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Understanding Functional Medicine

Understanding Functional Medicine: A root cause Approach to your Health and Wellness

Functional Medicine is the latest topic gaining prominence in health and wellness. Also increasing in popularity is integrative medicine, naturopathic medicine, and other forms of natural or alternative approaches to medical care. It can be difficult to understand the differences between all of these terms, and how to determine what type of practitioner you should choose for your healthcare.

We’re here to give you a clear understanding of the wide variety of terms in the holistic healthcare market. Armed with this understanding you can navigate the many offerings in the alternative health world and confidently choose the practitioner that is right for you.

Functional Medicine Defined

The Institute for Functional Medicine defines functional medicine as “a systems biology based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root causes of disease.” Functional medicine is focused on restoring the body to a state of health, rather than managing or suppressing symptoms. To do this, you have to figure out what systems are not working properly, how the poorly functioning systems are affecting other systems, and why the dysfunction happened in the first place.

Practitioners of functional medicine refer to this as a “root cause approach” to medicine. We are trying to find the root of what ails you, rather than giving medication, or even natural remedies that are only for symptom relief. The guiding principle is that the body is designed to heal and regenerate, and symptoms are valuable messages from your body trying to tell you that something is wrong. If instead of suppressing these symptoms, we investigate the root of where they are coming from, we can reverse the cause of the symptoms. Addressing the root cause of your symptoms gives the body an opportunity to return to optimal functioning.

How is Functional Medicine Different Than Conventional Medicine?

Function medicine has a lot of overlap with conventional medicine. They are based in the same understanding about how the body works, and how bodily systems are connected and work together. Where they differ is that conventional medicine is primarily a disease based model, and functional medicine is a health focused model. This means that in order to receive treatment in conventional medicine, you must have a disease process that meets set criteria, and is measurable through conventional means such as lab testing and imaging. If your symptoms are not able to be assessed and explained with conventional testing, you are often told “there is nothing wrong with you, we don’t know why you feel terrible all the time.”

Functional medicine takes a different approach. It looks deeper to find the root cause of your symptoms. A functional medicine practitioner may, or may not use specialized lab testing to gather more information about your symptoms, but we also investigate environmental causes, hidden infections, nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalances, chronic stressors and more. Functional medicine practitioners typically spend significant more time one on one with their patients, getting to know their health history and story of how they got to be where they are. There is often a lot of patient education involved as we unravel the WHY behind your symptoms, and help you make lifestyle changes to reverse them.

Conventional medicine tends to use medication, surgery, and other invasive methods as first line therapies. Functional Medicine considers these options only when they are absolutely necessary, and aims to use natural, less invasive treatment to restore the patient’s health.

Where does Integrative Medicine come in?

Integrative medicine is a term that implies that the practitioner is open to both conventional and alternative interventions. Physicians use this term to indicate that they are open to more natural therapies like supplements, acupuncture, or nutrition. Natural medicine practitioners use this term to let their patients know they are educated about conventional interventions are comfortable working with patients who have many types of care providers on their medical team.

In an ideal world all types of medical providers would approach patient care with an integrative mindset. A truly integrative approach means we examine ALL treatment options available, carefully examining the benefit versus risk of all interventions. Armed with this information we can help our patients make care decisions that will best serve their health.

Who can practice functional medicine?

It can be confusing to navigate the functional medicine world. This is because currently there is no official licensing for functional medicine. It’s a term used to describe an approach to medicine, rather than a specific degree.

Here are some practitioner types who commonly practice from a functional medicine perspective:

  1. Naturopathic doctors -Naturopathic doctors receive an education that is based in root cause approach. They are also educated about conventional medicine, and in some states are recognized as primary care physicians. Some go on to get additional functional medicine training after medical school. Look for a naturopathic physician that has attended a 4 year accredited medical program, rather than an unaccredited online degree program.

2. Licensed Acupuncturists/Doctors of Oriental Medicine-Acupuncturists receive two years of core science and Western medical training in addition to their Asian medicine training. Most accredited programs are 3-4 years in length, and licensure is dependent on passing national board examinations. The philosophy behind Chinese medicine is a functional perspective. The treatment is always aimed at restoring proper function, rather than suppressing symptoms. A licensed acupuncturist has many diagnostic methods to investigate root causes, and utilizes tools such as nutrition, lifestyle medicine, movement therapy, mindfulness, herbal medicine, and nutritional supplements in addition to acupuncture.

3. Physicians who have completed Additional Function Medicine Training – More and more MDs and DOs are pursuing additional training in Functional medicine to gain better tools to help their patients with complex, chronic diseases. Many are choosing to leave the conventional model and practice in a more holistic way. If you are seeking an MD or DO who practices a functional approach look for one who has completed additional training after their core medical education.

How Do I know which type of practitioner is right for me and my healthcare needs?

A great way to choose a care provider is to take advantage of their free introductory consults if they offer them. This is your chance to ask them questions about your specific condition. Ask them if they have worked with patients like you, what their approach was like, and what their patient outcomes were like. Look at their reviews from other patients. Asking for a friend for a referral for a practitioner who has helped them can also be a great way to find a quality practitioner. Look at education credentials and choose practitioners who are graduates from accredited medical programs.

We always recommend to our patients that you have a solid primary care physician. If you are not in a state where naturopathic physicians are able to be your primary care, seek out an MD or DO with functional medicine training if possible. At the very least, search for someone with an integrative approach who will be supportive or your decision to pursue other alternative therapies as you choose. T

The most important criteria is finding a practitioner who will listen, take the time to uncover your unique root causes, and empower you on your journey back to health.