Functional medicine (FM) is an intelligent combination of conventional and alternative medicine that focuses on the ability of the body to heal itself. FM is about treating the whole person, taking into account all aspects of lifestyle in understanding health and illness in a way that values the practitioner to patient relationship. It is for those eager to live more vital lives who are ready to take charge of their health in a systems-approach to wellness. It’s for those who want the most out of life.
Finding My Path
When I first heard of the term, “functional medicine” some seven years ago it seemed the stars were finally aligning, all at once, in my universe. The term is now just about everywhere you look, and for good reason, as functional medicine is providing a much needed alternative path to health for many people. When I discovered the this type of healthcare I realized that I finally found my path. One that I was already on without realizing it.
If anyone is familiar with the traditional route that a Registered Dietitian (the “R.D” in the “Let’s Get Real R.D.”) takes to get accredited you know it doesn’t even touch on the world of functional medicine. In fact, I address this in my post about my journey to becoming a functional health dietitian. Then why did I end up spending the last five years of my career learning everything and anything I can about functional medicine and nutrition? Simply put, this is the way I always thought wellness was always supposed to be. It turns out I had been practicing “functionally” before I even knew that’s what it was! Functional medicine is more than a type of healthcare, it is an approach to life that promoted wellness from the inside out.
[For clarity purposes, I will be using functional medicine and functional nutrition interchangeably: functional nutrition is a subset of functional medicine]
Getting a Head Start
The term “functional” as defined by Merriam-Webster means “used to contribute to the development or maintenance of a larger whole.” It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized I had a head start in in this functional way of living which ultimately gave me a great foundation to pursue a career in functional nutrition.
I realized small things like growing up eating fresh foods from the garden, having access to locally grown meat or hunting it ourselves, and starting our days off with a home-cooked breakfast every morning and sitting around the table for a family dinner nearly every night were not so small or trivial afterall. We didn’t have limitless funds, but my mother always spent her money on whole foods and we hardly ever went out to eat. In fact she tells of a time when an acquaintance stopped her in the grocery store one day and commented on the oh-so-expensive walnuts in her cart, to which she replied, “yes, they are expensive so we will savor each and every bite of them!” She knew the importance of feeding our growing bodies whole, real foods and made financial sacrifices elsewhere so we could benefit from the power of nutritious home cooked meals and snacks.
It was activities aside from food that were a part of this equation too: my childhood was largely spent outdoors, community connection and involvement was plentiful, a trip to the doctor was reserved only for broken bones or stitches, essential oils were the first treatment for a burn, bedtimes were a real thing, and the words “I’m bored” were rarely muttered. Now before you think this is going all ‘Little House on the Prairie’ on you, let me remind you this was all pretty common practice not so long ago. It hasn’t been until the last few decades that our healthcare model has all but ignored these foundational steps of wellness and prevention and zoomed in on the world disease management and medication dependency.
Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy to live in a time where advancement in science and medicine is at its peak. Seriously, the technological advancements in medicine over the past 40 years has been downright incredible! We live in the right era to receive emergency surgery following a motor vehicle accident, to receive an organ replacement, have a limb sewed back on, or have access to life-saving antibiotics when needed! There just isn’t much attention paid to the body BEFORE any of this happens (and hopefully it never does!).
Why Functional Medicine Now?
For the majority of the population, a lot of years are lived in a non-emergency, every day state of well… living. The problem is “diseases linked to unhealthful diet and lifestyle choices, such as diabetes and cancer, are the leading causes of death in the United States, according to data published in JAMA.” This is real life people! This is the non-emergency life we are supposed to be enjoying everyday and we are losing it!
Researchers compared mortality for hundreds of causes and risk factors and found that heart disease, lung cancer, high BMI, and high blood pressure and blood sugar were all among the top risk factors for mortality (1). Dietary risk factors surpassed tobacco use as the leading cause of death. On top of this, how many people to do you that suffer from daily struggles with painful GI issues, hormone imbalance, fatigue, autoimmunity? The list goes on. If you’re lucky enough to be free of these symptoms and are generally well, you’re likely trying to cut through the constant noise of nutrition and health information that you don’t even know what to eat anymore!
It’s time for a change.
The science irrefutable shows that easily overlooked foundations like sleep, nutrition, gut health, community connection and stress management are cornerstones to achieving wellness. They simply can’t be ignored. The issue is your doctor simply doesn’t have the time to spend with you on these areas – even if they had the education to discuss them (which is another story), the current insurance model doesn’t allow it. It’s really not even their fault.
Enter functional medicine: a way out of the healthcare crisis.
Who if Functional Medicine For?
Let’s get real, there is a huge gap between emerging wellness research and the way most practitioners actually practice. Most physicians are not adequately trained to assess the underlying cause of chronic “dis-ease” and apply strategies such as nutrition, diet, and exercise to both treat and prevent these illnesses in their patients.
As president of the Institute of Functional Medicine, Mark Hyman MD puts it, “Functional medicine is medicine by cause, not by symptom. Functional medicine practitioners don’t, in fact, treat disease, we treat your body’s ecosystem. We get rid of the bad stuff, put in the good stuff, and because your body is an intelligent system – it does the rest.”
How I Use Functional Medicine.
Just like anything else, FM can mean something different to one practitioner or person than it does another. I am not going to practice in the same way that another functional health dietitian is going to. It is imperative to me, as a practitioner, to teach you how to take care of their own body. Just like the old proverb goes, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a million times, “just tell me what to eat and what not to eat.” I’m sorry, that’s just not going to help you in the long run. Instead, I listen to your story and help decide, together, how to move forward to achieve optimal health.
- 1. The US Burden of Disease Collaborators. The state of US health, 1990-2016 burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors among US states. JAMA. 2018;319:1444-1472.