Functional medicine has been gaining popularity in recent years, but what exactly is it?
Functional medicine is Personalised Health.
It acknowledges the biochemical individuality of each person and tries to determine the root causes of health problems in order to put them right.
Functional medicine recognises health not simply as the absence of disease.
It believes we all have the potential to create our own good health.
In this article we’ll take a look at the beliefs that underly functional medicine, its approaches and advantages and who may benefit from functional medicine.
- Healthcare in Crisis?
- Functional Medicine – a Personalised Approach
- Functional Medicine – an Integrated Approach
- Functional Medicine Recognises the Importance of Lifestyle
- How is Functional Medicine Different from Conventional Medicine?
- Why does Functional Medicine use Tests?
- Functional Medicine in a Nutshell
- Is Functional Medicine Effective for all Health Conditions?
- Has Functional Medicine been welcomed by everyone?
- What is the Future for Functional Medicine?
- In Summary
Something isn’t working within the health care systems of the developed nations of the world.
The USA spends roughly twice as much on health care than other high-income nations, but still has high levels of chronic disease.
According to the World Health Organisation , in 2008 the USA had the third highest rate of diabetes and cardiovascular disease in 16 developed nations.
Heart disease is now the number one killer in the USA, accounting for 1 in 4 deaths according to the Centre for Disease Control.
An incredible 50% of the US population in 2012 were prediabetic or had developed diabetes and this figure could well be even higher today.
What’s more, out of those 16 nations, the affluent USA had the shortest lifespan .
Here in the UK we had the highest death rate from respiratory diseases, and the third highest death rate from digestive diseases.
In 2016/7, the NHS spent £17.4 billion on drugs – a figure which is increasing around 5% per year.
More than £1billion is spent on just four common drugs.
Conventional medicine looks at symptoms and prescribes drugs to alleviate them.
However, these drugs often come with an array of side effects.
According to an article in JAMA , in 1994 over 100,000 people in the US died in hospital from the side effects of prescribed drugs.
This figure doesn’t represent the result of drug prescription errors - the drugs were prescribed and administered correctly, but the patients died from the side effects.
You’ve probably experienced this scenario: you go to the doctor for a longstanding niggling complaint.
You’re sent for numerous blood tests and maybe some X-rays, but they all come back as ‘normal’.
But you still don’t feel well. Functional medicine aims to uncover the reasons for this by looking at the root causes of health problems.
As people, our unique genetics means we’re all designed a little differently.
Functional Medicine realises the causes of two people’s identical symptoms and therefore disease pictures may be different.
On the other hand, one imbalance in the human body may cause a different set of symptoms in different people.
For example, chronic inflammation may eventually result in heart disease in me, yet it may lead to rheumatoid arthritis in you.
Essentially, functional medicine is what we call ‘patient-centred’, rather than ‘disease centred’, and it takes into account our unique differences and focuses on the individual rather than just the symptoms.
Conventional medicine tends to look at clusters of symptoms as isolated events and prescribes a different drug for each.
This can end up with patients taking several different drugs for different symptoms, when the underlying cause for all may be similar.
This approach is looking at the patients as a series of unconnected parts.
For example, a patient may be prescribed a steroid medication for a skin condition, antacids and antispasmodics for digestive complaints, painkillers for headaches and anti-depressants for low mood.
They may even be prescribed other drugs to offset the side effects of the original prescription.
Functional medicine does not consider any of the body’s organs or systems in isolation.
A functional medicine practitioner, searching for causes, may discover that behind all these seemingly disparate symptoms is a disturbance in the bowel bacteria or microbiota.
Putting this right and supporting other problems related to this imbalance, such as a struggling liver, can help to alleviate all these symptoms.
As the nursery rhyme goes ‘the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone…’
Functional medicine practitioners would amend this to ‘the digestive system’s connected to the nervous system, the nervous system’s connected to the cardiovascular system’ …and so on.
It’s estimated 90% of longevity is determined by our lifestyle choices, rather than our genetics.
One study which looked at identical twins in Denmark concluded that it is the interaction between our genes and our environment which determines our health.
Functional Medicine acknowledges both our genetic individuality and the immense importance of lifestyle on our health.
Conventional medicine diagnoses a disease and matches it with a drug.
For example, you may have a thyroid that’s not functioning correctly.
A blood test indicates your thyroxine is low.
The Doctor will give you synthetic thyroxine to make up for the deficiency.
This will need to be taken for life.
Actually, in most cases the dose will need to be stepped up over time because the body will sense the extra thyroxine in the bloodstream and will reduce the thyroid’s own output of thyroxine still further.
Conventional medicine is not concerned with the reason the thyroid is not producing enough thyroxine.
There could be a number of reasons, such as excess oestrogen, fluoride, soya in the diet, or heavy metals.
It’s also not concerned whether the thyroxine in the blood is being used effectively by the body.
Thyroxine needs to be converted into a slightly different form before it can be used, and if the body can’t do this, thyroxine levels can appear to be perfectly normal but we’re not reaping the benefits.
In other words, many people are given thyroxine, their thyroxine levels return to ‘normal’ but they don’t really feel much better.
Because we are all unique, tests can be a really useful way of discovering what’s happening in the body at a biochemical level.
Tests examine deficiencies, imbalances, dysfunctions and infections and can give the practitioner valuable insights into a patient’s personal health picture.
Tests can measure what’s happening in a number of body systems.
They can look at digestive function, for example the assimilation and absorptions of nutrients, and the state of the bowel microbiota.
