Functional Medicine And Chronic Disease

Functional Medicine, health room, luke jones

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I want to start by saying that the following is not an attack on the traditional medical system. The model we have today in the western world really does a lot of good, especially for acute problems. There are many great doctors and physicians doing important work, putting the needs of the patients first and saving millions of lives.

This article has been written merely to show another perspective, and to show that the functional medicine system might be worth exploring further…

FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE

Functional medicine is a healthcare system centred on discovering and resolving the underlying causes of disease and body imbalances. It claims to consider the complex interactions between genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can interact to affect how the body performs, and in some cases cause illness and disease.

The Institute of Functional Medicine describes their method of treatment:

‘Functional medicine integrates traditional Western medical practices with what is sometimes considered “alternative” or “integrative” medicine, creating a focus on prevention through nutrition, diet, and exercise; use of the latest laboratory testing and other diagnostic techniques; and prescribed combinations of drugs and/or botanical medicines, supplements, therapeutic diets, detoxification programs, or stress-management techniques.’

In functional medicine there is an emphasis placed on the unique genetic make up and lifestyle history of each patient, which in turn interact to produce a unique set of symptoms. A single clinic may contain experts in numerous different disciplines, including nutritionists, chiropractors, acupuncturists and medical doctors; all communicating and working together with the common goal in mind: improve the health of the patient.

ACUTE VS CHRONIC DISEASE

The traditional Western medicine practised by most physicians today is very proficient at treating acute problems.

Turn up at a traditional hospital with a broken bone or infection and you’ll likely be in safe hands. These types of traumas and illnesses are usually short in duration, or they require immediate urgent treatment, and medical staff have become well versed at dealing with them.

Usually, finding the underlying cause of an acute problem is not nearly as important as treating it with a fast acting solution. Physicians will typically administer specific prescribed treatments such as drugs or surgery; and these often work very well.

The top three killers in the USA however can all be classed as chronic diseases: heart disease, cancer and lower respiratory disease. In 2011 alone, between them they took more than 1.3 million lives (CDCP, 2013).

Although genetics play their part; the development of chronic disease begins due to the interaction of genetics with environmental and lifestyle factors.

TRADITIONAL MEDICINE APPROACH

When a patient starts to feel ill or shows any signs of disease, they usually turn to the all-knowing doctor to provide the cure.

The model we currently operate under administers a very similar approach to chronic disease as it does to acute problems. It could be argued that although this acute-care approach to treatment is great for dealing with acute problems and illnesses, it doesn’t work so well when applied to the treatment and prevention of chronic diseases.

You’re given statins to bring your cholesterol levels down. Insulin is prescribed to combat high blood sugar levels. Heart surgery is performed if there is a build up of plaque in the arteries. 

These surgeries and medications are designed to artificially cause a response in the body, without really taking into account the internal or external factors that may have been shown to contribute towards the development of the chronic disease in the first place.

Many of the drugs or surgeries present a whole host of harmful side effects, but the risk is taken. Often times, patients remain on their medication for life, never addressing or considering the root to their problems.

Don’t get me wrong, the medical system does a lot of great things, and surgeries and medication are sometimes completely necessary. However, it seems from an outside perspective and from some personal experience that the current system may be creating doctors that are perhaps too keen to jump to surgery or hand out medication as a first resort.

Some may claim that traditional doctors are also influenced by the vice like grip of the pharmaceutical industry. The more of a certain drug they prescribe, the bigger cut of money they receive. This may be the truth in some instances, but I would argue that in most cases the doctor is acting only in the best interest of their patient, doing what they believe is right to make the patient better.

Unfortunately, many traditional doctors lack formal training in disease prevention, and the impact of lifestyle choices on disease. It seems that much more focus is put on the treatment of disease than preventive measures.

There have been many studies conducted that provide concrete evidence to show that diet can be used to prevent and even reverse many different chronic diseases (Ornish et. al, 1997; Hu, 2003; Lanou & Svenson, 2011). Despite the growing evidence, on average medical students across the USA receive just 23.9 contact hours of nutrition instruction during medical school (Adams et al. 2006).

Pursuing a ‘healthier lifestyle’ may well be advised along with the treatment, but it seems that this often comes as an after thought to the prescription or scalpel; and the actual advice given may not be that healthful at all.

FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE APPROACH

One of the main aims of functional medicine is to shift the disease centred approach of traditional medicine to a more ‘patient centred’ one, in order to address the underlying causes of the disease, rather than solely treating the symptoms.

The thought is that symptoms are the body’s response to an underlying issue; they highlight that there is an underlying problem, but they are not the problem themselves.

For example, chronic inflammation is your body’s response to problem. Something is not right, and your body is reacting. Using anti inflammatory drugs may reduce the inflammation, but the underlying cause remains. Treating the symptoms usually gets you nowhere in the long run.

If your health was portrayed by a leaky tap, traditional medicine could perhaps be seen as mopping up the water; whereas functional medicine could be seen as looking at the cause of the leak and attempting to fix it. I like metaphors.

It kinda goes back to what I talked about in the very first article: Exploring Health. Whereas traditional medicine typically views the body as a set of individual organs and systems, functional medicine claims to use a ‘systems biology approach’; recognising the complex interaction between the different systems and various parts of the body.

If you have a recurring leg injury for example, it may be caused by an imbalance in your spine, rather than simply a problem in your leg.

When a patient is treated using functional medicine, it is voluntary, and usually runs along side traditional medical treatment. Initially, the patients history is explored, with lifestyle and environmental factors such as nutrition, exercise and stress investigated as a priority. Tests such as functional endocrinology and blood chemistry analysis can be combined with the patients history to really zoom in on the underlying problem.

One big difference noted between functional and traditional medicine is the range of healthy markers used during blood and saliva tests.

Dr. Shay Shani of the Shani Clinic explains:

‘In functional medicine, we look at different ranges for the different biomarkers; sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure etc. Traditionally, we are assuming, because we’ve been told so, that if your number lies anywhere in the range, you’re perfectly fine, you’re healthy. Is that true? No, not necessarily. It depends on who established the range. What we’ve learned in functional medicine is that the range is typically established on the usual people who go through the lab. This simple average, statistical analysis creates a range that is way too wide for healthy people. We can’t compare you to that population, we want to compare you to a healthy population. So in functional medicine we have a much smaller range, based on biomarkers for healthy people.’

Once the underlying cause of the problem is distinguished, an individual treatment plan is then established. No treatment method is exactly the same, as no patient is exactly the same. It may be as simple as a change in diet, or perhaps a combination of herbal medicines and chiropractic adjustments may be suggested.

After making changes, often patients are able to return to their traditional doctors, with drastic improvements in their health or even rid of chronic disease. In many cases the doctor has no choice to reduce their medication, or to bring them off of it for good.

SUMMARY

The medical system we have today is great for treating acute problems, but the statistics show that it may not be sufficient enough to deal with chronic disease.

Many of the top chronic diseases could be prevented, and many more people could reach their full health potential. There seems to be a growing awareness that drugs and surgery are not always the answer. Many traditional doctors are increasingly recognising the importance of various alternative treatments and the role they can play,

This is not a case of replacing traditional medicine with functional medicine, it’s about integrating more functional medicine practices into the mainstream, so they can co-exist and complement each other.

I’m not saying that functional medicine is definitely the answer to all of our woes, but I do think this kind of preventative, open-minded approach needs to continue to grow if we’re going to be able to tackle this chronic disease epidemic.


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REFERENCES

  • Adams, K. M., Lindell, K. C., Kohlmeier, M., & Zeisel, S. H. (2006). Status of nutrition education in medical schools. The American journal of clinical nutrition83(4), 941S-944S.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2011.
  • Ornish DM, Gotto AM, Miller RR, et al. (1997). Effects of a vegetarian diet and selected yoga techniques in the treatment of coronary heart disease. Clinical Research.
  • Hu, F. B. (2003). Plant-based foods and prevention of cardiovascular disease: an overview. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(3), 544S-551S.
  • Lanou, A. J., & Svenson, B. (2011). Reduced cancer risk in vegetarians: an analysis of recent reports. Cancer management and research, 3, 1.

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Luke Jones

Luke Jones is a mover, blogger and wellness enthusiast. He spends his time exploring and sharing ideas in mindful movement, healthy living and adventure.

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