What is Functional Medicine?
Jan 03, 2016 02:04PM
By Stephen P. Elliott, M.D.
Dr. Stephen Elliot
“The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patients in the care of the ‘human frame’, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.” ~ Thomas Alva Edison
Wow, what a dream! Unfortunately, it’s not true. Instead, Edison’s “doctor of the future” has become the physician programmed to prescribe. “For these symptoms, take this.” “For that diagnosis, take that.” It’s now a pill for an ill and a drug for a bug. It’s become reflexive. Habit. Unthinking.
Edison would be astonished to know just how little the “doctor of the future” has been taught about diet and nutrition. He would be shocked to learn how medical education has failed to equip the “doctor of the future” to recognize the uniqueness of each individual “human frame”, and to pursue the true root cause of disease.
Challenging this notion of simply being programmed to prescribe, the Functional Medicine physician is different. His training is different. His questions are different. His approach is different.
So what is it, this Functional Medicine? A comparison with Conventional Medicine is revealing.
Where Conventional Medicine asks, “What?” Functional Medicine asks “Why?” Rather than asking, “What’s the diagnosis?” Functional Medicine asks, “Why is the body not working, or not functioning, the way it was designed to function?” The goal is to identify the true root cause of dysfunction.
Where Conventional Medicine treats each body system in isolation, Functional Medicine recognizes the intricate, web-like interconnections linking everything in the “human frame” together.
Where Conventional Medicine reflexively writes prescriptions, Functional Medicine restores optimal function more naturally—correcting nutritional deficiencies, restoring hormonal imbalances, minimizing immune stressors, eliminating food hypersensitivities, and more.
Where Conventional Medicine focuses exclusively on the physical body, Functional Medicine addresses the complex inter-relatedness of body, mind and spirit.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, where Conventional Medicine focuses on disease, Functional Medicine focuses on the patient. The person. The individual. Over 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates taught that “It’s more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”
Functional Medicine embraces that lesson in at least two ways.
First, Functional Medicine recognizes that every person’s journey is unique—their family history, the stressors and challenges they face, the infections and traumas they encounter, the toxic exposures (both emotional and physical) they endure, the lifestyle choices they make, and so on. All these things make each person’s story unlike that of any other—one of a kind.
Secondly, Functional Medicine recognizes that each person’s “human frame” is unique. Their physiology, biochemistry, nutritional status and genetic predisposition are all slightly different from anyone else on the planet. The result? Where Conventional Medicine treats everyone with a given diagnosis the same way, Functional Medicine tailors a specific treatment plan to each individual. The focus is on the patient, the person, rather than the disease. The disease is important, but it’s simply a name we give a particular constellation of symptoms. It’s not nearly as important as the person.
Ever a dreamer, Edison was also a pragmatist. If he were alive today, he would see in an instant the truth for what it is: Today, in America, the healthcare system is broken. Health insurance has become disease insurance. Health care has become disease care. Conventional Medicine has become Dysfunctional Medicine. It’s broken.
The bottom line? Government and businesses today spend trillions of healthcare dollars fixing things that didn’t need to be broken in the first place.
Example #1: Influenza and the common cold. Each year, the tab for these two alone comes to about $200 billion.
Now consider this. In August 2009, the journal Pediatrics published a study definitively linking GI health to immune function. Simply by taking an inexpensive over-the-counter probiotic, something commonly recommended in Functional Medicine, patients recovered from cold and flu symptoms far faster than those that took nothing. The results: fewer school days missed. Fewer parental work days missed. Reduced cost to the health care system. Reduced cost to the employer. And a healthier patient, to boot. That’s what Functional Medicine is all about.
Example #2: Alzheimer’s disease, where progressive memory loss and cognitive decline produce a humiliating, dehumanizing death-before-dying existence far removed from the vitality of earlier years.
The financial burden? $226 billion in the U.S. each year alone, more than $56,000 per patient. And even that doesn’t include the lost productivity and missed work of caregiver-family members.
Now, admittedly, Alzheimer’s is a complex disease. Suggesting otherwise would be irresponsible. Powerful evidence is mounting, however, that a number of very simple steps may effectively combat this complex disease. And that evidence isn’t anecdotal. Not at all. It’s appearing in study after study published in highly regarded, peer-reviewed, conventional medical journals.
Simple steps. Like optimizing Vitamin D. And micro-dose lithium. And coconut oil. And CDP-Choline. And hormone replacement done right (for both men and women). And identifying and treating chronic, indolent infections like Lyme. And exercise. Even daily exercise can help. A lot.
So there you have it. From Alzheimer’s to zinc deficiency (think eczema and heartburn), Functional Medicine has something to offer. It’s medicine that works. It’s medicine that makes sense. It’s medicine whose time has come.
Expanding upon his traditional Family Practice experience, Stephen P. Elliott, M.D., is also a Board Certified Fellow of Functional Medicine. He practices at Living with Intention, in Fishers.