Defining Functional Medicine
In medical school, when we first began to study the human body, lessons in anatomy and physiology emphasize the interconnectedness of organs and systems. Form influences function, and function, influences form.
In the study of immunology; we are impressed with the communication between natural, and specific immune responses, as well as the tremendous innate healing force within us all. We learn that in times of stress, sympathetic nerve fibers send signals from the brain, to our lymphoid tissues, to elicit an immune response. An adaption our ancestors evolved to ward off infection in the event they sustained injury in a time of danger.
We study the characteristics of immune cells, and learn lymphocytes possess adrenergic receptors, which account for a number of immunological changes during times of chronic stress, specifically reduced activity of natural killer cells; therefore, reduced viral resistance when cortisol levels remain high.
We study physiology and begin to understand the immense coordination and communication required by every cell, organ, and system, to maintain homeostasis. For example, it is well known that endocrine function influences the cardiovascular system. Even conditions such as hyperthyroidism can have a multitude of cardiovascular effects.
Countless mechanisms such as these are covered in various health science programs. However, within the traditional medical school model, a shift in focus occurs. The doctors of the future learn to address the so called disease states of their patients through the study of pharmaceutical and surgical interventions, as well as proper labeling and diagnosing.
The average medical doctor learns to take an organ/symptom based approach. If the patient is lucky, and symptoms and laboratory findings are obvious, they are given medications to “fix” the problem, and all is well. Of course, the cause of something, such as thyroid dysfunction, will never be addressed. The traditional allopathic medical doctor is content with the management of symptoms associated with chronic health conditions, most of which are diet and lifestyle related.
Should the patient have symptoms, or test results, that fall outside diagnostic criteria, they are often shuffled from one specialist to the next, in search of a diagnosis. Or perhaps there is more than one ailment, asthma, for example, coupled with irritable bowel syndrome. For these conditions, the patient will be required to see two different specialists, never addressing the root cause of underlying disease processes.
This was not always the case. Allopathic medicine became popular in the mid to late 1800’s, with the scientific advances such as vaccines and antibiotic’s, causing a rise of power in the pharmaceutical industry, ultimately leading to the creation of the AMA and MD degree.
Traditional forms of medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy, were pushed out, and we lost many of our healing traditions. We adopted an assembly line approach to healthcare, much the same as taking the family car to a mechanic.
With advances in high tech diagnostic equipment, such as MRI, and CT scanning, doctors have begun to forgo the physical exam; which is time-consuming, and by its nature, subject to human error, as well as interpretation. These advancements are vital, especially in acute care situations, but what is lost is the human touch, and establishment of trust between doctor and patient. Lost as well, precious details that could help to find the root cause of an illness.
Throughout history, human beings have looked to treat the body as the dynamic, intertwined unit it is. Chinese medicine refers to creating balance within the five organ systems. Ayurvedic medicine describes the need for balance between body mind and spirit.
Over the years, we have experienced a de-evolution of consciousness in our disease management system, we can no longer call health care. America is sicker than ever before, both mentally and physically, and an aging population threatens to further burden an overtaxed system. The health care crisis focuses now on how to improve access to care, but does not address the flaws in the current therapeutic methods of treating patients.
Steadily, consciousness is increasing, and we are looking to take back the tradition of a more functional approach to patient care. Doctors, and patients, are beginning to question what it means to truly be healthy.
The definition of health itself is changing, as increasing numbers of people begin to define health as more than merely an absence of discomfort, or disease. How can we say we are truly healthy, but have to take a handful of pills every morning to keep our thyroids levels happy and our cholesterol in the standardized reference ranges?
Functional medical doctors, and nutritionists, forge a partnership with their patients. They recognize the difference between a systems approach to medicine, and an organ based approach. They take necessary time to access, and create strategies to serve their patients. This requires special education to address the complex causes of chronic disease states, and a willingness to learn the concepts no longer taught in medical school.
While functional medicine certainly aims to treat disease, it does so with the profound respect of the innate healing potential of the human body, the doctor within us all. Attention is given to all aspects of health; nutrition, detoxification, microbiome, emotional health, endocrine balance, environmental factors, and nutrigenomics, with focus always on the prevention of future illness and creation of greater health. Functional medicine, simply put, is a return to medicine as nature intended, and a return to sanity in a medical system gone awry.