and balance health issues and relieve symptoms. Pharmaceuticals are just one of those ways, and until modern medicine opens its eyes to the bigger possibilities, I fear the statistics revealing the poor state of health care in the U.S. will only get worse.
Obviously, we need to do something dramatically different to fix a dramatically failing model of care. Admittedly, it sounds daunting to try to change the trajectory of the entire system, but you can change your trajectory. Alternative care such as functional medicine is already attempting to address these issues and create a new standard that designs health programs for the individual through the clinical investigation of underlying dysfunctions and the application of more natural and safer solutions and therapies with fewer side effects. For many, these healing methods have finally provided hope for the millions falling through the cracks of conventional care.
5 Ways Functional Medicine Is Transforming Healthcare
Functional medicine is a form of medicine that respects and utilizes all the research and technology we have access to today, but that also puts an emphasis, not on some model of symptoms and disease names uniformly applied to all, but on individual differences and unique manifestations of health and disease in each person.
To honor the individual, as well as the health and unity of our entire world population, here are five ways functional medicine is the best form of healthcare for a harmonious future.
1. We aren’t OK with the current trajectory of society’s health
Whether you’re a staunch vegan, love eating a paleo diet, or eat whatever and whenever you want, you can’t look around and be OK with the decline of our collective health. It seems no matter what we do, our population is getting sicker. Here’s a rundown of the problems we are facing:
Horribly, someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds, and every 60 seconds, someone in the United States dies from a heart attack or stroke.
It’s hard to believe, but 50 percent of us are now prediabetic (4) or have full-blown diabetes.
A full half of men and one in three women will get cancer (5) at some point in their lifetimes. Also, autoimmune diseases are now the third leading cause of death and disease in the world, affecting over 50 million Americans and millions more struggling with autoimmune-inflammation spectrum problems.
Nearly 20 percent of adults suffer (6) from a diagnosable mental disorder. Depression is now the leading cause (7) of disability worldwide. Anxiety disorders affect (8) more than 40 million Americans and Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, a 2013 report (9) found that since 1979, deaths due to brain disease have increased by 66 percent in men and a whopping 92 percent in women. Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have skyrocketed over a short period of time. In 1970, an estimated one in 10,000 children were found to be autistic, in 1995 it was one in 500, and in 2001 it became one in 250. Today one in 68 children are diagnosed as autistic.
2. We see the holes in mainstream medicine
The United States spends more on health care than the next 10 top-spending countries combined, and even though we spend trillions of dollars, we rank last among all industrialized nations when it comes to living long, healthy lives. Not good. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (1) (JAMA), the United States is the worst out of 13 industrialized nations when it comes to years of life lost for adults, as well as, unbelievably, infant mortality rates.
3. We know that nobody is sick from a medication deficiency
Can you believe that 81 percent of Americans take at least one medication a day? Just because something’s common, doesn’t mean it’s normal. According to JAMA, (3) more than 100,000 people die each year from the proper use of prescription drugs, not from overdosing or taking the wrong drug. Yep, you heard that right – they die from the side effects of the medications they are taking correctly – side effects the pharmaceutical industry has decided are okay, as long as they are disclosed. Meanwhile, the drug industry is funding most of the scientific research we read today, which hardly makes those research results unbiased.
It’s no small matter that, according to the World Health Organization, the global pharmaceuticals market is worth $300 billion – a figure that is expected to rise to $400 billion dollars within the next three years. The WHO agrees that the current pharmaceutical system has “an inherent conflict of interest between the legitimate business goals of manufacturers and the social, medical and economic needs of providers and the public to select and use drugs in the most rational way.” Because of this conflict of interest, when it comes to chronic and autoimmune disease, mainstream medicine is trained to diagnose a disease and match it with a corresponding medication. In other words, conventional health care is, to put it simply, a medicinal matching game that leaves many frustrated when they don’t fit the “model” and the medicines they are taking don’t make them healthier.
That being said, know that functional medicine is not anti-medication. We recognize that many people are alive because of medications, surgeries, and other technological advancements modern medicine has brought us, especially in emergency care. However, we must ask the question: For any given person with any given health issue, what is the most effective option, that causes the fewest and least life-impairing side effects? For some, a medication may fit this criteria, but for many, there are better options, which functional medicine is willing to explore.
4. We realize DNA is not destiny
Research like the Danish Twin Study has shown (10) that over 90 percent of our longevity is determined by the choices we make – not by genetics. Sure, people can have a genetic predisposition for certain diseases (most of us have some), but whether or not those disease genes are ever triggered and expressed has more to do with lifestyle factors than the simple existence of the mutation.
