You’ve been to see your doctor, who has ordered multiple lab and diagnostic tests. The results are normal but something’s not right; perhaps functional medicine can help. Functional medicine is a new model of medical care that is focused on treating the body as a whole system rather than segmenting care by organs or individual diseases. Treatment plans are individualized and specific, so that two people with the same problem might receive different therapies.
What is Functional Medicine?
Functional medicine looks for the underlying cause of a disease or health condition. It is designed to create a partnership between patient and practitioner. This kind of medicine takes a systems-based approach – rather than looking at a few symptoms in isolation, functional medicine practitioners look at all aspects of the entire body. For example, eczema, chronic indigestion and headaches are not treated as individual problems in functional medicine but as related conditions. They may be caused by a single food allergy; eliminating the food may resolve all three problems. A functional medicine practitioner will analyze interactions between a patient’s physical condition, genetic heritage, lifestyle and environment.
Functional Medicine vs. Conventional Medicine
Conventional or allopathic medicine is the standard in the US today. Practitioners trained in this model are focused on the treatment of disease and typically look for a particular treatment or medication to deal with a particular symptom. In some cases, that may be very appropriate – if a patient has diabetes and cannot produce insulin, then insulin injections are life-saving. A patient with migraine headaches might be prescribed a medication to relieve the pain or lessen the frequency of the headaches. However, this approach does not look for the underlying problems that cause the headache in the first place. Functional medicine practitioners take a much broader view and are more likely to recommend strategies like dietary changes, lifestyle alterations, herbs, supplements and nontraditional therapies like acupuncture, massage, aromatherapy or chiropractic treatment.
Tenets of Functional Medicine
According to the tenets of functional medicine poor nutrition, sedentary lifestyles, chronic stress, poverty, chronic infections, an aging population, fragmented social networks and environmental toxins combine with genetic factors to cause changes in the body’s biochemistry and physiology. These changes specifically affect the immune system, endocrine system and gastrointestinal system as well as other body systems, and gradually cause damage that leads to many of today’s chronic diseases. Especially in the early stages, these changes are subtle; they may not show up on standard laboratory or diagnostic tests. However, they create imbalances that eventually lead to disease. For example, chronic inflammation has been implicated in heart disease, depression, diabetes, arthritis and cancer. On the other hand, obesity is probably the result of a complicated interplay of genetics, hormones, inflammation, lifestyle and mood disorders. One of the most important goals of functional medicine is to restore balance, which helps restore health.
Is Functional Medicine a Specialty?
Functional medicine is not a recognized medical specialty – in fact, the concept is controversial in some medical and scientific circles. However, both the highly-respected Cleveland Clinic and George Washington University have established functional medicine centers. Functional medicine practitioners may be trained in different disciplines, including medicine, osteopathy, chiropractic and nursing. Functional medicine looks at the whole patient, while conventional medicine tends to break into specialties that focus on various aspects of the body such as the heart and vascular system (cardiology), urinary tract (urology) or musculoskeletal system (orthopedics). Doctors who work in functional medicine are often trained initially in areas like internal medicine, pediatrics or family medicine, all of which focus on primary care and which are more similar to functional medicine in terms of a holistic approach.
What’s a Visit with a Functional Medicine Practitioner Like?
One of the most notable differences between conventional and functional medicine is the length of the patient visit, especially in the early stages of treatment. Expect the practitioner to spend a considerable amount of time talking about your history, as well as your mental well-being, social factors and spiritual issues. Part of this process includes developing a time line that includes any signs and symptoms of disease, when they appeared and other issues such as stressors or major life changes that may have predated or accompanied the signs and symptoms. The practitioner will also ask about triggers, such as infection or accident, and try to determine what makes symptoms better or worse. In other respects, the visit is similar to a conventional medical visit – it will typically include a detailed physical examination and you may need to have some lab work or diagnostic tests completed. Once the practitioner has all the information, the two of you will sit down together and design a treatment plan. This might include lifestyle, diet and exercise changes, stress management or supportive therapies like homeopathy.
The Connection Between Chiropractic and Functional Medicine
Chiropractors are taught to look at the human body in its entirety; particularly as that relates to how the musculoskeletal system is interconnected with other body organs and systems. They also receive much more nutrition education – conventionally-trained physicians may receive little or no training in nutrition. Many chiropractors also take additional post-doctoral training in nutrition. Nutrition and its effects on health is one of the cornerstones of functional medicine treatment. Chiropractors are also uniquely positioned to understand how musculoskeletal alignment can affect the body – thoracic misalignment, for example, can affect blood pressure and heart rate. Chiropractic therapy also focuses on lifestyle factors such as nutrition, exercise, posture and stress management, which are all used in functional medicine. Health is not just the absence of disease. Ideally health should mean you feel well, look well, can meet your daily responsibilities with ease, awake refreshed after a healthy night’s sleep and enjoy your day. Functional medicine may make a big difference in your life. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have questions or want to schedule an appointment.