What is Functional Medicine?

What is Functional Medicine

Is functional medicine right for you?

Functional medicine is the new kid on the block when it comes to primary care.

It is still controversial in some circles and ultimately, still some years away from becoming mainstream.

So what is it all about?

Functional medicine sees health on a continuum – using unique testing that can help clinicians find out where you are exactly on that continuum and offer some predictive advice as to where you might be 1, 5, or 10+ years from now BEFORE problems develop.

Functional medicine is not a replacement for alternative or conventional medicine. It is a bridge between the two, and can be applied both acute and chronic conditions.

Think of functional medicine as “Personalized Lifestyle Medicine”.

It is NOT focused on a diagnosis. It is focused on identifying functional impairments on a spectrum of health. Once you see how different systems are functioning on a continuum of health, you can then work with your healthcare provider on unique food, supplement, and lifestyle strategies to actively promote a better place on that spectrum. Pharmaceutical and surgical options are still turned to when necessary.

When trying to understand a new philosophy, a straight Webster definition is not usually enough. It needs story, flavor and context to become a workable lens for your brain.

So I have put together a collection of articles and links that I think will help you get a firm grip on what functional medicine is and how it is used in practice. It may take you some time to go through the post, bookmark it and revisit it as you need.

If you have any discontent with the current healthcare system, it will be worth the investment of time to learn about this new model.

I: What is Functional Medicine?
II: 6 Key Principles of Functional Medicine

1. Biochemical Individuality
2. Patient-Centered
3. Dynamic Balance of Mind, Body, & Spirit
4. Web-like Interconnections
5. Health as a Positive Vitality
6. Promotion of Organ Reserve

III: Overcome the Tyranny of the Diagnosis”
IV: 7 Core Clinical Imbalances

1. Hormonal and Neurotransmitter Imbalance
2. Oxidation Reduction Imbalances and Mitochondropathy
3. Detoxification and Biotransformational Imbalances
4. Immune and Inflammatory Imbalances
5. Digestive, Absorptive, and Gut Microbiological Imbalances
6. Structural Imbalances from Cellular Membrane Function to the Musculoskeletal System
7. Mind-Body/Body-Mind Imbalances

V: How to Find a Functional Medicine Provider
VI: Conclusion

What is Functional Medicine?

A great place to start is a 20 minute introductory TED-talk from Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, an international spokesman for functional medicine.

  • Liz Lipski, PhD put together a rather comprehensive document introducing functional medicine and how it differs from conventional medicine. It introduces the philosophy, testing methods and treatment strategies for a range of conditions – a short worthwhile read:

Understanding Functional Medicine

The 6 Key Principles of Functional Medicine

According to the Institute for Functional Medicine, Functional Medicine is based on 6 Key Principles. I have included some links below to help you understand these complex concepts.

1.) Biochemical Individuality:

The concept of biochemical individuality was originally developed in 1956 by Roger J. Williams, PhD.

 It is probably the most important of all of the principles as it is about matching care specific to your physiology at any given moment.

I felt Chris Kresser, L.Ac captured the essence of biochemical individuality with his flexible take on the the Paleo diet:

  • Also, check out his new book detailing the same concepts The Paleo Cure.

  • The new field of Nutrigenomics developed out of the concept of biochemical individuality. It is about pairing your nutrition to your specific genetic profile. The science is still very young, but this approach will slowly transform healthcare as the field matures. Tracy Konoske, MS, RD, LD gave a nice introduction on her blog:
    What’s New on the Food as Medicine Frontier?

2.) Patient-Centered:

Much of the frustration with healthcare comes from the doctor-patient experience. Many doctors still only spend a few minutes with their patients and spend most of the time talking instead of listening.

3.) Dynamic Balance of Mind, Body, & Spirit:
  • Part of an excellent series on Functional Medicine, Experience Life explores the role of emotional health in health and disease:
    The Body-Mind Connection

4.) Web-like Interconnections:
  • Dr. Mark Hyman, MD shows how the whole of the body is greater than the sum of its parts. Organ systems are inherently interconnected. Dr. Hyman asks:
    Should You Fire Your Specialist?

5.) Health as a Positive Vitality:

Our healthcare system is really set up as a disease care system.

Health is much more than just relief from symptoms and includes all aspects of life experience.

Health is something that is promoted and maintained whereas a “disease” requires a diagnosis, treatment or cure. Functional medicine emphasizes those activities that promote health in the first place instead of waiting to “name, blame, and tame” an existing disease.

6.) Promotion of Organ Reserve:

Organ reserve is your body’s ability to support whole body health and bounce back from injury or toxic insult. If you have chronic stress, inflammation, infection or more, you can put a lot of wear and tear on your body’s ability to fight against future insults.

Any time you hear about the promotion of“healthy aging”, you are hearing about the concept of organ reserve. Small stresses over time can and will lead to disease.

