Pulse of Oriental Medicine: Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks









Functional Medicine: What is It?
by Dr. Lynda Harvey, OMD, L.Ac.

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 the:

Jump To:
  • Digestive system
  • Hepatic system (detoxification pathways)
  • Endocrine system (hormonal)
  • Metabolic system (how nutrients get into tissues)
  • Nervous system (which includes thought processes and emotion), and
  • 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, or
  • 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
  • Pharmaceuticals.

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,
  • Homeopaths,
  • Acupuncturists,
  • Chiropractors,
  • 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...



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All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.
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