The first time I heard the term Functional Medicine, I thought it was an organization that focused on researching different uses of medicine. When I found out it was an approach to healing, I was intrigued, and decided to learn more. It turns out that Functional Medicine is as “an evolving, evidence-based discipline that treats the body with its mutually interactive systems as a whole, rather than as a set of isolated signs and symptoms” (Mahan, Escott-Stump, & Raymond, 2012, p. 172). Sounds like a mouthful, but what that means is that Functional Medicine is holistic approach that considers all aspects of the person.
7 Principles of Functional Medicine
There are seven principles that are essential to functional medicine, and the Textbook of Natural Medicine (Pizzorno & Murray, 2013) explains what they are:
- Every person is genetically and environmentally unique, which results in individual biochemical characteristics. What works for one person, will not work for others.
- The approach to treatments is centered around the patient rather than the disease.
- The objective of treatment is the dynamic balance of mind, body, and spirit through internal and external factors.
- Internal physiological factors are interconnected and influence each other.
- Health is not just the absence of disease but the wellbeing and vitality of the person through a strong physiology.
- The objective is to enhance the health span and not just the life span of every patient.
- A scientific approach is essential to staying on top of developments in research and science.
Approach to Health
Functional medicine believes chronic disease starts when one or various physiological functions decline, and prolonged decline of these functions leads to an increased disease state that turns into a chronic condition (Pizzorno & Murray, 2013). Decline in function can be a result of our environment, lifestyle choices, and genes. Diagnoses in Functional Medicine is a complex process that identifies the organ system(s) affected, genetic predisposition for diseases, lifestyle factors, environmental factors, and imbalances in assimilation, defense mechanisms, energy, elimination, toxicity, internal communication, and structural integrity (Pizzorno & Murray, 2013).
Nutrition affects many if not all of these factors of functional medicine. Diet is a lifestyle factor, but also plays a role in genetic predisposition, the immune system, digestion and absorption of nutrients, elimination of toxins, oxidative and reductive reactions, the body’s structure and function, and the patient’s psychological and emotional state (Mahan et al., 2012).
Studies on Functional Medicine
It was hard to find articles and studies on functional medicine. After attempting a variety of different keyword searches, I located two. One was a response to an editorial comment, and mentioned that Dr. Jeffrey Bland, a nutritional biochemist, developed functional medicine 25 years ago when he started practicing evidence-based integrative medicine (Leyton, 2006). This article also pointed to the website for the Institution for Functional Medicine. The website provided information about the practice, how to get certified, and upcoming conferences. However, there were no studies available on the website.
The second article was also not a study, but a viewpoint written by a medical writer, Walter Alexander, who was sharing his research surrounding review articles published in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension (Alexander, 2014). The article suggested that medications used to treat hypertension be replaced with appropriate diet and supplements. To get a better perspective, Alexander interviewed the author of the studies, Dr. Mark Houston, a functional medicine practitioner certified by the Institute for Functional Medicine. Dr. Houston defined hypertension as the result of repeated insults to blood vessels. He explained that when the body first responds to these insults, it results in “inflammation, oxidative stress, and vascular immune dysfunction” (Alexander, 2014, p. 291). As the insults continue, there are biochemical, metabolic, nutritional, and biomechanical consequences that cause further vascular damage, endothelial damage, and vascular smooth muscle dysfunction that over time results in hypertension (Alexander, 2014).
Dr. Houston acknowledged that genetic predisposition has a role in hypertension, but 80% of the disease is caused by environmental factors (Alexander, 2014). Thus, treatment needed to be centered on correcting these environmental factors and addressing “nutrition, nutraceutical supplements, antioxidants, weight loss, exercise, meditation, and sleep” (Alexander, 2014, p. 292). Some pharmacological intervention through medication prescription may be necessary, but Dr. Houston argued that if patients changed their lifestyle, after some time they may stop taking the drugs (Alexander, 2014).
Functional Medicine acknowledges that disease is not just a set of symptoms, but the result of life-long circumstances that lead them to this place, and thus treatment involves addressing these circumstances. Although I did not find proper studies on functional medicine, it seems that the practice and application is growing, and there may be published clinical studies in the near future.
Bringing It Together
It turns out that Functional Medicine is relevant to what I do as a wellness coach, given that we both look at a person as an individual, understand that what works for one person will not work for everyone, look at science and research to develop any health approach, and consider all aspects of the individual, including their diet, lifestyle, and personal circumstances. Functional Medicine practitioners work with people like me when treating clients, because they help to diagnose and determine the general treatment approach and health and wellness coaches help to translate that into their day-to-day focus.
Alexander, W. (2014). Hypertension: is it time to replace drugs with nutrition and nutraceuticals? Pharmacy & Therapeutics, 39(4), 291-295. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3989080/pdf/ptj3904291.pdf
Leyton, E. (2006). Functional medicine. Canadian Family Physician, 52(12), 1540. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1783750/
Mahan, L. K., Escott-Stump, S., & Raymond, J. L. (2012). Krause’s Food and The Nutrition Care Process (13th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders.
Pizzorno, J. E. & Murray, M. T. (2013). Textbook of Natural Medicine (4th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Churchill Livingstone.