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HOLISTIC HEALTH - March 2020
What is Functional Medicine Anyway?
by Emily Day
Although there are similarities between Integrative and Functional Medicines, there are differences, too.
Integrative Medicine is a health care approach that incorporates different tools, such as nutrition, meditation, exercise, supplements, and more, to help a patient achieve a balanced state. It focuses on whole-person care, with the philosophy that health is a combination of mind, body, and spirit.
Functional Medicine is one of the tools within the Integrative Medicine umbrella that seeks the underlying causes of a patient’s symptoms or disease. Those trained in Functional Medicine look to the whole person to uncover imbalances leading to dysfunction that manifest as disease.
Mark Hyman, one of the leaders in the field of Functional Medicine, says, “There’s a doctor for every inch of us, but who’s the doctor that puts it all together?” Family practice and internal medicine providers are trained to address the whole person, but they are often constrained by short 10- to 20-minute office visits. Conversely, a new patient visit with a Functional Medicine provider is 60-90 minutes and aims to address your health history from pre-conception onwards.
If symptoms or disease are present, a Functional Medicine provider looks for underlying factors that may be affecting your health. For example, environmental inputs are information to our bodies, from the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we consume, pollutants we are exposed to, our social and psychological health, and the exercise we do (or don’t do) each day. A Functional Medicine provider spends time addressing each of these aspects of our lives, looking for imbalances as leverage points to help patients get well. Think of Functional Medicine like sustainable, organic agriculture–treat the soil, remove what causes imbalance, provide what creates balance.
Functional Medicine also addresses genetics. Although you may be predisposed to certain conditions, research shows that genes are influenced by your environment, a phenomenon called epigenetics. It’s possible, through everyday behaviors such as eating whole foods, getting adequate sleep and exercise, committing to daily stress management and more, to change the way genes are activated and expressed. It’s important to review your current health-related behaviors and work to improve those that are not as consistent. Remember, you are not your genes, but rather your genetic expression.
Along those lines, Functional Medicine is also valuable for prevention. Most chronic diseases are preceded by long-term imbalances that can be identified and addressed. For example, in traditional medicine, we learn to measure fasting glucose to assess a person’s risk of developing diabetes. But Functional Medicine checks fasting insulin, because this metric rises five to 10 years earlier than fasting glucose and is, therefore, an important harbinger of declining pancreatic function and rising risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Fasting insulin is easily checked by blood and is frequently a part of a workup through a Functional Medicine provider. When elevated, incorporating key nutritional, exercise, and supplement interventions can help prevent worsening pancreatic function and the onset of Type 2 Diabetes.
In another example, ferritin is a marker for our iron stores, and it lowers earlier than hemoglobin when someone is at risk of iron-deficiency anemia. Checking ferritin through a blood test is another way to address nutritional imbalances before a larger and more debilitating diagnosis of anemia occurs. When low, a Functional Medicine provider might advise more iron-rich foods and/or an iron supplement coupled with a search for any chronic low-level blood loss causing the low iron and ferritin.
If the roots of a tree, its foundation, are not strongly established, the tree will fall. In Functional Medicine, we seek to ensure that your foundation of health is strong so that you can better weather life’s challenges without significant consequences.
Emily Day is a Family Nurse Practitioner and Functional Medicine provider at Nurturing Optimal Wellness with Dr. Nancy Russell.