What Is Functional Medicine?

I was at a functional medicine conference several months ago and I heard two doctors new to functional medicine talking and realized that the way people define functional medicine has changed, even within the ranks of functional medicine doctors. Back in the early 1990’s when I started my career, functional medicine was an obscure and little known area and we used the now dated term “alternative medicine” to describe the broader field and “functional medicine” to describe our area of specialization within alternative medicine. Then eventually the term “integrative medicine” crept into the vocabulary and we saw the development of “integrative medicine centers” in many institutions. As integrative medicine took root, functional medicine kept growing.

Functional Medicine – Defining the Entire Natural Health Field

Back to the conversation I overheard, I realized these two doctors were using the term “functional medicine” in the exact same way as we used to use the terms “alternative medicine” and “integrative medicine”. In other words, their use of the term functional medicine was including the entire field of natural health, not just one small area that to me clearly defines what is a functional medicine doctor and lays out what do functional medicine doctors do. To me this signified an important change in how we look at functional medicine. Functional medicine is quickly becoming our very definition of natural healthcare. For me this is great! I’ve been preaching functional medicine concepts for 25 years, the recognition of the place of functional medicine and the elevation of its status in our health care system is a joy to behold. Truly functional medicine is beginning to become the face of the entire field of natural healthcare. I think this is happening because functional medicine lends itself to a general acceptance in that it’s science based and has a strong connection with our conventional medical system since both areas focus on laboratory testing. Other equally valid systems of healing like Chinese medicine or homeopathic medicine don’t have the same lab based component.

So to me, a veteran in this field, what is functional medicine? To me the definition has stayed the same all these years even as the way people view the importance of our field has shifted dramatically. My functional medicine definition is a science-based approach to healing that is based primarily on natural health solutions to common health problems. To me functional medicine combines the best of both worlds, heavy reliance upon labs, research findings and science for analysis along with a treatment delivery focus on lifestyle changes and natural cures to solve what we uncover. Also, functional medicine attempts to find and treat the underlying cause of health problems rather than hover around and only attend to symptoms.

What do functional medicine doctors do?

Primarily we listen. We listen to patients carefully. We listen to the body and the signals the body is sending off that something is amiss. We order lab tests that identify key imbalance in main body systems. It’s a systems oriented way to look at things, rather than “high blood pressure” being the problem we might look at the entire cardiovascular system and think, could be magnesium deficiency causing the rise in blood pressure, could be stress. This systems based, rather than symptoms based analysis distinguishes functional medicine. And we, most importantly coach patients as to the best and most important lifestyle changes they need to adopt. As the lab tests roll in we focus on supplement programs to fix hormone imbalances, energy deficits, neurotransmitter problems, GI distress and toxin related issues. As people heal we celebrate and then push patients to engage more fully in life. To me the fulfilment of functional medicine comes when a previously unhealthy, tired and despondent patient has hope, energy and a zest for getting out there in the world to make a difference. It’s a dream job as I get to witness miracles every day and am able to see the strength of the human spirit in even the sickest of my patients.

These key components make functional medicine special: a focus on patient needs and listening to patients; lab based analysis, natural solutions whenever possible and a huge emphasis on lifestyle change as a means to heal. Also, one thing that stands out to me is the idea that the body can and will heal itself when given the right circumstances. We in functional medicine often focus more on removing things than adding things. For example, removing sugar from the diet rather than adding diabetic medications. Removing animal fat from the diet rather than adding cholesterol lowering drugs. And if we do add things it’s whenever possible, a natural healthy fix, for example adding in green leafy vegetables 3x day can eliminate constipation and avoid the use of a prescription drug, adding in adequate water intake can cause people to drop five pounds of body weight and so on.

History of Functional Medicine

In terms of the history of functional medicine, in the early 90’s functional medicine conferences were attended primarily by nutritionally oriented chiropractors, some naturopaths and acupuncturists and there would be a very few MD’s. Over the decades as the acceptance and interest in functional medicine has grown, more and more MD’s are involved in the field now and most conferences I attend have a majority of medical doctors as attendees. The addition of more mainstream oriented physicians is an amazing and wonderful development. I believe it shows the strength and power of the approach used by functional medicine and how it’s philosophy can be embraced by people with vastly different backgrounds and training.

In the online courses I teach we’ll typically have MD’s, DC’s, acupuncturists and ND’s all on the same group call, all learning from and with each other. To me this is the best possible outcome. We have practitioners all united by an interest in functional medicine who can help patients in a way that combines the healing principles that are timeless with our latest scientific advances in laboratory testing.

Dr. Dan Kalish

Dr. Daniel Kalish is dedicated to teaching doctors Functional Medicine philosophy and practices. Through The Kalish Institute’s educational programs he has trained over 1,000 practitioners worldwide in The Kalish Method which solves patient challenges through a proven lab based approach.

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