What Is Functional Medicine? And How Does It Differ from the Conventional Approach?

Imagine you’re on a boat, and the boat is leaking. You can bail water from the boat, so it sinks more slowly, but if the leaks are still there, you’ll have limited success in trying to stay afloat. The conventional medicine approach is focused on bailing water out of the boat without fixing the leaks. But wouldn’t it make more sense to prevent the leaks from happening in the first place, and then fix them completely if they do spring up? There might still be the need to bail some water initially, but if the leaks get repaired, the boat becomes steady. Eventually, there’s no more bailing required, and the sailing—or living—can resume and it may be better than before. This is what Functional Medicine is all about.

To help you better understand Functional Medicine, let’s move beyond the metaphor and further compare and contrast the practice with conventional medicine:


Health Oriented                                   Disease Oriented

Patient Centered                                  Doctor Centered

Individual Treatment Plans                  Everyone Treated Same Way

Cost Effective                                      Expensive

Relieves Symptoms                              Suppresses Symptoms By Drugs

Preventive Approach                            Treatment of Disease A Personal

Touch                                 High Tech

Functional Medicine Is Health-Oriented, Not Disease Oriented

Conventional medicine isn’t really healthcare—it’s disease management. Rather than optimizing wellness through preventive and restorative lifestyle strategies, it focuses on managing illness once it has already occurred, primarily by suppressing symptoms with prescription drugs.

For example, if you have high blood pressure and you see a conventional physician, you’ll be given a drug to lower it. There’s rarely any investigation into what caused your hypertension in the first place. And even if lifestyle interventions are recommended, pharmaceuticals remain the primary treatment because the system isn’t set up to support you in those changes.

Although there is certainly a time and place for prescription medication, there are several fundamental problems with basing our healthcare system almost entirely on drugs.

Drugs rarely address the underlying cause of a health problem. Drugs don’t just mask symptoms, they also suppress bodily functions, including vital ones. Thus, they can actually worsen a problem over time.

Drugs often correct one imbalance by causing another, or several others, resulting in side effects. Often, the unintended effects of a drug far outnumber its intended effects.

By treating disease with medications that mask symptoms and cause side effects in the process, the conventional care model creates patients for life. Conversely, Functional Medicine promotes health and aims to prevent disease from happening in the first place. When it does, Functional Medicine practitioners seek to reverse it completely by investigating and then treating its underlying cause. You can think of Functional Medicine clinicians as health detectives. They support patients to recover their functions and get back to living their lives.

How? Functional Medicine practitioners don’t start by looking for diseases and syndromes and collecting the evidence of signs and symptoms, but rather by first evaluating a patient’s blood work and environment, including their diet and lifestyle. Why? We know that our modern diet, lifestyle, and environment changes the expression of our genes, changes that give rise to diseases and syndromes.

Functional Medicine Is Patient-Centered, Not Doctor Centered!

Patients are encouraged to play an active and engaged role in their treatment because your behavior is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, contributors to chronic disease. In contrast, in conventional medicine, the doctor is the expert who provides the answers, which the patient passively receives.

Functional Medicine treats the patient, not the disease. But more importantly, it treats the individual patient. Functional Medicine is not a one-size-fits-all approach: patients with the same problem may get a completely different treatment based on the particular origin and development of their condition. In a conventional model, patients with the same diagnosis often get the same treatment, despite differences in their presentation—a treatment that may not work well for them.

Functional Medicine Is Holistic, Not Specialized

In conventional medicine, there’s a doctor for every part of the body, but these specialists infrequently, if ever, consult with each other. That’s because conventional medicine actually views the body as a collection of separate parts.

In Functional Medicine, the body is seen as an interconnected whole within a larger environment. They recognize that this perspective is needed to uncover the interrelated causes of the underlying disease and chronic illness and to find the right tools, at the right time, individualized for each person. To treat one part of the body, all other parts must also be considered and not just the one part.

Speaking of tools, Functional Medicine is integrative, meaning that it uses the best tools from both the conventional and holistic worlds. While a Functional Medicine practitioner typically starts with diet, lifestyle, and behavior modifications, nutritional supplements, and botanicals, they don’t rule out medications or even surgery when necessary.

Why We Need Functional Medicine?

We’re in the midst of a chronic disease epidemic. It’s hard to overstate just how serious this problem is. In fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that our very survival as a species is at stake.

Chronic disease is now the biggest threat to our longevity. Conventional medicine can only manage this slow-motion plague; it can’t stop and reverse it. It was never intended to. It was historically and remains to this day, structured to address trauma, acute infection, and end-of-life care, not to keep people healthy. Don’t get me wrong—it’s incredibly effective in these instances; if I get hit by a bus, I definitely want to be taken to a hospital. But it is hardly a powerful weapon in our fight against chronic disease. Unlike acute problems, chronic diseases aren’t simply solved. They can’t be cured with conventional medicine’s Band-Aid approach, that is, drugs and other symptom-suppressing strategies that may not even bring relief, much less a resolution.

If you have any questions about Functional Medicine and what it can offer you, call Doctor’s Nutrition today at 1-800-824-0194.

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