I spent an incredible past week with over 300 physicians and health care providers who recognize that medicine today is going in the wrong direction. If we don’t change our approach, we will continue on a path towards more and more chronic disease. The meeting was the Institute for Functional Medicine’s (IFM) course Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice. In a nutshell, Functional Medicine is the philosophy of finding and treating the root cause of disease rather than just treating the symptoms. IFM is the beacon of hope for the practice of medicine.
Let me give a few examples of what is wrong with the practice of medicine. In conventional medicine, doctors are trained to recognize a group of symptoms, label it as a disease then match the appropriate treatment, usually a medication that reduces the symptoms. In Functional Medicine, the thought is that most diseases are not diseases at all but rather signs of imbalance and dysfunction of the body. Let’s use the “disease” of depression as an example. In conventional medicine, when a patient complains of symptoms of depression, they are usually started on a medication that alters the chemicals in the brain so that the mood is improved. In Functional Medicine, the depressed mood is seen as a sign of an underlying imbalance that could present many different causes, such as nutritional deficiencies (commonly B-12, omega-3 fatty acids or vitamin D), food intolerance (commonly gluten), hormonal dysfunction (menopause, low testosterone or high cortisol) or lack of good bacteria in the gut due to a poor diet. Correcting the root cause is the cure not antidepressant medication that alters our brain chemistry.
A second and even more important way that medicine is practiced wrong is treating the body like a box of separate parts, often with a “team” of specialists, each treating a separate body part and nobody acknowledging that all these parts work in concert, orchestrating the delicate balance of our body as a whole. An example of this is the patient who is taking Lipitor for high cholesterol, Prilosec for acid reflux, Prozac for depression, Ibuprofen for joint pain, a laxative for irritable bowel syndrome, and a water pill for their high blood pressure. Conventional medicine views this patient as a patient with 6 separate diseases (and the pharmaceutical companies like it this way). A Functional Medicine approach assumes that there is likely an underlying dysfunction that could cause all of these conditions.
We are not going to make any progress in improving the health of our society until we recognize that our approach is all wrong. Unfortunately, the perfect storm of influence by the health insurance industry, Big Pharma, and Big Food combined with burned out, overworked primary care physicians is not helping. There is an underground movement led by the IFM that is exciting and refreshing and whose philosophy, is in my opinion, the future of medicine that will turn our health around.