Just how functional medicine is defined and what it consist of can be described differently. But, below is my attempt to keep it simple yet help you have a good idea of what it's all about so to speak. I've found that oftentimes a good way to teach something is to do so by comparison, so I've picked 4 "hallmarks" of functional medicine and compared them to the conventional medicine approach.
1. Individual Systems or Integrated Systems:
With the conventional medicine approach, the body is a collection of independent organs or systems, with each having their own particular disease processes that can happen. Hence in conventional medicine you have many specialties: kidney (nephrologist), nervous (neurologist), bone/joint (orthopedic), etc…. By comparison, in function medicine the systems of the body are viewed as an integrated whole, with incredible interplay between them. In some instances, a super-in depth investigation into an independent system is the best approach. But for MANY chronic health issues, a breaking down of the artificial divisions between these systems of the body with a "whole person" approach yields much better results. This whole person approach is a hallmark of functional medicine.
2. Disease or Perfectly Healthy (or is there a "gray" area?):
A major weakness of conventional medicine is in the failure to recognize that we don't just go from perfectly healthy to disease state. A good way to demonstrate this is in what is considered "normal" on a lab. I'll give just two examples but there are dozens:
Blood sugar (glucose) levels should be between 85-100 fasting, but you're not diabetic (disease state) until you're above 140 consistently. When someone is in that 101-139 range they're usually just lamely told to "watch your sugar intake", which by itself does little to nothing to stop them from becoming diabetic. There are many other things that a functional medicine practitioner does to get a person out of the "gray" area and back to normal.
Many times someone unfortunately doesn't even know they are in the "gray" area. For example, the lab range for TSH (a thyroid marker) is usually 0.5-5.0, but a healthy "functional" range is 1.8-3.0. There are a lot of people (an estimated 20 million in the U.S.) who are in the gray area between the two ranges, who are mistakenly told, "everything is normal", even though it isn't. I've identified hundreds upon hundreds of these "sub-clinical" hypothyroid cases and helped them get their lives back.
3. Pharmaceutical or Natural Compounds:
There are MANY situations where not only CAN a condition be treated with natural compounds, but it absolutely should! While prescription medications certainly have their time and place, to think that they are the solution in every, or even the majority of health issues (especially chronic), is simply to ignore:
a.) The mountain of scientific evidence proving the clinical effectiveness of natural compounds in many instances.
b.) Your "gut feeling"/ common sense- Most people know they shouldn't have to be on as many medications as they are and want to get off of them.
c.) The lengthy side-effect warning at the end of the T.V. commercial for prescription meds.
But the pharmaceutical industry is VERY powerful, and with that power comes the ability to heavily influence the way people think about how to approach their health condition. Fortunately people are becoming more well informed and are questioning the status quo of resorting to the "take this drug for that symptom" approach.
4. Reactive or Proactive Care:
When you think about it, what conventional medicine offers is aggressive "reactive" care in the form of drug and or surgical intervention. Even when diet and lifestyle factors are well recognized as important in correcting a problem, little more than lip service is given to it. In contrast, key dietary and lifestyle changes are a hallmark of most functional medicine interventions. And these are effective at not only helping regain health, but in proactively maintaining it. I'm reminded of what the famous inventor Thomas Edison said: "the doctor of the future will give no medicine but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease."