Functional medicine is essentially an “alternative” Western medicine that uses scientific research to inform clinical decisions, and is based on a Western disease and physiological model. However, functional medicine differs in three major ways:
1. More holistic. Functional medicine notices relationships in the body and treats underlying causes, instead of branch symptoms. It focuses more on individual presentation than on a disease-oriented approach. Functional medicine does address traditional diseases, but it often treats them as 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, rather than by suppressing the immune system.
2. Uses cutting-edge research. Functional medicine quickly implements the newest research, often years before mainstream medicine adopts the research. For example, new research on the gut microbiome becomes available literally 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 treats with botanicals, vitamins & minerals, supplements, and lifestyle, instead of pharmaceuticals. Though sometimes pharmaceuticals are necessary, plants and supplements are the preferred method of treatment for the vast majority of chronic conditions in my clinic as they are often more effective, are safer, and have less side-effects, I’ve seen a large percentage of individuals with chronic conditions heal with this holistic approach, whereas Western medicine has resigned itself to a lifetime of medications!
Functional medicine offers patients a more personalized form of medicine. In addition, functional medicine not only addresses one’s current problems, but is preventative, as it addresses imbalances before diseases manifest. Chinese medicine is similar, which is why I have chosen to integrate the two.
Lab Testing is another important aspect of functional medicine’s diagnostic skill. Functional medicine 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 without a serious disease. Blood work comes back within range that might be interpreted as 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: For example, with hypothyroidism, intricate tests provide a more in-depth view than those generally 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 or the pituitary are struggling, or the body is not converting T4 to T3 properly. These are all treated differently, without direct use of thyroid hormones, helping patients to address root causes of their 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 point to chronic disharmonies, contributing factors for chronic disease, or preventive disease markers. For example, gut bacteria imbalances have been implemented in many chronic “disease” states. Figuring out which bacteria are deficient or in excess can be invaluable to help you feel 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 infections. Let’s say that hypothyroid is determined to be the source of the high cholesterol. 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, or latent infections. Autoimmune conditions may be caused by latent infections or leaky gut (intestinal permeability) with food sensitivities.
Quickly we see the complex web of relationships taking shape. 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, rather than holistically, and will 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.
I would love to hear any questions or comments.
- Critique of Functional Medicine
- Critique of Western Medicine
- What a True Integrative medicine looks like
In health, Jason…
Jason offers phone / Skype long distance consults.
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Open Gate Acupuncture, located in Boulder Colorado, serves patients throughout the Boulder county region including Denver, Longmont, Gunbarrel, Lafayette, & Louisville.
Jason Blalack has been treating patients in Boulder for over 16 years, is an international lecturer on Chinese medicine and has an extensive collection of Chinese medicine articles published in professional journals worldwide. Jason specializes in autoimmune, digestive disorders, fertility, and emotional disorders.