What is Functional medicine?

Finding and treating the root-cause of chronic illnesses—instead of prescribing drugs to remove symptoms—might be the next wave in modern medicine.

stethoscope Integrative medicine, which draws from Eastern and Western practices for a well-rounded view of health care, has held the wellness spotlight.

But another approach called Functional medicine,  popularized by physicians like Frank Lipman, MD, and Mark Hyman, MD (and their best-selling books, Revive and UltraPrevention, respectively), has been generating buzz, and might just be an improvement on the integrative model. So what’s Functional medicine all about? We investigate.

The History

The concept of Functional medicine (FM) was created in 1990 by Jeffery Bland, PhD, a nutritional biochemist, who went on to found The Institute of Functional Medicine with his wife, Susan. Their nonprofit (and accredited) education center in Gig Harbor, Washington, trains physicians who must complete a week-long on-site course, 15 additional hours of on-site training and more, including an exam—tough, yes, but nothing like med school.

What’s Functional medicine all about?

“Functional medicine is the future of conventional medicine—available now,” says Dr. Hyman. It aims to find and treat the underlying causes of chronic conditions—from headaches and bowel issues to illnesses that don’t tidily fit a Western diagnosis.

Urban Zen Dr. Hyman, Lipman, Bland functional medicine panel
Doctors Mark Hyman, Jeffrey Bland, and Frank Lipman explain functional medicine at Urban Zen

At a recent Sustainable Wellness Conversation with Dr. Lipman at Urban Zen, Dr. Hyman noted that Western medicine is good at naming diseases or illnesses—”Ah, ha, you have diabetes, depression, or dizziness!”—and then prescribing drugs for the symptoms. But it often fails to explore their cause.

That’s where FM steps in, with a thorough root-cause health-and-diet analysis, and with patient and doctor working like detectives on a case to find the culprits. Dan Lukaczer, a naturopathic doctor and associate director of medical education for the IFM says that therapies may run the gamut from supervised detoxes (no sugar or wheat) to simple probiotics. Diet changes are common prescription.

When to use Functional medicine?

Western medicine is great in a health crisis, says Dr. Lipman, who also uses Traditional Chinese Medicine in his New York City practice.”If you’re having a heart attack, your appendix needs to come out, or you’ve broken a bone, I’m not going to give you acupuncture or Chinese herbs. But for chronic day-to-day problems, what works is Traditional Chinese Medicine, and a Functional medicine approach—getting your diet and sleep in a health-promoting place and having a stress-reduction practice.”

Who’s Functional medicine for?

Given that FM is about finding the roots of chronic problems and disease, it often attracts people who’ve been unable to find answers going a more traditional route. “Half of the people we see are mainstream people who’ve been beaten up in traditional medicine,” says Susan Blum, MD, an FM expert.

An FM practitioner is likely to spend a lot of time discussing your personal history and looking at things like your nutrition habits, how you deal with stress, and your emotional well-being. The only catch is the insurance issue: many MD’s who practice FM don’t take it, since insurance companies expect diagnostic codes and drugs. The good news? You can often make a big difference by being your own health detective and start cleaning up your diet, says Dr. Lipman. “Diet is source of more and more Western disease.” —Catherine Pearson

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