Whether you’re dealing with inexplicable weight gain, mood imbalance, irregular periods, breakouts, or other chronic health challenges, you might feel like you’ve hit a wall with your treatment plan, and that the options you’ve been given are more like bandages than solutions. That frustration can lead some patients to explore alternative therapies and modes of care, such as functional medicine, a discipline that has been touted by practitioners like Deepak Chopra, an avid alternative medicine advocate, author, and speaker.
According to the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), the discipline “is an approach to health care that conceptualizes health and illness as part of a continuum in which all components of the human biological system interact dynamically with the environment, producing patterns and effects that change over time.” Functional health practitioners have advanced professional degrees in licensed health care fields, which means post-graduate training is necessary for a doctor or other healthcare professional (in certain fields) to practice it, according to Functional Medicine University.
“At its core, functional medicine is designed to find the root causes of imbalances and dysfunction within the body that lead to chronic symptoms or disease,” explains Linda Matteoli, DO, owner of Origins Functional Medicine and a board-certified family physician in Longwood, Florida.
There’s more to it than that, though—here are four things you should know about this form of medical treatment.
1. Functional medicine practitioners aim to zoom out and get a bird’s eye view of your health concerns—and their causes.
Dr. Matteoli explains that diagnostic testing, like blood work and lab, is certainly utilized in functional medicine practices, but providers “look for imbalances in all areas of a person’s life—such as sleep, nutrition, exercise, relationships, and stress management.” In other words, their goal is to go “beyond laboratory or imaging studies.”
Another way of looking at this concept: “In general, the body will never harm itself. Everything the body does, even cancer, is done as a protection mechanism to repair damage and maintain life,” explains Raul Serrano, DC, doctor of functional medicine and owner of Ignite Chiropractic & Wellness in Palm Harbor, Florida. “The problem happens when there is outside interference of some sort that either prevents the body from functioning properly or causes the body to take defensive measures.” He goes on to say that this could be related to nutrition, toxins, physical impairments, or other factors.
“In functional medicine, we work to eliminate the interference and create the environment for the body to function at its maximum potential,” says Serrano.
2. Functional medicine is also preventative medicine.
Even patients who aren’t struggling with a frustrating chronic health concern could benefit from seeing a functional medicine doctor. Dawn DeSylvia, MD, owner of Whole Life Health in Los Angeles, California, says that in her practice, she looks to “identify early risks for disease, many of which may go undetected for years. With early identification of risk factors, along with treatment interventions, we can greatly reduce the risk of disease developing in the first place.”
For instance, one major precursor to disease that functional medicine doctors will investigate is inflammation, Dr. DeSylvia notes. “From there, we work to remove the risk factors contributing to this inflammation,” she says. Doctors may also work with their patients to come up with an anti-inflammatory protocol in which they incorporate certain foods and nutrients into the diet.
3. Functional medicine aims for long-term healing
“Functional medicine is truly for everyone,” Dr. Matteoli shares. “Often these individuals have had many previous doctor appointments without clarity and answers or have been told that prescription drugs or surgery are their only options for managing their symptoms.”
For patients who have been in this position, Dr. Matteoli notes that functional medicine may be appealing, as providers are focused on investigating the origin of a health concern and identifying subtle imbalances.
Dr. DeSylvia concurs that functional medicine is often an attractive avenue for “people who either have been diagnosed with a disease, and are suffering side effects from their current treatment, or ‘falling into the statistics’ that treatment fails.” She adds, “Also, I see people who have been to specialist after specialist and told, ‘Nothing can be done.’”
The focus, then, would be to address the issue—but to also come up with a long-term plan. Though functional medicine can address an acute issue, providers aim to hone in on the underlying cause of a chronic imbalance and then come up with a treatment game plan that will promote wellness now and in the future. “The combination of this expanded workup with holistic treatment helps to balance the entire person, which in turn leads to true long-term healing,” explains Dr. Matteoli.
4. Providers work with patients to come up with an individualized treatment plan.
Patients who see a functional medicine doctor will be able to have a true back-and-forth conversation with their provider, as opposed to being given directives around their treatment.
The IFM notes that, “Patients and providers work together to determine the diagnostic process, set achievable health goals, and design an appropriate therapeutic approach.”
That said, no treatment plan—functional or otherwise—should be seen as a magic bullet, Dr. Matteoli points out. “One pill or one surgery is not going to correct chronic disease,” she says. “Rather, it takes the approach of a widespread treatment—identifying and rebalancing multiple systems simultaneously to achieve wellness.”