Functional Medicine

Why this root-cause approach to healthcare is so effective.

I still remember the gut feeling that came over me while sitting in the dermatologist’s office, speaking to the nurse about how acne forms.    She didn’t have any real answers for me — but she had antibiotics.  As a desperate sixteen year old, this gut feeling which implied “something’s missing here” quickly got squashed and gratefully replaced by the promise of her superficial description of sebum formation.  She explained that oral and topical antibiotics (used indefinitely if needed) would eliminate the bacteria which caused the sebum to form and thus eliminate acne.  When I asked her why the problematic bacteria was there to begin with, she responded with “we don’t know.”  They didn’t know the root-cause of acne… BUT they did have pills to alleviate my symptoms.

Wham, Bamb, perfect skin and a better me was on it’s way!

This was the first of many medical visits I’d be making in my teens as part of the battle I waged against my own brokenness.  Over the course of the next four years, I’d be taking a whole concoction of pills to fix my attention-span, my obsessiveness, my eczema, depression, and anxiety.  From the age of sixteen until my dad’s health insurance ran out at age twenty, I took antibiotics, steroids, anti-depressants, ant-anxiety pills, and eventually prescription methamphetamines to help me get through college.

 

When we’re not encouraged to look at the root-causes of our illness

 

And initially these drugs helped.  My skin cleared up, I hyper-focused in my classes, and I felt less anxious in the evenings when I would come down off the ADD drugs by popping some Celexa or Lexapro.  The anti-depressants didn’t offer much relief and I gave up on those first.  The side-effects from the other drugs started to get progressively worse and eventually that gut feeling which told me something wasn’t right became so loud that I could no longer ignore it.  I tapered off all of the drugs and took an extended break from college classes — beginning my journey into the world of holistic healthcare and lifestyle medicine.

This article isn’t about shitting all over emergency medicine or about relaying my whole health history, which you can read here if you’d like.  This article’s about a new world of practicing medicine — fueled by root-cause treatments leveraging cutting-edge science.  Having already been adopted around the globe by brilliant medical doctors and other healthcare professionals fed up with symptom suppression, this new way of practicing medicine is what vulnerable young girls like myself could’ve and should’ve received while seeking treatment for so many seemingly unrelated symptoms.

This new approach is called Functional Medicine.

Most of my conversations these days gravitate towards topics of health and medicine, which as a nutritionist, isn’t surprising.  But what does often surprise me is how many people I come across (especially those pursuing careers in healthcare) who aren’t familiar with Functional Medicine.  It’s still common to lump any protocol or practice outside the scope of the conventional pharmaceutical-based “emergency” model into the category of “Alternative Medicine,” which is also associated with being unscientific or unfounded.  Woo woo, if you will.

The Institute of Functional Medicine defines a Functional Approach as: an individualized, patient-centered, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness. It requires a detailed understanding of each patient’s genetic, biochemical, and lifestyle factors and leverages that data to direct personalized treatment plans that lead to improved patient outcomes.

A functional approach is based on the way our genes are impacted by and respond to our environment (what’s going on inside and outside of us.) The guiding principle is that if we can change our environment and our behaviors, we can change the way that our genes perform, thus eliminating the myriad of symptoms which are contributing to one of the many diseases we face.

A central piece to the “environment” is the patient’s chosen lifestyle.  One major environmental factor which modifies a person’s gene expression is their nutritional status.  Nutrients can influence the expression of genes and they can influence the translation of the genetic messages into our body’s active proteins — thus altering that protein’s influence in controlling metabolic function.

 

Whole foods: the foundation of a functional healthcare approach

 

This means that our genes do not predetermine our health!  Whaaat?!  Turns out we have more room for healing than we’ve been taught to believe.  However, belonging to a culture which has normalized treating each symptom with a different drug can make the lifestyle changes involved in root-cause feel like an impossible feat left the the idealists and the privileged.  I’m here to advocate for normalizing root-cause medicine.

I’m very grateful for the affluence which comes with a life in the modern developed world.  That being said, we do live in a culture which doesn’t readily empower us with root-cause solutions.  We’re often led to believe that certain people have great genes, while the rest of us are predetermined to certain diseases — oftentimes becoming self-fulfilling prophecies of these cultural paradigms and accepting diagnosis and treatment plans which offer us no real answers or solutions.

This is where functional health coaches and practitioners come in. This is where building supportive tribes becomes essential, and this is where revolutionizing our current medical model and food systems becomes imperative.  Making healthy choices needs to be the norm — not a stressful form of social and cultural isolation or a privilege to white people with money.

To further elaborate why this new paradigm in health is so important and effective, let me give you more details into the functional model, based on scientific research:

No single gene controls the presence or absence of chronic disease. Our pattern of health and illness is determined by how whole families of genes are expressed, and that expression can be influenced and altered greatly by a range of lifestyle, diet, and environmental factors.

