One of the greatest things about my increased interest in health and wellness lately has been my discovery of functional medicine. I grew up with a very conventional experience with medicine and honestly had an overall pretty unpleasant experience with it. Yearly checkups and shots, cold, brief and impersonal consultations, and numerous medications (that were beyond unnecessary and actually damaged my health in the long run, looking back). I rarely left a doctor’s office without a prescription, whether it was for an antibiotic when I had a sore throat or–more than once–for an antidepressant after only a five minute chat (not cool). Conventional medicine and I did NOT get along. Little did I know that when I went through a period of really struggling with my health a couple of years ago, it would change my perspective of health and wellness completely.
After I was diagnosed with a thyroid and autoimmune disorder without even an explanation of what it was (other than a couple of bullet points and you guessed it, a prescription on my way out), I began to research my new diagnosis online. I came across a huge community of people that had the same condition and were managing their symptoms and even healing themselves with something called AIP (which is short for Autoimmune Protocol and is a diet that attempts to eliminate any and all inflammatory foods). I jumped on the bandwagon, bought all of the books, and was soon in over my head. The diet did not end up working out for me and my needs at all, but in researching it and reaching out to others in the wellness community, I began hearing about something called functional medicine.
Fast forward and I’ve now worked with a few different functional practitioners and have my first appointment with a new doctor this week, so I thought now was the perfect time to summarize my experience so far and outline what I hope to accomplish with my new doc.
Before we even get into the differences between conventional and functional medicine, I want to emphasize that the most significant change you can make to immediately better your health and healthcare experience is to become your own advocate. This means becoming more involved in the process from outlining what you want/need, finding the right fit with a doctor (they work for you!), and ALWAYS doing your own additional research and using your intuition before moving forward.
YOUR HEALTH IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY
WHAT IS FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE?
Well, it kind of depends on who you ask! There are actually a few categories of non-conventional medicine including holistic medicine, integrative medicine, natural medicine, and functional medicine (to name a few). These are often used interchangeably, and it’s usually up to the individual person/practitioner to define & determine which category they decide to serve. There are institutions and certifications for the different alternative/non-conventional medicines, but I don’t necessarily choose my doctors based on credentials alone. Right now, I’m choosing people based on their experience, intent, and alignment with my values and healthcare goals. Education is of course extremely important, but I’m not super concerned with the specific title as far as mentioning functional, holistic, natural, etc.
So let’s start with this: for my purposes here, when I use the term conventional medicine, I’m referring to modern Western medicine that is practiced in the majority of hospitals, doctor’s offices, schools, health clinics, etc. The conventional medicine system is primarily focused on treating and diagnosing symptoms.
Conventional diagnoses are usually quick (within one or two appointments), generalized, and often simply a conclusion determined by the particular physician on hand. For example, IBS and depression are very common conventional diagnoses. These are each VAST categories that hardly offer any individualized or specific information to patients. “IBS” basically covers any and all possible digestive issues and “depression” is generally applied to anyone who admits to often or even occasionally feeling, well, depressed. Both are considered chronic (if not permanent) illnesses that usually require long-term medicinal intervention and management — aka lifelong use of/dependency on prescription drugs.
The ideal outcome of conventional treatment for these diagnoses would be successfully managed (i.e., suppressed) symptoms. Conventional medicine rarely addresses or resolves any deeper issues, though, neglecting any opportunity for the patient to more fully understand his/her health and possibly have a chance to truly heal. A common metaphor for treating symptoms with conventional medicine is when a plant’s leaves have turned brown, painting them green again instead of considering or addressing the plant’s true needs. Why did the leaf turn brown? Was it too much or too little moisture? Temperature? Soil conditions? The painted leaf may briefly look healthy again, but the true health of the plant would not be improved. In fact, the very paint used to achieve apparent health may cause serious and far worse damage than initially existed. See?
Going back to our human examples, non-conventional medicine would generally try to 1) discover WHY someone might have digestive issues and/or feel depressed, and 2) determine the most appropriate way to manage and/or treat these issues individual to each person who experiences them. Functional medicine is primarily interested in discovering and treating the ROOT CAUSE of illness.
