What is Functional Medicine and How Can it Help You Live Healthier?

This article provides an introduction to the holistic way that the functional medicine model works to identify the root cause of disease, and develop sustainable strategies to achieve optimal health.

What is Functional Medicine and How Can it Help You Live Healthier?
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Functional medicine or root cause medicine is a personalized treatment approach that focuses on the individual to identify and address the root causes of disease. It has been shown to improve outcomes in patients with chronic conditions and is used to prevent the onset of health conditions.
Chronic conditions tend to be persistent and are generally not curable. The traditional medicine or conventional medicine route for treatment involves prescribing different medications to relieve symptoms until one works. Functional medicine focuses on the individual to manage, prevent, or reverse complex and chronic diseases rather than targeting the symptoms with medication.
The scope and cost of chronic disease continue to rise. An estimated 133 million people in the United States suffer from at least one chronic disease, such as heart disease, high blood pressure (hypertension), and arthritis. This equates to nearly half the population and this figure is expected to reach 170 million by 2030. Functional medicine has the potential to reverse this trend by providing better health outcomes and cost savings for both patients and the healthcare system in the long term.

Overview of the benefits of functional medicine

Focuses on root causes of disease

Functional medicine doctors seek to treat your medical condition by discovering and addressing the root cause. They collect detailed information about your medical history and lifestyle. As well as a timeline of symptoms, they may ask about:
  • Sleep patterns
  • Exercise habits
  • Nutrition
  • Stressors
  • Personal relationships

Emotional wellbeing

Once functional medicine doctors have a full understanding of the underlying dysfunctions or imbalances present, they can suggest a treatment plan to manage the condition.

Based on data

Functional medicine relies on the collection of data to determine the underlying reason(s) why a patient suffers from a particular condition. A functional medicine doctor develops a complete picture of a patient through a deep dive into their medical history as well as genetics, biochemistry, physiology, and lifestyle factors e.g. sleep, and stress levels. The same data can be used to effectively track the progress of a treatment plan.

Highly personalized

Because functional medicine is based on comprehensive information about the patient, the resulting treatment plan is uniquely designed to meet their needs and manage their condition(s).

Multi-disciplinary and broad-based

Functional medicine is different from conventional medicine in its holistic approach, functional medicine tends to target conditions from several different standpoints. A treatment plan may therefore include medications as well as herbal or botanical supplements and vitamins. They also often include alternative medicine like acupuncture, alongside lifestyle recommendations to enhance nutrition, movement, sleep, and management of stress.

Provides a road map for overall health

The ultimate goal of functional medicine is to optimize health. By combining multiple approaches and paying special attention to diet, exercise, nutrition, and the workings of the mind, this approach can provide you with the tools needed to maintain overall health.

Creates stronger patient-doctor partnerships

It’s all too common to spend an hour or more waiting for a traditional 10-minute medical consultation. Typically these sorts of consultations are rather quick and so are unable to take into account all the factors contributing to a patient's health concerns across sleep, stress, nutrition, etc. Functional medicine doctors conduct in-depth consultations and take extensive personal histories, which builds trust and allows them to understand all the nuances of your health situation fully.
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What is functional medicine?

The goal of functional medicine is to eliminate or reverse chronic conditions that are typically poorly managed by traditional medicine. The functional medicine approach is to seek a deep understanding of the physiology and biochemistry of the body, focus on the root causes of illness, and help in the daily management of conditions such as arthritis, celiac disease, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Treatment plans are typically based on various lab tests and increasingly wearables data. The medical practice focuses heavily on adapting lifestyle measures to optimize digestive health, nutrition, hormones, and adrenal/nervous system balance.

Systems-based approach to functional medicine

Functional medicine treatment is based on the system affected, not the condition diagnosed.
The body is viewed through seven fundamental systems:

1. Assimilation

This is assessing how your body breaks down the food and water you drink and converts it into energy and nutrition for your cells. This includes digestion, absorption, microbiota, gastrointestinal tract, and respiration. It starts with the digestive tract and ends when cells become fed and hydrated. All sorts of issues can arise when any part of the system isn’t working as it should, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, and diarrhea.

2. Defense and repair

This relates to the immune system, which defends the body against infection by removing dead or dying cells and facilitating cellular repair. When it’s not working optimally, it can cause major problems such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain, inflammation, and a wide range of autoimmune diseases.

3. Energy

Mitochondria generate most of the chemical energy needed to power our cell's biochemical reactions by breaking down nutrients. However, when mitochondria struggle to function, the body can’t fuel essential processes such as releasing hormones, making protein, or repairing DNA. This can lead to seizures, metabolic strokes, impaired kidney function, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

4. Biotransformation and elimination

This system processes nutrition and excretes compounds the body doesn’t need, chemically modifying them to allow their removal from the body. Problems can lead to nutritional deficiencies, toxic exposures, genetic mutations, and chronic inflammation.

5. Transport

This encompasses the body’s lymphatic and cardiovascular systems. Metabolism slows when materials cannot be transported efficiently through the body, leading to problems such as heart failure, hypertension, and kidney disease.

6. Communication

This relates to all signaling interactions that occur within and between cells via hormones, neurotransmitters, and immune messengers. Problems in communication between cells can cause depression, hypothyroidism, or insulin resistance. Communication also encompasses the endocrine and neuroendocrine systems and a breakdown in these can lead to conditions such as hypo or hyperthyroidism, adrenal fatigue, early menopause, or diabetes.

7. Structural integrity

This includes the integrity of cells, the alignment of bones, ligaments, muscles, and tendons, and the structure of the major organs. When structural integrity isn’t optimal, common problems experienced include osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, neuropathy, and chronic pain. Cell and tissue breakdowns can also decrease kidney function and lead to heart attacks, strokes, and brain perfusion.

How can functional medicine help you live healthier?

At the core of functional medicine is the understanding that each person has a unique set of circumstances, not just genetically but also environmentally – from where they live and work, to what they eat, and the stress they’re under.
Looking at these factors collectively allows functional medicine doctors to not only diagnose and treat chronic conditions but also potentially reverse or prevent them altogether. Once your doctor has identified the lifestyle circumstances and environmental challenges that are making you ill, they can create a personalized health plan that’s unique to you.
By using this approach and paying special attention to diet, exercise, nutrition, stress reduction, and mental health, the functioning of your systems typically improves.

Testing in Functional Medicine

Once a chronic illness is diagnosed, traditional medicine often focuses on symptoms, with medical care focused on medication or surgery. In contrast, functional medicine follows a more patient-centered, individual approach to identifying the root causes of imbalances and working to correct them.
Comprehensive lab testing is a core part of the functional medicine approach. Specialized testing within the functional medicine model looks at a wide range of lab tests across blood, urine, and stool samples. Some popular tests include food sensitivity, hormone testing, gut microbiome, and female health tests. The results of these tests provide insights to establish the most effective, patient-centered treatment plan possible.
At Vital, we're excited by the future of functional medicine and the improved health outcomes it can unlock. Data from Wearables and Lab Tests are a core part of enabling doctors to design personalized and effective treatment plans. Access to this data also has the power to help patients track their progress and adhere to their tailored health programs.
Functional medicine companies use our Wearables API to seamlessly access real-time data from their users' favorite wearables and Vital's Lab Testing API to orchestrate and automate lab testing across 3 modalities (test kits, at-home phlebotomy, and in-person labs) nationwide.
To learn more about how we've helped functional medicine companies personalize their care plans at scale, book a demo here!

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