What's Functional Medicine and Why is It So Awesome?

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I remember when I first heard about Functional Medicine.

As I laboriously thumbed through The Joe Rogan Experience playlist on Apple’s frustratingly non-intuitive podcast app during one of my daily hour-long commutes from LA to Riverside, CA, my thumb stopped and hovered over Episode #1037.

Joe’s synopsis on his guest Chris Kresser, cryptically described as a “health detective specializing in investigative medicine”, intrigued me enough to tap the play button.

It was an illuminating 2 hours and 25 minutes focused around Chris’s thoughts on America’s current healthcare system, diet/nutrition, disease and our gut microbiome. Chris is a “globally recognized leader in the fields of ancestral health, Paleo nutrition, and functional and integrative medicine”, so the dude knows what’s up.

(Personally, the jury’s out for me on Paleo, but the fact that he endorses that diet doesn’t negate his expertise in the field of Functional Medicine.)

In the weeks following, I dug deeper and discovered more legit professionals in this space like Dr. Mark Hyman and Zach Bush MD. All of these guys are proponents of a holistic and natural approach to medicine that takes numerous factors into consideration when diagnosing and treating chronic illness and/or disease.

This medical practice is best described as follows:

Functional Medicine determines how and why illness occurs and restores health by addressing the root causes of disease for each individual.

The Functional Medicine model is an individualized, patient-centered, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness. It requires a detailed understanding of each patient’s genetic, biochemical, and lifestyle factors and leverages that data to direct personalized treatment plans that lead to improved patient outcomes.

By addressing root cause, rather than symptoms, practitioners become oriented to identifying the complexity of disease. They may find one condition has many different causes and, likewise, one cause may result in many different conditions. As a result, Functional Medicine treatment targets the specific manifestations of disease in each individual.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds — and is — awesome.

I’ve always questioned our traditional healthcare system’s one-size-fits-all, impersonal, pharmaceutical pill popping, prescribe-and-goodbye approach, and Functional Medicine challenges all of that successfully.

Why do I say successfully?

Because I went to go see a FM doctor.

Ya see, I’m gonna be real for a second: I have depression…dun, dun DUUUUUUN. I’m diseased, I’m ruined, I’m ashamed. Don’t look at me!

Nah, it’s all good actually. We all have it in some form throughout our lives, whether it be temporary or chronic, and it’s more common than we realize. It’s under-reported among men, and I’d make an educated guess that it’s under-reported throughout the world among all age groups. There’s a massive stigma and blind spot around depression, so of course we aren’t talking about it, questioning if we have it, admitting we have it nor treating it.

It’s like the U.S. military’s protocol around gay men and women in the 90’s: “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. Not cool, and it needs to change so that shame can be taken out of the equation for many people who have depression.

So after years of symptoms, I mustered the cajones to address my own stigma and blind spot concerning my depression. This was my chronic condition that I was seeking treatment for.

After a comprehensive blood panel and some non-invasive tests, the doctor prescribed me natural supplements and lifestyle tweaks…and that shit worked! My mood seriously improved.

Now, no one can deny the power of the placebo effect, but this effect can be applied to any type of treatment whether it be from conventional or alternative medicine. Pharmaceutical drugs, anti-depressants, procedures, surgeries, all medical modalities are susceptible to the power of mind over matter. The placebo effect has been thoroughly tested and documented for decades and continues to be of great intrigue to the medical community. It’s real and significant.

So pertaining to my particular case, if we’re to call bullshit on vitamins, minerals, diet and lifestyle having a markedly positive effect on depression, then we must also be given the ability to call bullshit on conventional anti-depressant drugs. Just sayin’.

I don’t mean to make this post solely about depression, but my enthusiasm for Functional Medicine can only be attributed to my personal experience with it; it’s why I’m writing this. Of course, this practice addresses all chronic symptoms plaguing our population.

Functional Medicine is so powerful because it considers our entire interconnected physical being, not just one aspect like conventional medicine does. It’s not about prescribing specific drugs artificially synthesized in a lab nor conducting surgery on a specific body part, but rather looking at natural ways to replenish our bodies’ deficiencies in an effort to reverse disease and increase our ability to heal and thrive.

The primary focus of Functional Medicine is the “exposome”, a concept first proposed by a cancer epidemiologist (studying the causes of cancer and improving treatments) in 2005. Simply defined, the exposome is the sum of all environmental exposure in a person’s lifetime and how that relates to our health. Exposure begins at conception and factors in our parents’ health at the time and our mothers’ choices and environmental exposures throughout our development in the womb. Shit’s crazy, right?

The exposome can be broken down into 3 categories:

  1. Specific External Environment: Diet, physical activity, water, consumer/personal care products, lifestyle choices like smoking, infectious agents, chemical pollutants, etc. It also includes our environment at the earliest stages of our life, the method of our birth, whether we were breastfed or not, and our early life bond with our mother and other social and psychological influences.

  2. General External Environment: Climate; urban vs. rural setting; traffic; our wider economic, social, and psychological influences including social status, education, financial status and stress.

  3. Internal Environment: Internal biological factors such as metabolism, the microbiome, inflammation, hormones, and oxidative stress.

Or as I would define these: Our inner and outer world.

This has to be mind blowing for anyone who is a hardcore believer in traditional Western-based medicine and modalities. But it all makes complete sense. Focusing on external factors seems so fundamental and logical.

And get this: you know how we so often attribute almost all of our diseases and conditions on genetics? Like, “Damn, diabetes and high cholesterol runs in the family so I’ll probably get it too!” or “Damn, I’ve got a long line of alcoholics in my family so I’ll probably drink myself to death too!”.

Well, there’s evidence that our genes only account for 10% of disease. Yes, the genes we inherit only account for 10% of human disease. This means that 90% of all diseases afflicting humans is attributed to environmental and lifestyle factors. Yes, I’ll repeat that one too. 90% of all disease, including cancer, is due to our environment.

Mind. Blown. Brain matter…everywhere.

So that’s that. I hope I’ve offered a compelling case for Functional Medicine and that you’ll give it consideration before heading to your traditional doctor next time you need some medical lovin’.

If not, then at the very least, consider the prophetic words of Thomas Edison (we all know who he is, right?) and let it marinate:

“The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.”

HealthColin Goodridge