What Is Functional Medicine? Here’s Why It’s Worth a Deeper Look

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Functional medicine is a form of care that addresses underlying bodily dysfunctions and health conditions with holistic treatments, such as diet and lifestyle adjustments, as opposed to conventional methods, like the use of medication as prescribed by your doctor.

Functional medicine recognizes that everyone’s biochemistry is unique, and that symptoms of disease may manifest differently for different people. As a practice, the care extends beyond the physical to address both mental and emotional well-being. Is functional medicine legitimate? Experts say it fuses several therapies with a holistic approach as a effective form of health care.

Experts In This Article

When comparing functional medicine to conventional medicine, you might see that the former is a well-rounded approach.

Here’s more about functional medicine as an alternative treatment method, including when it might be advantageous to explore your options with your doctor.

What Is Functional Medicine?

By focusing on a person's specific bio-individuality and health, functional medicine develops treatment plans—which might include supplements, along with other natural therapies and dietary protocols—to improve illness and better manage symptoms as well as increase health and happiness.

“For example, if someone has chronically high cortisol levels (the body's main stress hormone) we'd focus on incorporating meditation, breathwork, and other mindfulness practices in order to alleviate stress and bring down cortisol levels,” says leading functional medicine specialist Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, and author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and Intuitive Fasting ($66).

“Or if someone is dealing with gut dysfunction, we would incorporate more bone broth, probiotics, and other gut-healing food medicines,” says Dr. Cole. Functional medicine is commonly used with patients requiring treatment for three health conditions: gut disorders, autoimmune disorders, and hormonal imbalances.

For treatment of gut disorders: “I see this a lot with patients, as ultimately, microbiome imbalances and gut barrier permeability, which may result due to an unhealthy diet, toxin exposure and stress, can lead to a cascade of chronic inflammation in the body,” says Dr. Cole. And chronic inflammation is a root and underlying cause of many health conditions and diseases, too.

Plus, understanding that gut complications and chronic inflammation are to blame can be tricky, especially if the symptoms aren’t in line with more typical warning signals. “While some people can have typical symptoms of digestive distress, like constipation or bloating, for others their symptoms manifest through autoimmunity and other problems,” Dr. Cole explains.

For treatment of autoimmune disorders: In some cases, the immune system has to destroy a significant amount of tissue, such as tissue found in the brain, gut, or thyroid, in order to receive an official diagnosis for an autoimmune disorder.

“For example, there has to be 90 percent destruction of the adrenal glands to be diagnosed with Addison’s disease (a disorder in which the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones), and there also has to be severe destruction of the neurological and digestive systems in order to receive a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) and celiac disease, respectively,” Dr. Cole explains.

These disorders don’t happen overnight and you can be on the low end, with some reactivity, in the middle, with significant symptoms, but are still unable to be conventionally diagnosable, or at the end stage. Functional medicine works to prevent hitting that final stage, where such a root cause is diagnosable prior and lifestyle and dietary tweaks can mitigate symptoms and offer relief a lot sooner (as well as prevent future damage).

Autoimmune diseases present themselves most visibly as being the end stage of inflammation, which Dr. Cole writes about extensively in his book, The Inflammation Spectrum ($17), if you’re interested in exploring how functional medicine can address autoimmune disease and other kinds of gut health disorders.

For treatment of hormonal imbalances: Your hormones are the chemical messengers of your body, and they send specific instructions to every organ, to affect various factors, like your mood, energy levels, weight, digestion and appetite suppression and more.

“Hormone imbalance again is often tied to chronic inflammation triggered by stress, toxin exposure, or gut dysfunction and when your hormones are out of whack it can translate into a variety of health problems, since they control so many areas of your health,” says Dr. Cole .

How Functional Medicine Is Used as a Treatment or Therapy

In order to address your symptoms and identify the root cause, a functional medicine physician would require testing and request a lab report to look at the patient’s hormone levels, inflammation levels, nutrient deficiencies and microbiome imbalances, in order to get a full picture of what’s happening beneath the surface, as part of a holistic approach. Then, they’d look at the patient’s lifestyle and habits, by having them fill out dietary questionnaires, stress assessments, and other means of evaluation to see which factors might be contributing to their health problems.

“By putting all of this data together we are then able to tailor a plan that includes natural supplements, dietary protocols—eliminating some foods, focusing on others—and other lifestyle adjustments to best address poor sleep, toxin exposure and stress levels,” says Dr. Cole.

“Ultimately, we see poor health as a collective result of little changes that have built up over time, which can be put into remission by ‘working backwards,’ replacing anything that is missing and getting rid of anything that might be triggering symptoms,” he says.

Again, a person's specific biochemistry will determine which dietary and lifestyle changes or natural supplements they’d most benefit from. “Our goal with functional medicine is to facilitate the body's own ability to heal and restore, which can lead doctors to either eliminate medication entirely or gradually decrease dosage,” Dr. Cole explains.

