Do you feel that taking pills doesn’t solve the underlying issue, and want to work with a practitioner who thinks the same way? Fortunately, a growing number of clinicians are practicing functional medicine (FM): an evidence-based clinical approach that addresses the environmental influences and imbalances that underlie disease—with the idea that when these are addressed, the body can return to its natural state of health and balance for long-term health. The following content delves into FM’s guiding principles and general approach, to help you determine whether partnering with a conventional medicine doctor or a FM practitioner is what you need on your journey toward healing and maintaining health.
The Textbook of Functional Medicine defines FM as the “prevention, early assessment, and improved management of complex, chronic disease by intervening at multiple levels to correct core clinical imbalances and thereby restore each patient’s functionality and health to the greatest extent possible.” FM is based on six core principles:
- Recognizing the individuality and genetic uniqueness of each human being
- Supporting a holistic, patient-centered—rather than disease-centered—approach to treatment
- Searching for a dynamic balance between body, mind, and spirit
- Acknowledging the interconnectedness of all internal body functions
- Seeing health as a positive vitality—not just the absence of disease
- Striving to enhance the health span, not just the life span, of each patient
Approach: The Functional Medicine Tree
A FM practitioner acts like a detective, exploring the clinical imbalances that give rise to your symptoms, then delving into the root causes—environmental factors and genetic tendencies that influence your health. This clinical model can be compared to a tree, where the leaves represent the symptoms, the trunk represents imbalances, and the roots are the environmental and genetic dispositions.
The Leaves: Symptoms
Your symptoms are equivalent to the leaves of a tree: highly visible and an important indication of your underlying health. FM practitioners use symptoms as guides to better understand the underlying imbalances, rather than focusing on treating symptoms directly (which is important, but not the ultimate goal).
The Trunk: Clinical Imbalances
Like a tree trunk branching into leaves, systemic imbalances develop into symptoms. FM practitioners thoroughly explore possible imbalances to gain a holistic view on where symptoms are coming from. In FM, imbalances are categorized within the following systems and processes:
- The hormonal and nervous system
- The process of transforming food, air, and water into energy
- The process of detoxifying and eliminating waste
- The immune system and inflammatory response
- Digestive system
- Structures—from the cellular to musculoskeletal level
A condition as simple as chronic headaches could point to an imbalance in one or many of these categories, and it is the responsibility of an FM practitioner to determine what system or process is not optimally functioning.
The Roots: The Environment and Genetic Disposition
Environmental inputs and your genetic disposition are similar to the roots of a tree: they give rise to clinical imbalances, which then turn into symptoms.
Environment. Harmful lifestyle choices and toxic exposures can strongly influence your health. The negative effects may not appear right away, because your body is resilient, but can accumulate with time and eventually cause a chronic condition. To determine the root of clinical imbalances, an FM practitioner may ask questions such as:
- Are you getting the right nutrients and exercise?
- Are you exposed to toxic chemicals or radiation?
- Could you possibly have parasites (it’s more common than you think!)?
- Do you have allergies?
- Have you experienced trauma?
- Do you have a healthy support network?
Genetic Disposition. Environmental factors are filtered through your genetic (physical, mental, and emotional) tendencies. Your attitudes, beliefs, and the unique way your body and mind process environmental inputs can influence your susceptibility to developing certain conditions. Often, altering your perception of a situation, processing a traumatic memory, or learning how to better manage stress can go a long way in your healing.
The functional medicine approach is a bit different than the conventional medicine approach because it involves exploring every aspect that could be influencing your health problems and empowering you to take an active role in your healing. Rather than giving you medications to mask your symptoms, the goal is to dig to the root of the issue so that you can fully heal from the bottom up for your long-term health.
Does this approach resonate with you? You may be able to find a functional medicine practitioner in your area. You can also explore free learning courses through the Institute for Functional Medicine to help you reach your optimal health.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.