The famous Okinawa study showed there is no reason why the majority of us can’t live at least 100 disease-free, healthy years. It’s the interaction between our genes and our environment that determines our health. The foods we eat or don’t eat, our stress levels, sleep, activity and exposure to toxins are constantly and dynamically instructing your genetic expression. This is a revolutionary message of health empowerment and responsibility, and functional medicine believe this should be the standard by which we all measure our health and our healthcare options.
5. We believe the best medicine is at the end of our forks
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said thousands of years ago, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food.” How far have we strayed, that the words of the founder of modern medicine are considered by some in the industry to actually be threatening to modern medicine?
With the strong influence that the pharmaceutical industry has on government policy, it’s no secret that using foods as medicine is not profitable, and therefore not a high priority for the profit machine that is conventional health care. You only need to eat hospital food once to know that in that world, food is not a priority. Believe it or not, under current laws, it is illegal to say foods can heal. That’s right! The words “treat,” “cure,” and “prevent” are in effect owned by the FDA and can only be used in the healthcare setting when talking about pharmaceutical drugs.
11 Compelling Reasons To Give Functional Medicine A Try
1. Functional medicine practitioners look at a narrower lab reference range
Functional medicine practitioners don’t interpret lab tests the way conventional health practitioners do. Typically, labs have what is called a reference range that tells you what is considered “normal.” Anything outside of this reference range is typically labeled as “high” or “low” and considered abnormal. However, that reference range is determined by a statistical bell curve average of the population of that particular lab meaning it is averaging results from people who tend to have health problems (because healthy people don’t generally need labwork). The normal range tends to be pretty large, and even if your result is just one number inside the reference range, you will still be considered “normal.”
However, disease doesn’t start the moment your cholesterol (for example) goes one point above that normal range. It has started long before, as your “normal” numbers slowly went up (or down, depending on what the test is for). In functional medicine, we consider the “normal” range to be much narrower, so we can see when you are moving towards a disease state and start treatment in the early stages of a health dysfunction, before your issues would officially qualify you for a conventional medicine diagnosis.
Many people who go to their doctors to find out why they’re struggling with health issues get these “normal” lab results and leave without answers or solutions, but that won’t happen with a functional medicine practitioner. Our goal is to shed much more light onto your particular health situation, so you won’t fall through the cracks of the standard model of care and remain untreated and suffering until you are ill enough to finally get a diagnosis of something that is now advanced and much more difficult to manage.
2. Functional medicine practitioners test more to know more
In addition to interpreting labs differently, functional medicine practitioners also look beyond the area of symptoms to look at the big picture. That means running more extensive labs than a conventional practitioner would typically order. Typically, one of the primary purposes of running labs in the standard model of care is to diagnose a disease so that it can be matched with a corresponding pharmaceutical drug. The labs your doctor runs are adequate if he or she is just prescribing medications, but that is an incomplete and paltry picture, from a functional medicine perspective. For us, lab tests can reveal the big picture, ferreting out underlying deficiencies, imbalances, infections, and dysfunctions, to provide a much more extensive and complete insight into the health puzzle that you are currently experiencing. You will get more information and that will allow a functional medicine practitioner to more carefully and precisely pinpoint the right kinds of therapies.
3. Functional medicine practitioners personalize, rather than generalize, your health care
Once you’re labeled with a disease in mainstream medicine, you’re given the same medications everyone else with that disease is given. This cookie cutter approach works sometimes, but what if you are one of the many people for whom that particular medication doesn’t work, or who suffers not-worth-it side effects? Functional medicine takes into account that we’re all designed a little differently, so what works for one person isn’t necessarily best for you. A tailored, comprehensive health program (that does not discount but also does not prioritize pharmaceutical fixes for every problem) addresses you as the unique individual that you are.
4. Functional medicine practitioners gives your health the time it deserves
Mainstream medicine is really bogged down with symptom care. That is why it can take months to get an appointment to see an actual doctor for about five minutes. A functional medicine doctor will be much more likely to get you in sooner and spend as much time with you as you need to fully explain your condition and ask all your questions.
5. Functional medicine practitioners look at underlying causes to more thoroughly and permanently resolve symptoms
While mainstream medicine is structured to manage symptoms, often with drugs that mask or cover up discomfort while doing nothing to resolve the cause of the discomfort, functional medicine is primarily concerned with addressing the underlying dysfunctions of the body that give rise to symptoms. For example, if someone has high blood sugar, he or she is typically given medications that stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin, which brings blood sugar down.
Instead of just altering blood sugar with medication (a condition that would recur if the medication were stopped), functional medicine asks why a patient has high blood sugar in the first place. Maybe they have cellular insulin resistance, brain-adrenal axis dysfunctions causing high cortisol and a chronic gut infection, a poor diet, pancreatic or liver dysfunction, or some other problem. All these things can contribute to high blood sugar, and many of them can be resolved without medication, or in conjunction with medication that can be tapered off.