For instance, Alzheimer’s disease may manifest in old age, but the process begins in your 20’s and 30’s. Functional medicine systematically identifies the underlying risk factors and addresses them before problems develop.

Overcome the “Tyranny of the Diagnosis”:

If you think about it, “disease” is really an illusion. Just as darkness is the absence of light, disease is simply the absence of “ease” or health. It is just a name we give to core dysfunctions happening in the body. It still tells us little about how and why the disease or dysfunction is there in the first place.

Dr. Pauline W. Chen, MD hits the issue head-on with her article in the NY Times:

While conventional medicine takes a “name it, blame it, and tame it” approach to care centered on an appropriate diagnosis, functional medicine aims to identify the root causes of dysfunction and coax back your health naturally. So what does it actually focus on then?

Dr. Frank Lipman, MD shares a powerful depiction of this key difference.from: http://www.drfranklipman.com/what-is-functional-medicine/

While conventional medicine focuses on the individual branches of the tree, functional medicine focuses on the roots and trunk.

You can prune the leaves and branches all that you want, but it is the health of your root system that determines your lifelong health. Functional medicine has narrowed down these factors to seven core clinical imbalances that functional medicine providers look to address.

Dr. Jeffrey Bland, PhD is known as the “Father of Functional Medicine”. His new book The Disease Delusion is an excellent dive in to the power of functional medicine:

7 Core Clinical Imbalances

There are limitless ways of becoming healthier on any one of the spectrums discussed below. This is why patients can feel overwhelmed when working with natural providers. They often read multiple sources of information and often find themselves on numerous supplements but without a plan or any benchmarks for success.

  • Which supplements should I take? What dosage? What brands?
  • What should I eat? Why do I read so many different perspectives?

The key is finding a practitioner that you like and that you have rapport with. They are your coach just as much as they are your health professional – and they will work with your existing team to match a care plan that is specific to you.

1. Hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalances


2. Oxidation-reduction imbalances and mitochondropathy

3. Detoxification and biotransformational imbalances

4. Immune and inflammatory imbalances

5. Digestive, absorptive, and gut microbiological imbalances

6. Structural imbalances from cellular membrane function to the
musculoskeletal system: 

Dr. Scott Mills, DC, shares his experiences trying a new Crossfit gym and gives some important principles for injury prevention and the enjoyment of the experience.

  • 5 Lessons I learned in My First Year of Crossfit.

When strength-training guru Eric Cressey is not training professional baseball players at Cressey Performance, he’s writing at CresseyPerformance.com or T-Nation.com. Here’s some of his early work debunking common exercise myths:

Selene Yeager of Runner’s World talks about recent research that showed that moderate exercise is still not enough if you’re still sitting most of the day:

7. Mind-body/body-mind imbalances

How To Find a Functional Medicine Provider:

To find a functional medicine minded practitioner, I recommend the following resources:

There you have it! I hope that you have a firmer grip on what functional medicine is all about and how it might play an important role in your life. If there is an article or resource that you think should be included in this post…feel free to email me at ARinehartDC@gmail.com and I will review it and see if it fits with the message.

Please take a moment to share with a few friends or family members that you think would benefit from this information.

3 Comments

  1. Sarah July 27, 2015 at 8:44 am - Reply

    Thank you for this well written, informative article. I have recently been diagnosed with leaky gut syndrome and feel overwhelmed with the number of food allergies/sensitivities (51 things that I eat on a regular basis plus about a hundred more in the “equivocal” range.) It’s hard to trust in alternative medicine when the medical establishment calls functional medicine quackery. But my medical doctors have nothing to offer me. It is good to see that there is scientific evidence that my condition exists. This gives me motivation to follow my DC’s advice instead of sticking my head in the sand and continuing with the status quo.

    • Alexander J. Rinehart, DC, MS, CNS July 27, 2015 at 10:13 am - Reply

      Hi Sarah, thanks for your comment, and I understand this may relate to the “Does Leaky Gut Exist Article” I have written: http://dralexrinehart.com/nutrition-benefits/does-leaky-gut-exist/

      When you have 20+ foods that show up on a sensitivity panel, it is indicative of leaky gut. The “good” news, is that typically it’s 3-5 foods that are ultimately driving it all. When you have a strong sensitivity, it promotes leakiness, and that leakiness then makes you more susceptible to reacting to foods that you wouldn’t react to otherwise. So typically a focused elimination on 3-5 of the main culprits can really help calm things down…and ultimately, months down the road, you may have just 2-3 foods to really focus on, with others you just want to be careful of how often you rotate them in and out.

      There’s a lot of information out there and if you want a medical perspective, Dr. Alesso Fasano’s work would be something to look into – he really is the one who established leaky gut and made it accepted mainstream – not just in the alternative worlds. Hopefully that helps to streamline your information search, have a great week!

  2. Sarah July 27, 2015 at 8:49 am - Reply

    I actually put my earlier comment on the wrong article, though I appreciate this article, too. I don’t see a way to delete my comment.

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