What Is Functional Medicine? What To Know And How To Find The Right Doctor

There’s a lot of buzz around functional medicine. Here’s what you need to know.

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I’ll be completely honest; I’d actually never heard of functional medicine before I began my research for this piece. But as someone who’s dealt with chronic muscle pain for several years with few answers from conventional medical practitioners, I was eager to learn more. In case you aren’t familiar with it, functional medicine is considered an alternative to the current model of healthcare and has been touted by Mark Hyman, MD—functional medicine authority and former advisor to the Clintons—as the future of medical care in the United States. But just what is functional medicine? We spoke to experts and functional medicine practitioners to find out everything you need to know prior to your first consultation.

What is functional medicine?

In short, functional medicine strives to look at the body as a whole, considering how the affected organs function together to devise a treatment plan for patients. Now, you may be thinking, Wait—isn’t that how traditional medical care is supposed to work? Well…sort of. While medical practitioners know that certain parts of the body interact with one another, conventional medicine typically focuses on alleviating a patient’s individual symptoms. For example, if you visit your general practitioner because you suspect you have heartburn, your doctor will probably prescribe antacids to alleviate the symptoms and send you home. A doctor of functional medicine, on the other hand, wants to know what’s going on in other parts of your body that may be causing your heartburn to flare up. They may determine that an underlying issue is the cause of your heartburn—one that can be treated without requiring you to take antacids. There’s nothing wrong with either treatment method, as the goal of both conventional and functional medicine is to help patients get well. Still, if you’ve suffered from chronic illness or are looking for an alternative to your current medical care, functional medicine might be for you. “Functional medicine is helpful for anyone, but it is most useful for people who have been to many doctors, tried a lot of possible solutions, and are no closer to solving their health challenges,” says Amanda Malachesky, a functional nutrition coach based in Petrolia, California. “And while people often want to go straight to treating the root causes, functional practitioners begin always with the foundations of health: diet, sleep, exercise, stress reduction, and blood sugar management.” Doctors of functional medicine are real doctors who have been to medical school and are licensed medical practitioners. In fact, functional medicine is built on the foundation of conventional medicine and is more a philosophy of care than a totally different healthcare field. There are three principles that guide doctors of functional medicine, Malachesky explains. “Functional medicine works towards root-cause resolution, works to use tools and frameworks to help us identify these root causes … and honors each client or patient as a truly unique individual, and tailors recommendations and treatments to the individual.”

“Functional medicine is helpful for anyone, but it is most useful for people who have been to many doctors, tried a lot of possible solutions, and are no closer to solving their health challenges.” —Amanda Malachesky, Functional Nutrition Coach

Doctors aren’t the only professionals who can leverage functional medicine’s principles. Almost any licensed healthcare provider, like a chiropractor, registered nurse, or dietitian, can practice functional medicine as it applies to their field of care. These principles ensure that patients are always first, and while you may not get a quick fix for what’s ailing you, a quality functional medicine practitioner will be dedicated to finding the root cause of your healthcare concern.

Are functional medicine and integrative medicine the same thing?

Functional medicine is an extension of integrative medicine,” says Clayton Bell, MD, a physician at the University of Tennessee Medical Center who specializes in integrative medicine. “The two fields are more of a continuum than two distinct medical entities.” “Integrative medicine is a mind-body-spirit holistic approach to healing that incorporates the best of Western medicine along with ancient healing traditions of the East,” Bell continues. “Anything that relates to a person’s health, wellness, and vitality would be an instrument of healing through integrative medicine. When one optimizes their nutrition, stress resiliency, physical activity, and sleep, all conditions have a better opportunity to heal.” Both integrative medicine and functional medicine take a holistic approach to treating patients. In addition to finding the root cause of an illness, functional medicine focuses heavily on building healthy lifestyle habits to improve patient outcomes. The goal of functional medicine is simply understanding underlying issues and contributing factors and addressing healthcare holistically,” says James Greenblatt, MD, medical director of Walden Behavioral Care.   Bell adds that functional medicine is a science- and evidence-based field that takes more of a systems-based approach to medical care that’s uniquely personalized to the patient, focusing on the patient’s genetic background as a key to finding the root of a patient’s illness. And, though there aren’t a lot of studies that specifically research functional medicine outcomes, Malachesky says there’s plenty of research to back up functional medicine’s science-based claims:

There are thousands of articles and publications studying the science of gut health, the role of inflammation in the development and management of chronic disease, and immune signaling and its role in chronic disease conditions. Functional nutrition and medicine practitioners view health problems through these and other related lenses, and I believe that we will find the approach fully validated as new studies are completed.

