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What is functional medicine? It involves a whole new way of understanding, assessing, preventing, and treating chronic disease. It integrates a variety of science-based approaches to find and treat underlying imbalances in how the body’s systems are functioning. Practitioners focus on what’s unique about a patient and try to understand how genetics, environment, and lifestyle interact with the body’s systems to create dysfunction. Treatments are then tailored to change and restore how the body’s systems function.
What is Functional Medicine and How is it Different from Conventional Medicine?
Functional medicine is based on how the body’s systems are linked together and how their function is influenced by both the environment and genetics. Conventional medicine, in contrast, is based on compartmentalization into specialties. The conventional specialties are centered mainly on the body’s different organ systems (cardiology, endocrinology, neurology, etc). As Dr. Mark Hyman, an outspoken leader in functional medicine says, this conventional medical paradigm is based on “artificial divisions that are really an artifact of medical history.”
Functional Medicine Recognizes the Body’s Interconnectedness
Functional medicine breaks apart the artificial divisions and instead bases its view of health and disease on the reality that the body is really one integrated, whole system. For years now, researchers have been identifying and studying the underlying fundamental problems—like inflammation, oxidative stress, toxicity, or energy problems in the mitochondria—that are occurring across medical specialties. While these phenomena are well-recognized by researchers and even some conventional physicians, they are not being incorporated into the conventional medical model. Functional medicine is the bridge that connects these and other fundamental imbalances in the body’s systems to chronic symptoms and diseases.
The primary conventional approach to treating disease is to suppress the symptoms of the disease. For instance, if arthritis is triggering inflammation and pain, the solution is to block the body’s inflammatory response with anti-inflammatory drugs. If atherosclerosis is clogging important arteries, the solution is to surgically bypass the blocked arteries. If PMS is causing breast tenderness, depression, and other premenstrual symptoms, the solution is to suppress the normal monthly cycle using birth control pills.
Functional Medicine Seeks to Understand Why and Address the Cause
Functional medicine seeks to understand why these symptoms are happening in the first place. That knowledge is then used to change the triggers of illness—to address the fundamental causes of chronic disease. Things like toxins, infections, allergens, stress, and poor diet are all examples of these drivers of chronic disease. Within the functional medicine model is a unique methodology for identifying and addressing these underlying triggers. The treatments are based on treating the cause, which may be quite different for two people with the same disease. They involve providing the raw materials that create health (adding what’s missing) and removing the impediments to health (taking away what’s causing harm).
Who Practices Functional Medicine and How are They Trained?
Functional medicine is not limited to medical doctors but may be studied and practiced by any type of licensed healthcare provider including NDs, nurse practitioners, acupuncturists, nutritionists, and chiropractors.
The world leader in teaching functional medicine to healthcare practitioners is The Institute for Functional Medicine. This educational institute offers many programs, including an official certification program, to teach practitioners how to assess, treat, prevent, and manage patients with chronic disease. In order to take their courses in functional medicine through the Institute, healthcare practitioners must be a graduate of an accredited medical, osteopathic, chiropractic, naturopathic, homeopathic, nursing, dietetics, acupuncture, pharmacy, physiotherapy or nutritional therapy program. The Institute is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education to provide continuing medical education for physicians. The Institute has also begun training medical students and faculty in academic medicine, nutrition, and residency programs and at least 18 academic institutions are introducing functional medicine into their curriculum.
Key Conditions Treated By Functional Medicine Practitioners
Any chronic health issue in children or adults can be treated using a functional medicine approach. Whether you have already been diagnosed with a chronic disease or are still struggling to figure out what is causing your symptoms, a functional medicine practitioner can help. Examples of chronic conditions functional medicine practitioners treat, depending on their training and focus, include:
- Chronic symptoms of all types including fatigue, sleep problems, pain, weight issues, headaches, nasal congestion and allergies, skin rashes, poor memory and concentration, frequent colds, constipation
- Mood disorders like depression and anxiety
- Women’s health issues like PMS, infertility, menopausal symptoms, PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, and pelvic pain
- Men’s health issues like prostate enlargement, erectile dysfunction, and low testosterone
- Autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
- Neurological disorders like dementia, Parkinson’s, migraines, and autism
- Metabolic diseases like diabetes, prediabetes, and metabolic syndrome
- Cardiovascular diseases like high cholesterol, heart disease, hypertension, and atherosclerosis
- Hormonal disorders like hypothyroidism and Grave’s disease
- Gastrointestinal disorders like IBS, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, and GERD
What Does a Visit With a Functional Medicine Practitioner Entail?
Functional medicine practitioners generally spend more time with their patients than practitioners in the conventional medical system. Patients are usually interviewed at length and fill out questionnaires on a variety of topics. Laboratory tests of many types, including some less conventional test, are typically recommended to help determine which key biological processes are functioning normally and which are not. All the collected information helps the functional medicine practitioner determine the underlying imbalances and influences that have helped create the disease or dysfunction.
Key Therapies Used By Functional Medicine Practitioners
The functional medicine approach to treatment is focused on ameliorating dysfunctions in physiology and biochemistry that have resulted from interactions between an individual’s genes, environment, and lifestyle. The goal of treatment is to maximize functionality at all levels of body, mind, and spirit. Treatments are individualized and personalized in order to address each person’s unique genetics, diet, nutrition, environmental exposures, stress, exercise, and psychological and spiritual needs.
Therapies and treatment used by functional medicine practitioners will vary depending on the practitioner’s training and scope of practice in his or her state. Generally, therapies include tools from both conventional and integrative medicine and are based on clinical scientific research. Treatments may include combinations of nutritional supplements, herbal medicines, drugs, diets, detoxification programs, exercise, physical therapy, bodywork, acupuncture, spinal manipulation, counseling, and stress-management techniques.
The patient is always an active partner in whatever therapy is used and takes the leading role in changing his or her health. Multiple types of comprehensive therapies are typically recommended since the goal is not just to alleviate symptoms but to reestablish balance and functionality and to restore health.
Finding a Functional Medicine Practitioner
If you are interested finding healthcare professionals who are familiar with the concepts and approaches of functional medicine, you can use our online Directory Listings. In the Doctor or the Practitioner search box, just pull up Functional Medicine as a primary or additional practice specialty. Or, you can access the database of practitioners who have trained in functional medicine through the Institute for Functional Medicine. That database designates Certified Practitioners as those who have passed the Institute’s rigorous certification program as well as those who have completed their five-day foundational course.
This article was originally published in 2013. It is regularly updated.