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What Is Functional Medicine? Part 1 

So, you have an autoimmune disease or some other health condition and you’ve heard that functional medicine can help. But what is functional medicine and what is a functional medicine doctor? How does it differ from conventional medicine? And is functional medicine legit?  

As a functional medicine doctor, I am often asked “What is functional medicine?” Many people have heard the term but don’t know exactly how it differs from conventional medicine. In Part One of this blog post, we will discuss how functional medicine practitioners look for and address root causes, customize treatments for each patient, use specialized lab tests, and put the patient in the driver’s seat towards better health. In Part Two of this blog, we will answer frequently asked questions about functional medicine, such as if it is backed by evidence, how long treatment lasts, and the costs.

Getting at the Root Cause of Your Health Problem

Instead of its own unique medicine, functional medicine is more like a lens through which to view health. It aims to dive deeper than the diagnosis to understand why the problem is happening in the first place. By comparison, conventional medicine focuses on the diagnosis as a label for disease so that a corresponding treatment can be applied. But that’s where conventional medicine’s search for answers really stops. 

Contrast this to functional medicine practitioners, who practice root cause resolution, meaning first pinpointing what’s causing that dysfunction in the body and then resolving it. They don’t just put a Band-Aid on the problem. The root cause of dysfunction can vary from one individual to the next, even if they have the same disease diagnosis. That’s what makes looking at health through the functional medicine lens so powerful, because the care can be completely personalized to the individual instead of the conventional one-size-fits-all band-aid approach. 

In order to find the right solution, whether alternative or conventional, a practitioner has to understand what the problem is and why it’s happening. It’s serious investigative work. In fact,  different symptoms and diagnoses can often be linked to the same underlying imbalances and dysfunctions. So, it’s not as simple as xyz diagnosis = xyz treatment. We have to understand that each person is going to be different, even with the same diagnosis and disease process, and that different conditions can actually be related via underlying imbalances and dysfunction. For example, let’s take two people with rheumatoid arthritis. One may find that her joint pain disappears when she follows a strict gluten-free diet. The other one may be free of joint pain when she avoids certain chemicals. That’s what functional medicine is really good at: understanding all those pieces.

An Individualized Approach

Functional medicine looks holistically at the whole person. By contrast, in conventional medicine, the typical treatment approach is that somebody goes to a specialist who only looks at one part or system of their body, without paying attention to how anything else is working. 

For example, a rheumatologist is really concerned with the joints and an endocrinologist is concerned with the thyroid gland and hormones, and the gastroenterologist is looking at the gut. But none of these specialists put the big picture together and look at the whole person. Functional medicine looks at the whole person and then provides individualized care. 

Functional medicine tailors recommendations to each individual, because everyone has individual concerns and underlying issues that are why they developed the disease. Their genetics are different, their lifestyle is different, their environment is different, their diet is different. All of those factors make them a unique individual instead of just lumping them into a category or label of a disease diagnosis. 

Your individualized treatment recommendations are based on the root cause or causes of your disease. When a person has symptoms and a diagnosis, functional medicine doctors try to figure out which systems in the body aren’t working well and return them to normal function. Conventional medicine lumps symptoms under a diagnosis and uses the same treatment for anyone with that same diagnosis. Functional medicine is more focused on figuring out why the disease is there in the first place and making sure interventions are tailored to those causes. By taking this approach, we make sure to fix the problem rather than simply mask the symptoms. 

Preventing Future Problems

Another characteristic of functional medicine is that functional medicine doctors are not only trying to figure out why things aren’t working well in your body in the present, but they’re also more proactive at preventing future problems or stopping future progression of the disease as well as complications. By comparison, conventional medicine is reactive. It waits for symptoms to flare-up, or for a diagnosis, before jumping in to manage symptoms. 

Another big difference is that conventional medicine tends to be limited to following a path of disease progression. Conventional doctors usually believe the problem is going to be chronic, progressive, and degenerative, and therefore symptoms need to be managed over the long-term. They often assume that if an autoimmune patient gets put on an immunosuppressant or a biologic, then this patient will need to be on these drugs for the rest of their life to manage their symptoms. 

