What is Functional Medicine?
Not all conditions and diseases have clear causes. Chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, IBS, and chronic fatigue cannot be addressed through modern conventional biomedical approaches. Causes for others like high blood sugar may be known, but not all therapies work for all individuals.
This is where functional medicine comes in. It recognizes that no two people are ever the same. Every patient is a unique mix of innate, or genetic, factors, lifestyle choices and environmental influences. These combine in a highly complex set of interactions that can trigger the development of disease under the right conditions. Some have referred to functional medicine as a clinical approach to systems biology.
Functional Medicine in Practice
Functional medicine looks at the whole individual. Like naturopathic medicine, it offers personalized treatment plans based on the individual’s specific condition and needs. Both functional and naturopathic medicine also seek to understand the underlying cause of disease and chronic conditions and address them in a way that restores the body’s natural healing.
In practice, a doctor who embraces functional medicine recognizes two key facts about health and disease. The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) defines them as follows[i],[ii]:
- One condition can have many causes. Many factors can cause depression including antibiotic use, omega-3 deficiency, and low thyroid hormone levels.
- One cause can lead to many conditions. Inflammation in the IFM’s example has been linked to heart disease, depression, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.
A cause like inflammation doesn’t create disease overnight, like a virus or bacterial infection can lead to an immediate immune response and fever, nausea, and sinus congestion. Inflammation, for example, can exist but never be noticed, taking years for a condition to manifest. Which condition will manifest? That depends on the individual factors of genetics, environmental influences and lifestyle choices.
The way chronic diseases develop over time means one or more of the body’s systems experienced functional decline for an extended period. Along the way symptoms of the decline, but not the ultimate chronic disease, may appear. They may not. It’s what makes identifying a disease so complex. And it’s also what makes functional medicine’s individualized approach so effective.
A Proactive Approach to Health
Effective and individualized treatment plans require a partnership between patient and doctor. The functional medicine model requires trust and transparency between both parties. A relationship like this empowers the doctor to find the best and least invasive therapies; it empowers the patient to be involved and in control of healthcare decisions.
Sometimes nutritional therapies can remedy a condition. Other cases may require a simple lifestyle choice. Many require more involved approaches to address toxicity, hormonal imbalance, and chronic inflammation.
Patients often seek the care of a doctor who practices functional medicine to address chronic conditions conventional medicine does not have solutions. Regardless of a patient’s current condition and need, a doctor practicing functional medicine seeks to restore health, significantly improve, and, if possible, reverse the problems that lie at the root of the disease.
However, the approach offered by doctors of functional medicine suggests they may be able to help patients prevent disease.
By starting a relationship early through a routine annual check-up, patients can take a proactive approach to their health. They may also potentially identify risk factors early, including nutritional deficiencies, environmental and lifestyle choices which could have a negative effect in the long-term. It also allows patients to determine if the doctor’s personality and approach would make for a strong, long-term patient-physician relationship.
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