An introduction to functional medicine

Many friends to whom I’ve waxed lyrical about functional medicine have not been familiar with the concept. If you too are unfamiliar, here is a short post to lay out the fundamentals of this amazing approach. I’ll be writing a lot more on this subject in other posts so please consider this an introduction only and skip it if, like me, you are a convert!

Today’s healthcare system, from insurance to Big Pharma to the NHS, is set up to deal well with acute illnesses (eg infections) and trauma (broken limbs, accidents). However, the increasing burden on our healthcare system is coming from chronic illnesses ranging from type II diabetes to cancer and Alzheimer’s. Chronic disease wasn’t really a thing 50 years ago, and now it’s overwhelming us. (See my recent article on links to chronic disease and pesticides here).

The healthcare system is valiantly struggling to keep up with this load but it’s focused on managing the symptoms rather than finding the causes, and this is where functional medicine is perfectly poised to help. In fact, its existence is the only thing that gives me optimism about the fate of our health.

Lets start with a quick definition: what exactly is functional medicine?

Functional, or integrative, medicine focuses on the root cause of your problems, or dis-ease, and on addressing and reversing these:

It takes a systemic, holistic approach to our bodies, looking at our processes (eg immune system, digestion, cellular communication) work together.

It focuses not just on preventing disease but on optimizing health

It is about asking not WHAT is wrong with you, but WHY these symptoms are manifesting.

It treats symptoms as cries for help from the body – messages that something is out of balance

It examines our genes and epigenetics together. Epigenetics are factors that influence our genes, from diet to lifestyle (read: stress) and environmental factors.

It is not woo-woo!! On the contrary, it is highly evidence-based and uses bio-markers with which traditional GPs may be unfamiliar.

It is also highly individualised, as each of us has a different genetic make-up as well as different epigenetic factors affecting our genes.

Click here for the Institute of Functional Medicine’s homepage and a useful summary of the approach.

Multiple symptoms, single cause???

One problem with the medical industry today is how siloed it is. For each symptom, you have a specialist who tends not to look far beyond his or her speciality. Let’s take me as an example (I will write more on my functional medicine journey in another post).

For years I’ve had digestive problems, loosely defined as IBS (an unhelpful umbrella term). I’ve seen everyone from acupuncturists to ayurvedic masseuses to Harley Street gastorentorologists. I’ve also suffered debilitating sinus infections in recent years, leading to rounds of antibiotics and scans by, again, Harley Street ENT surgeons. Despite 8 hours sleep a night I am tired all the time. Despite eating A LOT I am hungry all the time. I have terrible blood sugar crashes (I will not get behind the wheel without snacks in the car). Multiple symptoms, multiple doctors. Do these symptoms have a common cause? Yes, they do. But it’s taken me a very long time to understand that.  

Lets be clear, I am not sick. I have no disease but my energy levels are shot to hell and I feel like I’m sleepwalking through life a lot of the time. I think that today we normalise this state of being, this slightly grotty, under-the-weather, TATT (tired all the time) feeling because we have kids and jobs and that’s just how life is.

I for one refuse to accept this. I am 41 and I intend to spend the next few decades of my life full of vitality and glowing with health. I want to jump out of bed in the morning and regain my appetite for living. Today we are persuaded by culture and drug companies that old age = loss of energy, mobility, vitality … this does not have to be true. Many of the symptoms we get as we age are due to chronic, cumulative inflammation and lifestyle factors and not the simple act of aging. Our age in years does not have to equal our biological age.

What functional medicine finds again and again is that there is a clear root cause for this myriad of dis-ease in our bodies. Usually, it’s inflammation which can manifest in so many ways (from Rheumatoid Arthritis to sinus infections to depression). Often, it’s caused to a large extent by poor gut health. The good news is it’s treatable and often reversible. The bad news is that there are few quick fixes – reversing a lifetime of these build-ups can be a long journey of changing our behaviour. It can also be expensive. I will watch with interest to see how health insurance companies and the medical industry shift to accommodating more preventative / integrated medicine, taking the financial pain up-front to lessen the debilitating cost to them of a chronically ill population requiring decades of medical care.

My own story will have a happy ending. It’s one for another post but my amazing functional doctor has found that I have severe food intolerances which are causing an early-stage autoimmune problem. My antibodies are high and this helps to explain my fatigue. At the core of my problem is a very unhealthy gut, a legacy of the past few decades (Nutella on white bagels & daily adrenal overload on a trading floor for example!) which I am now treating by following an autoimmune protocol in my diet plus many, many supplements personalised to my exact needs.

What I have discovered is this: chronic disease tends not to come out of nowhere. If you are diagnosed with diabetes, lupus, Coeliac disease or Alzheimer’s, its likely that the dis-ease in your body has been quietly building for a long time before being advanced enough to diagnose. On the flip-side, I’ve learnt that we do not have to accept feeling ‘fine’ and getting ‘less fine’ as we age. We have more levers than ever before to help ourselves.

If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating area of medicine, which I believe will continue to grow in demand as we lead longer but sicker lives, then you may want to check out some of my favourite functional doctors. Below are their details and some of my favourite quotes from them. (Please note: functional practitioners can be certified by the Institute of Functional Medicine without being medical doctors. My personal preference for my own journey has been to use a medical doctor who has embraced functional medicine.)

Functional Doctors whom I admire greatly

Dr Jeffrey Bland – leader in the functional medicine field, US

“Chronic diseases … are keeping us from enjoying our extended longevity to the fullest. When these diseases are not killing us before our time, they are burdening our lives with pain, discomfort, or limitations that undermine the living of life and rob us of the quality of life.”

His book, “The Disease Delusion”, is a veritable functional medicine bible. I highly recommend it. It is split by each of the body’s main processes and contains some awesome questionnaires in each chapter allow you to assess your own health across the board.

Visit his website here

Dr Maya Shetreat – paediatric neurologist and functional practitioner, US

“Chances are that you take much more than you give, whether you insist that your body keep up with your usual tasks when you’re not feeling well or ask it to perform without the optimal fuel or rest. Your expectation of your body is likely high while your community with it is low”.

Read her amazing book “The Dirt Cure”. This is an incredible read whether or not you are a parent.

Follow her on Instagram

Dr Mark Hyman – physician, functional practitioner and founder of the Cleveland Clinic

“More than flavors and calories, food becomes information that tells your cells and mitochondria what to do”

His book, “Food: WTF Should I Eat?” is a must-read

His podcast, “The Doctor’s Farmacy” is one of my favourites and focuses on the importance of food and farming to our health and that of the planet

Follow him on Instagram

Visit his website here

Dr Will Cole – chiropractor, functional practitioner focusing on auto-immune diseases, US

“When someone is diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, they have already been experiencing autoimmune-inflammation for an average of about ten years.”

Visit his website here

He co-runs the Goopfellas podcast, Goop’s new podcast series for men

Follow him on Instagram

Dr Suman Gupta – private GP and functional practitioner, London (she is my doctor)

“Getting to the route of the problem is imperative, and masking symptoms without treating the cause only prolongs and worsens the complexity of chronic disease.”

Visit her website here

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