What Is Functional Medicine Anyway?

I don’t know why I choose professions that are really hard to explain. The Feldenkrais Method, Chinese medicine, and functional medicine are all equally hard to explain, and I get asked what they are on a regular basis. Here I talk about functional medicine. I’ve been highly focused on this modality lately because I am working towards certification from the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) this year. I’ve been practicing functional medicine my whole clinical career, and I’ve done lots of training. I am excited to be on the IFM path because, in my opinion, it offers the most well-rounded training and the highest level of certification in this field. As I review the content from all the IFM modules, it’s deepening my understanding of what this approach means.

functional medicine

So what is Functional Medicine anyway?

IFM gives this answer:

“The functional medicine model is an individualized, patient-centered, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness. It requires a detailed understanding of each patient’s genetic, biochemical, and lifestyle factors and leverages that data to direct personalized treatment plans that lead to improved patient outcomes.

By addressing root cause, rather than symptoms, practitioners become oriented to identifying the complexity of disease. They may find one condition has many different causes and, likewise, one cause may result in many different conditions. As a result, functional medicine treatment targets the specific manifestations of disease in each individual.”

If I answer this question in my own words, it’s a conversation rather than a sentence. It goes like this: Functional medicine is an approach rather than a modality. Any medical practitioner can apply this approach. In fact, I call Chinese medicine the first form of functional medicine because the same principles apply.

Here are the main principles of a functional approach:

  • We look for patterns of disharmony in a person’s body systems that underlie any given symptoms they are suffering from.
  • Symptoms are a clue that something is awry on a deeper level and we want to figure it out. So we aren’t fixated on alleviating symptoms with no further inquiry. For example, aspirin or the herb feverfew may alleviate a headache, but we want to know why the headache is there. This is why functional medicine is called “root cause medicine.” We never stop asking “why?”
  • We examine antecedants, which are conditions that set the person up for their ailment. This includes genetics (in Chinese medicine called “prenatal qi” or jing). It also includes in-utero, birth, newborn and childhood experiences. Antecedents can happen at any time in life.
  • We’re concerned about triggers. These are events that cause an onset of symptoms. Examples include an illness, trauma, or high levels of stress.
  • We look for mediators. These are lifestyle choices that perpetuate a poor health condition. Examples include smoking, the Standard American Diet (SAD), a sedentary life, unmangaed stress, nutrient deficiencies, lack of social connection and support, or insomnia.
  • We partner with patients and act as coaches, counselors, and guides, in equality. We don’t take a top-down approach. It takes a partnership to help someone find their path to healing. We just help them identify the steps.

The conversation can certainly continue, but these are the main points. Can you see how many different modalities of medicine can take a functional approach?

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