What is Functional Medicine?
Over the last 15 years a new medical specialty grew from
infancy into adolescence. If current trends continue, Functional
Medicine will mature into a robust adulthood likely to be
the next "big thing" in holistic/ alternative
medicine... for good reason. Functional Medicine essentially
bridges the gap between traditional pharmaceutical/surgical
intervention and alternative therapies. As the name implies,
optimal body function is the goal of this specialty.
The application of Functional Medicine usually begins with
evaluation of the major life-sustaining systems, these include
- Digestive system
- Hepatic system (detoxification pathways)
- Endocrine system (hormonal)
- Metabolic system (how nutrients get into tissues)
- Nervous system (which includes thought processes and emotion),
- Immune system
Ordinary and Extraordinary Stressors
There is wide variation in how different bodies respond to the
ordinary, or extraordinary, stressors of life. Ordinary stressors
include, among others
- Environmental toxins (such as smog or pesticides),
- Emotional strain of everday experiences like child-rearing,
- Financial worries.
Extraordinary stressors are those of a pathologic nature such
as viruses or parasites. Most bodies will function "normally"
despite the presence of a parasite or carcinogenic chemical for
a long time, just not as efficiently. Unfortunately the effects
of stress are cumulative. Often the first signs of declining function
appear as vague symptoms, occasional headaches, gas, lethargy
or fatigue. At some point symptoms escalate reflecting the impaired
function and disease results.
Functional Medicine can be applied at any point but is best used
before an official disease is diagnosed, while your family physician
still says you are normal.
Diagnosis: The Continuum of Health
All symptoms, obvious or not, are your body's attempt to maintain
equilibrium. Successful self-balancing is often referred to as
"your natural or innate healing ability going to work."
Thus, functional medicine practitioners first find out how your
system is coping with the daily onslaught of stressors. Then they
can offer suggestions to help improve your body's coping mechanisms.
Aside from physical examination and basic lab tests, the Functional
Medicine practitioner also uses an extremely detailed health history
and special lab tests to get whole story. These tests are not
typically performed during your annual check up, and might include:
- Salivary tests,
- Cellular analysis,
- Hair analysis,
- 24-hour urine samples and
- Specific blood tests.
(Next month begins the series on how the various body systems
are examined by Functional Medicine, including lab tests.)
Armed with this information, the doctor is able to assist your
body in its quest for equilibrium. Knowing the exact mechanism
by which a problem has occurred provides powerful insight into
how harmony can be restored, and can help prevent a recurrence
or the development of new problems. As a result, functional treatment
can relieve current symptoms, aid in a thorough recovery, subvert
potential disease, and slow the progression of degenerative conditions.
Treatment: The Integrative Approach
Functional Medicine theory avoids one-symptom treatment in favor
of a more holistic approach. Physicians often view symptoms narrowly,
in terms only of location or the physician's own specialty. This
is an unfortunate downside of specialization. For example, asthma
is usually considered a problem confined to the respiratory system.
However, it could also be related to spinal structure, digestion
or endocrine (hormonal) dysfunction. While wheezing can definitely
be controlled with medication (to dilate the bronchi and reduce
inflammation), this is not a cure for asthma. Functional Medicine
considers the lung's allergic reaction within the broader context
of the entire body, and this reveals other treatment options that
could eliminate the need for medication.
Functional Medicine recognizes the interdependence of all the
organ systems, including the mind, emotions and spirit. When an
Functional Medicine doctor arrives at a diagnosis, she tell you
how the whole body is operating and offer multiple treatment options.
These options may include:
- Dietary change,
- Herbal medicine,
- Therapeutic dosage of vitamins,
- Minerals and other nutrients,
- Specific exercise,
- Biofeedback or
- Other alternative treatments, and even
The purpose behind Functional Medicine treatment is to improve
the function of numerous systems simultaneously.
Who Practices It?
Many Functional Medicine treatments are alternative. Practitioners
vary in their individual offerings. Depending on your state's
laws, Functional Medicine practitioners can be
- Medical doctors,
- Naturopathic doctors,
- Nutritionists, and even
- Psychotherapists or counselors.
As long as your practitioner uses detailed examination and lab
work before offering a diagnosis, you are probably on the right
track. It is always best to interview the practitioner before
starting treatment. In most cases, with the exception of naturopaths
in certain states, these healers cannot prescribe pharmaceuticals.
Your treatment options may be limited to "natural" substances,
but these can be just as effective.
The only commonly used Functional Medicine treatment requiring
a medical doctor is prescription medication (certain hormones,
vitamin injections or IV); this treatment is often reserved for
more advanced illness. The number of medical doctors practicing
Functional Medicine is gradually increasing, still, it can be
challenging to determine which physicians have made it central
to their practice. At minimum you can ask what sort of diagnosis
and treatment methods the doctor uses and compare the answer to
the lists in this article. At best, you may find a referral in
your area from the following...