How familiar is this scenario? You feel awful, you go to the doctor, she checks you out, maybe orders a few tests, then sends you home with a prescription and asks you to schedule a follow-up in a few days or weeks. Rinse and repeat. This health care routine is so ingrained in all of us that we don’t even stop to question its validity. But is it? Increasingly—and especially if you have a chronic condition—the answer is, no.
“Patients generally don’t question conventional medicine until they run up against a wall with it and realize they’re really not feeling any better. That’s when they start looking to see if there’s an alternative. That’s when they find functional medicine,” says Joel M. Evans, M.D., founder and director of The Center for Functional Medicine in Stamford, Connecticut, and a senior faculty member at the Institute for Functional Medicine in Federal Way, Washington.
Whereas conventional medicine is set up to treat symptoms of chronic conditions, functional medicine seeks out and treats the root causes of the condition—everything from recurring migraines to IBS to mystery illnesses. If you haven’t heard of functional medicine yet, just wait. Dr. Evans says adults who are in their 50s and 60s are in the “sweet spot” for discovering this quickly emerging branch of medicine because, frankly, those are the prime years for many age-related illnesses and chronic conditions to strike.
Curious to find out if you’re a good candidate for switching over to a functional medicine doctor? Here’s a quick primer:
Does functional medicine shun conventional practices? Not at all. Functional medicine doctors still order lab tests and X-rays and prescribe medications, but they’re also going to take a look at the foods you eat and how you handle a bad day. They’ll ask about your circle of friends and how well you sleep at night. They’ll do a deep dive into your personal and family health histories. They’ll see if you have any inflammation or a hormonal imbalance. They’ll even take a close look at how many antibiotics you’ve taken over the years. If this is starting to sound a bit like a health-care version of Sherlock Holmes, you’re right. Functional medicine doctors do play detective—only instead of solving crimes they’re improving your well-being.
“What ails you isn’t taking place in a vacuum,” says Dr. Evans. Stress has a physical impact on the body. Inflammation is connected to several diseases. You might have food sensitivities that you’re not aware of, or nutritional deficiencies. There could be a dormant virus. Your gut microbiome could be missing out on good flora. “A functional medicine doctor is going to tease apart all of the possible genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that are causing you to feel ill.”
If I’m seeing a specialist for my condition, do I up and leave? No. Functional medicine practitioners can’t take the place of an oncologist or neurologist, for example, unless they’re also board certified in that specialty. But they can offer functional medicine-based protocols that support the treatment program. Many larger practices and hospitals are combining the services of traditional specialists with functional medicine practitioners, so that everyone works together in concert. The Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine is one example.
What if I’m feeling just fine? It’s true that most people land in the waiting room of a functional medicine doctor after learning they have a chronic illness or cancer. But Dr. Evans, who is an Ob/Gyn with a special interest in breast cancer, says a good chunk of his patient population is made up of women “looking for optimal health as they age. These women are looking for a partner to help guide them because the health information out there is so confusing.”
Can a functional medicine doctor help me with menopause? Um, yeah! “Many of the outward signs of menopause are a consequence of what’s going on in your life, separate from the hormonal fluctuations,” he says. A traditional doctor will often prescribe you a sleep medication if that’s your chief menopausal complaint, or an anti-depressant for mood swings, or hormone replacement therapy. “I’m not necessarily going to take you off of those medications,” he explains, “but I will guide you through a slow taper off of the meds, while addressing your symptoms through lifestyle changes.”
It always comes back to diet and exercise, doesn’t it? Too true. There’s no getting around the fact that the foods you eat have a direct impact on your wellbeing. If you’re in menopause and one of your symptoms is belching, or gut issues, for example, the foods you choose really do matter. (Dairy and gluten, we’re talking to you.) And taking care of your body by getting plenty of exercise can help you sleep more soundly, keep your weight in line and your memory sharp, and do wonders for your mood and stress levels.
Where can I learn more? You can find a certified doctor near you using the “Find a Practitioner” tool at IFM.org. Or do a little DIY functional medicine by picking up a copy of Frank Lipman, M.D.’s book “How to Be Well: The 6 Keys to a Happy and Healthy Life,” or trying some of the recipes in “Food as Medicine Everyday: Reclaim Your Health with Whole Foods,” by Julie Briley, N.D., and Courtney Jackson, N.D.
“Conventional medicine is not doing enough for people,” says Dr. Evans. “It’s time to think about your health holistically. Everything in the body is connected.
“When I first started to switch my practice over to one that is based on functional medicine,” he continues, “I was swimming upstream. Today, it’s like I’m floating downstream. Patients are really open to these ideas. They want more for their health.”