Below is a diagram from the Institute for Functional Medicine that illustrates many potential root causes of depression (left) and a root cause of many potential conditions (right).
As you can see, it’s entirely possible that a patient experiencing depression may simply need to supplement for a nutritional/environmental deficiency to feel better rather than take a potentially harmful prescription antidepressant for the rest of his or her life. Similarly, addressing inflammation in the body can potentially lessen an almost endless number of conditions from depression and IBS, to even heart disease and/or cancer.
Conventional medicine, drug companies, and the mainstream media have for years led us to believe that chronic conditions are genetic and therefore unavoidable and irreversible. I personally believe that while that may sometimes be the case, it doesn’t always have to be. I don’t want to get too off track here, but look up epigenetics if you’re interested in reading about how our environment vs. genes potentially affects our lives and health.
Bottom line: Conventional Medicine is helpful (and can be lifesaving) for emergencies and other very serious acute conditions. Functional Medicine, on the other hand, is what I choose to use for monitoring, supporting and enhancing my day-to-day health and wellness. I recommend using Functional Medicine to help with any/everything from issues like acne or eczema and digestive problems, to mental and emotional concerns like depression, anxiety and more, to chronic and often long term health struggles like autoimmune conditions, thyroid/diabetes maintenance and even cancer treatment support.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE?
Functional Medicine seeks to create a complete picture of the body’s ability to function through evaluating a patient’s “history, physiology, and lifestyle that can lead to illness. The unique genetic makeup of each patient is considered, along with both internal (mind, body, and spirit) and external (physical and social environment) factors that affect total functioning.” (source) Functional doctors are interested in “finding the underlying cause of a patient’s health problems, using a laboratory based analysis system to determine what is wrong, using supplements to correct problems with medications as needed, and focusing ever more and more on lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, and sleep” (source).
Functional doctors spend much more time with patients compared to their conventional counterparts and common tools for analysis and diagnosis include bloodwork, stool/urine samples, saliva collection to determine hormonal balance, hair samples for mineral testing, and more.
Possibly the greatest benefit of working with a functional doctor is learning so much about your body and your health. While conventional doctors may occasionally order bloodwork, testing or imaging (CAT scans, ultrasounds, MRIs etc.), the results are rarely given back to us or explained thoroughly enough.* I recently had a CAT scan done and had to prepare all day for it fasting and drinking the liquid contrast, having Rob drive me to the appointment which lasted about two hours, getting an IV fitted (and reinserted three times, ugh) and contrast injected and then laying in the machine for an uncomfortable amount of time. I had to schedule a follow-up, and at that meeting, the doctor read me a one line summary: “nothing significant noted.” Guys, I almost lost it. My doctor didn’t even see the images, and they especially weren’t available to me!
I’ve had access to significant detailed results and explanations/analyses of every test I’ve had performed by a functional doctor. I have actual hard copies of all of the results as well, that I keep for records and future reference. I’ve gained so much knowledge about and familiarity with my body that I feel truly empowered and confident advocating for myself and making decisions for my health.
Additionally, functional medicine gives you tools, resources, options and knowledge outside of what conventional medicine offers. Did you know that just a 2 week course of NSAIDs like Ibuprofen can produce small intestinal lesions that remain even after stopping (@empoweredautoimmune)? Or that chamomile may help with headaches? How about the fact that both magnesium supplementation and saffron have been proven to assist with depression (these facts also from Ali @empoweredautoimmune who is a great resource!)? I personally haven’t taken over the counter drugs for over a year now and have been using natural supplements to help with my PMS symptoms, allergies and more. They work! I still have about one really painful PMS day a month, but it’s something I’ll be working on with my new functional doc and I feel much better that I’m not causing more damage to my health by popping Advil 2x/day for a few days every month anymore.
*Functional doctors have access to and occasionally use the same methods as conventional. I like to have yearly ultrasounds of my thyroid to check on the status of a couple of cysts that I have there. You can of course also request tests like mammograms as you and your doctor see fit. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of insurance or individual doctor/lab policy, but I have been able to see my images from ultrasounds ordered by a functional doctor and appreciate that a lot.
WHAT ARE THE DISADVANTAGES OF FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE?
