This is the first in a series of posts looking at functional medicine from a broad perspective. Upcoming posts will highlight how to find a functional provider that can help you, and what types of functional medicine tests to seek out based on your symptoms.
Ten years ago, right out of college, I started experiencing some funky and not-so-fun health symptoms. I was tired most of the time, occasionally dizzy, shaky, my hair was falling out, and I had stopped menstruating. (Not exactly the picture of perfect health! Nor how you want to feel when you are just 22 years old). What did I do? I did what most of the Western developed world does when we are "sick" - we go to our doctor, right?
I should say doctors (plural) because I definitely didn't see just one. More like ten. These were all traditionally trained, board certified, classic M.D.s in a wide range of areas from primary care to gynecology to endocrinology. Test after test, check-up after check-up (I even did a sleep study!), everything came back "normal". They said I was healthy because my blood pressure was super low (I now know this is one of the hallmarks of my condition, and anything but a healthy sign!) and my TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) level was in-range, etc, etc. And I certainly didn't look sick.
But I knew deep down I was anything but "healthy", and I wasn't impressed by the lack of answers I was getting. So I took my health into my own hands (and those of the Google gods), and started researching. Over the next several years I made changes to my diet, my environment, and my lifestyle that all improved how I felt (which is more than I can say about any of the aforementioned doctors). I didn't feel "cured" by any means, but I was definitely taking steps in the right direction.
It wasn't until 2014, seven years later, that I finally found a professional who could help me. He was a functional medicine doctor, or functional medicine practitioner (also sometimes called naturopaths or alternative medicine pracitioners). If you've never heard of functional medicine before, well, you are about to learn the best-kept secret in chronic illness and disease treatment. Prepare to be mind. blown. (O.k. I've obviously now been officially outed for the nerd that I am. Maybe the rest of you don't get as excited about this stuff but still - I promise it's pretty cool).
A Broken System
I really don't want to turn this into a traditional-doctor-bashing sesh, so I'm going to preface what's coming with this: I believe most doctors, no matter what their training, truly want to help people and have good intentions. But the system is broken, and it does them, and their patients, a huge disservice.
Money has always been king throughout history and industry, and unfortunately in the world of medicine this means more specifically that pharma (pharmaceutical) companies are king: they make the most money, and benefit from being HUGE, too-big-to-fail conglomerates (and they are getting bigger - there has been a recent boom in mergers in the industry, brought upon by a surplus of cash in their coffers). Splendid.
Due to their size and spending capacity, pharma companies pull incredible weight in Washington politics, with doctors (paying for favor with gifts and outings, among other things), and even in medical schools (as detailed in this Times article and more recently, here). Every corner of our medical system it seems has been tainted by these companies pushing the latest and greatest drug-for-what-ails-you.
Even our entertainment sources are corrupted, as pharmaceutical companies can now advertise directly to consumers in an effort to get them to ask their doctor for certain medications. Did you know we are the only developed country other than New Zealand that allows this?! I'm sure by now you've seen the TV ads - "Ask your doctor about 'Luzenbena'. Side effects include heart palpitations, upset stomach, drowsiness, headaches, increased risk for stroke and in some cases cancer and death". Awesome, where do I sign up? ha. Pharma companies spent over 6 billion dollars in direct advertising in 2016!
the typical doctor's office visit now goes something like this: list symptoms/complaint, receive prescription for x, y, and/or z drug
Given all of this, it's no surprise that the typical doctor's office visit now goes something like this: list symptoms/complaint, receive prescription for x, y, and/or z drug. Next.
And it's not all their fault, as you can see. Doctors aren't even trained to understand how nutrition and nutrients affect all the different systems in the body - they only receive about 8-10 total hours of nutrition education in all their years of medical school! What a glaring omission, especially when even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that eliminating three risk factors – poor diet, inactivity, and smoking – would prevent: 80% of heart disease and stroke; 80% of type 2 diabetes; and, 40% of cancer!
If you have bronchitis, or pink eye, or a broken arm, a "traditional" doctor will likely be able to effectively treat you, and quickly. But if you have a chronic condition or nagging, generalized symptoms with no clear cause, they are less likely to be able to help. Some examples of these chronic symptoms are things like:
- Chronic fatigue
- Foggy thinking/brain fog
- Frequent headaches
- Insomnia/trouble sleeping
- Anxiety and depression
- Acne and other skin conditions
Do any of these sound like you? If so, and they are persistent, or chronic, what can you do?
Getting to the Root of the Issue
Functional medicine is different from traditional medicine in that it doesn't operate with a "medication for each symptom" approach. Functional practitioners are trained to look at the entire collection of symptoms and the patient as a whole to make diagnoses and dictate the next step. Most practitioners use very advanced functional medicine tests (which can use blood, stool, hair, urine, etc) to then get to what they refer to as the "root" cause or causes. Most traditional doctors are not trained to uncover or treat these root causes.
What are potential "root causes"? They are varied, and usually very rarely uncovered with traditional medical tests. Some include:
- Food allergies
- Food sensitivities
- Heavy metal toxicity
- Lyme's Disease
- Chronic viruses
- Mold exposure and toxicity
For instance, if you have hypothyroidism, there is a 90% or greater chance it is due to an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto's, which most traditional doctors do not even test for. If you are lucky enough to go to a doctor who will diagnose you with "Hashi's", (or you found a functional medicine doctor), then the next step is looking for the root cause or causes to your disease. With the right treatment and changes, Hashi's can actually be reversed - something your regular doctor would never admit to, let alone be able to guide you to accomplish.
Treating the body as an entire system, as opposed to a collection of independent functions and symptoms, is a hallmark of functional medicine. For example, if you have chronic headaches, unless you've had some sort of severe head trauma, it's pretty much 100% guaranteed the problem is not just about your head. You could have food sensitivities, or a nutrient deficiency like magnesium.
Functional doctors are trained in and use lifestyle, nutrition, supplementation, and other holistic methods to treat the many systems and functions of the body simultaneously in order to heal.
Getting Your Feet Wet
Functional medicine has changed my health, my career, and probably the future health of my family to be honest. It is truly amazing and inspiring the amount of healing and happiness a person can experience when they find the right doctor. If you are intrigued by the above, and think that maybe, just maybe, you could benefit from functional medicine, I want to give you the resources to make that happen.
In an upcoming blog post, I'll talk about how to find a functional medicine doctor that can work with you. In the meantime, you can learn a lot from the internet and some amazing functional medicine doctors that have growing communities and social media presence. Many of them provide highly researched and actionable articles and podcasts on a regular basis on a variety of functional medicine topics.
My personal favorites are: Chris Kresser, Mark Hyman, and Dr. Axe. I suggest following their FB feeds to get regular updates, or subscribing to their newsletters. My favorite functional medicine podcasts, which I usually listen to on my drive to work, are Women's Wellness Radio and Revolution Health Radio (that is Dr. Kresser's). These doctors have a wealth of knowledge on a wide range of topics to help you get healthy and potentially add years to your life - even if you aren't currently suffering from any chronic symptoms or complaints!
Have questions? Comments? Leave them below - I'd love to hear from you, and so would the Radiant By Nature community. Many people probably have some of the same questions - so if you feel comfortable, leave your comment below! If not, I totally get it - health can be a personal thing, and that's ok! So always feel free to contact me via email, or via direct message on Facebook.
Thanks for being here! Hope your day is as beautiful as you!