Functional medicine is to conventional medicine as a computer is to a typewriter — they are different. Functional medicine is a systems biology-based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease.
According to Mark Hyman, MD, one of the best-known functional medicine practitioners in the country, functional medicine is the future of medicine, except it’s available now. Functional medicine, in Hyman’s words, “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.”
By addressing the root cause, rather than symptoms, practitioners become oriented to identifying the complexity of the 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.
Here’s a really great explanation of what functional medicine looks like in practice: If you have a pebble in your shoe causing pain and you go to a conventional doctor, you’re going to get a prescription for a painkiller. If you go to a functional medicine doc, he’s going to ask what’s causing the pain. He’s going to ask you to take off your shoe, see the pebble and remove it. In other words, conventional medicine treats symptoms; functional medicine treats the underlying cause and the whole system. This pebble example may seem like it undermines a conventional doctor’s approach, but when it comes to chronic, complicated health issues, pinpointing the cause(s) using a whole system approach is more effective.
Where Did the Name Come From?
Functional Medicine is a relatively new term, only going back 30 years. First coined by Dr. Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D. to describe what was then a special niche within the overall field of alternative medicine.
What is Functional Nutrition?
Functional nutrition, a spin-off of functional medicine, focuses on using healthy, natural foods to help people improve their health. It uses food to get to the root of health concerns.
Here's an example of what that might look like in practice: A person comes to be complaining about heartburn. A conventional dietitian would suggest sleeping upright, taking antacids, and discussing certain foods and drinks that can trigger heartburn. A functional dietitian would also discuss the foods and drinks that might be triggering heartburn, but also seek to learn more as to why the heartburn is happening to begin with. Is it stress? a loss of magnesium? food sensitivities? bad bacteria or yeast growing in the stomach? A bacterium called h. pylori? Those are all linked to reflux.
Functional nutritionists provide flexible, individualized care to each person based on their needs.
Find a Functional Medicine Practitioner
Some kinds of doctors, notably naturopathic physicians, have this kind of orientation built into their medical training, but conventionally trained MDs do not. To learn this approach, physicians (and some allied health professionals) can take advanced certifications in functional medicine, usually from The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). IFM has been educating clinicians since 1991 and has certified over 1,000 functional medicine healthcare practitioners globally.