When it comes to well-known medical practices, the words “functional medicine” might not ring any bells. However, this new and revolutionary type of treatment has been a source of conversation in the world of holistic medicine. Functional medicine takes a unique approach to treatment that focuses on individual treatment, disease prevention, behavioral redirection, and doctor-patient collaboration. But what exactly is functional medicine, how does it compare to conventional medicine, and how is it put into practice?

What is functional medicine?

While functional medicine is a fairly new concept in healthcare, it’s proving itself to be a revolutionary practice. What makes functional medicine so unique? Functional medicine, unlike other forms of treatment, doesn’t just concern itself with suppressing the symptoms of illness in a patient. Its main focus is on discovering all of the possible causes of a symptom that need to be treated. The role of functional medicine is not complete until the cause of a symptom is pinned down and treated so that the symptom is naturally quelled as a condition improves. It’s highly concerned with the overall health of a patient rather than solely focusing on a one-size-fits-all treatment for a particular diagnosis. It focuses on both the causes of conditions and conditions that result in light of other causes/symptoms. Rather than merely treating a disease for what it is, functional medicine is concerned with the individuality of a patient and seeks to establish complete wellness in their physical and mental health both before, during, and after disease occurs. It also establishes a unique focus on the everyday life of patients, exploring and examining how behavior plays into medical conditions. Functional medicine takes a holistic approach to treatment and examines a patient’s health from multiple perspectives regarding an individual’s body, medical/mental history, their behaviors, and their environment.

How does it compare to the conventional approach?

Functional medicine takes a vastly different approach to healthcare than conventional medicine. Conventional medicine is characterized by a primary goal to treat disease, illness, and medical complications as they occur. This form of treatment is more focused on disease detection than it is on disease prevention. Conventional medicine often relies completely on the authoritative knowledge of medical professionals with a certain level of “blind” acceptance from patients who are not specialized in any form of medicine. This may impair collaboration between a patient and their treatment team. This form of medical treatment also tends to rely heavily on prescription medication to either eradicate or suppress ongoing symptoms, and there may or may not be an investigation into the cause of whatever symptom(s) someone may be experiencing. This is to say that if someone is diagnosed with a condition such as high blood pressure, iron deficiency, or depression, a conventional medicine doctor may be more likely to place them on medication to treat these symptoms rather than explore the root of what symptoms they are exhibiting. Conventional medicine tends to concern itself with stand-alone symptoms without fully considering the relationship between a symptom and a cause, and is more reliant on suppressing a symptom than treating the issue at the base. Conventional medicine is also often characterized by “blanket” treatments or prescribing the same treatment to all individuals exhibiting similar symptoms or suffering from a specific diagnosis.

On the other hand, functional medicine is rooted in the belief that there can be no long-term recovery from an illness or condition until the cause of a symptom or a handful of symptoms is addressed and treated. Unlike in conventional medicine, functional medicine is highly focused on disease prevention before an illness can develop or worsen. Functional medicine is interested in promoting healthy long-term lifestyle choices to individual patients so that they can avoid medical complications and diseases which they may be prone to due to their environment, habits, genetics, and other medical conditions. While conventional medicine is mainly reliant on the authority of doctors, nurses, and medical professionals, functional medicine advocates open communication between patients and their doctors. This gives all patients a chance to have a voice in their treatment and feel as if though they can openly and honestly discuss their symptoms and opinions about their needs to their doctor/treatment team. This patient-centered approach also takes every individual’s personal history and the causes of their symptoms into full consideration, ensuring that patients don’t feel as if though they’re receiving generalized treatment/blanketed care. Functional medicine doctors aren’t quick to prescribe symptom-suppressing medication to their patients but are rather concerned about treating the cause of symptoms so they naturally dissolve as a disease, illness, or condition improves.

How is it practiced?

When practiced correctly, functional medicine can predict, prevent, and reverse the impacts of illness and disease. Functional medicine practitioners tend to start evaluations by asking individuals about their behaviors, their diets, their lifestyles, their environments, their genetic/family histories, and their activity levels, as all of these can contribute to the formation of medical conditions. Establishing healthier behaviors and more productive ways to interact with one’s environment can help them prevent chronic conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes before they occur. Still, good functional medicine practitioners aren’t simply dependant on natural remedies to repair conditions which may require further intervention. However, they aren’t eager to suppress symptoms simply to provide short-term relief to a patient. They combine both scientific research and their holistic medical expertise to make well-informed decisions about a patient’s health, their behaviors, and what lifestyle alterations may be required to improve or stabilize an individual’s wellness. This may include encouraging a patient to exercise more frequently, try out a healthier diet, take supplements to treat vitamin deficiencies or invest in other practices that can contribute to a more balanced body and brain. However, despite being more holistic than conventional, functional medicine practitioners aren’t going to rule out conventional medical techniques such as MRIs, surgery, or prescriptions when necessary.

Functional medicine, when applied before a condition begins or worsens, also tends to be a little more wallet-friendly than conventional medicine. Since functional medicine isn’t quick to prescribe pricey prescriptions, order unnecessary tests, or suggest costly treatments to patients that only consider one symptom at a time (resulting in accrued treatment costs over time), seeing a functional medicine practitioner can save you money on check-up medical bills over time. One thing to consider is that if you’re dealing with a chronic condition that requires specialized care, seeing a functional medicine practitioner who specializes in your condition may end up being just as expensive as conventional medicine. This is especially relevant if you’ve already exhausted financial resources on conventional medicine resources or are deep enough into the development of your condition that you require extended lab work, testing, or visits. Fortunately, more insurance companies are recognizing the legitimacy of research-based functional medicine practices, yet many still don’t cover the cost of functional medicine practitioners.

If you’re considering looking into functional medicine as an alternative to conventional medicine for a serious condition that already exists, you’ll want to ensure that you’re financially prepared to treat your complex illness through functional medicine, see if your insurance will cover a functional medicine practitioner, and consider the possibility of further testing. If you’re only looking for a bi-yearly check-up to figure out how to live a healthier lifestyle and avoid disease in the future, a functional medicine practitioner may be cheaper than a conventional medical practitioner in the long-run.