What is Functional Medicine?

The medical lingo is constantly evolving and it is no wonder that many people have a difficult time ascertaining the difference between functional, anti-aging,  regenerative, metabolic, integrative, complimentary, alternative and holistic medicine!

I have yet to come up with an elevator speech one line answer to the question “What is functional medicine?” However, with the forum of this new website, I hope to explain the differences in the terminology that one might hear and provide guidance as to the most appropriate path for healing and overall well being.

The term “traditional Western medicine” reflects the current curriculum that is being taught in medical schools today and is the basis of my training. I have a great deal of respect for this medicine and it remains the solid foundation upon which I give advice. The term “traditional” could be debated as most traditional paths of medicine in previous centuries had some form of “holistic” care to the regime.  However, we all recognize that the standard of care is scientifically evidence-based randomized double blind clinical trials. Functional medicine is also science based, however takes a more “holistic” viewpoint of ones’ health status.

Functional medicine looks at the “whole” person, hence the term holistic is appropriate. A functional medicine practitioner looks at the physical, mental, and spiritual health of the individual. There is an understanding that there are many determinants of health. Therefore, we look at the influence of genetics, nutrition, exercise, stress management, environmental toxicity, relationships and support, past traumas and unintegrated emotional events, infections, immune and inflammatory triggers, all with the potential to influence current health status. These need to be understood if we want to optimize health for the future as well as deal with any present day concerns.

Once the inputs or determinants of health are understood, functional medicine then looks at all of the different physiological systems in the body and how they are affected. Hormonal balance, detoxification pathways, gut health, brain optimization, genetic predispositions, energy production and mitochondrial health, immune regulation, and inflammatory pathways. The functional medicine matrix (see below) is a very good way to visually understand these relationships.

I like to think of the analogy of a building to describe the relationship between functional medicine and Western medicine. Western medicine is the main floor. It provides the entrance and all of the different disciplines are on that floor. However, every department, just like a hospital has its own distinct geography and expertise and rarely do they interact with each other. Functional medicine rides the elevator. It has the ability to go down to the basement and look up and try to understand the root causes of the problem and how the different systems interact with each other. It also has the ability to go many floors above and look down and get a birds eye view of how external factors outside the departments are affecting the persons health. Functional medicine isn’t external to Western medicine. It too, is based on scientific evidence, but the perspective and systems integration is different than what is currently being taught. Fortunately, Functional medicine is gaining more attention in traditional academic circles. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that functional medicine patients had better quality of life scores than non-functional patients in the management of chronic disease. (reference below).

Now, onto the other terms. Alternative medicine, is outside of the scope of Western medicine. Well respected examples of this would be Traditional Chinese Medicine and Naturopathic medicine. However, it could also apply to other healing modalities such as homeopathy, Reiki, crystal and light therapy and any therapy that is outside of the Western medicine doctrine. Complimentary medicine is meant to include any therapy that is felt to augment Western medicine. An example, could be Osteopathy as a powerful way to help musculoskeletal imbalance, but through non-traditional means.

Integrative medicine looks at any combination of healing modalities with Western medicine. For example, I studied Chinese medicine and Functional medicine and I combine those with my Western medicine practice. Therefore, I also practice Integrative medicine.

Anti-aging is meant to describe the practice of looking at the determinants of the aging process and then optimizing and harmonizing the body to effectively age gracefully. These are taught in the functional medicine curriculum as are metabolic medicine and regenerative medicine.  In fact,  the Institution where I took my training in Functional Medicine is called the American Academy of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine.

I know it can be confusing, but the aim is the same! Get to the root cause of the problem, understand how all of the systems communicate with one another, order appropriate Western and Functional medicine labs and effectively put together an integrated treatment plan to not only heal the current area of dysfunction but create a path to optimal health! This takes time and rarely solved by just a medicine. It requires the buy-in of the client to want to seriously affect change, which can often mean lifestyle changes and involve complimentary therapies. It takes time to alter the course that may people are on in our fast-paced, overly stressed, chaotic world. If this feels like an approach that you would like to undertake, then welcome  and hopefully I can guide you on a path to a more fulfilled and healthy life.