It seems hard to believe that in this era of advanced medical research, so many people are suffering with chronic diseases. This is not to say that these people are in constant pain. They are given medicines to keep the disease in check and alleviate the pain, without ever truly addressing the underlying cause of their illness. This is particularly true in the case of syndromes like adrenal fatigue that display a range of symptoms, and it is where a discipline named Functional Medicine can help.
Looking at the statistics, almost one-half of the American population over the age of 40 is living with, and taking medications for, at least one chronic disease. The trend of conventional Western medicine is to treat the disease, but not necessarily the patient. While medication may give the impression that the patient is healthy, this is often not the case. The disease is still there, but some of it effects are hidden. If the patient were to quit taking the drug, or even miss a dose, the symptoms of the disease would come back in full force. Is this really the kind of health that we want to enjoy?
Somewhere along the long road of medical research, things changed. Hippocrates and Galen may not have had all the knowledge now available to physicians, but they tried to treat the whole patient, to include the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of the human being. Modern medicine has given us cures for many diseases and ways to prevent more, yet for those diseases that cause 7 out of every 10 deaths, they do little more than treat the symptoms.
While what is going on in the human body is undoubtedly important to an individual’s health, so is his or her environment, lifestyle, and genetic makeup. To become truly healthy, doctors must be willing to counsel and work to get to the true cause of the disease. Every patient’s case is different, so treatments must be individualized too. It usually takes more than simply a standardized treatment and minor adjustments in medication to treat different people. Unfortunately, this is not how doctors are trained in the modern era.
The concept, functions and practice of Functional Medicine require a different type of doctor/patient relationship. This reflects the fact that patients and doctors alike need to take a more nuanced view and approach to healthcare. By taking a step back and realizing that the whole person and their environment are important to regaining and maintaining health, we may be able to put an end to some of the most common chronic diseases. This is the premise of Functional Medicine.
Defining Functional Medicine
The Institute for Functional Medicine states, “Functional medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach and engaging both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership.” The concept was created in 1990 by Jeffrey Bland, in an attempt to create a whole new way to manage, treat and prevent chronic diseases. Functional medicine requires that patients work together with their doctors to find the right balance of nutrition, exercise, environment and lifestyle to allow and encourage the body to return to good health.
Alternative medicine plays an important part in helping you become healthy. The founders of Functional Medicine believe that every discipline of healthcare can be utilized in finding the true cause of a chronic disease and in helping to stop or prevent it. For example, techniques like massage and meditation may be used to emotionally balance the patient, reducing their stress levels and eliminating the negative long-term effects of elevated stress hormones.
Functional Medicine practitioners understand that there may be genetic markers at the root of the disease or at least predisposing a person to it. However, they also understand that by knowing and understanding this predisposition, an individual can make adjustments to his or her lifestyle that will counteract the predisposition and allow for better health. If you know that a large percentage of the people in your family are diabetic, you can make changes in your eating and exercise habits so that you do not develop diabetes later in life. Yes, you will have to watch what you eat and be sure to keep track of your blood glucose levels, but this is far better than taking medications or giving yourself a shot multiple times a day. To have good health, it is sometimes necessary to make a few sacrifices.
Once you find a qualified Functional Medicine practitioner and start treatment, you may notice some changes in your life. With changes in diet, lifestyle, stress management and supplementation, along with hormone replacement when needed, individuals often report feeling younger, more energetic and happier. If you suffer from a chronic disease that causes pain, you may not have to wait for your morning medication to get relief. With the right changes in your life, you can control and possibly even eliminate the symptoms of your chronic disease.
Differences Between Functional Medicine and Western Medicine
When you go to your Western doctor and are diagnosed with high blood pressure, you will be given a prescription intended to lower it. In the beginning, your doctor will need to see you regularly to make adjustments to the medication so your blood pressure does not drop too low. You will be told that you should try to lose some weight, to quit smoking (if you do), and to get some more exercise. These are all good recommendations and if you do have high blood pressure, you need to follow them.
If you go to a doctor who practices Functional Medicine, he or she will take a complete medical history from you. You will be asked to have a complete blood workup, to include a genetic profile. You will also be asked about your lifestyle and diet. Together with the doctor, you will create a plan to not only manage the high blood pressure, but to find out the cause and then work on that. If your pressure is dangerously high, you will be given medications to bring it under control while you work to find the cause and take charge of it.
You may also be referred to a psychologist to find out why you do some of the things you do, such as smoke or overeat. This can also help you to understand different emotions you may be feeling and how they can affect your health. It is quite possible you will need to undergo some type of detoxification process. Your environment is likely full of toxins that you breathe in every day. Getting them out of your system may help alleviate some of the symptoms you are experiencing and allow your organs to heal so they function properly again.
Why Functional Medicine Is So Important
Chronic diseases have sadly become the norm for our society. The statistics show that diabetes affects more than twice the number of people today as it did 20 years ago, and will double again by 2030. More than 81 million people have some form of heart disease and more than 11 million people have been diagnosed with some form of cancer. Even with the best intentions, medical research is simply not keeping pace with the prevalence of chronic disease. The cost of treating these diseases was over 2.3 trillion dollars in the United States for the year 2008, a very significant burden on both patients and society as a whole.
Medical advances have extended our life expectancy, but in many cases have not improved the quality of that life. Living until you are 90 or even 100 years old is quite possible now, but this matters little if you are unable to enjoy good health throughout that life!
Here are a couple more examples of how conventional medicine is ill-equipped to treat chronic disease. If you generally have high blood glucose, it may drop into the normal range when you take your medications, but those daily fluctuations can be damaging to your blood vessels and organs. Equally, medication might prevent your blood pressure from causing a stroke, but the underlying hormonal issue might leave you more susceptible to cancers and other diseases. Additionally, consider the impact on your liver of taking medications every day for the rest of your life. Until you get to the root of these problems and find a way to change them, you are not truly healthy.
As you age, the odds are high that you will have at least one chronic disease. By following the advice of a qualified healthcare professional experienced in Functional Medicine, you may be able to eliminate or greatly reduce the number of medications that you need.
The human body was designed to take care of itself in most situations, when treated properly. Unfortunately, we, as a society, have forgotten this. We have taken the easy way out, using drugs to mask the real reasons for chronic disease. Until we become more responsible for the air that we are breathing, how we are growing our foods and the way we live our lives, chronic diseases will continue to negate all the research and advances made in the medical community. Too many individuals are growing older without the ability to enjoy the latter part of their lives. By becoming active participants in our own health, and embracing the principles of Functional Medicine, we can look forward to a much healthier future.
Helena Singleton says
Thank you for your helpful explanation of Functional Medicine and Western Medicine. Our frustrations with the responses of doctors practicing Western medicine have significantly reduced trust in the medical system. We have finally found an integrative doctor and I look forward to her help. But trust has to be rebuilt in my family. Ellen