Conventional medicine leaves many patients looking for answers and relief. Even after multiple prescriptions, several tests, and many of those 8–10 minute doctor visits, someone suffering an ailment can be left asking themselves, “Why don’t I feel good?”
If a patient complains long enough, they may receive a psychiatrist referral from their doctor.
This is not a critique of conventional Western medicine, which is responsible for saving thousands of lives on a daily basis. Instead, I want to focus on the patients for whom conventional medicine hasn’t provided the answers or relief they were expecting.
For that sizable group of patients, finding a practitioner of functional medicine can be invaluable. Functional medicine is a personalized and integrative approach to health care that involves understanding the prevention, management, and root causes of complex chronic disease.
By taking the best aspects from conventional medicine, naturopathic, genomic, integrative, and various other modalities, it offers one of the most comprehensive and effective approaches to health care in the 21st century.
The focus is the patient and their unique presentation and response. Practitioners of functional medicine are flexible and results-driven, using whichever medical approach suits the personalized needs of the patient and addresses the cause of their problem.
Some critics who don’t understand functional medicine say it rejects conventional medicine, but that is untrue for the majority of practitioners. According to the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), the leading provider for functional medicine education to health care practitioners in the world, more than 75 percent of their current trainee’s have an underlying training in conventional medicine as a medical doctor, doctor of osteopathy, nurse practitioner, or physician’s assistant. They don’t throw away those years of conventional medical training, rather, they educate themselves further in order to add more tools to their toolbox when evaluating and treating their patients.
What makes functional medicine so effective?
To start is the concept of systems biology, which is the study of the interactions and behavior of the components of biologic entities, including molecules, cells, organs, and organisms. This is the philosophical foundation of functional medicine and all of the patient’s symptoms and complaints are seen through this lens.
There is also much more focus placed on determining the state and balance of the various foundational systems within the patient’s body rather than simply giving a diagnosis paired with a symptom-suppressing treatment. These foundational systems include: mitochondrial function, methylation, hormone balance, gut microbiome, detoxification capacity, HPA axis, and the gut-immune-brain axis to name a few.
While the conventional diagnosis itself is sought after in some cases, it isn’t mandatory to establish root causation of the patient’s problems.
Natural treatments are strongly preferred within functional medicine with an emphasis placed on nutrition, lifestyle, and exercise. We aim to use treatments which work with the natural rhythms and cycles of the body rather than against them. Pharmaceutical medications are also used, but only after we have exhausted or failed natural means.
Mental complaints in many cases are seen as a potential equivalent to neurological physical symptoms and treated as such. The root cause of many mental health diagnoses, such as depression and anxiety, can be found outside the brain and successfully treated. Emotional, mental, and spiritual components are always considered in every workup, in addition to the more obvious physical components.
And importantly, functional medicine is more health-oriented and patient-centric than conventional medicine. The ultimate goal of functional medicine to optimize each patient’s health. This is unique to each person and goes beyond only ensuring the absence of disease.
Functional medicine expands a physician’s toolbox beyond pharmaceuticals and surgery. It also includes botanicals, supplements, therapeutic diets, exercise plans, functional neuro-rehabilitation, detoxification programs, stress management techniques, and much more.
One of the goals is for the physician and patient to become active partners. Such a partnership allows the patient to truly be in control of improving their health and achieving optimal wellness.
Armen Nikogosian, MD, practices functional and integrative medicine at Southwest Functional Medicine in Henderson, Nev. He is board certified in Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs. His practice focuses on the treatment of complex medical conditions with a special emphasis on autism spectrum disorder in children as well as chronic gut issues and autoimmune conditions in adults.