Functional Medicine vs. Conventional Medicine

According to Dr Cole, conventional medicine "aims to manage symptoms through medication rather than address the root cause of why someone is experiencing symptoms in the first place, and it often ends up as a band-aid for many individuals without any real healing or resolution." Now, that's not to say medication or surgery is never the answer. In fact, there are many times when one or both are necessary for reducing symptoms and fixing the underlying cause of an illness.

“However, functional medicine aims to choose the option that has the least amount of side effects and that more often happens to be diet, natural supplements, and lifestyle changes, with common health problems that benefit from its use being autoimmune conditions, hormone imbalances, and gut dysfunction,” says Dr. Cole.

Functional medicine is not meant to take the place of conventional medicine. “For example, if you are struggling with a bacterial infection you might need to take an antibiotic,” says Dr. Cole.

“Another example for utilizing conventional medicine would be in cases where surgery is necessary, such as removing a tumor,” says Dr. Cole. Utilizing both functional medicine and conventional medicine might be the best solution in some cases, but it's important to listen to your doctor in order to make an informed health-care choice

Functional Medicine Benefits

While there are many benefits to functional medicine, the top three include safety and fewer incidence of adverse side effects, preventative benefits in exacerbating health conditions and symptoms for the future, and its credibility as being evidence-based, based on the availability of research to back up claims and support its use, as a natural therapy with a holistic approach.

Safety and fewer incidence of side effects: “Treatments have mild or no side effects, and other unrelated complaints often improve, whereas medication can have a long list of side effects,” says Dr. Cole. “And since we are focusing on natural remedies, based on scientific lab work, there aren't ever really the same type of side effects that are found with medication,” Dr. Cole explains.

If there are any side effects, they are mostly mild and often have to do with the body's natural healing process. “For example, if you've ever cut out caffeine cold turkey, you might experience headaches until your body gets used to not having caffeine anymore,” says Dr. Cole. The same goes for a lot of things in functional medicine, where you might experience some "detox-like” withdrawal symptoms.

According to Dr. Cole, these side effects might pop up initially, as you cut out certain foods or introduce natural supplements into your diet and lifestyle to effectively target negative bacteria in the gut and both prevent and reduce yeast overgrowth and GI discomfort or any other related symptoms.

Preventative measures for long-term benefits: By making long-term, sustainable changes, functional medicine is able to prevent future body dysfunction and prevalence of symptoms, whereas conventional medicine aims to intervene only after your health has already been affected and worsened. And so, you’re now in need of medication to fix the damage.

“Ultimately, no one wakes up with a chronic disease overnight, and you are always either trending toward sickness or health,” says Dr. Cole. “Most people wouldn't argue that eating pounds of sugar everyday is going to lead to cardiovascular problems and diabetes and that eating vegetables is going to minimize your risk for these problems, and this is what we are aiming for when using functional medicine,” Dr. Cole continues.

You learn how to make the healthiest choices, based on your individual needs, on a consistent basis, to promote greater health and disease prevention, holistically and for the future.

It’s evidence-based with lots of available research. “Even though functional medicine can get a bad reputation for not following the science, it is actually based on the latest research from peer-reviewed medical journals, alongside the latest in diagnostic testing, which is also used by conventional medicine,” says Dr. Cole. However, in conventional medicine, results are viewed through a narrower reference range in order to understand results and get answers for patients.

The Best Supplements, According to a Functional Medicine Doctor

“I believe food is foundational, but when you are trying to correct imbalances and deficiencies, supplements can be a great tool to jump-start your healing,” says Dr. Cole. The best supplements Dr. Cole advises use of include magnesium, curcumin, vitamin D, as well as probiotics to benefit the gut and promote healthy gut flora and bacteria in the body and digestive system.

Magnesium: More than 50 to 90 percent of people are deficient, according to research. Taking it daily can help with sleep regulation and cognitive function, as well as muscle recovery and ease. That’s why many people use magnesium salts, or Epsom salts, when taking a bath, as it soothes sore muscles and promotes a faster, smoother recovery when used after an intense exercise, too.

Curcumin: “Since inflammation has been linked to so many different health problems, curcumin, which is the main compound found in turmeric, has been shown to be beneficial in supporting healthy inflammation levels,” says Dr. Cole.

Vitamins D: “A fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin D actually acts more like a hormone than a vitamin, by regulating hundreds of uber-important pathways in your body, and most people don't get enough vitamin D through sun exposure or by eating enough in their diets,” says Dr. Cole.

You can pair it with Vitamin K for more health benefits, especially in relation to keeping your heart and circulatory system strong, as well as for optimal bone health and immunity, too.

Probiotics: “Since the gut is the foundation of your health, it's important to support a healthy balance of bacteria in your microbiome through probiotics,” says Dr. Cole. You can reap the benefits of probiotics through diet, with staples like sourdough, Greek or skyr yogurt, kimchi and kombucha, as well as get in additional sources through supplementation, such as with probiotic capsules or beverages.

When looking to buy a supplement, transparency is key, and reputable brands should list information about their sourcing and testing protocols on their website. If they don’t share information about their ingredients and products, purity and testing regimen, and their manufacturing process, that's a red flag.

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