by Dr. Will Cole
More than a hundred years ago, Thomas Edison made a prediction. He famously said: “The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will instruct his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.” Yet, here we are, a century later, and I can’t help wondering if Thomas Edison would have been shocked by what has been the vast expansion of the conventional medical system we know today, which has made as its priority the very “medicine” that Thomas Edison predicted would become extinct.
Sadly, the last century has moved us even further away from an awareness of the health effects of the foods we eat and preventative practices, instead moving toward the Big Pharma paradigm, sick-care (rather than health care) system, which is built around diagnosing a disease and matching it with a corresponding drug.
Despite spending more on health care than the next 10 top-spending countries combined, the U.S. has the most chronic disease and shortest lifespan of all industrialized nations. According to a comprehensive study by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, American men ranked last in life expectancy, and women were ranked second to last. When it comes to the health of a pregnant mother or her child, the U.S. has the highest mortality rate among all developed nations. The U.S. also has the third-worst mortality rate from nutritional deficiencies, and the highest absolute age-adjusted mortality rate among all developed nations! Was Thomas Edison’s prediction just a pipe dream?
In terms of crisis care, emergencies and surgeries, we have one of the best health care systems in the world, but when it comes to chronic health care, the U.S. is one of the worst industrialized health care systems in the world. When it comes to chronic health conditions and longevity, conventional medicine simply isn’t working. But perhaps Thomas Edison’s vision still lies ahead of us, because there is a different way.
When I first started practicing and writing for sites like mindbodygreen, many people hadn’t yet heard about functional medicine. Now, the word is rapidly spreading throughout the health community, and with the Cleveland Clinic opening up a functional medicine center, I believe we are witnessing the birth of a new age of health. But what’s it all about? What is functional medicine, and should you look for a functional medicine practitioner so you can finally resolve your chronic health issues?
Here are six 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!
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.
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