This will be the first of many articles that dives into the world of Functional Medicine (FM). Most of my articles will be about concepts that demonstrates this approach to optimize health and well being. Today, I’ll start broad and discuss the practice of FM in general.
If you missed this post, I explained how I became interested in FM.
What is Functional Medicine?
Functional Medicine is “a personalized, systems-oriented model that empowers patients and practitioners to achieve the highest expression of health by working in collaboration to address the underlying causes of disease.” (Click HERE for more info) Or, as I like to say, it’s approaching health by assessing our body’s basic functions, and doing what can be done to make those functions work better. An example is digestion. If digestion is not working properly, nutrients will not be extracted from foods and absorbed into the body. Without adequate nutrient levels, the body cannot do what it needs to do like repair damaged tissues, produce blood cells, produce hormones and neurotransmitters, etc.
What causes our body to not function optimally?
The human body is an amazing and complex machine. It is able to adapt to a wide variety of both internal and external stressors. Living is stressful on our bodies. Moving, eating, breathing, even thinking places demands on the body that requires producing energy, eliminating waste products, and repairing damage to every single cell in our body. In order for the body to do all of this properly and efficiently, certain needs must be met. Additional stressors increase these needs and makes them even harder to meet. To answer the question above, a lifetime of not giving the body what it needs and exposing it to stressors interferes with its ability to function optimally.
How can Functional Medicine Help?
The goal of FM is to identify modifiable factors that are affecting the body’s ability to function optimally. There are two sides to this equation. One side is providing what it needs to function properly. Examples are adequate vitamins and minerals, water, sleep, emotional support, etc. The other side is reducing stressors that are burdening the body. Examples are excessive sugar intake, toxic relationships, chemical exposure, food intolerance, alcohol intake, tobacco use, and drug abuse.
Once issues are identified, the FM practitioner will work a person to formulate a plan to help balance the equation. This can involve specialized diets, nutritional supplements, physical activity, and stress reduction strategies.
Much of this can be addressed by the FM practitioner and the individual, but at times it can take a team approach. FM practitioners will often recommend health professionals such as counselors and therapists. Also, some conditions require conventional medical interventions in addition to the FM approach if their injury or illness is too severe or unstable for FM alone.
How do Functional Medicine practitioners identify issues?
The first step in assessing someone is a comprehensive history and current state of health. There are questions about the person’s past medical history, family medical history, recent blood tests, and how they’ve been feeling lately. This information provides clues about what areas need further investigation and other tests can be ordered like blood tests, urine analysis, etc.
For instance, it is very common for people with chronic health conditions to also have signs of digestive dysfunction. This may lead the practitioner to order specialized testing to evaluate that system to help identify what can be done to make it work better. Or, it may lead to the practitioner suggesting a specialized diet to remove foods that might be causing problems. There are entire books devoted to this topic, but click the following link from the Arthritis Foundation to read about a few examples of foods that not only can cause digestive issues, but also cause inflammation that may lead to problems elsewhere in the body. 8 Food Ingredients that Cause Inflammation
If you ask most practitioners if they are trying to treat the root cause of a health problem, they’ll probably say of course. However, this is not the conventional model. When high blood pressure is caused by poor sleep, excessive caffeine and nicotine intake, and mineral deficient diet, treating with a blood pressure reducing medication is not treating the root cause. With that said, if a person is unwilling to make the changes necessary to correcting those root causes, then the medication is probably a good idea. However, I’m not sure if everyone is given that chance.
Keeping with the high blood pressure example above, I want to make the case for why Functional Medicine is the ideal approach. The first step would be to identify factors that could be leading to the problem. The person may be aware of these but not motivated to change anything. However, some people often do not relate one thing to the other. It is the FM practitioner’s job to help identify and encourage people to change what can be changed. Additionally, specialized testing can be done to identify problems that are not so obvious. A comprehensive nutritional assessment such as the Nutraval Test (click here for sample report) can be done to expose deficiencies that require supplementation.
Let me be clear. This approach is not treating the high blood pressure specifically, but addressing factors that may be interfering with the body’s ability to function properly leading to the high blood pressure. The nice thing about this is, by helping the body function better, it may have other health promoting effects. Reason being, for the same reason issues with the body’s basic functions are eliciting the high blood pressure, it may be causing other problems as well (either realized or not). Instead of using the blood pressure medication to “hide” the abnormal finding, it’s better to use that finding as a clue that something is not quite right. The old analogy is, “if the temperature gauge on your car lights up, do you try to find out why it’s overheating, or do you cover the light with a piece of black tape so you can’t see it?”
Let me also be clear that medications are necessary at times. Some people are not ready to change. If that’s the case, medications can help reduce the chances of complications due to this choice. Also, it’s not always possible to find the root cause or change the root cause because it is beyond modification such as genetics, permanent injury, tissue damage, etc. For instance, someone that has had their thyroid gland removed due to cancer will not produce thyroid hormone and therefore will always require a medication to supply it for them.
Long term outcomes vs. short term relief
Long term good health is the goal of the FM practitioner. This is why it’s important to try and identify root causes of poor health and work to fix those causes, even if it takes time. And, it can very well take some time. Often health issues are caused by years, and even decades, of poor health habits. Correcting issues is half the battle. The other half is giving the body time to heal itself once those issues are corrected. Also, things can be very complicated. People can have multiple issues complicating things, or issues that are difficult to identify. For this reason, FM can be a process. It may take addressing one major issue at time in those that are in poor health or have chronic illnesses. No matter the situation, both practitioner and patient needs to be patient and commit to the long haul.
So, to sum all of this up:
- Life is hard on the body. We often make it even harder. This can cause things to break down and not work properly.
- The goal of Functional Medicine is to identify what’s not working properly, why it’s not working properly, and formulate a plan to change what can be changed to give the body more of what it needs and less of what it doesn’t need.
- Medications can be lifesavers, but the Functional Medicine approach aims to address the root cause of health issues and optimize health.
- When it comes to health, go long. Don’t sacrifice short term relief for long term complications. Good health requires consistency in following health promoting behaviors.
If you think the Functional Medicine approach is right for you, send a message to me by clicking on the link here: CONTACT DR. TOUCHINSKY
Feel free to ask questions about the approach. If you’re interested in setting up a consultation, let me know and you’ll be added to our wait list and will be sent more information about the intake process including costs, etc. Just please note that there’s limitations on how much I can answer about your specific health issues without doing a proper intake, examination, etc. I just wanted to be clear about that before someone sends me a novel about their problems.
Continue to follow this blog, my Twitter account @DrTouchinsky, or my practice Facebook page for more articles like this one. In upcoming articles, I hope to go into more detail about specific root causes, the specialized tests used to identify these causes, and treatment approaches.
Thanks for reading,
Buddy Touchinsky, D.C.