It’s frustrating to have a chronic health condition that won’t improve. And it’s frustrating to have symptoms that doctors cannot explain, never mind treat. You may see numerous doctors, but never receive answers and treatments that make you feel better. If you find yourself in this situation, you may want to consider seeing a functional medicine provider. These doctors, nurse practitioners, and other professionals focus on how and why illness occurs. And they help patients feel better by addressing each patient’s root causes of disease. Could functional medicine help you?
What exactly is functional medicine?
Like the name suggests, functional medicine is focused on helping the body function in the best way possible. Importantly, functional medicine providers realize every person is different – from genetics to biochemical makeup. Therefore, functional medicine providers use a personalized approach to diagnose and treat each person. But it’s not all hocus pocus. It’s based on scientific research.
Importantly, functional medicine could help you manage a chronic illness that hasn’t been easily managed by a conventional medicine approach. It could possibly improve your life, not just your health.
Who can practice functional medicine?
Doctors who have completed traditional medical school training can get a certification in functional medicine from an organization such as The Institute for Functional Medicine. These doctors then apply the principles of functional medicine to their original field of practice.
Additionally, other healthcare providers, such as acupuncturists, nurse practitioners, and chiropractors can also receive functional medicine certification.
These certifications prove the providers have received trained and are committed to this approach.
Interestingly, there is a growing interest in this field, with an increasing number of healthcare providers becoming certified.
Finding the root causes of diseases.
What makes functional medicine different is the focus on looking at the body as a whole and focusing on the root causes of disease, rather than just looking at an isolated set of symptoms. You can think of it as investigative medicine.
According to The Institute for Functional Medicine, functional medicine is “an individualized, patient-centered, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness.”
Simply put, function medicine focuses on identifying and addressing the root causes of disease.
Functional medicine is based on the evidence that genetics, plus lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep, exercise, stress levels, and relationships are major contributors to chronic disease. Additionally, functional medicine considers your exposures to environmental toxins, your gut’s microbiome, as well as the medications you take.
Therefore, functional medicine providers examine your genetic, biochemical, and lifestyle factors to find the root cause of your health issues. They order testing to understand your unique needs. For instance, you might receive tests rarely order by a conventional medicine provider, such as testing your blood for nutrient deficiencies and/or checking your stool for bacteria or parasites.
And they listen intently to how you feel and how you describe your symptoms.
After identifying your root causes, providers use this information to create a personalized treatment plan that should provide long lasting improvements to your health.
Interestingly, a functional medicine provider may find that one of your health conditions is caused by many different factors. Or he/she may find that one of your factors leads to many different health conditions.
What kinds of treatments can you expect?
First and foremost, with functional medicine, the care given is based on the system affected, not the condition diagnosed. For example, a functional medicine doctor may find multiple causes for a patient’s depression. After finding the root causes, the doctor will treat each root cause, leading to a personalized treatment plan.
Importantly, a foundation of functional medicine is using food (and dietary supplements) as medicine to prevent, treat, and reverse chronic disease. But it’s not just about food. Functional medicine providers encourage patients to make changes to their diet and lifestyle, including the following:
- Eating the right foods for your body.
- Using recommended natural supplements.
- Exercising regularly.
- Improving sleep patterns.
- Reducing stress levels.
Plus, providers may recommend acupuncture, meditation, yoga, tai chi, massage, and/or behavioral therapy (also known as cognitive therapy).
Additionally, providers will incorporate traditional medicine as needed, including prescription medications.
Why don’t all doctors and healthcare providers practice functional medicine?
In an ideal world, all doctors, nurse practitioners and other healthcare providers would have the time to fully examine the genetic, biochemical, and lifestyle factors for each patient to determine the root cause of symptoms. And in this ideal world, providers would use this information, along with input from patients, to create personalized treatment plans, including changes to diet and lifestyle. But sadly, conventional medicine rarely works that way.
One hurdle for conventional medicine is time-squeezed appointments, often dictated by insurance allowances or hospital guidelines, which don’t give providers enough time to thoroughly pursue all possible root causes. In contrast, most functional medicine providers don’t take insurance, giving them ample time to spend with their patients. They can take the time to get to know each patient, not just address a list of symptoms. In fact, a first session with a functional medicine doctor can last an hour or more!
Additionally, conventional care focuses on managing symptoms of disease – such as hypertension, or an abnormal blood sugar level – but rarely identifies underlying causes. Plus, many primary care doctors do not have the knowledge, or lack the confidence, to prescribe changes in diet and lifestyle.
Moreover, when you see specialists, they tend to focus on their area of expertise, sometimes without considering the potential interactions with your other health issues and with medications prescribed by other doctors.
In summary, the shortcomings of conventional medicine lead many doctors and other providers to practice one-size-fits-all medicine, which can leave you without the help you need and deserve.
