What Is Functional Medicine?
It’s true healthcare. Functional Medicine is a distinct medical model—separate and, as you’ll come to learn, vastly different from the conventional approach—one that promotes wellness and helps both prevent and treat chronic disease, the biggest health problem we face today. Although its concepts are not new, in this way, its approach is revolutionary.
Functional Medicine is the future of medicine.
That all sounds wonderful, you may be thinking, but how exactly does it work, and what does it look like in practice, for patients and practitioners?
Functional Medicine Is Health Oriented, Not Disease Oriented
Conventional medicine isn’t really healthcare—it’s disease management. Rather than optimize wellness through preventive and restorative lifestyle strategies, it focuses on managing illness once it has already occurred, primarily by suppressing symptoms with prescription drugs.
For example, if you have high blood pressure and you see a conventional physician, you’ll be given a drug to lower it. There’s rarely any investigation into what caused your hypertension in the first place. And even if lifestyle interventions are recommended, pharmaceuticals remain the primary treatment because the system isn’t set up to support you in those changes.
We can see this clearly in the following startling statistics:
Research suggests that more than half of all Americans take at least one prescription drug, with some estimates as high as 70 percent; many in this group regularly take between two and four medications.
Between 1988 and 2010, the number of older adults taking more than five prescription medications tripled, from 12.8 percent to 39 percent.
More than 20 percent of children under the age of 18 take at least one prescription drug every month, including antidepressants and even opioids.
Although there is certainly a time and place for prescription medication, there are several fundamental problems with basing our healthcare system almost entirely on drugs. (Not to mention, they’re expensive and add to the ever-ballooning cost of treating chronic disease conventionally, a figure that could top $47 trillion globally by 2030.)
Drugs rarely address the underlying cause of a health problem.
They don’t just mask symptoms; they also suppress bodily functions, including vital ones. Thus, they can actually worsen a problem over time.
Drugs often correct one imbalance by causing another, or several others, resulting in side effects. Often, the unintended effects of a drug far outnumber its intended effects.
By treating disease with medications that mask symptoms and cause side effects in the process, the conventional care model creates patients for life. Conversely, Functional Medicine promotes health. As Functional Medicine practitioners, we aim to prevent disease from happening in the first place, and when it does, we seek to reverse it completely by investigating and then treating its underlying cause. You can think of Functional Medicine clinicians as “health detectives.” We support patients to recover their functions, so they can “graduate” from care and get back to living their lives.
How? We don’t start by looking for diseases and syndromes and collecting the evidence of signs and symptoms, but rather by first evaluating a patient’s genes and environment, including their diet, lifestyle, air and water quality, and so on. Why? We know that our modern diet, lifestyle, and environment change the expression of our genes—changes that give rise to diseases and syndromes.
It’s Patient Centered, Not Doctor Centered
In Functional Medicine, patients are encouraged to play an active and engaged role in their treatment because we recognize that behavior is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, contributors to chronic disease. In contrast, in conventional medicine, the doctor is the “expert” who provides the answers, which the patient passively receives.
As we have already shared, Functional Medicine treats the patient, not the disease. But more importantly, it treats the individual patient. Functional Medicine is not a one-size-fits-all approach: patients with the same problem may get a completely different treatment based on the particular origin and development of their condition. In a conventional model, patients with the same diagnosis often get the same treatment, despite differences in their presentation—a treatment that may not work well for them.
In order to provide such individualized treatment, Functional Medicine uses what we call “high-touch,” as well as high-tech, tactics. If you’re our patient, we will talk with you in depth, listen to you, and learn about your background during our visits, something that’s not possible in conventional care where most practitioners spend their days working through a series of rushed, almost-scripted, 10-minute appointments, rarely able to go below the surface level of a health issue.
Functional Medicine Is Holistic, Not Specialized
In conventional medicine, there’s a doctor for every part of the body, but these specialists infrequently, if ever, consult with each other. That’s because conventional medicine actually views the body as a collection of separate parts.