If that patient with high blood sugar had cellular insulin resistance caused by brain-adrenal axis dysfunction, the problem would not be in the pancreas, and medication would not solve it. While the medication will make their blood sugar numbers look nicer on a lab, it doesn’t address the reasons they’re high in the first place. So (in conjunction with your primary care physician when necessary), functional medicine can be the missing link to getting off medications and getting healthy by treating the root cause to resolve the symptoms for good.
6. Functional medicine practitioners consider a much wider range of treatment options
Functional medicine is not anti-medication, but it does not see medication as the only answer to health issues. We ask, what is the patient’s most effective option or collection of options, and what will cause the fewest side effects. If a medication fits that criteria, it may be the best option, but many times, it isn’t. Thousands of years ago, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food,” and functional medicine agrees. Food is often used as medicine in a condition-specific way. Herbal and micronutrient medicines are also frequently employed to address underlying dysfunctions revealed by labwork.
It’s important to remember, though, that even with natural options and foods, what works for one person may not work for the next, and functional medicine practitioners consider this a primary focus of treatment. We tailor the program for the individual instead of giving everyone the same treatment.
This new age of evidence-based natural health care that treats the whole person instead of isolated symptoms has already offered hope to many. Maybe it can finally offer you some hope, too. The future is now!
7. Functional medicine looks at people individually
Functional medicine understands that all people are genetically and biochemically unique. Therefore, it does not group and categorize. It looks at a patient as an individual, and treats the person, not the disease. It supports the normal healing mechanisms of the body, naturally, rather than attacking disease directly or masking symptoms with drugs without addressing the underlying condition.
8. Functional medicine is deeply science based
The latest research shows us that what happens within us is connected in a complicated network or web of relationships. Each person’s genetics, biochemistry, microbiome, age, gender, and lifestyle choices impact how diseases happen and progress. Functional medicine works to understand this scientifically without falling back on generalizations. Understanding those relationships allows us to see deep into the functioning of the body as a whole, for more effective resolution of health issues.
9. Functional medicine respects the intelligence of the body
Functional medicine recognizes the body’s capacity for self-regulation, which expresses itself through a dynamic balance of all your body systems. Instead of forcing the body to work differently, functional medicine works with how the body works on an individual level, so each body can balance and heal itself more efficiently and with the least interference.
10. Functional medicine understands that bodies are self-healing
Functional medicine is guided by this underlying principle and is the key to preventing nearly all the chronic diseases of aging.
11. Functional medicine knows that health is not just the absence of disease, but a state of immense vitality
Covering up symptoms is setting the bar too low for us. Instead of asking, “What drug matches up with this disease?” Functional medicine asks the vital questions that very few conventional doctors ask, such as: “What is causing this problem in the first place?” and “Why has my natural healthy function been lost?” and “What can we do to restore that function in order to restore vitality?” In other words, functional medicine looks to find the root cause or mechanism involved with any loss of function, which ultimately reveals why a set of symptoms is there in the first place, or why the patient has a particular disease label. This is the only way to truly eliminate disease and achieve optimal health. And yes, I believe for these five reasons, Functional Medicine is (and must be) the future of healthcare.
Functional medicine is growing, and for good reason.
Rather than blindly believing what any doctor tells them, the contemporary healthcare consumer is getting better informed and taking more control of their healthcare. Because of this, more and more people are seeking out functional medicine, because it's principles ring true and make logical sense to anyone trying to be healthier or beat a chronic disease. Eventually, when enough consumers demand it, conventional medicine will catch on, and this is already happening. For example, the Cleveland Clinic is taking the initiative by starting a functional medicine center. Progress! I have a lot of hope for the future.
Functional medicine experts like myself are making it our mission to make sure functional medicine is accessible and affordable for everyone. And developments like webcam consultations are helping us make “healthy” not just possible, but viral. The take home message? We can’t depend on the drug companies or the government to make the best decisions for our health. The people whose health is impacted by a broken system can collectively rise up to take responsibility for the health that is the birthright of each and every one of us.
Share these words with your friends and family and let this be the manifesto for all of us that want to make the world a healthier place.
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- Mental Illness NIH February 2019. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml
- Depression World Health Organization 30 January 2020. https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression
- Facts & Statistics Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
- Pritchard C, Mayers A, Baldwin D. Changing patterns of neurological mortality in the 10 major developed countries--1979-2010. Public Health. 2013;127(4):357‐368. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2012.12.018
- Herskind AM, McGue M, Holm NV, Sørensen TI, Harvald B, Vaupel JW. The heritability of human longevity: a population-based study of 2872 Danish twin pairs born 1870-1900. Hum Genet. 1996;97(3):319‐323. doi:10.1007/BF02185763
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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