We’re bombarded with health and wellness advice. One type of medicine, the functional kind, has caught my eye and I’m keen to find out more.
I do a lot of health and wellness based reading. I regularly visit websites like Well+Good, Mind Body Green and The Chalkboard Mag. Their individual goals are pretty similar, which is to promote health and wellness. This includes recipes, skincare and exercise advice. I also, particularly on Mind Body Green, see a lot of interviews with functional medicine practitioners.
This got me thinking. What even is functional medicine? Is it part of modern medicine, or a load of quack? Well… I’m going to try and find out.
So what is it?
Let me start by trying to define it. According to The Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM), it is:
“Functional Medicine is a systems biology–based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. Each symptom or differential diagnosis may be one of many contributing to an individual’s illness.”The Institute of Functional Medicine
Okay, that sounds pretty straight forward to me. But wait, there’s more. On their definitions page, the IFM explains that one condition can have many causes, and one cause can lead to many conditions. Yep, still with it.
But, their example of a condition with many causes is… depression. Now don’t get me wrong, depression is a complex disease that has affected my family and I agree that there may be not be one single cause of it. Here are what they list as possible causes of depression:
Antibiotic use, omega 3 deficiency, low thyroid, pre-diabetes and vitamin D deficiency.
Frankly, I’d like to see some references for these sorts of claims!
The 5 principles
On Mind Body Green, they list the following 5 principles for functional medicine:
- Functional Medicine views us all as being different; genetically and biochemically unique. This personalized health care treats the individual, not the disease. It supports the normal healing mechanisms of the body, naturally, rather than attacking disease directly.
- Functional Medicine is deeply science based. The latest research shows us that what happens within us is connected in a complicated network or web of relationships. Understanding those relationships allows us to see deep into the functioning of the body.
- Your body is intelligent and has the capacity for self-regulation, which expresses itself through a dynamic balance of all your body systems.
- Your body has the ability to heal and prevent nearly all the diseases of aging.
- Health is not just the absence of disease, but a state of immense vitality.
Here are my initial thoughts to seeing this list.
- We really are all genetically unique (except twins, triplets etc). Biochemically, we’re really not that unique. Biochemical values definitely vary from person to person, but most of use tend to stay within a statistical range. When we’re out of range, it usually means something is up. Supporting natural healing is also all very well and good, but with conditions like certain cancers or serious infections, such as HIV, the body is highly unlikely to heal itself.
- I’m not convinced about this point. I’d say the science is still in its infancy.
- Correct, our bodies are intelligent and self regulate – it’s called homeostasis! That’s why you don’t need something like an alkaline diet. When it doesn’t self regulate, it needs medicine.
- Again, I’m not convinced. We all age. As this happens, we’re not able to repair and heal as fast as we could when we were young. It means that we’re going to get sick and develop conditions if we’re not careful and take basic care of ourselves.
- Okay, I like the sentiment of this point.
Does it work?
Well, according point 2 in the list above – it’s definitely science based! But, I can’t find any traditional evidence to prove that it is. When I say ‘traditional’ by the way, I mean a peer reviewed clinical trial.
I searched ‘functional medicine’ in Pubmed – first I searched for the term in the abstract/title and then filtered to clinical trial only. The result? 0 papers. Then I searched the term as a text word and again filtered to clinical trial only. Still nothing.
Then, I searched for editorial pieces. There were LOTS of papers. Sadly, a lot of them were written by leading functional medicine practitioners and therefore carry a whole lot of bias. I did find one interesting paper though. It was actually a letter to the editor of a journal who had carried an editorial piece about functional medicine in the previous issue. I recommend that you read it, they make an excellent argument against the practice.
So… is it a load of quack?
Yes, and no. I’m not sure if I can or ever want to give a definitive answer to this question!
The thing is, I agree in taking care of our bodies and trying to act preventatively, rather than waiting before it’s too late and tacking a cocktail of medicines. Diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease can be prevented, to a certain extent, with a healthy diet and lifestyle.
I also like that a functional medicine practitioner might be able to spend more time with their patients and really understand them. After all, you’re likely to be paying for their service, so you may as well feel understood! I think this is more a sign of our current healthcare system though, where medical staff don’t have time to get to know anyone.
Plus, I like that they could tackle physical and mental health. After all, the two are connected.
But, I have to disagree that our bodies are capable of completely healing themselves. They’re not. Some things are easy to recover from (if you’re healthy in the first place), and some things aren’t. We’re only human, and we’re not immortal.
There’s a lot of distrust with modern medicine – maybe it’s seen as too cold, complicated and disconnected. The drugs we take seem to be given out too easily, and have unpronounceable names. It’s not surprising that people want to take a more ‘functional’ approach.
That being said, maybe there’s some middle ground between conventional medicine and functional. What do you think?