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Having chronic health problems? Instead of seeing a regular doctor, consider going to a functional medicine doctor. The visit may not be covered by your health insurance. But, the benefits are likely worth it in the long run.
Functional medicine … sounds redundant, doesn’t it? After all, isn’t all medicine supposed to function? Unfortunately, not all medicine does work. In fact, prescription drugs kill more people these days than car accidents.
More than pharmaceutical drugs, the entire mainstream medical system is considered dysfunctional by some people. In light of this, functional medicine is becoming more popular.
An alternative to acute symptom care, functional medicine assesses why illness or dis-ease occurs in the first place.
What do functional doctors do?
Let’s use an example.
Suppose you have depression. A conventional doctor would prescribe an antidepressant. On the other hand, a functional medicine doctor attempts to find the root cause of the depression.
Here are some things this alternative doctor would look at in assessing the root cause of depression:
- History of antibiotic use
- Levels of Omega-3 essential fatty acids
- Blood level of vitamin D
- Thyroid gland function
- Blood sugar levels
Moreover, a doctor who practices functional medicine takes into account every aspect of the patient’s life. In other words, functional medicine doctors look at the whole person, in New-Agey speak. What this means is that in addition to analyzing diagnostic tests (such as neurotransmitter balance, vitamin D, thyroid function), a functional medicine doctor would ask you about your stress levels.
Do you have a stressful job? Do you take time to exercise? What kind of exercise and how often? What’s your diet like? Do you have solid relationships with friends, family and your spouse? What’s your sleep pattern? What products do you use to clean your kitchen and bathroom? Which self-care products do you use?
What is a functional medicine doctor?
These environmental and lifestyle factors can affect your health. They can lead to disease by turning on or off certain genes. However, conventional medicine doctors most often do not ask patients about their lifestyle or household cleaners, etc.
The study of genes turning on or off, (epigenetics), which may lead to disease, is one reason functional medicine is becoming increasingly popular. Or so says the Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM). A whitepaper by the IFM succinctly answers the question, “what is a functional medicine doctor.” The IFM definition: doctors that practice functional medicine ask how and why illness occurs. This type of doctor restores a patient’s health by addressing the root cause of illness on an individual basis.
In functional medicine, it’s believed that the body’s myriad systems are connected. Consider this analogy. Say you have an oil leak. A competent car mechanic runs a total inspection on your car. They don’t just fix the oil leak. Likewise, a doctor practicing functional medicine looks at you holistically.
Diagnostic tests in functional medicine
Let’s consider another example of how a functional medicine doctor works. Suppose a patient has recurring digestive problems. In addition to reviewing the patient’s medical records, this alternative medicine doctor would do several things, including:
- Instruct the patient how to do an elimination diet for gluten, dairy, soy, etc.
- Test the patient’s infection-fighting antibodies (IgA, IgG, IgM)
- Test the patient’s stool for parasites
- Run a diagnostic test to assess adrenal function
- Test for certain food allergies
Furthermore, alternative medicine medicine doctor seeks to find every root cause of inflammation in the body. Whether it’s toxicity, damaged DNA (oxidative stress), impaired cellular energy, functional medicine can explore a myriad of underlying conditions instead of fixing symptoms.
Why else has functional medicine become more popular?
According to the above whitepaper presented by IFM, almost 90 percent of all healthcare costs stem from chronic conditions (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.). For the most recent statistics available (2015) health care costs consumed almost 18% of the U.S. federal government’s budget. This amounts to over $3 trillion.
Clearly, the mainstream system of dispensing drugs to eliminate symptoms is not working. And, as stated above, this system has disastrous and deadly consequences. Opioid addiction and prescribing errors cause tens of thousands of deaths each year.
Functional medicine as a new medical paradigm is approximately 30 years old. It’s not easy to find out exactly how many doctors there are. However, it’s likely that more people are becoming interested in the field. These alternative doctors enjoy being able to rebuild a patient’s health without prescribing pharmaceuticals, if possible.
Say a patient presents with joint pain. A functional medicine doctor would work with the patient to eliminate foods that may promote inflammation, such as gluten. More people are aware of the risks of side effects from pharmaceutical drugs, including anti-inflammatory drugs. In light of this, functional medicine is becoming more popular.
Does functional medicine work?
It’s hard to point to any clear-cut data. The simple answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. But most of what a functional medicine practitioner does is analyze patient data. This data often can help provide underlying clues to why a patient isn’t healthy. Functional medicine doctors often run several diagnostic tests. There’s blood tests. Urine and saliva samples are also collected and analyzed. Moreover, conventional medical history and charts are also taken into consideration.
After collecting all the data, a functional medicine practitioner sifts through the medical clues, so to speak, in order to offer the patient a conclusion.
Again, it’s difficult to determine the overall effectiveness of functional medicine. However, if you do your own research and perhaps network with other people who have been treated with functional medicine, you can reach your own conclusion. If you’re able to locate a functional medicine doctor near you, ask the office if it’s possible to provide you with references. Because of doctor-patient confidentiality, that might be difficult. However, you can also check out reviews on sites like Yelp (like this alternative medicine center in San Diego, CA.)
Is functional medicine quack?
It depends whom you ask. Some symptom-chasing acute-care doctors and alternative-medicine skeptics (like this heavily-biased one) believe functional medicine is quackery. One critique of functional medicine is there’s not enough research to prove it works. But that doesn’t mean functional medicine does not work. Asking ‘does functional medicine work’ is like asking ‘does going to the doctor if you’re sick help? .’ Both modalities depend on the diligence and competence of the doctor.
A skilled and highly-competent medical doctor or physician is supposed to do much of what a functional medicine doctor does.
This includes reviewing the patient’s lifestyle, dietary and environmental influences. As well as reinforcing what changes the patient can make to encourage healing. Unfortunately, that is all too rare in western, conventional medicine.
It’s no wonder functional medicine is becoming more popular. Without doubt, some patients are happy popping a pill to, say, temporarily fix acid reflux. However, other people want to know why acid reflux occurs in the first place. A functional medicine practitioner in this case would assess the patient’s stomach acid levels. This type of doctor often recommends or dispenses a supplement to increase gastric juices. They may also analyze the composition of gut bacteria (good vs. bad) in the patient and dispense or recommend certain probiotics. If an acute-care physician believes this mode of healing is quackery, then so be it.
In short, more people are realizing they don’t want to be treated like another faceless number. Conventional doctors, in their defense, often don’t have the time to dispense holistic health advice. But functional medicine doctors have all the time in the world to get to know the whole you.
Functional Medicine Doctor: Is it Worth It?
Even if the philosophy of functional medicine resonates with you, keep in mind the cost factor. Some functional medicine centers do not accept health insurance. So you may have to pay out of pocket. But even if you have to spend several hundred dollars–if you can afford it and have to pay it–in the long run, a functional medicine doctor can save you money down the road. If the doctor is able to find the root cause of your imbalance and heal you, as well as educate you on how to prevent the imbalance from recurring, it’s possible you won’t develop a costly chronic condition such as cancer.