Due to the severity of our current health epidemic, functional Medicine practitioners — such as myself — adopt a flexible perspective on treatment approaches. The use of drugs or surgery does not disappear entirely, yet lifestyle interventions assume a primary role when appropriate.  The goal is to support as many people in AVOIDING emergency interventions such as drugs and surgery as possible.

Obviously, a nutritionist can neither prescribe drugs nor perform surgery.  These options are left to the functionally-trained medical professionals working alongside us.  Once emergency procedures are completed — if and when necessary — coaches and nutritionists take the core roles of support through post-surgery healing and transitioning off pharmaceuticals.  These holistic practices are prioritized for their lower cost as much as for their preventative and long-term health benefits.  If we can avoid emergency intervention altogether, even better.

Being a systems-oriented medical approach, Functional Medicine focuses on seven core physiological systems. These are interconnected and define how we as humans function. In the functional paradigm, a breakdown in any of these systems will lead to a host of symptoms we currently link to disease.  Here are these seven:

  1. Digestion and assimilation
  2. Detoxification
  3. Defense and Repair
  4. Cellular Communication
  5. Cellular Transport
  6. Energy
  7. Structure

 

At it’s core, Functional Medicine steers us away from the normalized identification with isolated diseases and encourages us towards seeing the interconnected process underlying each “disease.”

The current Western model of medicine as we have grown to use it works predominantly by addressing emergency situations, leaving practitioners and patients with little understanding or real agency towards healing the underlying interconnections. In fact, in conventional Western Medicine, the underlying interconnection is often overlooked or discredited entirely.

This has led to an epidemic of chronically ill people with absolutely no resources to heal their bodies and lives — instead being reduced to a life of poor health, pharmaceutical reliance, and oftentimes a shorter life-span.  It’s basically failing us.  This is not healthcare — it’s sick care.

And although the field known as “complimentary medicine” tends to be a step in the direction towards systems-based care, it’s often practiced within the same paradigm of symptom-suppression and management, only using supplements alongside pharmaceuticals.  This was my personal experience seeing integrative doctors in my early twenties who offered me confusing yet expensive supplements and left me feeling disconnected from my own body and financially stressed.  They didn’t take a systems approach and get me involved enough to feel empowered by my choices.

One of the main ways which Functional Medicine principles affects healing is by addressing the following modifiable lifestyle factors, thus bringing our core physiological processes back into balance.  These lifestyle factors are:

  • Sleep and relaxation (my favorites!)
  • Nutrition and hydration
  • Exercise and movement
  • Social relationships (tribe is ESSENTIAL)
  • Stress and the management thereof

 

These five factors make up the “environment” which surrounds our genes and contributes to their expression. By changing said environment, we’re telling our genes to express themselves in a ways which creates optimal health.  How rad, right?!

As a lifestyle medicine practitioner myself, this is the kind of information which really lights me up!  This is why I do what I do. I was failed by the medical establishment at a time in my life when I really needed a systems approach.  Instead of blaming the system and living the life of a health victim, I’m choosing to play a role in creating a new system.

An important takeaway is that a Functional approach is not anti-Western Medicine and nor am I in my healthcare philosophies.  I’m so grateful for doctors and emergency procedures.  For example, because of emergency medicine, infant mortality is no longer the huge impediment it once was for our species.  We’re living longer and aren’t as vulnerable to acute infections and accidents as our ancestors.  The list of benefits modern medicine has afforded us in long.

On a very personal note, emergency procedures saved the lives of BOTH of my parents this last summer when my dad was admitted to the emergency room with walking pneumonia and the doctors discovered stage one testicular cancer.  This required he have THREE emergency surgeries over the period of a few months.

Barely two months after this my mother had a brain aneurysm rupture unexpectedly and required an emergency flight to a hospital which saved her life with brain surgery and follow-up care.  This landed both of my parents in surgical ICU’s in different California hospitals at the same time.  Talk about modern miracles.

But these emergency procedures are oftentimes avoidable and unnecessary in the lives of folks with knowledge and support in preventative care.  My parents neglected their health and will be the first ones to tell you that they contributed greatly to their emergencies.  I do understand that it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to embrace lifestyle medicine so that emergencies are a thing of the past.  But I believe that it’s essential that we all know what our options truly are.

I’ll use myself as an example: I have not seen a conventionally trained doctor since I tapered off all pharmaceuticals at age twenty.  I have, however, worked with several functional clinicians and practitioners — all offering a whole host labs, supplements, laser treatments, dietary protocols, talk therapy, etc.  All of these things kept me from any emergency states which would require I need the conventional Western approach.  Self-care, baby.

What we need for the everyday is an approach to medicine which empowers individuals and communities to understand how their bodies actually work.  It shouldn’t be a privilege to live a life of health and biological resilience; it should be the norm and our future generations should expect this.  Just as international travel and WiFi are so ubiquitous to modern culture to be considered normal, I believe we must also normalize lifestyle medicine and expect all of our healthcare professions to take a Functional Approach.

 

Now I want to hear from you all — what do you know about functional medicine and how has it impacted you in your life?