Just as a gardener treats the roots of the trees to correct problems with the trunk or leaves, functional Medicine seeks to find and treat the origins of diseases.
Conventional Medicine vs. Functional Medicine
Conventional Medicine usually divides the human body into different organs and specialties. If you have a stomach ache, you go to a gastroenterologist, if you have a headache, you go to a neurologist, and so on.
Functional Medicine, in turn, focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. It treats the whole body and not just isolated symptoms in a holistic approach.
The Functional Medicine Holistic Approach
When you have a headache and see a doctor, he will probably prescribe a pain reliever to treat your symptom. But your headache can be related to several other factors such as stress, poor diet, lack of sleep, wrong posture, sinusitis, hypertension, infections, medication use, dental problems, etc.
Each of these factors will depend on your genes, the environment, and lifestyle habits. This is why treatments that address the right cause will have lasting symptom suppression.
The Functional Medicine Concept
The functional medicine concept was created by a group of innovative healthcare professionals connected through their interest in finding a better way to manage chronic disease complexity.
They believed that the gene-environment connection to disease would change the personalization of assessment, prevention, and treatment of chronic diseases.
The word function represents a process, while the disease is simply the outcome. The function of an organism can decline depending on the interaction between genes and the environment (e.g., lifestyle, diet, stress, etc.).
According to Patrick Hanaway, MD, a respected leader in the Functional Medicine community: "Functional Medicine is a model that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to achieve the highest expression of health by addressing the underlying causes of disease. Functional Medicine uses a unique operating system and personalized therapeutic interventions to support individuals in achieving optimal wellness."
Why is Functional Medicine needed nowadays?
The main reasons why our society started to approach disease holistically are:
A sharp increase in the number of people with complex, chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mental illness, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Doctors usually apply acute treatments aimed at treating the symptom and not solving the problem. Most of them are not adequately trained to assess the roots of disease and use strategies to prevent them.
Acute treatment is not enough for patients with complex and chronic diseases. Besides, conventional Medicine fails to consider each patient's characteristics, such as their genetic makeup, lifestyle, and exposure to environmental factors.
There is a gap between research results and clinical practice.
How is Functional Medicine changing healthcare?
Functional Medicine has several advantages over conventional Medicine because:
It is patient-centered instead of disease-centered. There is a strong concern in listening to the patients and respecting their will. In functional medicine, the patient participates in the decision-making process, which is not common in conventional treatments.
Conventional Medicine applies the same treatment for everyone, while functional Medicine considers each patient's unique characteristics. It involves a deep understanding of the individual's genetic composition, internal (mind and spirit), and external factors (physical and social environment).
It integrates both conventional and alternative approaches in the management of complex chronic diseases.
Functional Medicine often involves disease prevention through the choice of healthy habits, such as diet and exercise, and stress management and prevention programs.
Why is Functional Medicine good?
There are studies showing the benefits of the functional medicine model in treating a variety of conditions such as inflammatory arthritis, depression, autoimmune disorders, and chronic pain.
For example, one study conducted with 71 individuals who were guided to make lifestyle changes including adopting a whole-foods diet, increasing movement, and adopting stress management and mindfulness practices, showed that this type of intervention is capable of improving depressive symptoms and quality of life in patients with major depressive disorder (Abbott et al., 2020).
Moreover, one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open compared functional medicine patients with patients seen in a primary care setting. The researchers found that functional medicine patients showed beneficial and sustainable improvements in their physical and mental health. After six months, functional medicine patients exhibited significantly larger gains in health-related quality of life than those seen in a primary care setting (Beidelschies et al., 2019).
However, the scientific community believes that more evidence is needed to reach a conclusion regarding the benefits of functional medicine. Yet, some professionals defend that functional Medicine may have an important role as adjunctive therapy to improve patients' pain, physical and mental health in those who do not see improvement with conventional treatment alone.
While conventional medicine focuses on treating isolated symptoms and dividing practice into specialties that are totally separate from each other, functional
Medicine focuses on the patients, their symptoms, genetic makeup, way of thinking, habits, and life history. This approach has several advantages because it is more personalized and interconnected and offers more benefits in the long term.
The Institute for Functional Medicine. WHAT IS FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE? https://www.ifm.org/functional-medicine/what-is-functional-medicine/. Accessed: 01/12/2021.
Mayo Clinic. Headache. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/headache/basics/causes/sym-20050800. Accessed: 01/12/2021.
Bland J. S. (2019). What is Evidence-Based Functional Medicine in the 21st Century?. Integrative Medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 18(3), 14–18.
Bland J. S. (2019). Systems Biology Meets Functional Medicine. Integrative Medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 18(5), 14–18.
Cleveland Clinic. Newsroom. https://newsroom.clevelandclinic.org/2019/10/25/cleveland-clinic-study-finds-functional-medicine-model-is-associated-with-improvements-in-health-related-quality-of-life/. Accessed: 01/12/2021.
Beidelschies M, Alejandro-Rodriguez M, Ji X, Lapin B, Hanaway P, Rothberg MB. Association of the Functional Medicine Model of Care With Patient-Reported Health-Related Quality-of-Life Outcomes. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(10):e1914017. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.14017
Abbott RD, Sherwin K, Klopf H, Mattingly HJ, Brogan K. Efficacy of a Multimodal Online Lifestyle Intervention for Depressive Symptoms and Quality of Life in Individuals With a History of Major Depressive Disorder. Cureus. 2020 Jul 8;12(7):e9061. DOI: 10.7759/cureus.9061. PMID: 32656047; PMCID: PMC7346300.