What is Functional Medicine?

“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.” 

In non-scientific terms, functional medicine is the practice of figuring out the cause of disease and treating it rather than managing symptoms through medications aka bandaids that often cause further harm. 

How I see it is this: every disease or condition is simply a name given to a cluster of signs and symptoms. In the traditional western medical model, treatment of such diseases and conditions involve medications and/or surgeries that only address the symptoms rather than getting to any underlying cause and in the process, often lead to additional symptoms aka side effects. Let’s pick cancer as an example; the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in the body. Treatment can be monitoring, chemo, radiation or a combo of it all. But what does that actually treat? It attempts to kill the group of abnormal cells but does it actually address why those cells are uncontrollably dividing in the first place? No it doesn’t. And what does it do in the process? It kills a ton of good stuff in the body that may ultimately be the reason someone dies from cancer rather than the cancer itself. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for traditional western medicine. Someone with aggressive cancer needs to be treated. But what if we didn’t stop with the chemo? What if we went further to figure out why the cells divided in the first place and treat that? My hypothesis would be that the cancer would never come back.

“The precise manifestation of each cause depends on the individual’s genes, environment, and lifestyle, and only treatments that address the right cause will have lasting benefit beyond symptom suppression.”


Functional medicine asks the question “why?” and with that answer, actually treats the cause of disease. In this light, you can look at every diagnosis as the same. It is simply a sign of the system functioning at a suboptimal level. Sometimes a diagnosis can be the result of more than one cause or sometimes a cause can be the reason for multiple diagnoses. For example, depression can be caused by vitamin insufficiencies, decreased thyroid function or over-growth of bad bacteria in the gut. On the flip side, an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut can be the cause of depression, arthritis, cancer, heart disease and more. 


In some respects, this simplifies the entire study of disease states. There is almost no need for an emphasis on the diagnosis of a condition. Instead the microscope needs to be on the root cause of systemic breakdown. Let’s go back to the cancer example. If the genetic marker for cancer is present, it explains why an individual ended up with cancer versus having heart disease, diabetes or depression BUT that’s still not the actual cause. The true cause could be an ineffective immune system due to chronic systemic inflammation from a leaky gut caused by poor diet, a history of viral infections and excessive stress hormone release that then enabled that genetic mutation for cancer to be expressed. This might sound daunting because most everyone is stressed, has been treated with antibiotics for an infection and doesn’t have the best diet BUT it can also be empowering. Could we actually stop the expression of the cancer gene by optimizing the environment it lives in?I believe the answer is yes, we can. And that is pretty freaking cool. Welcome to functional medicine.

“Functional Medicine is true healthcare. Conventional medicine is really disease management: its doctors focus on controlling illness once it has already occurred, usually by suppressing symptoms with prescription drugs.” 
Chris Kresser

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