Are functional medicine practitioners real doctors?

The short answer: Yes! All well-trained physicians of functional medicine are licensed medical professionals that have taken additional training not taught in medical school,” says Greenblatt. The Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) is currently one of the few training centers for functional medicine. To become certified in functional medicine, a healthcare provider must have already received a healthcare degree from an accredited university and hold up-to-date licensure in their area of practice. To become a certified functional medicine practitioner, accepted IFM applicants must complete coursework in six areas: gastrointestinal, detox, immune, hormone, cardiometabolic, and energy. Students must also complete a case study and take a written exam to complete the course. To maintain certification, functional medicine practitioners must retake the written exam and provide up-to-date licensure information every six years.

“The goal of functional medicine is simply understanding underlying issues and contributing factors and addressing healthcare holistically.” —James Greenblatt, MD

Ultimately a doctor of functional medicine certified by IFM will be an MD and be qualified as a conventional medical provider. Other healthcare workers like registered nurses, acupuncturists, and registered dietitians may also become certified in functional medicine, but they can only apply functional medicine to their specific fields. Greenblatt says that, like every field of care, there are some functional medicine professionals who are more qualified than others, and that unfortunately there are sometimes imposters who aren’t licensed or certified. When looking for a functional medicine practitioner, Greenblatt suggests patients make sure their certification is from IFM or another reputable functional medicine certification program. If someone is calling themselves a doctor of functional medicine and they don’t have the proper licensure or hold a degree, then they’re likely not certified as real doctors of functional medicine. In other words? Do your homework just as you would before seeing any new healthcare provider, and don’t be afraid to verify their credentials before attending an appointment or receiving treatment if you feel at all uncomfortable.

Functional Medicine Treatment

When making an initial appointment with a functional medicine doctor, be prepared to spend quite a bit more time at the visit than you would with your general practitioner. A functional medicine provider is going to take a detailed personal and family medical history and take into consideration your answers to questions about your symptoms and overall experience of health prior to prescribing any treatments. Using IFM’s database, it’s easy to find a certified functional medicine provider. You can search by location, certification, and specialty to find the provider who’s right for you and your needs. Part of functional medicine is building a trust-based relationship between provider and patient, so don’t be afraid to speak up, ask questions, and be an advocate for your own health. Not sure what to ask? Here’s a list of questions to get you started. One of the hallmarks of functional medicine is a treatment plan that is totally individualized to the patient. Still, after your initial consultation, you can expect extensive lab work and genetic testing that will be an integral part of determining whether you have any underlying issues. Greenblatt describes an example of crafting a care plan with patients: “if a patient is suffering from a mental health issue, we would do extensive testing to uncover whether or not an underlying issue might be affecting how they feel, like a gut imbalance”—a method that demonstrates functional medicine’s understanding of the mind–body connection. “Then, we’d work to treat those issues holistically rather than prescribing medication to treat the symptoms, like depression or anxiety, of the underlying issue.” Typically, a functional medicine (much like an integrative medicine) care plan will focus on helping patients alleviate their health issues through lifestyle changes first. This treatment might be as simple as changing your diet, going for a daily walk, or participating in yoga and meditation. If these non-invasive treatments don’t work, then your doctor might consider medication or surgery.

Does insurance cover functional medicine?

Most of the time. “Visits to most certified functional medicine physicians fall into the category of good medical care,” Greenblatt says. But because functional medicine relies on extensive testing, some costs, like lab work or other testing, may not be covered by your insurer. Additionally, if you are seeking treatment with a functional medicine practitioner who is a healthcare professional in another field, like a chiropractor or a nutritionist, treatment may not be covered by your insurance.

“If a patient is suffering from a mental health issue, we would do extensive testing to uncover whether or not an underlying issue might be affecting how they feel, like a gut imbalance.” —James Greenblatt, MD

The best thing to do? Check with your insurance provider before scheduling an appointment with a functional medicine provider so there are no surprise out-of-pocket fees.

So is functional medicine right for you?

If you’re looking for a quick fix to a health problem, then functional medicine probably isn’t going to be a good fit. But if you’re really interested in understanding how your body’s genetics and biology work together, then functional medicine just may provide the answers to your medical concerns.

Katie Martin
Katie Raye Martin is a freelance writer, navy wife, new mom, and chocoholic. In addition to HealthyWay, she has contributed to NextGenMilSpouse, a blog for the millennial military spouse, and Pregnant Chicken, a pregnancy blog. Since welcoming her first son a few months ago, Katie has become a pregnancy expert and cloth diapering connoisseur. When she’s not writing (or changing diapers) Katie is training for her first half-marathon.

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