Functional medicine focuses on the idea that healing should be individualized and holistic. It uses a deep-dive approach to get to know patients and uncover the root causes of an illness—all while empowering them to reach their ideal level of health.
“Ten people can come in with the same label of a diagnosis, but they have 10 different system dysfunctions, 10 different paths of how they got to that illness,” says Dr. Mark Menolascino, medical director of the Meno Clinic Center for Functional Medicine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“We have to figure out for that one person in front of us: what’s their story, what’s their triggers, their mediators, what’s driving this for them? And then we can develop a plan that actually fixes it.”
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Functional medicine is a collaborative, patient-centered model that incorporates aspects of traditional medicine, nutrition, behavioral therapy, alternative medicine and other disciplines. It examines genetic, environmental and lifestyle influences on overall health and specific conditions to help patients feel better and see their body functioning as well as it can be.
How functional medicine differs from traditional models
Dr. Elizabeth Bradley, medical director at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, said functional medicine examines the body’s systems biology. But, it is not the same as integrative medicine, even though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. There is some overlap, however, since functional medicine incorporates some integrative practices, like nutritional supplements, meditation and acupuncture.
To get a sense of the whole patient, an extensive questionnaire, called a matrix, is used to examine different parts of the body, including digestion, energy, joints, hormones, lymphatic systems, blood systems and other areas. The matrix tells a patient’s health story, reveals imbalances and helps practitioners develop a treatment plan.
The goal is to get the body back to its natural balance by embracing a number of supports, like diet, exercise, or alternative or integrative medicine, depending on a patient’s needs, Bradley says. Traditional medical models often treat symptoms and rely on lab tests and prescription medications. Functional medicine may include these components, but it delves much deeper into the causes and uses a patient-centered approach.
“Rather than just medicating the symptom, we look for the root cause of why does this person have the disease and how do we try to help that person get rid of the disease?,” Menolascino says.
Who benefits from functional medicine?
Functional medicine can treat a variety of illnesses, such as arthritis, autoimmune diseases, depression, diabetes, obesity and other chronic conditions, “so, a lot of people who haven’t been helped by regular medicine, people with fatigue with fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, strange autoimmune problems,” Menolascino says. Functional medicine helps individuals “recapture their health and reverse some of these conditions.”
Along with treating specific conditions, Bradley says patients embrace functional medicine for disease prevention, to maintain overall health and as a second opinion following another diagnosis.
Nutrition plays a central role
Functional medicine treatment usually starts with the gut, which Bradley says is responsible for 70 percent of the immune system. So, nutrition is a central part of treatment.
“We help (patients) move towards a diet that is supportive of healing,” says Robin Foroutan, a registered dietician who specializes in integrative and functional medicine at The Morrison Center in New York City and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “And, it may look slightly differently person to person.”