What Is Functional Medicine?
Functional medicine is an integrated approach to your health that blends Naturopathic Medicine and the latest scientific research to address the underlying causes of disease. The principle of finding the root cause of illness and balancing body systems is taken from naturopathic and oriental medicine. How our genetics interact with the environment and our lifestyle to influence our biochemistry is looked at from a scientific perspective. These two philosophies were brought together to form the system known as Functional Medicine that was created in 1990 by Jeffery Bland, MD. 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.
There is a lot of overlap between Functional Medicine and Naturopathic Medicine. This is because the principles governing both philosophies of medicine are very similar; in fact, many feel that Functional Medicine stemmed from medical doctors wanting to be more like Naturopathic Doctors. Both systems want to get to the root cause of your illness and not just treat the symptoms. Therefore, the integration of Functional Medicine into a naturopathic practice is easy since most ND’s have already been practicing it for years!
Why Do We Need Functional Medicine?
Our society is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of people who suffer from complex, chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mental illness, and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis.
The system of medicine practiced by most physicians is oriented toward acute care. It is set up to diagnose and treat trauma or an illness that is of short duration and in need of urgent care, such as appendicitis or a broken leg. Physicians apply specific, prescribed treatments (ie drugs or surgery) that aim to treat the immediate problem or symptom.
Unfortunately, the acute-care approach to medicine lacks the proper methodology and tools for preventing and treating complex, chronic disease. In most cases, it does not take into account the unique genetic makeup of each individual or factors such as environmental exposures to toxins and the aspects of today’s lifestyle that have a direct influence on the rise in chronic disease in modern Western society.
Most medial doctors are not adequately trained to assess the underlying causes of complex, chronic disease and to apply strategies such as nutrition, diet and exercise to both treat and prevent these illnesses in their patients. However, this is not the case when it comes to Naturopathic physicians.
Functional Medicine focuses on preventing illness and uncovering the underlying root cause of disease. Those who practice Functional Medicine are less concerned about diagnosing patients and are more concerned about correcting biochemical imbalances. By correcting these imbalances the body should then have the necessary resources to rid itself of disease.
How Is Functional Medicine Different?
Functional Medicine involves understanding the origins, prevention and treatment of complex, chronic disease. Hallmarks of a Functional Medicine approach include:
Patient-centered care. The focus of Functional Medicine is on patient-centered care, promoting health as a positive vitality, beyond just the absence of disease. By listening to the patient and learning his or her story, the practitioner brings the patient into the discovery process and tailors treatments that address the individual’s unique needs.
An integrative, science-based approach to health-care. Functional Medicine practitioners look “upstream” to consider the complex web of interactions in the patient’s history, physiology and lifestyle that can lead to illness. The unique genetic makeup of each patient is considered, along with both internal (mind, body, and spirit) and external (physical and social environment) factors that affect total functioning.
Integrating best medical practices. Functional Medicine integrates Western medical practices and Naturopathic Medicine, creating a focus on prevention through nutrition, diet and exercise; use of the latest laboratory testing and other diagnostic techniques; and prescribed combinations of drugs and/or botanical medicines, supplements, therapeutic diets, detoxification programs or stress-management techniques.
The 6 core principles of Functional Medicine:
- An understanding of the biochemical individuality of each human being, based on the concepts of genetic and environmental uniqueness;
- Awareness of the evidence that supports a patient-centered rather than a disease centered approach to treatment;
- Search for a dynamic balance between the mind, body and spirit;
- Familiarity with the web-like interconnections of internal physiological factors;
- Identification of health as a positive vitality not merely the absence of disease
- Promotion of organ reserve as the means to enhance the health span, not just the life span, of each patient.
The Functional Medicine Approach To Assessment
The Institute for Functional Medicine teaches practitioners how to assess the patient’s fundamental clinical imbalances through careful history taking, physical examination and laboratory testing. The Functional Medicine practitioner will consider multiple factors, including:
Environmental inputs – The air you breathe and the water you drink, the particular diet you eat, the quality of the food available to you, your level of physical exercise, and toxic exposures or traumas you have experienced all affect your health.
Mind-body elements – Psychological, spiritual and social factors all can have a profound influence on your health. Considering these areas helps the functional medicine practitioner see your health in the context of you as a whole person, not just in terms of your physical symptoms.
Genetic makeup – Although individual genes may make you more susceptible to some diseases, your DNA is not an unchanging blueprint for your life. Emerging research shows that your genes may be influenced by everything in your environment, as well as your experiences, attitudes, and beliefs. That means it is possible to change the way genes are activated and expressed. Simply put, “genes load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger” – meaning that your genes are not your destiny and it is environmental triggers through our diet, emotional make-up etc, that can affect whether a gene is expressed or not.
Through assessment of these underlying causes and triggers of dysfunction, the Functional Medicine practitioner is able to understand how key processes are affected. These are the body’s processes that keep you alive. Some occur at the cellular level and involve how cells function, repair and maintain themselves. These processes are related to larger biological functions, such as:
- how your body rids itself of toxins
- structural integrity
- regulation of hormones and neurotransmitters
- digestion and absorption of nutrients and the health of the digestive tract
- immune system function
- psychological and spiritual equilibrium
- inflammatory responses
- how you produce energy
All of these processes are influenced by both environmental factors and your genetic make-up; when they are disturbed or imbalanced, they lead to symptoms, which can lead to disease if effective interventions are not applied.
A Comprehensive Approach To Treatment
Most imbalances in functionality can be addressed; some can be completely restored to optimum function, and others can be substantially improved.
Prevention is paramount. Virtually every complex, chronic disease is preceded by long-term disturbances in functionality.
Changing how the systems function can have a major impact on the patient’s health. The Functional medicine practitioner examines a wide array of available interventions and customizes a treatment plan including those with the most impact on underlying functionality.
Functional Medicine expands the clinician’s tool kit. Treatments may include combinations of drugs, botanical medicines, nutritional supplements, therapeutic diets, or detoxification programs. They may also include counselling on lifestyle, exercise or stress-management techniques.
The patient becomes a partner. As a patient, you become an active partner with your clinician. This allows you to really be in charge of improving your own health and changing the outcome of disease.
If you’re interested in working with a Functional Medicine Doctor like myself, please book an appointment here.