If I asked you to describe your ideal physician – what would she “look” like? Would she be compassionate and empathetic? Would she meet with you for a hour or maybe even two? Would she listen attentively to every detail of your health history knowing it’s interconnected like a web and everything is a clue into your present state of health? Would she be knowledgeable about nutrition, environmental toxins, and stress reduction, and more importantly, would she spend time talking with you about these things? Would she be concerned with preventing disease and getting to the root cause of your illness instead of just treating the symptoms with a pill?
Would it be a healing partnership rather than a hierarchical relationship?
In today’s world of managed health care and minutes spent with a doctor during each visit, it may seem difficult to imagine a physician such as the one described above, and even more impossible to actually find her. However, if you are like many of us, this is truly who you want for your physician and what you want from your health care.
What if I told you there are doctors who practice medicine in this way? Would you want one as your physician?
If so, great news – there are and yes, you can! We are called functional medicine physicians. We are physicians who, in addition to graduating from medical school and a residency program, have completed the Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice (AFMCP) training program with the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM.)
The IFM is a nonprofit organization that is accredited by the Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) and is dedicated to educating physicians and other health care practitioners.
Of the more than 800,000 practicing physicians in the United States, only about 1,000 have completed the AFMCP training. Here in Austin, we are very lucky to have several such physicians.
What is Functional Medicine?
Functional medicine has been described as 21st century medicine. It is a new and comprehensive approach to health care that focuses on prevention and finding the root causes of illness instead of simply treating the symptoms of disease. Functional medicine is a science-based approach to healing that looks at function in the body – the dynamics of physiology and biochemical reactions in the body rather than naming a disease and giving a pill. it endeavors to treat the underlying imbalances that cause illness by designing individual therapies to restore health and improve function. in functional medicine, we believe there are five main areas that cause disruption in function: environmental toxins, allergens, stress, infections and diet/nutrition. All disease can be traced back to one of these functional disruptors. Restoring optimal function and balance is achieved using the seven principles of functional medicine: optimize nutrition, fix digestion, enhance detoxification, cool inflammation, boost energy metabolism, balance hormones and calm the mind.
The basic tenet of functional medicine is that each person is biochemically unique and, therefore, no one treatment is right for everyone. The approach is individualized for that person’s health needs and focuses on a patient-centered model of care, not a disease-centered one. It is personalized medicine.
By personalized, we mean that no two people are alike. Each of us is unique in our genetic makeup and physiology. What ultimately causes illness in one person is not the same for another, and treatment for each will therefore be different.
Functional medicine looks not at the individual named diseases but rather seeks to find the common link among them; we believe all illness is interconnected.
Conventional medicine, on the other hand, views people in terms of their disease, a one-size-fits-all model. It focuses on naming a disease and giving a pill for that disease. This practice is becoming increasingly true as conventional medicine becomes more specialized and fractured, viewing symptoms and diseases as separate entities within the body.
Let’s look at an example of these differences. Imagine a man with several different named diseases – migraine headaches, irritable bowel and arthritis. Under the conventional medical model, this person will likely be referred to three separate specialists (a neurologist for the headaches, a gastroenterologist for the stomach pain, and a rheumatologist for the joint pain) and prescribed at least three medications (one for each complaint.) All these medications have potential side effects and unwanted symptoms that can further compound the problems and necessitate prescribing additional medications.
A functional medicine physician, on the otherhand, will search for the why among the above five areas of function disruptors. By taking an extensive patient history, using state-of-the-art lab testing, and a trial of an elimination diet (removal of the major allergens – yeast, gluten, dairy, soy and corn), we may find that this man has an allergy to dairy and difficulty detoxifying. By removing dairy from his diet and improving detoxification with vitamins and supplements, within a short period of time his headache, joint pain and stomach pain all resolve. This man won’t need to be on any medication. again, we seek to find the common link and solve problems from the root cause – not simply treat the symptoms with a pill.
How do functional medicine and conventional medicine differ in regards to treating the same disease in three different women for instance? In this example, each woman has hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and complains of weight gain and being cold and tired. After establishing a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, the conventional doctor will place each of the women on a synthetic thyroid hormone replacement medication and call it a day.
The functional medicine physician, however, will try to understand, why each woman has an underactive thyroid. Through this search, we may find that one woman has a gluten allergy, causing inflammation; the next has mercury toxicity, decreasing her ability to detoxify; and the third has a nutritional deficiency, preventing her thyroid from converting the hormones properly. By correcting the above individual imbalances, we are often able to reverse disease and restore balance. Generally, if medication is still necessary, it will be prescribed using a compounding pharmacy that is able to make thyroid hormone replacement in formulations specific to each of these women’s needs.
Again, ask yourself whom do you want as your physician, and what do you want from your health care? These examples are based on patients I see regularly in my practice. Functional medicine has the ability to change your life and restore your health. The future of medicine is now. The choice is yours.