What Is Functional Medicine?


Functional Medicine seeks to identify and tackle the root causes of disease.

The twentieth century saw incredible advances in the way we treat acute disease and injuries, but a dramatic rise in chronic illnesses like depression, IBS, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and autoimmune disease.

Why?

Functional Medicine exists to find the answers, and use them to help the millions of people worldwide suffering with chronic disease. Read on to find out more about Functional Medicine.

What exactly is Functional Medicine?

Functional Medicine is true ‘health’ care. Instead of just treating the symptoms of health conditions, it focuses on finding their root causes, and preventing disease from happening in the first place.

It’s important to say that Functional Medicine is in no way ‘anti’ conventional medicine. Conventional medicine saves millions of lives every year, and ultimately, both approaches have the same goal: to make us all feel better.

But if you’re reading this article, it’s likely you’ve tried to find help for a health condition within the traditional medical system, and struggled.

Chronic disease is the biggest health problem we face today. Although the concepts of Functional Medicine are timeless, in today’s world, its approach is revolutionary. Functional Medicine is the future of medicine.

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Functional Medicine in practice

Functional Medicine aims to put you in the driving seat. 

Through considering your diet, lifestyle, health history and the uniqueness of your biology and genetics, it enables you to identify and address the root cause of your health problems.

If you’re used to conventional medicine, you might expect to see a health practitioner who can diagnose you with a disorder and give you medicine to make it go away. Functional Medicine doesn’t work like that.

 

Functional Medicine Conventional Medicine
Seeks to optimise health and wellbeing            Treats symptoms of disease
Collaborates with patients  Instructs patients
Looks at each patient individually Treats patients according to their disease
Relieves symptoms by addressing cause Suppresses symptoms with drugs
Tackles the causes of disease Diagnoses disease 


Functional medicine seeks to optimise health

For example, if you have an underactive thyroid and you see a conventional doctor, you’ll probably be given pills to address it. You won’t usually be asked any questions that might help you to know how it happened in the first place. 

Although prescription medication can be life-saving and life-changing, we need to be looking at a lot more besides drugs when it comes to disease. Drugs rarely address the underlying cause of a health problem.

Functional Medicine practitioners aim to prevent disease from happening. But when it does, we investigate and tackle its underlying causes. 

While conventional medicine looks for diseases and syndromes by noting signs and symptoms, Functional Medicine first looks at a patient’s entire health history, genes and environment, including their diet, lifestyle and stress levels. 

The evidence on the link between our modern diet, lifestyle, and environment and our current levels of chronic disease is now so overwhelming that it’s impossible to ignore. So that’s where we start.

Functional Medicine practitioners collaborate with patients

In Functional Medicine, we work with you, not for you, and ask you to play an active role in your journey to health. This is because we know that your attitude and outlook is one of the biggest elements of both your mental and your physical health. 

Functional Medicine practitioners may hold the map to your destination, but there are many ways to get there, and you’re in the driving seat. Your practitioner is just your passenger!

Functional Medicine is holistic

Today, we have specialist doctors for every part of the body. As a result, we view our bodies as a collection of separate parts.

In Functional Medicine, we see the body as a system, containing inextricable ‘sub-systems’ which ideally would work in harmony together.

Chronic diseases have many interrelated causes, so to tackle them, we need to think about all the body systems: looking at just one part of the body is unlikely to make a powerful difference to any illness.

Our Gut Health Tests are based on Functional Medicine principles.

They look at:

  • Digestion and absorption levels
  • Inflammation levels
  • Presence of parasites and worms
  • The gut microbiome breakdown
  • Potentially pathogenic bacteria including H. pylori, Campylobacter and C. difficile

Gut Health Tests can help you understand what’s going on in your body from a root cause perspective, because the goings-on of your gut can give unique insight into your overall health.

Research around the gut microbiome and its role in overall health continues to rocket.

For instance, we now know that Akkermansia—a species of bacteria that degrades mucus in the lining of your intestines—affects the way your body processes sugars and fats, and the immune system in your gut [Source: PubMed]. All our Gut Health Tests measure your levels of Akkermansia.

Functional Medicine vs integrative medicine

Functional Medicine is integrative medicine: it integrates elements of both the conventional and holistic fields. 

Diet, lifestyle, and behaviour changes, as well as supplements and botanicals are usually where we start, but we often work closely with patients’ doctors, and will never ask you to stop or change any medication you’re on.

What-is-functional-medicine

Is Functional Medicine legitimate? 

While we never claim to cure any disease, Functional Medicine can halt chronic disease, and even put it into remission.

As we said before, everyone is different, and the way you respond to lifestyle changes is likely to be completely different to someone else who is making precisely the same changes. So there are no guarantees, but there are many examples of people who have gone into remission from chronic disease by transforming their diets or using non-pharmaceutical interventions like herbs or specific micronutrients.

Some examples in the medical literature include:

We know from hard evidence that our modern diet, lifestyle, and environment is very far away from what we need to nourish our basic human biology. This mismatch is the primary driver of chronic disease [Source: PubMed].  

