What is Functional Medicine?

Functional medicine is a systematic, science based approach to evaluating and addressing health and illness. It is patient-centered meaning the patient, and not a specific disease or illness, is at the core of the evaluation. Through an in depth look at an individual’s history, genetics, lifestyle, functionality, and laboratory work we attempt to uncover the root causes of one’s illness or disease. Then, using a combination of lifestyle modifications, nutritional therapy, supplements and medications these root causes are addressed to help restore and optimize health. One can think of a functional medicine specialist as a health detective trying to find and reverse the hidden causes of dysfunction within your body. A key question for the functional medicine practitioner is “Why?”  This question guides our ongoing exploration and pushes the practitioner to dig deeper to find the causes of dysfunction and hunt for the latest research for new and innovative treatment modalities.

The Age of Personalized Medicine

We are living in an exciting time in health care. The rise of new technologies, the expanding knowledge about genetics, epigenetics, and the microbiome, the ability to rapidly share knowledge and the increasing awareness of the importance of lifestyle, nutrition and environment have ushered in a new age of medicine. This is the age of personalized medicine where we no longer treat a patient based on a particular disease but rather based on his or her individual biochemistry, genetics and life history. Functional medicine is the system through which we can deliver this personalized medical approach.

How Does Functional Medicine Differ From Conventional Medicine?

Our current model of health care is a disease based model. The health care provider tries to elicit a history of various symptoms and uses these to classify a patient with a specific disease or illness. For example, if you have gas, abdominal cramping, diarrhea and a normal colonoscopy then you may be diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. This disease is then treated with prescription medications with the goal of stopping or decreasing the symptoms of the disease. This conventional model works extremely well for acute illnesses such as pneumonia, appendicitis, and heart attacks. Diagnosing these conditions allows prompt intervention and treatment that is lifesaving. However, this model does very poorly at treating complex disease processes, preventing chronic illness, and at addressing how one may optimize his or her health.

Functional medicine uses a health based model rather than a disease based model.  In a health based model our goal is to restore and optimize function (physical, metabolic/physiologic function, cognitive, and behaioral/psychiatric function).  To do this we seek to identify root causes for dysfunction and then correct these imbalances.  This allows us to address the complexities of and help reverse chronic disease. Let’s take the example of irritable bowel syndrome from above. Instead of giving a medication to slow gastric motility we ask why are these symptoms of increase gas, abdominal pain and diarrhea present. We may discover that there is low stomach acid which in turn has led to an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, SIBO. These bacteria produce gas which causes bloating and change intestinal motility. We may find that there are food sensitivities that are contributing to distress. There may be a mental stress component is contributing to symptoms through the gut-brain axis, and so on. By addressing each of these causes we can correct and eradicate the symptoms.