I am in the middle of a year-long course with functional medicine guru, Chris Kresser, and can’t tell you how excited I am to incorporate it at Original Wellness! Conventional medicine has its place – if I broke a bone, got in an accident or had any sort of emergency at all, I would most certainly get myself to the nearest hospital. However, if I were suffering from chronic illness, or vague symptoms of being unwell, I would use a functional approach. So, let me tell you what functional medicine is and how it differs from conventional medicine.
I’ll use an example of a woman complaining of brain fog and joint pain. She starts with her primary care doctor who tells her the brain fog is just a normal symptom of aging and who recommends over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications for her joints. She is now a victim of the side effects of NSAIDs. They wreak havoc on her gut, leading to more systemic inflammation AND they decrease blood flow to her cartilage, which decreases her tissue’s ability to heal. Not such good news for that joint pain! The anti-inflammatories help her symptoms, but don’t completely resolve her pain, so she is referred to an orthopedic doctor. She may choose which joint has the most pain and go to the corresponding doctor, or maybe even go to two doctors – one for her knees and one for her back. Why? Because conventional medicine is symptom-oriented. Each doctor treats different symptoms. X-rays are ordered and show ‘arthritic changes consistent with patient age.’ The patient has now been exposed to the radiation of an X-ray. She then has the choice of following up with an MRI or seeing a physical therapist or both. Meanwhile, she’s still popping her ibuprofen to control the pain and inflammation. She gets an MRI and sees a physical therapist. The MRI shows swelling but nothing that warrants surgery, the physical therapist works on strength and mobility. The pain gets a little better and her strength and mobility improve, but the patient can’t seem to control the pain and inflammation in her joints and she has done nothing to address the brain fog. Her activity levels are rapidly declining as even her typical walks cause considerable pain. She desperately wants her life back, but she is at a dead end.
Let’s take this same patient and send them to a functional medicine practitioner. This practitioner examines her as a whole person – her diet, her microbiome (the bacteria in her gut), her stress levels, her hormones. It turns out, in addition to her chief complaints of brain fog and joint pain, she also isn’t sleeping well, she’s eating a Standard American Diet and she’s had painful acid-reflux for years. Tests are run to assess her hormones, nutrient levels and gut health. She is educated on an anti-inflammatory diet, stress management techniques, sleep hygiene and on what foods to avoid to control her reflux symptoms until test results are received. The hormone tests show high cortisol levels (affecting her sleep-wake cycle), multiple nutrient deficiencies and SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth). All of these things can contribute to brain fog, systemic inflammation and joint pain, though not everyone with these symptoms will have this same set of underlying causes. See why treatment based on symptoms doesn’t work? Functional medicine then treats the patient using lifestyle and dietary recommendations, supplements and, for the bacterial overgrowth, an herbal antimicrobial protocol. She finds that not only has Vitamin B12 helped her brain fog and that healing her gut has improved her joint pain, but she is sleeping better at night, she no longer has acid reflux and she has more energy to enjoy her life. By treating the root cause, many seemingly unrelated symptoms improve.
This case illustrates how the conventional model lets us down. Of course, I have painted a picture of a total failure of conventional medicine, which is not always the case. Conventional medicine has its strengths and its success stories. But, you won’t find many of them involving prevention or chronic illness. In functional medicine, the same approach used in our example would be used to address neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS, childhood disorders such as autism and ADHD, skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, and autoimmune issues such as rheumatoid arthritis and allergies. The findings would be different for each patient and the treatment would be tailored to each finding.
The Future at Original Wellness
I hope this post has piqued your interest in functional medicine and portrayed my excitement over bringing it to Original Wellness. I believe it is the future of medicine and there is more research being done every day. There’s even a Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic now! Stay tuned for more information regarding pricing and appointments and for more blog posts on what I’m learning!