I get this question a lot from perspective patients. Routinely I will speak with potential patients on the phone before they schedule their appointment. It allows me to get a general sense of the issues they are dealing with and whether or not I think I can help them.
Inevitably I end up using the term “functional medicine” somewhere in our conversation. Most people don’t know what that means. They’ve heard the term medicine before. However, they always associate it with traditional medicine. By that I mean going to your family doctor with a complaint and they give you some pill (pharmaceutical in nature) that takes away the symptom.
I’ve also spoken with many other types of physicians who don’t know what functional medicine is. They assume there’s one way to treat disease and it’s with drugs. Fortunately, that’s not true. Modern medicine is a reactive practice. They wait for disease to develop before treating it. Here is a scenario that occurred today in my office:
Dr. Vreeland: “Hi Mrs. Smith, how are you today?”
Mrs. Smith: “I’m doing ok, but I brought some blood tests I’d like you to look at with me.”
Dr. Vreeland: “Sure, let’s have a look. Well it looks like your blood sugar is running a little high. This is suggestive of pre-diabetes.”
Mrs. Smith: “Yes, I saw that and asked my family doctor about it. He said he wouldn’t treat it until diabetes developed fully. I didn’t like that answer.”
This is a scenario that plays out over and over again in my office almost every day. There is no proactive solutions given to most patients in modern medicine today. Everything is about treat disease once it develops instead of preventing it in the first place.
Mrs. Smith will not go on to develop diabetes because she is now working with on her diet, exercise program and is going to take the appropriate supplements to prevent her from heading down the long, dangerous road that diabetes creates.
Traditional Medical Approach to a Common Condition
Traditional medicine focuses on the symptoms of the health problems that one might face, not the cause of the symptoms. For example, someone with fibromyalgia is almost always treated symptomatically. They are given pain medications to help cover up the pain; they are given sleep medications to help them sleep at night; they are given reflux medication to reduce their reflux – the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, none of those medications is addressing the causes of any of those symptoms.
Functional Medicine Approach to a Common Condition
Functional medicine wants to know why you are experiencing these issues. The pain in fibromyalgia is caused by an aberrant processing of sensory information in the central nervous system. Through a program of neurological rehabilitation you can change the way you brain interprets sensory information. Over time this effectively reduces pain levels. Sleep disturbances are often a result of low levels of serotonin in patients with fibromyalgia. To correct this a supplement called 5-HTP is given. This allows the body to replace the depleted stores of serotonin which is actually the cause of the problem. Reflux may be caused by a hiatal hernia – a condition in which the stomach slips through the diaphragm. Through a simple manual reduction this hiatal hernia can be reduced and the symptoms of reflux go away. Providing a drug to these patients that reduces acid production does relieve the symptoms but does nothing to address the hiatal hernia so they become dependent on the drugs.
First and foremost functional medicine is about being proactive with regards to your health. Should a condition develop functional medicine seeks to fix the physiology not cover up the symptom. A person who has no symptoms because they are covered up by pharmaceutical agents is still a sick person, they just don’t know it.
My advice to most people is to be as preventative as possible when it comes to your health. Do everything you can to prevent as much as you can. The best way to treat a disease is to prevent it in the first place. This is what functional medicine is about.