Joe dreamt of becoming a physician his entire life. When his dream was finally realized, he was beside himself! With the rigors of medical school, however, Joe developed some health troubles. He sought help for his newfound bloating, loose bowel movements, and fatigue with a gastroenterologist. The physician that saw him listened to his story, pushed on his belly, and diagnosed him with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, all within ten minutes. Medication was prescribed, visit was over. Case closed. Joe tried the medication but didn’t experience any improvement. He was frustrated with the care he received and didn’t know what to do. How could modern medicine, with all its’ advances, fail him?
Sarah suffered for years with frequent infections, anxiety, and acne. She was sick for as long as she could remember. One day, after realizing how sick and tired she was of feeling sick and tired, Sarah started researching. She read several articles and blogs, and felt that her symptoms might have all been connected. During her research, she came across the term “functional medicine” numerous times. She then found a practitioner that practiced this newfangled type of medicine and scheduled an appointment. After listening to Sarah for over an hour, the practitioner performed a thorough exam including labs and stool tests. One week later, Sarah received some interesting results: she had an overgrowth of bacteria in her small intestine, which caused significant inflammation throughout her body. Her practitioner felt that with dietary modification, herbal antibiotics, and stress management, her ailments would be successfully treated, and indeed felt that all of her symptoms were due to the single issue. Sarah was amazed, and a few months later began to feel like herself again.
So WHAT is this functional medicine stuff all about? The basis of functional medicine stems from the idea that chronic illness is secondary to a poor or inappropriate diet, inflammation, stress, or exposure to toxins, and that treating these issues can address a wide variety of ailments. Also, it is felt in the functional medical community that seemingly unrelated symptoms may be related after all. The approach is a detailed one: a functional medicine provider will take the time to divulge into all areas of your health to look for a connection causing most or all of your symptoms. This includes taking a thorough health history, performing a physical examination, and drawing labs, which sometimes include more than just basic blood tests (anyone up for a stool sample? C’mon.). How is this different from conventional medicine, you ask? Dr. Mark Hyman, a leading functional medicine practitioner explains it best: “Conventional medicine is the medicine of what– what disease do you have, what drug should I give you. Functional medicine considers the diagnosis, of course, but it also seeks to answer the question why.”
But is it really necessary to go into this much detail and look at each patient with a magnifying glass? What’s really wrong with treating problems as they arise? Well, for starters, chronic disease is bankrupting this country. In 2010, the U.S. spent a total of $2.6 trillion on healthcare, with $1.9 trillion spent on treating chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. These conditions all have roots in poor diet, inflammation, and toxin exposure, so wouldn’t it make sense to make lifestyle changes before disease sets in? James Madara, MD, who is the chief executive office of the American Medical Association states, “Today, for every one person admitted to the hospital, 300 more are seen as outpatients, most with chronic conditions. Caring for this new population requires an entirely different mindset.” I’m sorry, three hundred to every one patient being seen for lifestyle-related illnesses?? You BET it requires a different mindset! Not only is it important to try to prevent chronic disease, but if you end up with diabetes or heart disease, medications are often prescribed. These medications have many potential side effects (insert Charlie Brown’s teacher reading ongoing list of side effects here) and are, of course, not without risk. It seems obvious that putting down the cookies (Put. Them. Down.) and taking the occasional walk are going to be much lower risk for you long-term.
What kind of training is involved to become a functional medical provider? Though there is an Institute of Functional Medicine in Washington to provide training, practitioners do not need to obtain a degree from this institute to consider themselves functional medical providers. Physicians, chiropractors, mid-level providers such as Physician Assistants (holla!) or Nurse Practitioners, naturopaths, acupuncturists and more can be trained in some basic functional medicine courses to start practicing in such a way. There is no specific degree or certification involved. The benefit to this is that many of the laboratories that carry functional tests will accept orders from most types of providers, but the drawback is that many of these tests are not standardized. Significant research needs to be completed by individual providers to determine if the testing is accurate and appropriate for their patient population. Many providers are willing to put the time in, however, as day after day they see a need for a different type of care. Jeffry Gerber, MD, states,
Functional medicine addresses health hopefully before chronic illness sets in. Functional medicine is often ignored and misunderstood by mainstream. They didn’t teach us everything in medical school.”
When physicians are admitting that they don’t know everything, you know there’s a need for change! 🙂
So, remember Joe? After his frustrating diagnosis and lack of treatment, Joe started his own research. He came across a local functional medicine conference and signed up immediately. He learned that there were several dietary changes that might help him feel better and was shocked at the information available that wasn’t a part of his education in medical school. Once Joe became a full-fledged physician, he included detailed discussions regarding nutrition with his patients and created an account with a functional medical laboratory to perform more advanced testing than was available in mainstream medicine. Somewhere along the way, Joe gradually realized that his “irritated” bowel was no longer so irritated after all. Conventional medicine had failed him, but medicine in general had not- he just needed to look at things from a different angle.
Though functional medicine has been somewhat misunderstood, hopefully it will become more mainstream and accessible over time. Many mainstream providers consider it “quackery,” but obviously a change is needed from the traditional medical model. It’s easy to see that looking at the whole patient and how diseases are often intertwined will be beneficial, instead of only focusing on a single body system for treatment. It may not always be FUN to go to the doctor, but with FUNctional medicine as a potential future of healthcare, it makes it just a little more enjoyable.