Other tests examine the body’s detoxification systems by assessing liver function, body toxicity, and detox pathways, the immune system, cardiovascular and lymphatic systems, or hormone balance.
By selecting appropriate tests a practitioner can start to uncover what is happening in the body to produce the symptoms.
In functional medicine, tests tend to be interpreted differently from those carried out on behalf of conventional Doctors.
Traditional tests take a broad reference range which is normal for an average population.
This is gained from statistical information from the entire population.
However, problems can still occur if you’re within that range, because the optimal range for you personally may be slightly different.
A functional medicine practitioner will typically spend much longer with you compared to a conventional GP’s appointment.
Your practitioner will discuss your symptoms with you, and take a detailed case history, full of information about your current and past health, your lifestyle and diet, and even about your parents’ and grandparents’ health.
The practitioner uses a tool known as the functional medicine matrix in order to easily see the interactions between the body systems, symptoms, and risk factors.
In this way it becomes more obvious why the patient became ill and how they can get better.
Functional medicine practitioners consider your genetics, lifestyle and environmental influences so they can provide you with a personalised programme designed to optimise your health.
They may recommend adjustments to your diet, lifestyle – such as exercise and reduction of stress, as well as supplements and medicines where necessary.
Any programme is aligned with the patient’s goals.
By talking to you in depth, your practitioner can design a programme which is compatible and achievable within your lifestyle.
It examines the root causes of health problems.
It empowers patients to take control of their own health.
It helps patients avoid potentially harmful medicines or procedures by changing their behaviour.
It looks for long term solutions - if behaviour changes, health improvements will be ongoing, unlike simply popping pills, where the benefit ceases when the medicine is stopped.
Consultations take more time per patient than with conventional medicine, as a detailed case history needs to be taken.
GP consultations in the UK are amongst the shortest in Europe – patients see their Doctor for an average of 9 minutes 22 seconds.
The cost is generally less, both to the state as less medicines will need to be prescribed, and to the client, as despite an initial cost for the consultation, tests and possibly supplements, better health in the long run saves money.
It has few or no side effects when compared with drugs or surgery – remember those 100,000 people who lost their lives on account of drug side effects.
Conventional medicine is excellent for acute problems and emergency care, but where it has fallen down in modern times is with the treatment of complex, chronic, so called metabolic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and auto-immune diseases.
All these have a number of causes and are on the rise despite the huge amounts of drugs being developed to attempt to combat these problems.
Functional medicine suits complex, chronic illnesses, particularly when GP’s test results have not shown anything abnormal and mediation is not or is only partly helping alleviate the symptoms.
Functional medicine has been used with success in complex diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, ADHD, IBS, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, coeliac disease, psoriasis, eczema, low thyroid, chronic fatigue and female hormone imbalance.
According to functional medicine practitioner Dr Neil Hyman, medical editor of the Huffington Post, ‘Functional medicine is the map – the GPS system – that we use to navigate the landscape of chronic disease.’
As far as patients go, the functional medicine approach also involves more patient input.
People can be resistant to change and may find lifestyle and dietary changes too daunting.
Many people are looking for a quick fix.
They may prefer to pop a pill and remain on an unhealthy diet, rather than take steps to change.
Functional medicine has had its fair share of bad press relating to taking all the pleasures out of life.
You may have heard the comment ‘you won’t live to a hundred – it will just seem like it’.
However, many people notice their tastes buds change significantly when they start eating a healthy diet and they start to enjoy foods that before they would have thought of as unappealing.
Your physician will work with you to ensure dietary changes are manageable.
There has been a backlash from the conventional medicine profession and many emotive words spoken, with functional medicine practitioners being called ‘quacks’.
Since functional medicine brings about change largely without the use of drugs, and health improvements are likely to be long-lasting, it can be argued that it offers little or no profit for the pharmaceutical industry.
In the area of conventional medicine and because of the high cost of pharmaceutical drugs the business goals of drug manufacturers and the needs of medical professionals to selects drugs appropriately needs to be aligned.
A database set up by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry revealed that healthcare professionals receive substantial sums of money from consultancy fees from pharmaceutical companies.
Such practices have raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest between those working on behalf of the drugs companies and for the NHS.
In some cases, physicians are being directly compensated financially for the amount of drugs they prescribe – in one case, doctors who prescribed the most opioid drugs, often used for pain relief were most likely to receive financial incentives from the company manufacturing the drugs.
That is not to say Doctors are corrupt, it’s just that during a very quick consultation, the drug from that particular pharmaceutical company may be the drug that is uppermost in their mind – and this appears to be borne out by research .
It’s important to remember than functional and conventional medicine aren’t mutually exclusive.
Functional medicine is not anti-drug but looks at using the most effective option, which may or may not include the use of medical drugs.
Although it’s a relatively recent concept, functional medicine has been embraced by what are known as complementary practitioners such as chiropractors and naturopaths.
Recently it has started to become recognised by mainstream practitioners such as classically-trained medical doctors.
It’s likely to grow in popularity as modern patients demand more from their healthcare professionals and they are more eager to actively participate in their health outcomes.
Functional medicine is ideal as it is a relationship between practitioner and patient based on collaboration.
As Thomas Edison said: ‘The Doctor of the future will give no medicine but will instruct his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.’
If you’re interested in a functional medicine approach, why not book a personalised health consultation with a qualified and experienced Amchara therapist and begin your change for good?
Functional medicine is the medical basis for Personalised Health and will address not just a set of symptoms seen in isolation but the unique person that is you.
Written by: Cathy Robinson BScDipNutMed