Functional medicine – getting to the root of the cause
We are experiencing a frightening rise in the number of people who suffer from such chronic diseases as cancer, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, diabetes and mental illness. Even more alarming is that mainstream medicine treats patients instead of healing them. Is there a way to reverse this dramatic trend? The answer is a resounding “yes.” This post is about functional medicine, which is often conflated with integrated medicine. Although functional medicine and integrative medicine have many things in common, they differ in a few areas. There is, however, one crucial distinction between the two. Functional medicine seeks to determine the root cause of each and every disease, particularly chronic diseases such as autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases as well as diabetes and obesity.
The future of medicine
Many physicians believe functional and integrative medicine are the future of medicine as doctors begin to take a more holistic approach when treating patients. Both are gaining in popularity and have been promoted by world-renowned healthcare practitioners such as Deepak Chopra, Mark Hyman and Dean Ornish. Integrative medicine is a holistic medical discipline that considers the patient’s lifestyle habits. Physicians treat a patient’s mind, body, and soul rather than just the disease to promote healing and well-being by prescribing treatments like acupuncture, yoga, and massage. Integrative medicine believes poor nutrition and exercise habits are the primary cause of chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity. So, how then does this differ from functional medicine?
Functional medicine shares much of the thinking of Integrative medicine but also employs a systems biology-based approach that focuses on identifying and understanding the root causes of disease. As each patient’s healthcare plan is unique, practitioners and patients form a partnership that provides buy-in from the patient for the treatment, thereby treating the individual instead of the disease. Instead of offering a simple diagnosis and then recommending drugs or surgery, functional- medicine practitioners conduct a comprehensive review of a patient’s history and biochemistry to determine why this patient is ill.
A variety of symptoms can contribute to an illness. Take depression, for example, which can be caused by inflammation and many other factors. The exact cause of a disease depends on the patient’s genes, environment and lifestyle. Consequently, to provide long-term benefits that go beyond suppressing symptoms, functional-medicine physicians only employ treatments that address the correct cause. Think of the dashboard warning-light analogy where your car is your body, and a mechanic is a physician. When a warning light comes on, you take your car to a mechanic to find out what’s wrong. Do you want him to extinguish the light or to find out and fix what made the light come on?
Functional-medicine practitioners believe in the importance of an individualized approach to understanding what causes diseases by exploring the patient’s nutritional science, genomics, and epigenetics. Every physician looks at a patient’s history to some degree. Functional medicine practitioners differ in that they use a timeline, which offers the patient a more in-depth look into past life events to motivate and encourage them to make the necessary changes. The timeline enables physicians to identify factors that “predispose, provoke and contribute to pathological changes and dysfunctional responses in the patient.” It can also reveal cause-effect relationships that reflect the connection between a patient’s entire life and current health today. These physicians examine all aspects that could impact the health of their patients, including physical, emotional, mental, societal and environmental factors. Moreover, they strive to establish an open dialogue to help foster an honest doctor-patient relationship. And finally, functional-medicine practitioners realize that your DNA doesn’t determine your destiny. New research has shown that environmental factors, attitudes, beliefs and experiences influence your gene expression – a field called epigenetics. When you take all this into account, you end up with a truly holistic approach to healing a patient. And that’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.