According to the Institute of Functional Medicine, Functional Medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach looking at the root cause of illness. It is an evolution in the practice of medicine that better addresses the healthcare needs of the 21st century. By shifting the traditional disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, Functional Medicine addresses the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms.
Functional Medicine practitioners spend time with their patients, listening to their histories and looking at the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex, chronic disease. In this way, Functional Medicine supports the unique expression of health and vitality for each individual. Functional Medicine enables physicians and other health professionals to practice proactive, science-based, personalized medicine and empowers patients to take an active role in their own health.
How is Functional Medicine Different?
In my practice, I use the holistic tree of health. Conventional medicine tends to look at the constellation of symptoms first (the branches and leaves), which usually results in a disease diagnosis. Often, this diagnosis is associated with a drug or drugs that can be prescribed to treat this constellation of symptoms, and that is the end of the story. But this approach neglects the more fundamental aspects of health that reside in the roots and the trunk of the tree. It treats all patients that present with similar symptoms the same and completely neglects both the inherent differences among patients as well as the myriad of possible causes that a “disease” can have. Conventional medicine is beautiful and wonderful. There has never been a better, more advanced age of medicine than today. There is nothing more amazing than seeing a very sick child get well from a bacterial infection with antibiotics. But that is not the whole story. There are many instances where the quick fix, is not the best path. There are many times where chronic symptoms are resulting from a deeper issue and we need to get to the root cause to allow the body to get back to a state of balance.
Conventional medicine separates doctors based on their specialties (e.g., neurology, cardiology, endocrinology), effectively arranging medical care into separate silos. Functional Medicine is holistic, in that one clinician looks at all aspects of the patient, instead of saying, “Oh, that sounds like a hormone problem. That’s not my department.” Functional medicine practitioners aim to be the central hub for patient care. That does not mean that traditional medicine has no place in modern care or that we don’t need endocrinologists. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These specialists have a deep understanding of their particular fields and are vital parts of the team. Pediatricians, internists, specialists, functional medicine practitioners, chiropractors, acupuncturists, Ayurveda/TCM specialists, homeopaths and naturopaths are all one team (or at least we should be) with the same goal and it’s time to start working together.
The most important factors in daily health, are the foundational lifestyle factors including sleep, exercise, nutrition, stress levels, relationships, and genetics. These are the roots and soil of health and well-being, which are in turn influenced by specific predisposing factors, discrete events, and ongoing physiological processes, and may then result in fundamental imbalances at the trunk and roots. These can eventually result in the signs and symptoms that are grouped into a diagnosable constellation that we call disease, represented by the branches and leaves.
I believe that we need to shift our focus from the leaves to the roots. The leaves are important, but we must alter our focus in medicine to one of balance where we spend as much time or more on the root cause.