Functional medicine is exploding in popularity - and for a good reason. What was once considered “alternative” is now becoming mainstream medicine as more and more patients seek answers to their chronic health conditions.
A skilled functional medicine practitioner can help patients with complex, chronic conditions that allopathic medicine hasn’t been able to cure.
Navigating the world of functional medicine can be confusing, so we built this guide to answer all your questions, starting with the basics.
What is Functional Medicine?
Functional medicine is an individualized root cause medicine approach to healthcare. These practitioners consider factors like diet, genetics, hormonal changes, and other lifestyle components as potential causes and treatments for patients’ diseases.
Functional medicine appointments are much more in-depth than a typical allopathic appointment. They include a detailed intake and a series of specialty labs to get a comprehensive overview of how well your body is performing.
Functional Medicine practitioners focus on optimal lab values, which are more narrow than the standard lab values used in allopathic medicine. Anything outside of those optimal values can show patterns and markers that spot trends toward disease. By catching these markers early on, functional medicine practitioners have a chance at reversing or stopping disease progression altogether.
Patients will work with their functional medicine practitioners over several months to address their root cause diagnosis and work on lifestyle and nutritional changes alongside supplement protocols to help the body heal.
The History of Functional Medicine
Functional and Integrative medicine started making its way on the scene in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. During that era, progressive healers started using “natural medicine” to get to the root of disease and treat the whole person. By the 1980s, medical providers were using labs to test amino acid levels, fatty acids, toxic metals, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and hormones, to spot disease progression. They were treating chronic ailments with nutrition, supplements, and exercise and getting outstanding results.
In 1990 Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., coined the term Functional Medicine and started conducting regular seminars throughout the United States, sharing his knowledge on various subjects such as gastrointestinal health, immune health, hormone balance, and detoxification. He, along with his wife Susan, founded the first Functional Medicine Institute in 1991.
Functional Medicine Education
To be eligible for certification as a functional medicine practitioner, you must have a graduate degree in a health-related field with one of the following credentials: Medical Doctor, Doctor of Osteopathy, Doctor of Chiropractic (DC), Naturopathic Doctor (ND), Dentist, Nurse Practitioner (NP), Acupuncturist (LAc), Pharmacist, mental health professionals, or an equivalent degree from countries outside of the US.
Physician Assistant (PA), Registered Nurse (RN), Registered Dietitian (RD), Occupational Therapist (OT), and Physical Therapist (PT) must hold at least a bachelor’s level degree in their field as long as their education was completed prior to the entry-level education change.
How is Functional Medicine Different from Integrative Medicine?
Many people use the terms interchangeably, and they’re similar but slightly different.
Both are focused on getting to the root cause, are holistic and individualized, and prioritize lifestyle, nutritional, and behavioral changes over pharmaceuticals.
The difference is with the approach to getting to the root cause diagnosis. Functional medicine uses in-depth bloodwork and specialty lab testing to get at the root cause, while integrative practitioners may focus more on standard lab testing.
Additionally, the credentialing is different. Integrative medicine is a board-certified fellowship that MDs and DOs can take and obtain as an official credential, and functional medicine offers both fellowships and post-graduate certifications.
What Conditions Does a Functional Medicine Doctor Treat?
Most patients who go to a functional medicine practitioner usually have a chronic condition or “mystery illness” for which allopathic medicine has no diagnosis.
Functional medicine practitioners are like personal medical investigators and are equipped to solve complex and multifaceted health issues. Examples include endocrine disorders, hormonal imbalances, mental health, and chronic pain conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia. They also treat autoimmune and inflammatory diseases like multiple sclerosis, Lyme’s disease, celiac, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Many patients without chronic disease also choose to see functional medicine practitioners annually for preventative care.
Why Should I Choose a Functional Medicine Practitioner?
For certain patients, working with a functional medicine practitioner can be life-changing. Patients with chronic and complex conditions who have no clear diagnosis can often get to the root cause of their issues and ultimately get their quality of life back.
- Get to the root cause of why you feel sick
- In-depth appointments with your practitioner - most visits are 60 - 90mins long, as compared to 15 mins from a PCP
- Relies primarily on lifestyle, diet, and supplements rather than drugs or surgery
- Preventative - can save you money down the road
- Takes into account the whole person in healing
- Get in-depth lab testing done and gain insights
- Allows you to find ways to optimize your health - often without pharmaceuticals or procedures
- It can be an out-of-pocket cost. Although many accept FSA, HSA, and wellness payment plans.