Conventional medicine can seem like doom and gloom. I hear it from people all the time. They just get told, “Oh, you have this disease, you’re going to need this medication forever. That’s all you can do.” 

In comparison, what we’re trying to do as functional medicine doctors is help fix the reasons why that problem was there in the first place, so the patient doesn’t have to rely on symptom management long-term. Functional medicine looks at how do we fix the problem and prevent it from coming back. 

What Tests Do Functional Medicine Doctors Do?

Functional medicine doctors dive deeper than the standard tests that conventional doctors usually order. In conventional medicine, diagnosis is based on standard blood work and symptoms. But in functional medicine, we’re testing a lot more areas. Functional medicine providers sometimes start by running a more comprehensive panel of standard bloodwork, including insulin instead of just glucose or hemoglobin A1c, for instance. We might do stool testing to check on what’s going on in the gut lining, how well the patient is digesting their food or if they have microbiome problems. Functional medicine doctors may run SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) tests, food sensitivity or allergy tests, advanced immune panels, nutritional and metabolic markers, and/or hormones. Conventional doctors dealing with autoimmune disease often ignore the gut, diet, hormones and stress as pieces of the problem, yet those areas can often hold many answers. 

An Empowering Approach

Functional medicine is an empowering approach for the patient because instead of looking at the patient as a victim that has this disease for the rest of their life, we look at it as they’re experiencing some dysfunction in their body that can be helped and resolved. We’re teaching them why it happened, ways to address it, and ways to take control of their health for a better outcome. Functional medicine can provide hope for people who want results.

It’s an empowering approach because we’re focusing so much on educating patients about why the problem is there, what they might be inadvertently doing that’s contributing to it, and what they can do to help it. SoSo, patients are not just left being victim to a disease and letting it rule and control their life. They’re able to take an active role in their health and participate in fixing the problem. In fact, our patients are very much part of their own health journey.

What to Expect at a Functional Medicine Appointment 

An appointment at Caplan Health Institute starts with us getting to understand what you’re experiencing. We do that through a complete health history. We listen to your story and what symptoms you notice in your body. Some patients have done their own research and figured out that maybe they have a gut problem or food sensitivities. We listen to you, because you know your body better than anyone—after all, you live in it. 

Based on your health history, we start to narrow down areas that might not be working so well in your body. We recommend different types of tests besides just blood testing. For example, we can do saliva testing looking at hormones or adrenal function, we can order stool testing to look at the gut and the microbiome. We can use an elimination diet to help you figure out if you have food sensitivities. We personalize which types of tests you need in order to help you figure out what the underlying problems are. 

Once we understand what aspects aren’t working well in your body, we can personalize your treatment plan. This can include working on your diet, lifestyle, and things you can control in your environment. You might employ mind-body treatments to reduce stress. Using nutritional supplements or herbal supplements can help give the body the support it needs to heal. 

The ultimate goal is very outcome driven. What we’re trying to do is educate individuals so that they know how to fix their problems. They understand what types of things trigger their symptoms in the first place so they can avoid flare ups and further issues down the line. They can prevent it from progressing so they can have a better quality of life now and in the future, without having to manage symptoms forever. 

Limitations of Functional Medicine

If functional medicine has any limitations, it’s that the patient needs to actively participate in the treatment process. There’s no magic pill to take. You must use what we learn by testing and the treatment approach designed especially for you in order to have the best results. It’s why we spend time educating you about the root cause of your condition. 

How to Find a Functional Medicine Doctor

As a functional medicine provider specializing in autoimmune patients, I can help you discover the root cause of your health problem. Wherever you’re located, the first step is to schedule a free 15-minute discovery consultation, by phone or video. If you’re looking for a functional medicine doctor in Ventura, Santa Barbara, or Southern California, we see patients in-person at the Caplan Health Institute office. 

After the discovery consultation, if you come on board as a practice member, I can listen to your health history, order the right tests, and personalize your treatment. The goal is to control your flare-ups, educate you about what steps you need to take, and keep you feeling your best. If you need a functional medicine provider closer to home, you can also find a practitioner through the Institute for Functional Medicine website.

Would you like to know more? Don’t miss “What is Functional Medicine? Part 2.” 

Author Profile

Board Certified in Integrative Medicine
Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner
Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner