What is Functional Medicine?
Functional medicine has become a buzz word in the health field and has grown in popularity over the last 10 years or so. This is because more and more people are searching for answers when it comes to their health, and the answers they are getting from Western medicine are not doing the job. Western medicine is falling short because it is too focused on naming diseases, is too expensive, and has few tools (only drugs of surgery) at it’s disposal. These methods have proven to be ineffective at combating our disease epidemic as it is now estimated that a third of the people in the United States have a chronic ailment or condition.
Functional medicine is the reaction that has come from Western medicines ineffective approach to combating chronic disease. To explain what functional medicine is it help to compare philosophies to Western medicine. In Western medicine there is a lot of concern over what disease or condition a patient my have. In functional medicine the focus shifts to whya person may have a disease or symptom regardless of what it is. The problem with only asking whata person may have is that you end up treating the symptoms of that condition without ever treating the root cause. When we start asking whythen we get to the underlying causes that are leading to the disease or symptom someone may have. This is useful because then our treatment can aim to remove the true cause rather than only suppressing the symptoms.
The beautiful thing about functional medicine is that the root causes of disease that it tends to find are generally the same causes for all diseases. Two people could have the same imbalance in their body but one may end up with one disease or symptom and the other something different. By finding the underlying imbalances in the body that lead to most all chronic diseases and fixing them, functional medicine is not just helping patients with diseases and symptoms. Instead, it is making the person healthier overall. In a way, functional medicine in not concerned with treating disease, it is much more concerned with creating health.
Practitioners who practice functional medicine can have many ideas or interpretations of what it is, and I have my own interpretation of what functional medicine is and why it works. Since learning the principles of evolution has changed my life in the healthiest of ways, then to me functional medicine is healing someone by helping them abide by the laws of nature and evolution. These natural laws are things that people have gotten away from just by living in our modern world. This is a concept I discuss in detail in my book, The Health Evolution: Why Understanding Evolution is the Key to Vibrant Health.
The basic premise is that humans have a certain evolved physiology that is set to operate in the environment that humans lived in for millions of years before civilizations came along. Since there has been a massive change in the food we eat, the toxins we are exposed to, the way we move, and the stress we experience over the last few hundred years this has resulted in a very problematic mismatch between our evolved physiology and our current environment. It is well understood among biologist that when the environment of a living thing in the wild changes to quickly and that living thing has no where to go then it struggles to survive. Our disease epidemic is the result of our way of life, and therefore our environment, changing too quickly.
If functional medicine is a type of medicine that asks the question of why do we have a disease, then this is the big picture answer to that why. If we want to achieve better health, then we need to change our lifestyles and our environments to be a little bit more like the ones humans spent millions of years in before modern civilization. This is precisely what a functional medicine practitioner is doing, even if they don’t realize it to that level. In functional medicine you are likely to be given advice on how to heal your gut, detoxify your body, reduce your stress, and change your diet. Why do these approaches tend to have a very positive effect on health? It is because doing these things are bringing poeple just a little bit closer to the way we used to live during the millions of years of the evolution of our physiology.
If a functional medicine practitioner helps you to heal your gut they are helping you create microbial diversity of your microbiome just like it would be if you lived in nature and were exposed to microbial diversity of nature. If they helped you detoxify your body and personal environment, they are helping you mimic the toxin-free environment that is the natural world. If they help you reduce your stress, they are removing the unnatural pressures of our modern world, or helping you learn techniques to cope with them better, to mimic only the stress that we would have encountered in the natural world. If they help you change your diet they are helping you recreate the nutrient dense diet that humans ate before the introduction of processed nutrient poor food.
Whether the functional medicine practitioner you work with knows they are helping you recreate the environment that is more in line with the one we humans evolved in is irrelevant. But I do think it is useful to know this information because it can help people understand why they need to make the changes they need to in order to achieve health. So what is functional medicine, it is the medicine of changing your environment to fit your evolved physiology so that the body can return to it’s default state, health. As the famous evolutionary biologist Theodosious Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense accept in light of evolution”. And that includes functional medicine.