If your foot hurts because you have a rock in your shoe, pain medicine may help, but the best solution is to take the rock out of your shoe…
In conventional medicine there’s a doctor for every different organ system: cardiologists for the heart, pulmonologists for the lungs, gastroenterologists for the digestive system, neurologists for the nervous system. When disease states are thought of in these separate silos it’s easy to miss the bigger conclusions that come from zooming out and considering the whole person. While the conventional model excels at naming and categorizing groups of symptoms into diagnoses, it doesn’t help us uncover the root cause of the symptoms, especially when a single root cause manifests across numerous body systems.
In Functional Medicine we see the body as an interconnected whole in constant interaction within a larger environment. The conceptual divisions of body systems that helped us learn and understand the body in medical school are only the first step, and we need to move beyond them if we want to reverse disease rather than simply manage it. Functional Medicine uses advanced diagnostic workup to look at underlying phenomena that occur across organ systems (inflammation, oxidative stress, toxicities, infections, cellular energy problems, etc.) in order to understand the root cause of disease and find treatments that are individualized for each person and their environmental milieu.
Some of my patients ask if they should start a Statin to manage high cholesterol. In some cases a Statin may be useful, especially if the patient’s cholesterol is attributable to genetics alone. Advanced testing helps Functional Medicine doctors figure out exactly which cases these are. In other cases the patient may be able to lower their cholesterol by figuring out why their cholesterol is high in the first place and fixing the root-cause. Sometimes high cholesterol is due to a low lying infection like a parasite that the patient doesn’t know that they have, a toxicity like high stored levels of lead in the body, a problem with the microbiome like too few good bacteria or pathogenic species of bacteria living in the colon, or an underlying thyroid or adrenal disorder. When we identify and treat these issues the cholesterol usually gets better by itself. Either way, my patient gets an unbiased, evidence-based assessment of risk and benefit so they can participate in the conversation and we can make the right decision for them together.
Functional Medicine also shines at identifying a common cause of seemingly unrelated symptoms in different body systems. Let’s take the example of a child with new-onset behavioral problems and developmental delay, chronic constipation and severe eczema and flairs of hives. In the conventional model this child would be sent to at least three different specialists and given numerous, unrelated diagnoses. In Functional Medicine we would use the clues provided by these symptoms to think of and test for problems that could explain all of them. We may reveal that the child has been exposed to high levels of Arsenic from rice milk and needs to have it removed from his body, that he has bacteria growing in the small intestine, or that he was bitten by a tick and is carrying a tick-borne infection. Once we identify the root cause, we can fix one root cause rather than managing multiple diagnoses.
Functional medicine is patient-centered, health-oriented and holistic where conventional medicine is doctor centered, disease-oriented and specialized. Functional Medicine looks at the underlying cause of disease and considers biochemical individuality while conventional medicine tends to make diagnoses based on symptoms which guide them to treat everyone the same way. Conventional medicine is concerned with early detection of disease, but Functional Medicine tries to prevent disease, which leads to significantly more cost-effective care. Functional Medicine doesn’t wait until you’re in the red to treat you, it strives to turn you back around to the green when you’re in the yellow. The length of the patient visit is usually much longer in Functional Medicine, giving the doctor more time to really get to know their patient.