What is Functional Medicine?

by Jason Blalack in Boulder Colorado

Functional medicine is essentially “alternative” Western medicine, based on the same disease and physiological model and uses scientific research to inform clinical decisions. However, functional medicine differs in three major ways:

1. More holistic. Functional medicine notices relationships in the body and treats the underlying cause instead of branch symptoms. It shifts away from a disease-oriented approach and focuses more on the individual presentation.  Functional medicine does address traditional diseases, but often these are manifestations of functional imbalances or issues leading to the “disease” process. For example, autoimmune diseases are often treated by addressing gut imbalances or latent pathogens and not by suppressing the immune system.

2. Uses cutting-edge research. Functional medicine quickly implements the newest research, many times years before mainstream medicine adopts it. For example, there is new research on the gut microbiome that is literally coming out every month. Certain bacteria strains can treat anxiety, eczema, depression, inflammation, immune issues, and even high cholesterol (see my recent article on probiotics).

3. Natural treatments. Functional medicine uses botanicals, vitamins & minerals, supplements, and lifestyle, instead of pharmaceuticals. Although sometimes pharmaceuticals are needed, in general, plants and supplements are safer, have less side-effects, are more effective, and thus the preferred method of treatment for the vast majority of chronic conditions in my clinic. I have seen a large percentage of chronic conditions can be healed with such an holistic approach where Western medicine has resigned itself to a lifetime of medications!

All this results in a more personalized medicine. In addition, functional medicine not only addresses one’s current problems, but also it is preventative, by addressing imbalances before disease manifests. Chinese medicine is very similar to this and why I have chosen to integrate the two.

Lab Testing is another important aspect of functional medicine’s diagnostic skill. It uses a more sophisticated view and interpretation of mainstream lab results as well as cutting-edge alternative lab testing.

Tighter References Ranges: Many times there are symptoms with no serious disease. Blood work comes back within range and it is said, “nothing is wrong”. For example, traditionally the thyroid  (TSH) reference range is roughly 0.5-4 mIU/L. Anything above 4 is considered hypothyroid. However in the functional medicine world anything above 2.5 is considered a functional problem and could easily cause issues, leading to a poorer quality of life.

Deeper Lab Testing: With hypothyroidism there are many tests to give a broader view that are rarely run in mainstream clinics. For example, I often look at TPO, TAA, rT3, FreeT3, and FreeT4. We might find the thyroid is in dysfunction because of an autoimmune disease (which then MUST be treated) or that the thyroid is not actually problematic, but the adrenal glands, pituitary, or the body is just not converting T4 to T3 properly. These are all treated differently and not treated with thyroid hormones, getting to a more root cause of the imbalance.

Alternative Lab Testing: There are numerous cutting-edge tests that Western medicine has not yet adopted (please see Jason’s bio for common tests that Jason runs). Such tests often do not diagnose diseases but find functional imbalances that are pointing to causes of chronic disharmonies or contributing factors for chronic disease, as well as looking at preventive disease markers. For example, gut bacteria imbalances have been implemented in many chronic “disease” states. Figuring out which bacteria are deficient or excess can be invaluable for feeling better! (e.g. see my recent article on gut microbiome testing). Other exciting tests are the sophisticated autoimmune and food testing of Cyrex labs.

A clinical example: High Cholesterol

Let’s put it all together and look at a common clinical occurrence, high cholesterol. In western medicine the majority of high cholesterol patients are given statins. Functional medicine notes seven main root causes for high cholesterol, such as, hypothyroid and chronic latent infectionsLet’s say, hypothyroid is determined to be the source. Western medicine reflexively gives artificial thyroid hormones, such as the drug Synthroid. In contrast, functional medicine notes many causes for hypothyroidism, such as, hypopituitary due to adrenal dysfunction or autoimmunity, resulting in Hashimotos. Adrenal dysfunction may be caused by other issues such as stress, gut issues, latent infections, etc. Autoimmune conditions may be caused by latent infections or leaky gut (intestinal permeability) with food sensitivities.

Quickly we see the complex web of relationships. It takes effort and time to fully understand what is happening in the body. Unfortunately, the current Western medicine model (with short appointment visits) does not permit such an in-depth analysis to find root causes. Thus the average Western medicine patient will be treated symptomatically, not holistically, and be given a drug for each “problem” found, e.g. a statin (for cholesterol), synthroid (for thyroid), without investigation into root causes.

Functional medicine excels in the treatment of chronic disease where there are multiple causative factors (such as genetics, lifestyle, and environment) and multiple relationships of dysfunction, contributing to the main disharmony.

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