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What Is Functional Medicine?


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What is Functional Medicine? It’s a method of healthcare—not “sickcare”—that emphasizes real connections between practitioners as patients, as shown here.

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? You’re about to get some answers to those very important questions. Consider yourself enrolled in Functional Medicine 101.

Functional Medicine is the future of medicine, plain and simple. Find out how it differs from the conventional medical model and why it’s our best weapon in the fight against chronic disease.

What Is Functional Medicine? And How Does It Differ from the Conventional Approach?

Imagine you’re on a boat, and the boat is leaking. You can bail water from the boat so it sinks more slowly, but if the leaks are still there, you’ll have limited success in trying to stay afloat. The conventional medicine approach is mostly focused on bailing water out of the boat without fixing the leaks. But wouldn’t it make more sense to prevent the leaks from happening in the first place, and then fix them completely if they do spring up? There might still be the need to bail some water initially, but if the leaks get repaired, the boat becomes steadied. Eventually, there’s no more bailing required, and the sailing—or living—can resume (and it may be better than before). This is what Functional Medicine is all about.

Of course, that’s just a broad-strokes picture. To help you better understand Functional Medicine, let’s move beyond the metaphor and further compare and contrast the practice with conventional medicine.

Functional MedicineConventional Medicine
Collaborative, patient-centered modelExpert, doctor-centered model
Biochemical individualityEveryone treated the same way
Relieves symptoms by addressing causeSuppresses symptoms with drugs
Preventative approachEarly detection of disease
High-touch and high-techHigh-tech

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. (1, 2)
  • Between 1988 and 2010, the number of older adults taking more than five prescription medications tripled, from 12.8 percent to 39 percent. (3)
  • More than 20 percent of children under the age of 18 take at least one prescription drug every month, including antidepressants and even opioids. (4, 5, 6)

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.) (7)

  • 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 I’ve 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 I call “high-touch,” as well as high-tech, tactics. If you’re my patient, I’ll 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.

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Why 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, I don’t think 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. (8)
  • Seven of the current top 10 causes of death are chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s and diabetes, and chronic disease is responsible for seven out of every 10 deaths each year. (9, 10)
  • 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. (11)
  • 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. (12, 13)

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 I’ve 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 me wrong—it’s incredibly effective in these instances; if I get hit by a bus, I 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.

Functional Medicine can stop the spread of chronic disease.

Find out How

Download this free eBook to learn how Functional Medicine successfully reversed chronic illness in five case studies.

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Why It Works: The Functional Medicine Pyramid

Functional Medicine can stop and reverse chronic disease. As I briefly mentioned earlier, practitioners almost always begin evaluation and treatment with the foundational layer 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. Cleveland Clinic has a waiting list thousands of patients long. And increasingly, more practitioners all over the country are discovering that Functional Medicine holds the real answers—and more healthy benefits—for their patients.

Functional Medicine 201: Your Next Steps

I hope this article has given you a good overview of how Functional Medicine can stem the rising tide of chronic disease and reinvent healthcare. And there’s so much more ground to cover. If you’d like to dig deeper, check out the resources below.

Prospective patients:

Prospective practitioners:

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  1. I forgot to add, this is why passengers on “vacation & retirement cruise liners” are called “cones” because their health provider has loaded them up with drugs, that slowed them down, and the boat crew find it faster to walk around the cones.
    I would love to go back to my GP for regular “Warrant Of Fitness” but they are authorized by the medical system to move you faster to the grave legally.

  2. Correction:
    Imagine you’re on a boat, and the boat is leaking. You can bail water from the boat so it sinks more slowly, but if the leaks are still there, you’ll have limited success in trying to stay afloat. The conventional medicine approach is mostly focused on bailing water and give you a water pump, this will overload the engine and run it longer, use up fuel faster and make the engine room hotter, you will have to go back to the conventional medicine doctor not long later to get a “fire extinguishers” due to items bursting into fire from the extra heat. Then you will have to go back to the doctor later for a bigger rubbish bin to hold all the ashes (I am sure you get the flow…what happens next) Drugs do not fix anything, they just move the problem somewhere else.