Functional doctors, the labs that they use to produce and/or perform many of the tests, and the medicines and supplements recommended are often not covered by health insurance, so the experience can be slightly to significantly more expensive than conventional care.
Working with a functional doctor also takes considerably more time than conventional care. Appointments last longer, can be more often, and there has to be an active commitment on your part in order to get the most out of your care. This means a willingness to learn more about your health and the unique issues that you face. Functional medicine is only as effective as your ability to gauge your own needs and progress as you move forward.
Functional doctors are not necessarily more or less competent than conventional doctors. What I mean is that we are all fallible, we all make mistakes, and no person other than yourself knows what is best for you in the end. And at it’s core, all medicine is essentially trial and error! A functional doctor may suggest or prescribe a something that makes you feel worse, and you N E V E R have to do something just because a doctor says so. **With very few exceptions, when a doctor tells you to do something that makes you uncomfortable and/or feel worse, you can stop doing it (I would argue that caring for those who are unable to effectively or intelligently care for themselves would be the exception — whether that covers mental/emotional/personality disorders, developmentally challenged individuals, etc.). The most important thing to remember here is again, that doctors work for you. If the relationship isn’t working for whatever reason, you should always seek alternative advice and/or care.
My first experience with a functional doctor started off great. She was super supportive and understanding; my appointments were more like a combo of therapy and science class and less like any doctor appointment I’d experienced before. We had similar values as far as relying less on Rx medication and more on natural supplements to achieve healthcare goals. She recommended a couple of supplements that were invaluable in my healing process that I still order form her and take today. She ordered lab work that gave me a much more comprehensive view and understanding of my health. She directed me to take a replacement hormone (which testing showed I had optimal levels of) and another supplement. I tried taking them and and had some unpleasant side effects with both. I was also uncomfortable supplementing a hormone that didn’t appear to be lacking and I was already too overwhelmed and sensitive to so many new supplements. Rather than acknowledging and respecting my experience, adapting and/or even considering another course for my treatment and progress, she simply said, “if you won’t take these, I can’t help you.” I fired her.
Functional doctors aren’t more or less honest or charitable than conventional doctors. “If you leave your health in someone else’s hands, don’t be surprised if they take it for profit. We’re so blessed to have access to medical interventions when necessary, but these are for profit industries.” -Samantha Lynn (@samanthalynn.ntc)
If you haven’t heard about doctor and nurse incentives for prescribing medications in conventional medicine, they’re definitely a thing. A new story is out now about one pharm company pushing the HPV vaccine by offering big doctor bonuses, and bottles of wine for nurses as commission. Ugh, it’s bad. The new functional doctor that I’m going to start seeing offers IV treatments and I know that he will def try and sell me on needing one and/or regular treatments. It will be up to me to research and decide what I feel that I truly need and what will be worth it! The healthcare sector is the highest growth industry in the world and that includes all forms of medicine and all types of doctors.
BOTTOM LINE: I’m beyond grateful to have discovered an alternative to conventional healthcare in functional medicine and it is my preferred choice for now. I do keep a conventional doctor on standby for emergencies and when I’m between functional doctors (aka while I’m trying to find someone I really like) to ask for lab work and refills for my thyroid medicine. You should never continue to work with someone — conventional, functional, holistic, or whatever — if they aren’t serving your needs, goals and values.
Although I choose to work with a functional doctor, I prefer and recommend an integrative approach to my overall healthcare. I utilize chiropractic care, consultations with a holistic nutritionist, therapy for my mental health and healing emotional trauma, and would like to use massage more (duh!) and I want to try acupuncture and more. While the concept of an ‘integrative practitioner’ (one who either offers multiple specialties and services or coordinates them all for you) is appealing, I prefer my own selection process and to outsource each category to its respective professional of my choice.
I know this got long but it’s something I’m obviously passionate about and really think can benefit you guys! I’m beyond happy to chat and/or answer any and all questions you might have about this topic. In my next two posts, I’ll outline my gameplan for my first appointment with the new doc and let you guys know what I’m looking for, plan to ask about, and what my priorities are. I also asked if you’re interested in specific tests and prices, etc. and you said yes, so that will be included as well!
**I am not a medical professional and this article is not intended to be used as medical advice. These are just my personal experiences and opinions that I am happy to share!