Everything You Need to Know About Functional Medicine and Why It May Elevate Your Health to a Whole New Level

by health and nutrition advice journalist

focuses on the idea that healing should be individualized and holistic. It uses a deep-dive approach to get to know patients and uncover the root causes of an illness—all while empowering them to reach their ideal level of health.

“Ten people can come in with the same label of a diagnosis, but they have 10 different system dysfunctions, 10 different paths of how they got to that illness,” says Dr. Mark Menolascino, medical director of the in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

“We have to figure out for that one person in front of us: what’s their story, what’s their triggers, their mediators, what’s driving this for them? And then we can develop a plan that actually fixes it.”

Functional medicine is a collaborative, patient-centered model that incorporates aspects of traditional medicine, nutrition, behavioral therapy, alternative medicine and other disciplines. It examines genetic, environmental and lifestyle influences on overall health and specific conditions to help patients feel better and see their body functioning as well as it can be.

How functional medicine differs from traditional models

Dr. Elizabeth Bradley, medical director at the , said functional medicine examines the body’s systems biology. But, it is not the same as integrative medicine, even though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. There is some overlap, however, since functional medicine incorporates some , like nutritional supplements, meditation and acupuncture.

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To get a sense of the whole patient, an extensive questionnaire, called a , is used to examine different parts of the body, including digestion, energy, joints, hormones, lymphatic systems, blood systems and other areas. The matrix tells a patient’s health story, reveals imbalances and helps practitioners develop a treatment plan.

The goal is to get the body back to its natural balance by embracing a number of supports, like diet, exercise, or alternative or integrative medicine, depending on a patient’s needs, Bradley says. Traditional medical models often treat symptoms and rely on lab tests and prescription medications. Functional medicine may include these components, but it delves much deeper into the causes and uses a patient-centered approach.

“Rather than just medicating the symptom, we look for the root cause of why does this person have the disease and how do we try to help that person get rid of the disease?,” Menolascino says.

Who benefits from functional medicine?

Functional medicine can treat a variety of illnesses, such as arthritis, autoimmune diseases, depression, diabetes, obesity and other chronic conditions, “so, a lot of people who haven’t been helped by regular medicine, people with fatigue with fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, strange autoimmune problems,” Menolascino says. Functional medicine helps individuals “recapture their health and reverse some of these conditions.”

Along with treating specific conditions, Bradley says patients embrace functional medicine for disease prevention, to maintain overall health and as a second opinion following another diagnosis.

Nutrition plays a central role

Functional medicine treatment usually starts with the gut, which Bradley says is responsible for . So, nutrition is a central part of treatment.

“We help (patients) move towards a diet that is supportive of healing,” says Robin Foroutan, a registered dietician who at in New York City and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “And, it may look slightly differently person to person.”  

Treatment sometimes involves eliminating and reintroducing foods to see what’s causing inflammation in the body, or adding dietary supplements, Foroutan says, explaining that nutritionists work closely with functional medical teams to ensure an optimal diet.

Sometimes, it’s more nuanced where we want to promote gut healing or we want to support the body’s detoxification processes,” she says. “Depending on what’s going on with the person and where their key imbalances are in terms of body metabolism and different kinds of functions of the body, we can use the diet in a therapeutic way to help support healing.”

Along with nutrition, functional medicine also examines other parts of a patient’s lifestyle to improve sleep and physical activity, and reduce stress, Menolascino said.

“It’s not about becoming a vegetarian monk and meditating all day,” he says. “It’s about for you—with your personal health goals and your story—what are the things that we can help you shift to make better choices?”

Doctor visits are in-depth

Routine primary care , studies show. Functional medicine visits can last hours.

Visits often include going over the matrix and meeting with doctors, nutritionists, health coaches and others, like behavioral health specialists. Health coaches help keep patients on the “wheel of success,” Bradley says, through regular check-ins.

“We just find that people do better when they’re supported,” says Menolascino. His patient visits last an hour, as he takes the time to get to know each patient and understand why someone has a specific illness.

He said health coaches and nutritionists spend more time with patients, and implement the doctor’s recommendations in a way that works best for the patient. In some cases, health coaching is virtual to make things more convenient for patients. The team may also include a naturopath, a chiropractor, acupuncturist and others.

“Whatever we need in that team that helps that individual, we try to rally those resources,” Menolascino says.

Healing takes time

Since functional medicine looks for underlying causes and treats the whole patient, healing can take time. Bradley says the most successful patients are willing to invest time and energy into the process.

“You have to be motivated to change your diet, motivated to change habits that you’ve had forever, and motivated to want to feel better, and not just take a pill,” she says.

Some patients may feel better within six months, while others may need a year or more to work through and treat all of their symptoms, she explains.

“I use the analogy similar to layers of an onion,” Bradley says. “We peel off each layer; we go deeper and deeper until we feel like we’re where we should be.”

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