by Dr. Will Cole
The term “functional medicine” has been out there in the health media quite a bit lately, and many people may wonder what it is, why it has that name, and what it can do for them. Although this field is becoming more mainstream due to voices like Dr. Oz, Dr. Frank Lipman, and Dr. Mark Hyman, who often mention it and suggest it is the future of health care, functional medicine and what it actually is may still be a mystery to most of the general public. But you need not wonder any longer – as a functional medicine practitioner, I am here to explain exactly what functional medicine is, using its 5 basic principles.
But first, to fully understand what functional medicine is, it is important to contrast it with conventional medicine, or the standard model of care by which most physicians have been trained. Traditionally, medical doctors are trained to 1) examine patients to determine symptoms, with or without lab tests to confirm certain bodily conditions; 2) match symptoms and lab results with diagnoses that have been pre-established to label those symptom groups and test results; and 3) prescribe drugs (including drugs containing real or synthetic hormones) that research has shown relieves symptoms in some percentage of study participants with a given diagnosis.
For example, for various conditions including hypothyroidism, diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, etc., the standard model of care is generally the same. If you have the symptoms and test results to warrant a diagnosis, you will likely get a prescription for the same drug that everyone else with that diagnosis will get. Your general practitioner could decide to treat you, or could elect to refer you to a specialist, who will basically do the same thing because a GP and specialist have access to the same basic tool: medication.
Maybe the drug will work for you, relieving your symptoms and making you feel better. Or maybe it won’t, because the research that establishes a drug as appropriate to treat a certain disease never works in everyone. The standard model of care works well for acute diseases like heart attacks, trauma like accidents, infections, and other emergencies. Sadly, however, it fails miserably when it comes to the care of the chronic diseases that affect over 125 million Americans.
Chronic conditions – things like allergies, digestive problems, hormonal imbalances, depression, anxiety, metabolic diseases like diabetes, autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, and neurological problems like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease – which most Americans suffer from on a daily basis, often don’t respond to the diagnose/prescribe model of medicine. However, they respond much better to something else. They respond to functional medicine. Knowing this, let’s look at why this could be and what exactly is functional medicine.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
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