What is Functional Medicine and How is it Different from Conventional Medicine?
One of the services I offer in my clinic is utilizing functional medicine. This is used to get people out of dysfunction and on their road to healing and wellness. A question I get asked quite often is, “What is functional medicine?”. Functional medicine is looking at the systems of a patient, rather than the symptoms. These systems are used to find the underlying cause (root cause) of any pain and/or dysfunction. Looking at systems rather than symptoms gives a more comprehensive, holistic approach (looking at the entire patient), rather than a couple factors that is going on with the patient. Functional medicine utilizes high potency and purity supplements to allow the body to innately heal. As well as normalize and optimize the underlying causes.
How is this different from conventional medicine? Conventional medicine utilizes primarily drugs and surgery to treat conditions. Those drugs tend to shut down certain physiological pathways that are responsible for certain signs and/or symptoms. For example: if someone has arthritis (inflammatory condition) a drug will be prescribed to shut down the inflammatory process that leads to the arthritis pain. Functional medicine doctors will look for the root cause for the inflammation, address that cause by removing the inflammatory trigger, and reduce inflammation that way. Both conventional and functional medicine are addressing the inflammation, however, the approach to treating the inflammation is different.
Conventional medicine is absolutely fantastic with any acute condition (infection, broken bone, etc.). However, the treatment modalities for conventional medicine doesn’t translate well when dealing with chronic diseases. Chronic diseases are best dealt with lifestyle changes (diet and exercise) as well as supplementation to help out with the healing process. The conventional medicine model was fantastic in the past when the leading causes of death were acute infection-based conditions (1918-1920 was the influenza pandemic killing 50-100 million people). Today, infection and pneumonia are only the eighth leading cause of death, while heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses are the leading causes of death (other than accidents). Since the chronic illnesses are the leading causes of death, that means the acute illness-based model is outdated, and why functional medicine is starting to become the new medical model.
Differences in Blood Work
Another difference between conventional vs functional medicine has to deal with blood work and lab ranges. Conventional medicine has a wide set of ranges, and are looking for numbers outside those ranges which can then that could be considered pathological, apply a diagnosis, give a treatment (in the form of medication more than likely).
Functional medicine has smaller ranges, and the numbers inside of that range is considered optimal. Everything outside of the optimal range and within the pathological range is what is called a functional disorder (hence the name functional medicine). Functional disorders occur more often than pathological disorders, because in order to be pathological a person has to have a functional disorder first. That’s why it is important if a person goes to a conventional doctor and have nothing pathologically wrong with them in their blood work (but still have some sort of symptomatology) they should go to a functional medicine doctor to see if there is a functional disorder going on.
For instance: conventional doctors test a patient’s thyroid by testing Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone (TSH). The pathological range is around .5-5.0 µIU/mL (labs can have different ranges based on local patient population), while the functional range for TSH is 1.8-3.0 µIU/mL. If a person has a TSH of 4.0 µIU/mL, they don’t technically have hypothyroidism, however, I would say that they have suboptimal thyroid function (thyroid hypofunction). As a side bar, TSH is a hormone released by the pituitary gland and communicates to the thyroid gland to tell how much thyroid hormones (T4/T3) to make. It doesn’t tell you what the thyroid hormones are doing within the body, so by itself I think it is a poor marker to determine thyroid function.
About the Author
Dr. Eric Johnson, Doctor of Chiropractic and Diplomate of the American Clinical Board of Nutrition as well as owner of Functional Wellness and Chiropractic Center in Madison, WI, is a functional medicine doctor that identifies root causes of pain and/or dysfunction. His systems-based, not symptoms-based, approach is a comprehensive, holistic approach that helps identify mental, chemical, and physical stressors that are underlying numerous health conditions. If you are in the Madison, Middleton, Verona, Waunakee area and looking to not only feel better, but live better, contact Dr. Eric at (608) 203-9272.
Center of Disease Control and Prevention. Leading causes of death. CDC.gov. [accessed 2018 Jan 15]. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm
National Institiutes of Health. Bacterial pneumonia caused most deaths in 1918 influenza pandemic. NIH.gov. [accessed 2018 Jan 15]. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/bacterial-pneumonia-caused-most-deaths-1918-influenza-pandemic