If you’re curious about how we use science to inform the way we work at Healthpath, check out our Science page.

What our bodies need is not what our bodies get in the modern world. 

When we eat a diet of whole, unprocessed food and move and live in the way we were designed to do, chronic disease is very rare. We only need to look at the world’s remaining hunter gatherer societies to see that many of us are not living up to our genetic potential [Source: PubMed].

While the average age of death is younger in traditional societies because of the higher death rate in babies and children, elderly people have a very low chance of getting diabetes [Source: PubMed], cancer or heart disease [Source: PubMed]. Anthropologists who have studied the Hadza tribe in southern Africa all remark on how vibrant and strong people remain throughout their whole lives [Source: PubMed]

While we live long lives, thanks to medical advancements and sanitary living conditions, our final years are likely to be accompanied by multiple, persistent chronic health conditions that limit our quality of life.

As you can see, there’s an incredible amount of science behind the Functional Medicine approach, despite accusations that Functional Medicine is not evidence-based. Most practitioners are so passionate about their profession that they spend their spare time reading the latest research, so you can be confident that if yours asks you to get at least eight hours of sleep a night and cut out gluten, it’s because there’s research and data that support it.

Does insurance pay for Functional Medicine?

In the UK, Functional Medicine Practitioners are all registered with the CNHC (the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council) which was set up by the government to protect the public.

A number of health insurance companies provide cover for their clients to get treatment from practitioners registered with the CNHC. This could be as part of your premium, or through a private health cash plan that allows you to spread the cost of certain healthcare expenses, for a regular monthly premium. 

Policies can be funded by an employer or purchased by an individual, for themselves or for their family. They work by processing claims for reimbursement for healthcare costs not funded by the NHS or private medical insurance policies. 

The following providers currently recognise CNHC registration for reimbursement: 

    • Medicash
    • The Health Insurance Group
    • Pure Benefits
    • Westfield Health
    • Health Shield
    • Elect
    • Simplyhealth
    • Benenden
    • BHSF
    • UK Healthcare
    • Paycare

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What does a Functional Medicine doctor do?

First, let’s clarify the difference between a Functional Medicine doctor and a Functional Medicine Practitioner.

In the UK, you can only call yourself a doctor if you’ve taken a medical degree and completed the training required to become a medical doctor. Technically anyone with any kind of PhD can call themselves a doctor, but they’re not medical doctors. There are a number of medical doctors in the UK who have also qualified as Functional Medicine practitioners, and they can call themselves Functional Medicine Doctors.

However, there are also many people without medical degrees who have qualified as a Functional Medicine Practitioner. They’ve gone through rigorous and intensive training with the Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM), but they’re not doctors.

All our practitioners at Healthpath are either Functional Medicine Practitioners, or Registered Nutritional Therapists who follow the Functional Medicine model. You can find out more about what we do on our How it works page.

Whether you choose to see a Functional Medicine doctor or a Functional Medicine Practitioner, their aim will be to restore your normal physiology and ‘function’.

It’s hard to define what a Functional Medicine Practitioner does, because it’s often ‘tacked on’ to another speciality. For instance, a medical doctor that practices geriatric medicine, paediatric medicine or oncology could practice Functional Medicine also. 

You could have an osteopath, chiropractor, acupuncturist or nutritionist that practices osteopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture or nutrition alongside Functional Medicine. You’ll have some practitioners that only practice Functional Medicine and stop using their original training. Most practitioners combine whatever their original training was with the Functional Medicine model, though.

To get to know us and our practitioners a bit better, take a look at our Practitioners page.

Key takeaways

  • Functional Medicine is, in a nutshell, about finding and tackling the root causes of disease
  • Functional Medicine Practitioners are there to support and empower you to restore yourself back to health, rather than give you a prescription or tell you what to do
  • Because everyone is different, there are no set treatments or protocols for any disease
  • Functional Medicine practitioners look at health from a different perspective to conventional medicine, however they recognise and respect it as another powerful tool in fighting disease
  • Functional Medicine is very much an evidence-based approach to restoring health and combating the causes of disease
  • However, many Functional Medicine Practitioners take elements of less ‘proven’ elements of holistic health too, like mindfulness, visualisation or movement, as the shortage of studies in fields like these reflects a lack of funding rather than a lack of efficacy
  • Functional Medicine Practitioners come from a variety of backgrounds, from conventional medicine to osteopathy, nutrition, physiotherapy or any other health discipline

Author

Alexandra Falconer MA (Dist) DipCNM mBANT is a Registered Nutritional Therapist specialising in IBS and related conditions. A graduate of Brighton’s College of Naturopathic Medicine, she is committed to fighting the root causes of chronic illness and bringing functional medicine to everyone who needs it.

Before her natural health career, Alex was a journalist and copywriter. She continues to write for magazines and media agencies, and now combines her two great passions—writing and health—by creating content that empowers people to claim their right to a healthy body and mind.

 

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