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Functional medicine is a science-based personalized approach to healthcare in which the physician works to identify the root causes of chronic condition or symptoms and then forms a therapeutic partnership with the patient to address them.
Functional medicine looks beyond the diagnosis of disease to understand the processes or abnormal functioning underlying a medical condition. The goal is to understand how a patient’s health issues (or malfunctioning) are connected to individual genetics, life history, diet, possible toxin exposure, stress, and other lifestyle factors. The physician then works with the patient to develop a treatment plan to help the body function in a more healthy way.
The treatment plan is “integrative” and likely to include a combination of: prescription medicines, botanical medicines, nutrient supplements, therapeutic diet, exercise, and stress management. Success requires the patient’s active involvement in identifying ways to make and sustain lifestyle changes that support healing.
The goal of the treatment plan is to promote and gently support the patient’s return to optimal health and to help prevent new health problems and diseases before they start.
Today’s Chronic Disease Crisis
Our society is experiencing a dramatic rise in the number of people suffering from complex, chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mental illness, and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. Research points to multiple factors for this disease surge: poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, chronic stress, and exposure to toxins.
Today, medications are the primary approach to the treatment of chronic disease. Our current medical system is a continuation of the “acute care” model that originated in the early 1900s when infection and injury caused most premature deaths and disability. At that time, lifesaving antibiotics and surgical procedures were developed to treat acute conditions, often with dramatic cures.
With ever more sophisticated diagnostic tools and procedures, physicians today can apply specific, targeted treatments such as drugs or surgery to successfully treat traumatic injuries and acute illnesses such as heart attack or stroke. However, chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension have surpassed infection and injury as the leading cause of premature death and disability. Unfortunately, the “acute care” model has not achieved the same dramatic success in treating the rising numbers of people with complex, chronic disease or in preventing many disease complications.
Medications for chronic diseases generally target the “downstream” symptoms—or unhealthy physiologic effects—of the disease. Treating these symptoms and effects is necessary, but medications do not address the “upstream”—or root causes—of chronic disease including poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, exposure to toxins, and chronic stress.
While medications are an important part of the treatment of chronic diseases, they are more effective when used in tandem with integrative approaches, including lifestyle changes. Research repeatedly shows that many people with chronic diseases who also adopt lifestyle measures such as improved diet and exercise achieve better health results than people who only take medications.
A New Approach
Fortunately, functional medicine provides a different approach to treating people with chronic diseases. It offers methods and clinical tools to address chronic disease with the same degree of success as the treatment of many acute conditions. Its goal is to optimize the body’s functioning.
I was introduced to functional medicine in 2009 after growing frustrated with the conventional medical approach to treating chronic disease. I was inspired to learn that experienced functional medical physicians had created and refined an innovative model for addressing chronic diseases by systematically looking for root causes and then applying a broad, integrative approach.
Functional medicine recognizes that each person’s genetic make-up, diet and lifestyle choices, stress level, and history of toxin exposure is unique. Therefore, the treatment plan is unique to each patient. I am convinced that functional medicine helps patients improve the functioning of their bodies, their health, and their lives.
The functional medicine model is being applied in a growing number of medical settings – including some medical schools and residency programs as well as in medical centers like the Cleveland Clinic (see inset below). Functional medicine’s integrative personalized approach not only results in better health outcomes for people with chronic diseases, it is also more cost effective than the conventional medical approach.
Interest in the functional medicine approach to treatment of chronic disease and promotion of health is growing rapidly. In September, 2014, the Institute for Functional Medicine partnered with the Cleveland Clinic to open their new Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic with the goal of focusing on how lifestyle factors contribute to chronic disease. This center has met with an overwhelming patient response and will be expanding in early 2016. Read more
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Jeanne Cook, MD is a board certified family practitioner and functional medicine consultant in private practice in Austin, Texas. She brings over 25 years of practice experience to her work with her patients using a personalized functional and integrative approach to assist them in their return to optimal health.