Could functional medicine help you feel better?
Maybe! If you have a chronic condition that hasn’t responded well to conventional care, functional medicine might help you feel better. And the unique approach could make it easier to manage your daily symptoms.
Most functional medicine doctors solve complex and multifaceted health issues. Examples of conditions helped by functional medicine include depression, migraines, chronic fatigue, dizziness, chronic pain conditions like arthritis, and inflammatory diseases like Celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
If you don’t have a chronic illness, you can still use a functional medicine provider. Interestingly, many providers also focus on preventative care.
One example – help for those with depression.
Although many doctors prescribe anti-depressants for patients with depression, these medications may not be the best choice for patients. For starters, the opinions of experts vary regarding the effectiveness of anti-depressants for those with mild to moderate depression. And many patients do not take their anti-depressants due to forgetfulness, side effects, or concerns about effectiveness.
Most importantly, these medications do not address the root cause of depression, which varies from patient to patient. Functional medicine doctors look at many factors to find potential root causes for each depressed patient, including:
- Amino acid imbalance or deficiency.
- Vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
- Chronic inflammation.
- Issues with the gut biome.
When successful, this approach can eliminate the use of anti-depressants while helping patients feel better.
Research at Cleveland Clinic shows a positive impact.
In 2014, Cleveland Clinic became the first academic medical center to open a functional medicine center. A recent study conducted at Cleveland Clinic found that functional medicine was associated with improvements in health-related quality of life.
The 2-year study compared thousands of patients seen in either the functional medicine clinic or in a traditional primary care setting. The researchers monitored physical and mental health over time using PROMIS®, an NIH-validated questionnaire. The questionnaire assesses health-related quality of life by measuring many factors, including fatigue, physical function, pain, gastrointestinal issues, and emotional well-being.
Interestingly, the study found that patients seen in the functional medicine clinic showed significantly larger improvements in their PROMIS physical health scores, compared to smaller improvements in patients seeing primary care doctors.
The researchers suggest the improvements shown for the functional medicine group is likely due to many factors, including the different approach of functional medicine, the types of patients who seek functional medicine care, the level of treatment adherence, and/or the belief that this model of care will help them.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Michelle Beidelschies, states that in the past, functional medicine providers have relied on anecdotal evidence, but this study shows their approach is associated with improved quality of life.
Does insurance cover functional medicine visits?
Most functional medicine providers do not take insurance, which means you must pay out of pocket, which can be expensive. Hopefully, this will change in the future and insurance will cover all or some of the costs associated with functional medicine care.
And some of the blood tests ordered by functional medicine providers may not be covered by your insurance. Since some of these blood tests can be quite expensive, don’t be shy about asking about costs before you agree to testing.
- Advanced care. Being “insurance-free” allows doctors to recommend the most advanced therapies and testing. The insurance model keeps many doctors and other healthcare providers stuck in the current “standard of care” because that is often what is reimbursed, even if a standard of care is outdated.
- Personalized care. Treatments are based on the best possibilities for an individual with a unique genome, microbiome, and lifestyle, instead of basing treatments on what the insurance company will cover.
- Time. Insurance allowances often lead to quick, rushed appointments. First visits to functional medicine providers often last at least an hour, with providers taking the time needed to perform a comprehensive assessment.
- 1:1 partnership. Your provider is only working for you. There’s no need to balance insurance requirements with your needs. And no interference by other parties.
Should you see a functional medicine provider?
If you can afford it, there are many reasons to use a functional medicine provider. WebMD provides a helpful list to help you decide if it’s right for you:
- You Want Longer Appointments
Functional medicine doctors typically spend more time with you because their process involves recording a detailed history.
- You Are Open to Alternative Treatments
A functional medicine provider may also prescribe alternative treatments like acupuncture, meditation, or herbal remedies.
- You Have a Chronic Illness
Functional medicine is well suited to treating chronic illnesses. Providers seek to find the causes of chronic disease, as opposed to only treating the symptoms.
- You Want a Personalized Experience
Functional medicine addresses each person individually. Using a different approach than conventional doctors, a functional medicine doctor will help you figure out which specific treatments are right for you.
Lastly, realize that following treatment suggestions will require a commitment on your part. You will likely have to change your diet – which may include giving up your favorite foods. And you will likely be asked to exercise regularly and find ways to reduce your stress levels. If you’re not open to making changes in your diet and lifestyle, functional medicine might not make sense for you.
Want to find a provider?
There are a few ways you can find a provider, including:
- Using the search tool on the website of The Institute for Functional Medicine.
- Searching online using the term “functional medicine” and the name of your town/region.
- Asking your primary care doctor for recommendations.
- Asking friends and family members for recommendations.
Also, The Institute for Functional Medicine has helpful tips for working with a functional medicine provider.