What if it’s not all in your head?

Many people can relate to the story of a friend or relative who within a few days after being declared healthy in a routine physical, suddenly dropped dead with a heart attack or discovered a lump which turned out to be cancerous. How does that happen? Have you been told that your lab tests are “normal” even though you often feel poorly and know that something is just not right? Some patients are prescribed antidepressant medication or advised to seek psychotherapy because no physical cause is discovered to explain their complaints. But what if it’s not all just in your head? For many people, an approach known as Functional Medicine has offered solutions.

Functional medicine (sometimes also called natural medicine) is often preventative, seeking to preclude subtle or chronic issues from festering into more serious health problems. Functional medicine doctors regularly serve as coaches, guiding patients to develop and execute lifestyle plans to support each individual’s long-term health. In this sense, the functional medicine doctor is fulfilling a role for which most primary care providers simply do not have time. The Institute for Functional Medicine describes it this way: “Functional medicine incorporates the latest in genetic science, systems biology, and understanding of how environmental and lifestyle factors influence the emergence and progression of disease. Functional medicine enables physicians and other health professionals to practice proactive, predictive, personalized medicine and empowers patients to take an active role in their own health.”

Chronic issues including fatigue, digestive symptoms, brain fog, poor quality sleep, menstrual and menopause symptoms, chronic joint and muscle pain, and inability to lose weight are among some of the common health concerns that people often feel are dismissed or only superficially addressed during routine medical visits.

For instance, in interpreting lab tests, the standard reference ranges used by hospitals and most doctors are based on a bell-curve analysis of test results from all of the blood which the lab tested, much of which is from sick people. By contrast, functional medicine uses a stricter reference range which is more associated with the parameters of good health. Also, standard lab ranges have broadened over the last few decades as the health of the American population has declined. For these reasons, many people who are trending toward disease (and some who have disease) are improperly told that they are in perfect health.  Identifying risk at an earlier stage allows great opportunity for natural health care measures to reverse unhealthy trends.

Functional medicine considers lab tests in patterns. This allows us to recognize how different body systems influence one another. Observation of patterns allows us to discern whether an immune reaction is acute or chronic and whether its likely cause is a virus, bacteria, allergy or a parasite.

Additionally, functional medicine blood chemistry panels include more tests than standard blood panels to provide a more complete picture. For example, in screening for thyroid dysfunction, many doctors use only a basic thyroid marker known as TSH. The functional medicine thyroid panel includes several tests; this allows us to better discern the cause of impaired thyroid physiology. Knowing the cause of the problem is critical to knowing how to care for the problem.

Once testing has demonstrated health problems or trends toward ill health, the functional medicine practitioner uses science-based, non-pharmaceutical approaches to promote health. These may include dietary modification, lifestyle changes (such as physical activity, proper timing of meals, and stress reduction), the use of botanical or nutritional compounds to improve physiological function, and other customized approaches to address a patient’s individual needs.

Functional medicine is practiced across the country by medical doctors, chiropractic doctors and other health care providers. I view functional medicine and chiropractic as particularly well-matched; the emphasis on identifying the underlying causes of ill health is fundamental to both.  Functional medicine endeavors to detect underlying causes of poor health trends through a systems-oriented approach. Shifting from the disease-centered focus of traditional medicine to a more patient-centered style, functional medicine addresses the whole person rather than a set of symptoms.

Rather than focusing on disease and attacking it with potentially hazardous treatments, functional medicine uses safe and natural methods intended to cultivate health. This approach can minimize reliance on drugs and medical procedures. You have a dentist and a primary medical provider and perhaps other medical specialists. Shouldn’t your health care team also include a doctor who uses functional medicine?

Published in Wilma Insights October 1, 2015