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Functional Medicine: Upending Disease and Modern Healthcare

functional medicine is changing healthcare

Over the past several years, due in part to the popularity of Drs. Mark Hyman and Frank Lipman, a different type of medicine – known as functional medicine – has emerged and is rapidly gaining ground in treating and preventing many chronic diseases.

But let's take a step back, first. What is a disease?

The word “disease” is a noun. But what is it? You can’t really touch a disease or wrap your hands around it. Does it even exist?

In reality, a disease could be interpreted as a label given by the medical community to a set of symptoms. That is not to say these symptoms do not exist or do not have serious consequences. However, a tumor, heart attack, or high blood glucose levels are all symptoms that indicate something is very wrong in the body. These symptoms (among others), are then given a disease label – cancer, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, etc.

While communicable diseases such as the flu, measles, and tuberculosis typically come on suddenly, the same cannot be said of chronic diseases. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases likely begin forming years, or perhaps even decades, before symptoms express. Sometimes genetics are at play, but often that is not the case.

Modern medicine typically focuses on treating the symptoms rather than identifying the underlying trigger or cause. Many cancers are a symptom of an immune system gone awry, yet conventional medicine’s primary focus has for decades been on “debulking” the tumor through surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation. (Although, fortunately, research into immunotherapy for certain cancers has increased in recent years.)

Similarly, people with type-2 diabetes are given drugs to increase production of insulin and/or the body’s ability to use insulin, and heart attack patients receive drug therapy to lower cholesterol, or stents to open their arteries.

However, when the underlying causes of these common diseases aren’t identified and dealt with, the patient may wind up on drug therapy or some other form of treatment for the remainder of his or her life. And even with drugs and treatment, the symptoms often return in the form of more cancer, another heart attack, or diabetic side effects such as loss of vision or foot ulcers (which can lead to amputation).

Upstream vs. Downstream Approaches

A stream metaphor is often used to demonstrate this difference between identifying the underlying cause of illness versus dealing with symptoms as they arise. Upstream, you have inputs such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, environmental toxins, stress, and other factors. These inputs “pollute” the stream. Eventually, downstream, symptoms begin to manifest and inevitably must be dealt with.

Unfortunately, modern medicine typically focuses on the downstream symptoms through drug therapy, surgery, and other treatments, many of which come with negative consequences. Drugs may have side effects that require more or different drugs to mitigate. Certain drug combinations can lead to even more problems, requiring even more drugs. This cascade leads us to where we are now, with approximately 67 percent of physician office visits involving drug therapy, almost 50 percent of Americans having taken at least one prescription drug in the past 30 days, and one in 10 having taken at least five prescription drugs in the past 30 days. And last, but certainly not least, sadly, some studies estimate that more than106,000 Americans die every year as a result of prescription drug use.

It’s sort of like living downstream from the Fukushima nuclear reactors. Sure, you can try to deal with the downstream problems, but it is enormously difficult and fraught with problems. Wouldn’t preventing the disaster in the first place be the wiser course of action?

A New Type of Medicine

It’s time to start focusing on stopping the upstream pollution. Health professionals must begin taking a proactive approach to health and wellness rather than a reactive one.

Many, like Drs. Lipman and Hyman already are.

Functional medicine is a science-based, personalized approach to medicine that treats the underlying cause of illness. This type of medicine takes a proactive, system-focused approach, rather than the old reactive, symptom-focused one. In other words, functional medicine looks at the whole person and attempts to figure out why he or she has symptoms of disease. In addition, prevention, largely ignored by conventional medicine, is an important aspect of functional medicine.

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From the Organic Authority Files

To gain a full understanding of what’s going on in the patient’s entire system, a functional medicine practitioner will likely inquire about the following aspects of the patient’s lifestyle and/or environment in an effort to restore health:

  • Diet
  • Nutrients
  • Air
  • Water
  • Microorganisms
  • Physical Exercise
  • Trauma (including trauma that occurred decades ago)
  • Psycho-social factors (the interaction between social factors and individual thoughts and behaviors)
  • Xenobiotics (chemical substances foreign to the body)
  • Radiation

Aside from the cursory advice to, “eat healthier and exercise more,” when was the last time your doctor brought up any of these lifestyle factors?

The functional medicine practitioner will use this information about lifestyle factors to answer the following two primary questions in order to restore health to a patient:

  1. Does this patient need to get rid of something in their life? An unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, exposure to environmental toxins, stress, bad relationships, and other negative inputs are all factors that may need to be eliminated in order to bring the patient back to optimal health.
  2. Does this patient need something they are not currently getting? Detoxification, an elimination diet, or certain nutrients are examples of things the patient might need in order to restore optimal health.

Physicians and patients alike are flocking to functional medicine. For physicians, it allows them to spend more time with the patient and provide a long-term solution rather than a short-term quick fix. Patients love it for the same reason. Their underlying issues are being identified and solved, rather than suppressed with drugs. It’s a win/win.

Genes: Not the Whole Story

Another area where functional medicine outshines conventional medicine is that functional medicine considers not only the uniqueness of each patient’s genetic makeup, but also the interaction between genetic predisposition and lifestyle and/or environment. This is why a functional medicine practitioner will ask you about the air, water, chemicals, radiation, and other environmental inputs you’re exposed to. It’s because these things interact with your genes, turning them on and off in ways that make you healthier or sicker.

Unfortunately, some still resist the idea that anything other than their genes holds the keys to their health destiny. The truth is, genes alone are not the issue. Genetics often load the gun but in many cases, it’s environmental factors that pull the trigger.

For example, according to a 2008 study conducted by The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, only 5 to 10 percent of cancers are due to genetics alone. The other 90 to 95 percent have their roots in environment and lifestyle. In addition, even if you are genetically predisposed to cancer or other diseases, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the disease. A newly emerging field of science known as epigenetics shows us that diet and other environmental factors can actually change gene expression. In other words, “bad” genes can be turned off and “good” ones turned on, depending on what you allow in, on, and around your body.

None of this is to say that conventional medicine doesn’t have its place. If you’re in the throes of a heart attack or just got into an accident, a functional medicine doctors isn’t the person you want to see. But when it comes to treating – or preventing – chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases, our system is failing too many people. Despite all of our medical advances, nearly one out of two adults will develop cancer in their lifetime; almost 30 million people, about 10 percent of the U.S. population, have diabetes, and about one-third more are prediabetic. More than600,000 Americans die from heart disease every year.

Something must be done, and soon. When it comes to chronic disease, the gap between scientific research and integration in conventional medicine practice is around 50 years. But Americans can not afford to wait 50 years for that change. Functional medicine is part of the solution now.

Are you interested in giving functional medicine a try? Click here for more information about functional medicine and to find a practitioner in your area.

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Doctor image via Shutterstock

Kristina Sampson is a breast cancer survivor and Certified Health Coach who focuses on the effects of nutrition, exercise, environment, and mindfulness on our health. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Nutrition and Functional Medicine from the University of Western States in Portland, OR. Kristina runs the website The Vail Diet and is the author of “Leave Cancer in the Dust: 50 Tips to Prevent Breast Cancer and Supercharge Your Health.”

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