You may have been hearing recently about functional medicine and wondering what it’s all about. So let’s break it down, and then also define how it relates to the area of functional nutrition practice. The best way to understand functional medicine is to compare it to conventional medicine, which is the system we all know.
Most people are familiar with how conventional medicine works since we’ve lived with it our whole lives. You usually don’t go to the doctor until something is wrong and then the doctor tries to figure it out, much like a plumber looking for the leak. The tools your doctor has in his toolbox are medications, so at that point it’s a matter of selecting the right tool for the job.
When your issue is pretty straightforward and in your doctor’s wheelhouse, you will usually end up leaving with some standard advice or a prescription for a pill, gel or liquid that will make your symptoms go away and that’s the end of it. When it’s more complicated, you’ll be referred from one specialist to the next as each one has a very narrow scope of what he or she knows how to fix.
In conventional medicine, doctors are generally looking at individual parts or systems in order to put a common name on a problem and thereby know how to address it. This way of treating patients follows the acute-care model where symptoms are triaged to see what needs to be dealt with first, but this very reactive way of thinking fails to address more complex and often chronic health problems plaguing millions of Americans. Ultimately, it is an overly simplistic and outdated way of generalizing illnesses and moving people through the healthcare system as quickly as possible without focusing on maximizing individual health.
The Functional Medicine Framework
Functional medicine looks at the individual in a very different and personalized way. Functional medicine takes a “systems approach,” meaning that each person is not just a group of parts and symptoms, but a unique individual made up of many integrated systems working together. This holistic approach allows a practitioner to look at the interactions between genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors and how they can help determine the underlying cause of chronic illness or disease.
While the concept of a “holistic approach” in medicine may sound less than scientific, rest assured, it is rooted in science. After all, underlying conditions and dysfunctions in the body such as inflammation, gastrointestinal or oxidative stress aren’t usually confined to just one area, nor do they have just one cause. The best way to get to the bottom of the cause is to use the latest scientific evidence to investigate the interrelationships in our body functions. And while the disease-focus of conventional medicine has been ineffective at treating and preventing chronic disease over the last century, functional medicine is reconceiving this outdated system.
Still confused? Here’s a quick breakdown of some key differences:
Everyone is treated the same way
Diagnosis based on symptoms
Early detection of disease
Looks at underlying causes of disease
High touch/high tech
Courtesy of Institute for Functional Medicine, 2016
What is it like to work with a functional medicine practitioner?
Working with a functional medicine doctor or practitioner will probably seem different from what you are accustomed to. Functional medicine practitioners need to spend more time with their patients, understanding not just current symptoms, but also investigating their diet, lifestyle choices, activity level, genetics and environmental influences, among many other factors.
What is the Functional Nutrition Approach?
Every person is unique and understanding that is essential to investigating what imbalances may be the root cause of disease or dysfunction. Some imbalances can lead to a variety of conditions, where some conditions can stem from many different causes. At its heart, functional medicine is about restoring balance to the body and also the belief that health is not just an absence of disease, but a state of long-lasting well-being.
An integrative dietitian follows the same philosophy as an integrative doctor in that the goal is to provide a personalized, evidence-based and holistic approach to nutrition, health and healing. Integrative dietitians spend time with their clients working to understand the complexity of each person from their medical history, lab work, genetics and lifestyle pattern and habits. As a key player in the individual’s health-care team, their goal is to use food and supplements as necessary to promote optimal health and treat disease. “Food as medicine” is the guiding principle of the integrative dietitian and using the latest scientific research, they are able to customize plans for individuals that create balance for the mind, body and spirit.
Hyman, M.D., M. (Ed.). (2016). About functional medicine. Retrieved October 20, 2016, from Institute of Functional Medicine, https://www.functionalmedicine.org/What_is_Functional_Medicine/AboutFM/
Jones, M.D., D., & Quinn, S. (2016). Introduction to Functional Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.functionalmedicine.org/files/library/Intro_Functional_Medicine.pdf
Rabovsky, M., Cotey, S., Harris, A., Bar, J., 500, E.-R., & Nissen, S. (2014, September 17). Feel your best with functional medicine – health essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved October 20, 2016, from Cleveland Clinic, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2014/09/feel-your-best-with-functional-medicine/