In Functional Medicine, we see the body as it is: an interconnected whole within a larger environment. We recognize that this perspective is needed to uncover the interrelated causes of underlying disease and chronic illness and to find the right tools, at the right time, individualized for each person. To treat one part of the body, all other parts must also be considered.
Speaking of tools, Functional Medicine is integrative, meaning that it uses the best tools from both the conventional and holistic worlds. While we typically start our work with diet, lifestyle, and behavior modifications, nutritional supplements, and botanicals, we don’t rule out medications or even surgery when necessary.
We Need Functional Medicine.
We’re in the midst of a chronic disease epidemic.
It’s hard to overstate just how serious this problem is. In fact, we don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to suggest that our very survival as a species is at stake.
Six in 10 U.S. adults have a chronic disease, while four in 10 suffer with two or more chronic conditions.
Nearly six million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s, a number expected to reach nearly 14 million by 2050; the disease kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.
More than 100 million Americans—nearly one in three—have either prediabetes or diabetes, the seventh-leading cause of death, while some 50 million citizens have an autoimmune disease.
As is apparent from these numbers, chronic disease is now the biggest threat to our longevity. Conventional medicine can only manage this slow-motion plague; it can’t stop and reverse it. Indeed, as written before, it was never designed to. It was historically, and remains to this day, structured to address trauma, acute infection, and end-of-life care, not to keep people healthy. Don’t get us wrong—it’s incredibly effective in these instances; if we were to get hit by a bus, we would most definitely want to be taken to a hospital. But it is hardly a powerful weapon in our fight against chronic disease. Unlike acute problems, chronic diseases aren’t simply solved. They can’t be cured with conventional medicine’s Band-Aid approach, that is, drugs and other symptom-suppressing strategies that may not even bring relief, much less a resolution.
It’s important to note here that just as the conventional approach doesn’t promote health in its patients, neither does it foster wellness in its practitioners.
A growing number of clinicians who started in conventional medicine are making their way to a Functional Medicine approach because, to put it plainly, the current system leaves them feeling burned out. If you’re a conventional practitioner and you’ve experienced disillusionment in your work, you’re certainly not alone. But shifting to a Functional Medicine model will allow you to provide the high level of care that drew you to medicine years ago.
Why It Works: The Functional Medicine Pyramid
Functional Medicine can stop and reverse chronic disease. As we have briefly mentioned earlier, practitioners almost always begin evaluation and treatment with the foundation of the Functional Medicine Pyramid: diet, lifestyle, and environment. We start here because we know from clinical experience and research that these are the areas likely to have the biggest impact on the broadest range of conditions. We know from hard evidence that the mismatch between modern diet, lifestyle, and environment and our basic human biology is the primary driver of chronic disease. What our bodies need, biologically speaking, is not what our bodies get in the modern world. But when we align with these needs by consuming an ancestral diet and living a more ancestral lifestyle, our bodies respond—they heal.
That’s right, there’s science behind this approach, despite the pervasive myth that conventional medicine is “evidence-based” and Functional Medicine is not. Rest assured, if a Functional Medicine clinician tells you to reduce your exposure to artificial light in order to help manage your stress, reduce your risk of disease, or even address issues like diabetes and obesity, it’s because there’s research that supports that connection.
From Resistance to Revolution: Moving into the Mainstream?
Functional Medicine offers a methodology for addressing the root cause of chronic disease so patients can get well—and stay well—without unnecessary drugs and surgery. Sounds good, right? So why isn’t everybody already practicing this way?
The famous saying goes: “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” For a while, Functional Medicine was ignored. More recently, some large conventional organizations have issued statements about Functional Medicine, a sign that it’s gaining traction. Although it isn’t yet mainstream, many caregivers acknowledge this new medical approach as the self-evident solution to the current broken conventional model.
The success of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, where Dr. Mark Hyman is clinical director, has opened the eyes of many, including healthcare professionals who once doubted the potential of this medical model. The Cleveland Clinic is regarded as a prestigious medical institution, often on the forefront of the newest treatments, therapies, and diagnostic procedures.
But it’s not just “the experts” who are talking more about Functional Medicine; more patients who want their healthcare experience to be true healthcare are also seeking it out.