What is Functional Medicine?

Some call it nutritional care.  Those that have experienced its benefit label it wellness.  And let’s not forget the skeptics, who still relegate it to the arena of alternative medicine.  However, the official title for identifying the needs of the body and restoring them is called Functional Medicine.  The term itself has not become mainstream, though its use has been present for nearly two decades.  Not a household phrase just yet, strong indicators and trends suggest that it soon will be.  So, what is functional medicine?  Let’s dive deeper.

What is Functional Medicine – A Deeper Look

If you are starting to investigate the functional medicine concept, you may find it hard to answer the question, “What is functional medicine?”  Their are not shortage of opinions.  However, rather than a biased pro or con stance, let’s look at the intention and philosophy of this science.  Please note, I have intentionally chosen the word science here.  Nothing in this article is meant to be linked to a concept that has not been validated through scientific research.

Conveniently, the name “functional medicine” implies both the intent and philosophy.  That is, the actions taken by the provider are meant to guide you to take steps that will ultimately restore the function of the bodily systems.  Let me provide an example.  Through clinical assessment or testing, your functional medicine doctor may determine that you have a deficiency of B12 causing your fatigue that was the result of a stomach infection and low stomach acid.  Rather than simply replace B12 with a supplement, a functional medicine doctor will also help eradicate the infection and support your body’s natural production of acid.  The intent – restore optimal function.

The Framework of Functional Medicine

Every doctor is a little different in their view of how to apply their education and experience.  With that said, below is a framework of functional medicine that addresses the main topics reviewed by providers.  It can be divided into two categories; Interferences with Optimal Health and Repleting What the Body is Missing.

Interferences with Optimal Health

  • Infections
  • Allergies and Sensitivities
  • Environmental Toxins
  • Stress – physical, chemical and emotional

Repleting the Deficient

  • Nutrient Rich Food – the staple of optimal health
  • Nutrients (antioxidants, vitamins, minerals)
  • Hormones
  • Neurotransmitters (the chemicals of our nervous system)

A Sudden Interest

Have you been for an office visit at a medical clinic, only to leave with no answers regarding your symptoms or a prescription that you know you don’t need?  If so, you are among many.  Without probing, I routinely hear this feedback from patients.  You don’t feel good.  Your doctor states you are fine and disease free.  Now where do you turn when the professional cannot provide direction?  This is the exact reason so many are now asking, “What is functional medicine?”  The sudden interest is your effort to find answers.

Like so many, you have been left to feel that you don’t have control of your health.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  You have the ultimate control over your health.  The desire to take back control and take an active part in your health is the reason so many just like you are now interested in functional medicine.  Ironically, for someone to see the full benefit of functional medicine, they must be proactive and willing to make lifestyle and dietary changes.

In contrast, traditional medicine does not emphasize the need for you as the patient to take an active role in your health outside of following through with taking your medication.  Yet there is much more you could be doing.  The functional medicine provider is the coach that gives specific direction for you to succeed, you just have to be the player and follow through with the plan.

Is it Medicine?

Is functional medicine actually medicine?  In short, no.  Medicine as we traditionally think about it is intended to diagnosis, treat and cure disease.  What if you don’t have a disease, but still have symptoms?  This is your body’s effort to alert you normal function needs to be restored.  Functional medicine excels in helping those that are not yet to a disease, but want to restore normal function.  Functional medicine accomplishes this through identifying what is interfering with your body’s normal function and restoring what has been depleted.

Now, differentiating functional medicine from traditional medicine does not suggest that it is not validated.  Many professionals not versed in functional medicine will attempt to make this argument.  Unfortunately it falls on deaf ears given the enormous amount of research that has, and continues to validate functional medicine.

It is best not to think of functional medicine as a competitor to traditional medicine, but rather as the form of care that is best employed prior to the need for traditional care.  Equally it is not well suited for disease management and emergencies which are better served by traditional medicine.  However, some qualified and licensed providers will enhance the disease management process by employing some of the concepts of functional medicine.

Why Haven’t I Heard About This Before?

If you haven’t yet, you will soon hear about functional medicine.  The benefit of making dietary, nutritional and lifestyle changes specific to you is becoming more and more recognized.  As the growth in recognition implies, functional medicine is on the upswing.  But, what only now are we seeing this.  Why have you not heard of functional medicine before now?  There are many answers, but let me address the most specific.

Traditional medicine as we now know it, for the good or bad, is an institutionalized system.  Care is delivered via protocols.  Standards are rigid.  Outside parties such as insurance companies dictate and guide care.  The model is centered around management of diseases with doctors being limited to their specialties.  The prevailing concept has been that each specialist stays within their boundaries of expertise.  However, as science has taught us, the body cannot be contained within a defined box and neatly segmented into individual regions so.

However as we can all appreciate, change is generally slow.  Medicine is no different.  When you have an entire system built around the aforementioned characteristics, adopting new philosophies such as functional medicine is limited.  The question no longer is what is functional medicine, but rather how can it be broken down and made part of the system.  Unfortunately, by its intention and philosophy, functional medicine does not fit into this model.

The Inevitable Shift

Traditional medicine will never go away.  Nor should it.  Nonetheless, expect to see functional medicine continue to follow its current trend of rapid growth and acceptance.  Here’s why;

  • The desire for more personalized care by the patient
  • A need to be heard by the doctor
  • Options beyond medication and surgery
  • Acknowledgement of the basic tenets of health – good nutrition / food, exercise, sleep and lifestyle habits
  • A coach on the health and wellness path
  • Testing that confirms your symptoms are real
  • Science continues to validate functional medicine

Who Qualifies to Deliver Functional Medicine

With a better understanding of “what is functional medicine”, who should you seek to help provide it.  Functional medicine is not limited to one professional type.  It can be delivered by a chiropractor, medical doctor, naturopath, osteopath, physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner and others that are qualified.  Being qualified to deliver functional medicine extends beyond a credential, though this should be a starting point.

Additional qualifications to look for include;

  • Does this provider practice what they preach?  Can you really promote what you don’t live?
  • Has the provider sought out additional education in nutrition and other aspects of functional medicine?
  • Can the provider offer a clear plan to guide your care that is unique to you?
  • Is the provider continuing to keep you educated on an ongoing basis?

Being a functional medicine provider takes commitment and a significant desire to look deeper for answers.  Make sure you look deeper before deciding on the right functional medicine doctor for you.


1 reply
  1. Gail Kihn
    Gail Kihn says:

    I’m new to the phrase “functioal medicine” tho apparently I’ve been living by it for decades.
    Using food and supplement as well as massage and chiropractic, as well as avoiding pharmaceutical interventions.
    I’m thrilled to have connectec with Dr. Hill and look forward to more


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