I guess before this blog can really be written, an initial question must be asked and answered: What is Functional Medicine? Here is a quote from the Institute for Functional Medicine who is one of the leading organizations training practitioners in this model of medicine:
“Functional medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach and engaging both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership. It is an evolution in the practice of medicine that better addresses the healthcare needs of the 21st century.”
The keywords in these short two sentences are “underlying cause” and “systems-oriented approach.” It is a model built on the idea that the body is designed to function together in systems and if one system loses it integrity then a cascade of systems can suffer thereafter. This is why functional medicine practitioners like the one I train under, Dr Kalish, says that symptoms are distractions at best. By the time a symptom surfaces it could be 2 or 3 body systems down the line from the original body system that was compromised. Hence the need for high quality and reliable lab testing. See image below for a snapshot at how complicated finding a root cause may be.
To summarize - functional medicine uses functional lab testing to seek out the root causes of health issues. Now we can move on to the title of the blog: Why our Culture Desperately needs Functional Medicine?
Treating symptoms is not in and of itself a bad thing. A cough is keeping you up all night compromising your immune system even further. A cough medication may be beneficial short term to help get some sleep and get your immune system back up. However other times, treating a symptom can have significant health consequences down the road. An easy example of this is the conventional approach to heartburn. Even though studies have shown that 8-9 out of 10 people who experience heartburn are actually lacking in stomach acid, we are taught to give all 10 people a medication that will further deplete their stomach acid. This may very well help the symptoms but in no way does it hardly ever treat the cause. And the majority of the time the person goes on thinking everything is ok but now they can’t properly break down proteins or absorb vital nutrients like B12, iron and minerals without adequate stomach acid. Therefore getting to the root cause and eradicating or correcting it often leads to better function and lasting health.
Our conventional approach to headaches is similar. We’ve just been conditioned to pop a Tylenol or Advil with a headache and minimize the symptoms. This may not be a big issue is you only get a headache once a year but for those that get headaches frequently, this is covering a much deeper problem. Frequent headaches are NEVER normal even if you have a family history of migraines and you have been told you inherited them. Allergies and autoimmune diseases fall into a similar category. An imbalanced immune system can over-react to the environment or even self. Of course again there is often a genetic component but again this is never normal and never should be just medicated to cover up the symptoms. The immune system needs support and balance. And often there needs to be deeper investigation into what may have triggered the immune system imbalance. Is there an underlying leaky gut caused by adrenal dysfunction that has led to immune compromise that needs to be healed? If so, then healing this underlying cause may very well take care of the symptoms instead of just covering them up.
Our culture is growing more busy and less rested every year. New technology. More ways to be connected. We work more and sleep less. We buy things we can’t afford and then have to work more to pay for them. Our relationships grow shallower with the delusion that we have more friends thanks to social media explosion and notifications interrupting almost every conversation. Kids are developing sleep disturbances due to phones living in their beds with them. And if that’s not bad enough, we eat convenience fast food that has nearly zero nutritional value because we don’t have time to prepare real food. Therefore our bodies are starving for the essential nutrients they need to function properly. And then we wonder why we feel terrible, have no energy, can’t lose weight and have digestive issues. We are almost all chronically inflamed on the inside. And remember that Americans die of diseases like heart disease, cancers, strokes, diabetes that have their root in inflammation!
This is no surprise to anyone with their eyes open but still worth pondering and wondering what in the world can fix something this broken. Do we need more medications to be developed? Maybe but is that going to really fix anything? Are we deficient in anti-depressants or TUMs? Of course not but again we’ve trained ourselves to want a quick fix but often the quick fix really doesn’t fix things well or for very long. Hence the deep seeded need for Functional Medicine in our culture. Things have to change at the root. Families have to learn the importance of communal eating - joining around the dinner table again (without twitter and facebook) and enjoying a real food nutrient dense meal. We have to re-learn how to simplify life, get good sleep and have fun. And often we need a practitioner who can help us identify these things and then test and correct the imbalances our life choices have developed over years of abuse. Sometimes these types of practitioners can be hard to find but can be found if you know where to look. The Institute for Functional Medicine has a directory of any practitioners being trained under this model. The Kalish Institute (where I am being trained) also has a directory. And sometimes old-fashioned asking around may be all you need to find someone who thinks this way.
A final caveat is that functional medicine does not replace the need for a strong conventional family doctor, specialists or the possible need for surgical interventions. It just means that the conventional medical model is not based on looking for root causes, it's based on diagnosing and then treating (usually with a pharmaceutical product). Lifestyle nor nutrition is emphasized in the medical training that the majority of medical doctors or mid-level providers receive. If you have a doctor/provider who talks to you about removing gluten,sugar and processed foods from your diet, you’ve stumbled onto a rare jewel! Don’t let them go. Use functional medicine as a tool to dig deeper if you still don’t feel great despite your labs and check-ups saying you should. There is likely an underlying cause that just hasn’t been uncovered yet.