What is functional medicine?
Functional medicine is a term slowly garnering interest in the medical fraternity among those doctors who seek to care for their patients in a more holistic fashion. In reality, it is the approach to healing which most naturopaths have been taught and practice.
The focus of functional medicine (and naturopathy for that matter) is on looking at the person as a whole where every system is connected and impacts on the other systems (think your immune system, nervous system, digestion, hormones, cardiovascular system etc). A problem with one may quite likely affect others as your body tries to maintain balance (known as homoeostasis).
Your systems are not separate or isolated from each other. Unfortunately the modern medical system is not well suited to looking at you as a whole person and if you have one or more chronic problems you are likely to be under the care of a number of professionals who may or may not have the time or systems in place to communicate with each other about your overall health or to take a step back to look at the bigger picture.
When was the last time your specialist asked you about your diet or what’s going on in your life or something other than their particular area of interest?
The practice of functional medicine aims to look at how all your systems are functioning in harmony with each other, taking into account your genetics, your external environment and your lifestyle. It’s a bit like listening to an orchestra. If just one instrument is slightly out of tune, or one musician is slightly off-beat it can affect the others and spoil the whole performance.
Or look at it another way…how well your car works. If it doesn’t start, you have a problem and it needs to be fixed to get you back on the road. But what if it might go when you start it, and it might get you from A to B but it doesn’t do that very well? Is it running a bit rough? Are the tyres a bit low on air or thin on tread? Can it accelerate when needed or brake suddenly if required? Does everything work as intended by the manufacturer or as well as when you bought it?
In other words, technically it “works”, but is it FUNCTIONING OPTIMALLY or even WELL?
That’s one of the principles of functional medicine and naturopathy. Not just “are you broken?” but are you (all your organs and systems) functioning at an optimal level.
The ultimate aim of functional medicine and naturopathy is to address the underlying cause of your ill-health….working “upstream” from the symptoms which tend to show up more “downstream”. Picture a beautiful lake being fed by a river. If the lake is full of rubbish, you could build a barrier to stop the rubbish entering the lake (this is what many pharmaceuticals do). This might work for a while but that rubbish is still coming down the river so it just moves the problem. Alternatively, you could go upstream to find the source of the rubbish and address that instead. That’s naturopathy and functional medicine.
The patient or client gets to be involved
This is another tenet. You probably know your body better than anyone (even if it is a source of confusion for you from time to time). As a naturopath or functional medicine practitioner, I want to hear your story and get you involved in your treatment plan and recovery. I want to know how you are responding to treatment, what food and lifestyle recommendations are working, what’s not working, what’s happening in your life etc. Together, we come up with a plan of attack that will work for you. There is no one-size-fits-all. Every bit of feedback helps me to help you and guides my therapeutic recommendations so that they are actually changes you can sustain.
Why do we practice a functional medicine approach to your health care?
In the developed world we are surrounded by people suffering from what are typically called “chronic” illnesses. These are things like auto-immune illnesses, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression and anxiety, IBS, chronic fatigue, insomnia, pain and more. They are generally long term in nature and tend to be progressive. They generally affect more than one system of the body and have “knock-on” effects so it is crucial that we look at the whole person and take the time to understand the bigger picture of the drivers that have lead them to this point. It requires a bit of detective work to find the key clues and pull them together.
Health is not just about absence of disease. It’s about vitality, energy, happiness and perhaps even a sense of contentment or peace. My goal is to support your health span, not just your life span. To do this it is important to support your foundations of diet, lifestyle and environment. This comes back to looking at things like sleep, relaxation, activity, nutrition, stress, genes, relationships and mental, emotional and spiritual needs.
And once you are feeling well, it is important to keep you well so the focus moves to preventative medicine to ensure any signs that your health might be slipping are picked up early. So, every so often I will look for changes in normal patterns of sleep, digestion, hormones, mood, energy, immunity and so on. If everything looks good, you keep on doing all the great things you are doing for your health. If something is perhaps not as great as it could be, we address it before it gets worse.
I love taking a functional medicine approach to helping my clients. As a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine and having studied with them, it gives me a great base from which to help my clients.