Introduction to Functional Medicine

Functional Medicine is a next generation specialized branch of medicine recently developed to address our nation’s growing healthcare needs in the 21st century. It is an approach to health and healing where the doctor checks for imbalances in a person’s individual body chemistry and organ functioning that can lead to or may have already led to a life altering chronic disease.

Chronic diseases don’t just happen overnight or out of the blue. They often result from prolonged exposure to chemical and functional imbalances in the body that go unnoticed or undetected for years before symptoms of the disease actually show up. When symptoms show up is when we tend to go to the doctor for help. These symptoms are what conventional medicine will address.

How often have you gone to a doctor when you felt “something was not right” and the doctor could find “nothing wrong with you”. What they mean is that they can find nothing to “treat” in the conventional way.
The Functional Medicine approach emerged as a way to help patients address these signs of body dysfunction with or without disease. These doctors help patients regain their health and well-being by identifying, reversing, or at least improving specific imbalances and dysfunctions in the body that have contributed to the risk of getting a chronic lifestyle related disease.

The basic philosophy of this branch of medicine is to identify and treat the root causes of disease. These clinicians pursue this goal by viewing the body as one whole integrated system, rather than a collection of independently operating organs. By shifting the currently held disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, functional medicine addresses the whole person, in addition to their particular set of symptoms.

 Functional Medicine treats the whole body as a system, not only the symptoms.

The Role of Functional Medicine

The current system of medical education trains most physicians to be symptom and disease oriented, focused on the diagnosis and treatment of traumatic and infectious conditions that need rapidly responding urgent care, such as appendicitis, heart attack or a serious head injury. The role of the physician then is to prescribe specific standardized treatments such as drugs, surgery, or technology based treatments developed to treat that immediate problem or symptoms.

Applying this framework alone to chronic lifestyle conditions, that a person deals with every day, is ineffective. This disease centered approach to medical practice has been of great value to society over the last 100 years by decreasing the death and disability of these types of diseases and injuries. It continues to have a valuable role in healthcare delivery today, but times are changing and we need to broaden our scope.
As a nation we are experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of people suffering from life altering chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mental illness, and autoimmune conditions like thyroid disorders and rheumatoid arthritis.

Most conventionally trained physicians have not been adequately prepared to assess the underlying causes of complex chronic diseases and to apply lifestyle therapy strategies like medical nutrition, stress management, and exercise to both treat and prevent these illnesses in their patients.

The role of Functional Medicine doctors is to help fill the gap between dysfunction and disease.

How Functional Medicine Differs from Conventional Medicine?

As the name states this branch of medicine focuses on how the body functions and what is causing it to function poorly (dysfunction). The goal is to optimize function whether or not disease is present. Functional medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease by:

1. Using a Patient-centered care model by engaging both patient and clinician in a therapeutic partnership. One emphasis of functional medicine is patient-centered care. Functional medicine practitioners spend time listening to their patients' histories and identifying the interactions between genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that contribute to long-term health and chronic lifestyle disease. Functional medicine practitioners tend to look for 3 things in the patient’s story;

  • a. what may have predisposed or set the patient up for the problem they are having
  • b. what may have triggered the problem
  • c. what is making it worse or better

This approach helps the clinician determine each individual's unique expression of disease risk, health and well-being. By actively listening to the patient and learning his or her story, the practitioner brings the patient into the discovery process and tailors treatments to address that individual patient’s unique needs.

2. Using an integrative, science-based and comprehensive systems-oriented diagnostic approach. In addition to a comprehensive history Functional Medicine doctors use various diagnostic testing techniques to determine and understand an individual's genetic predisposition, environmental and lifestyle risk factors for chronic disease. The doctor also seeks out prevention and treatment strategies for those risk factors as well as managing symptoms. 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. Functional medicine practitioners look at all these data as a complex web of interactions in the patient’s history, physiology, and lifestyle that can lead to illness and where effective changes can be made.

3. Integrating best medical and therapeutic practices. Functional medicine integrates conventional medical practices with healing strategies outside the scope of western medicine. These other strategies are sometimes called “alternative” or “integrative” medicine. Together they create a focus on prevention and or mediating chronic lifestyle conditions through use of the latest laboratory testing and other diagnostic techniques; and prescribed combinations of drugs and/or botanical medicines, supplements, therapeutic diets, detoxification programs, exercise, mind-body techniques and stress-management techniques.

A Summary of some Key Principles of Functional Medicine:

  • Each person has his/her own unique biochemical individuality made up of the interactions between their genetics, their environment, nutritional status, stress, emotions, and other lifestyle factors.
  • The focus of care is on the patient who has the disease – not mainly on the disease that the patient has.
  •  No organ system in the body functions in isolation; there are web-like connections between all the systems in the body, including the mind and spirit.
  •  Understanding and treating the underlying cause of dysfunction and disease is much more effective than simply treating the symptoms of the disease.
  • True health is experienced as a sense of vitality and energy; not just the absence of symptoms of disease.
  • Focus is on restoring health and function, not just controlling symptoms.

The Core Imbalances Contributing to Illness

There are several core imbalances that the Functional Medicine practitioner may check during the assessment of a patient. The types of dysfunction we look for relate to:

• hormones and neurotransmitters imbalances
• energy production disruptors
• detoxification ability
• food digestion, absorption and elimination effectiveness
• the immune system’s strength and responsiveness
• the level of inflammation in the body
• structural imbalances all the way from the cell membranes to the muscles and bones.

Who Could Benefit From a Functional Medicine Approach?

Functional Medicine is a good approach for

1. Healthy people who want to optimize their health and well-being by learning about their risks and strategies to hold chronic lifestyle diseases at bay
2. People who are living with the following conditions, who want to stop chasing symptoms, and want to improve the quality of their lives

Many chronic disorders can be effectively treated and managed with a Functional Medicine approach.

Some include, but are not limited to:
• Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
• Adrenal Fatigue
• Anxiety
• Arthritis (Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis)
• Asthma
• Autism
• Asperger’s Syndrome
• Candidiasis (Yeast overgrowth)
• Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
• Cardiovascular Disease
• Depression
• Diabetes Mellitus
• Eczema
• Fatigue (Generalized)
• Fibromyalgia
• Food allergies
• Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
• Headaches
• Hypertension
• Inflammatory Bowel Disease
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome
• Insomnia
• Menopause
• Metabolic Syndrome
• Obesity
• Osteoporosis
• Perimenopause
• Sinusitis
• Vitamin and mineral deficiencies

What to Expect during the Clinical Evaluation

The clinical evaluation also includes a very complete history, physical examination, and when indicated, choosing specific tests on blood, urine, stool, and /or saliva in order to get more detailed information about that particular individual’s key imbalances.
Treatment plans are designed for each patient based on all the information gathered from the comprehensive evaluation. The foundation of Functional Medicine therapeutic tools and treatment plans includes diet and nutrition, supplemental vitamins, minerals, and herbs, stress management, exercise, in addition to appropriate standard medications as needed.

What is Your Role?

Find a Functional Medicine Doctor like Dr. Johnson in your area.
Begin to think about what you want or need to improve about your health or condition. This will help you partner with your doctor in setting, monitoring and achieving your health and wellness goals.
Be ready and willing to actively participate in informing and following the recommendations made to improve or enhance your health.