How Does Functional Medicine Work? The Importance of Holistic Medicine

Sir William Osler, one of the first Physicians-in-Chief at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, once said that “the good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” Functional medicine isn’t a new concept. Its roots are derived from modern scientific medicine and functional medicine clinics are living by Osler’s words.

Functional Medicine is a systems biology-based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of a disease. Functional medicine clinics take the holistic approach to understand who you are, knowing that every person is unique and should have a medical plan that is custom fit for their needs.

Instead of determining which drug will cure a disease, functional medicine clinics have doctors that discover why you have an ailment in the first place, and to restore what’s no longer functioning.

Think of medicine in terms of a science experiment. Experiments with limited variables are easier to find solutions for. The more complex the problem, the more difficult the solution becomes. The human body is full of variables. Lifestyle, genetic makeup, personality, and environmental factors are just a few, and within each of these basic categories are countless more variables.

Too often, traditional physicians treat the disease and not the patient. They don’t take the time–and, in their defense, can’t take the time–to understand all of the variables that make you unique. While the standard model of care works well for acute diseases, trauma, infection, and emergencies, it fails to care for the chronic diseases that affect over 133 million Americans.

Principles of Functional Medicine

According to Mind Body Green, there are five principles of functional medicine:

Everyone is different, both genetically and biochemically. With this in mind, functional medicine clinics take a personalized approach, treating the patient and not the disease. Instead of tackling the disease directly, functional medicine practitioners find ways for the body’s normal healing mechanisms to resolve the problem.

Functional medicine is science-based. There is a complex network of interconnected relationships within our body, not unlike the many webs that connect us in other ways. By understanding those relationships, functional medicine practitioners can have a deeper comprehension of the body.

The human body has the capacity of self-regulation. Your body has millions of systems that are interconnected with one another in a delicate balance. Sometimes certain conditions can knock your body off balance.

Your body can often heal itself and can prevent nearly all of the diseases of aging.

Health is a state of immense vitality, not just the absence of a disease or an ailment.

One Condition, Many Causes. One Cause, Many Conditions

Functional medicine clinics and the doctors who run them know that one condition can have many causes. In turn, one cause can spurn many conditions. The Institute for Functional Medicine expresses that depression can be caused by a combination of multiple factors such as inflammation, an Omega-3 deficiency, a low thyroid count, and antibiotic use, to name a few. Meanwhile, inflammation can be caused by a combination depression, heart diseases, diabetes, and/or a million other things.

Functional medicine practitioners know that each symptom or differential diagnosis may be a contributing factor to an individual’s illness. By identifying and treating the root cause(s) of an illness, functional medicine has a much higher chance of properly treating the patient. Functional medicine clinics use scientific principles, advanced diagnostic testing and treatments to restore balance in a patient’s physiological processes.

Functional Medicine and Chronic Health Conditions

The medical management model that traditional practices use is often too quick to resort to drugs, surgery, and other acute care treatments. This application is fine for acute health problems, but not for chronic health conditions. According to Your Medical Detective, chronic health conditions often require a two-step solution:

Add what’s lacking in the body to nudge its physiology back to a state of optimal functioning

Remove anything that impedes the body from moving toward this optimate state of physiology

Functional medicine practitioners try to first determine why the body is not functioning properly. They do this by using the patient’s unique history as a guide, by the use of advanced lab testing, and a deep dive into a patient’s overall lifestyle. Treatment often involves nutritional and lifestyle alterations, counseling (emotional and/or nutritional, if necessary), a combination of natural agents such as herbs, homeopathics, and supplements, and medication, if needed.

Does Functional Medicine Work?

Functional medicine physicians encourage their patients to take an active role in their own health. By educating a patient about their own body and its processes, that patient will have a greater chance of being treated successfully and living a healthier life.

Even without a medical degree, it just makes sense that functional medicine’s holistic approach would be effective more often than by following a traditional medical management model. Chronic diseases have many different causes.

Treating them with blanket solutions isn’t the most precise way to make someone optimally functional again. The human condition is made out of countless variable and no single solution can satisfy all of them or even satisfy each subcategory. The most functional approach to medicine involves figuring out what is not functioning within an individual, not a collection of individuals that might have the same disease by radically different genetic makeups, medical histories, and lifestyles. In short, the question shouldn’t be “does functional medicine work?” It should be “do traditional medical models work well enough?”

Some functional medicine practitioners charge upwards of $1,000 per consultation plus the cost of labs. Boston Direct Health charges $500 for a consultation, but they are free for members. For more information about functional medicine and how to receive consultation please visit our functional medicine page and learn more about how a holistic approach to medicine can improve your health.


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