As we continue to grow knowledge and research in the field of health, wellness and nutrition we also see paradigm shifts in the industry in terms of practice and practitioner role. Standard healthcare is now supported by a wide and varied supplementary field of alternative medicine modalities. Functional medicine is one such modality that continues to develop and grow. But what is functional medicine practice? What does Functional Medicine treat? Is functional medicine science-based? We’re taking a dive into this topic in today’s blog to shed a bit of light on the topic. 

What is functional medicine practice? 

As a basic definition, functional medicine practice “is a systems biology–based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease” (Source). The practice developed when certain practitioners began recognising the importance of an individualized approach to disease causes based on the evolving research in nutritional science, genomics, and epigenetics. As interest in the area grew, a systemised approach terms ‘functional medicine practice’ was developed, led by the institute of functional medicine (IFM). 

Functional medicine promises a comprehensive evaluation that includes a clinical approach, the environmental influences, and imbalances in the body. It seeks to identify and address the root causes of disease, and views the body as one integrated system, not a collection of independent organs divided up by medical specialties. It treats the whole system, not just the symptoms (Source). The practice uses a set of tools that combines both history-taking and mapping symptoms to the categories of root processes that underlie illness. As a basic, the aim is to look behind the symptoms to the root cause of disease. 

In traditional medicine, doctors are trained to examine patients/assess symptoms with/without lab tests, match these symptoms/lab results to a diagnosis and treat accordingly, usually with a prescription that research has shown to relieve such symptoms. Functional medicine isn’t a specific medicine or approach. Instead, there are many approaches that are effective. It’s not exclusive, it doesn’t exclude traditional medications, it includes all modalities depending on what’s right for that patient. 

What are the benefits of functional medicine? 

There are a variety of benefits when it comes to functional medicine. To mention just a few:

  • As already mentioned, there is no specific treatment approach with functional medicine and it encompasses a variety of practices. Not only do you work with practitioners who specialise in different fields, there is also flexibility to find a plan unique to the individuals’ needs and lifestyle. 
  • Functional medicine practice lends weight in general health and/or chronic condition support. The approach itself is designed to look behind the curtain of symptoms and dig into root cause. This can take time to figure out and time to treat with a longer term support plan. 
  • In general, a doctor has limited time to assess and treat patients, often seeing up to 40 people per day. And while 15 minutes might suit in some cases, often individuals lack the attention they really need. Functional medicine can play a paramount role here to step in with that support and treatment plan.The ideal approach is to work synergistically with acute medical consultants and with the GP to develop the best avenue for the patient.

The five principles of functional medicine

Functional medicine has five basic principles: 

  1. We are all different; genetically and biochemically unique. Therefore, FM treats the individual, not the disease.
  2. It’s science-based. Our body comprises a complicated network/web of relationships. Latest research allows us to deep dive into the body and how it functions. 
  3. The body is intelligent and has the capacity for self-regulation. 
  4. The body has the ability to heal and prevent nearly all the diseases of ageing.
  5. Health means vitality and not just the absence of disease.

As an overall, these principles help underline how the model looks behind the symptoms, to the root cause. 

What does Functional Medicine treat?

The goal of Functional Medicine is to promote health and vitality in each patient. As a broad answer, functional medicine as a practice engages with many areas that support this goal.  As already mentioned, practitioners in this field span beyond medical doctors to other areas like nutritional therapists, naturopaths and more. In this way, functional medicine uses a systems-oriented approach and where both patient and practitioner enter in a therapeutic partnership. 

How is functional medicine different?

The current healthcare is aimed at acute care, lacking the proper methodology and tools for preventing and treating complex, chronic disease. Functional medicine practitioners spend time with their patients, listening to their histories and looking at the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex, chronic disease (source). We need this approach because our society is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of people who suffer from complex, chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mental illness, and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. With this approach, the patient is part of the process and the treatment plan is tailored to their specific case. 

Is functional medicine a replacement for standard healthcare? 

The simple answer, no. Both traditional and functional medicine practice can and do play a role in an individuals’ health and wellbeing. Each has a place. While traditional medicine excels in some cases (for example acute conditions), functional medicine can be incredibly valuable for longer term support, especially in the case of chronic conditions. 

Despite the systemised approach that the IFM teaches, the fact of the matter is there is a huge variation in standards in the functional medicine space. It isn’t a protected title and a medical qualification isn’t a prerequisite to practice. 

Regardless of approach it is important that the evidence-base is the cornerstone of medicine and that has to be maintained. With FM, it becomes problematic because you are looking at personalised medicine and that can be very difficult to evidence-base at times. 

Functional Nutrition

Where does nutrition fit into the functional medicine model? Nutritional Therapy, the core component of Functional Medicine, is a holistic, person-centered approach. It uses whole foods, phytonutrients, therapeutic food supplements and lifestyle changes to assist clients to restore and safeguard sound health. 

The nutritional therapist and client will discuss the client’s history and agree a programme of dietary and lifestyle recommendations based on the client’s needs and circumstances. This can involve functional testing and there will be follow-up appointments to monitor progress and provide further advice and support take place over the following weeks or months.

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