Access to functional medicine is a gift. Use it well. Understand its scope, find a practitioner who fits with you, and participate in the process.
In all sorts of relationships, it helps to have a sense of where the other person is coming from. This is particularly important when working with functional medicine doctors because their basic premises are different from those we are used to in conventional medicine.
The scope of functional medicine
The concept of functional medicine was conceived in 1991 to provide a systems biology approach to medicine. By then, it was becoming clear that the conventional approach—using drugs to treat symptoms—wasn’t very effective and something else was needed. That something else was a bigger-picture view of how the body functions and what to do about dysfunction.
Functional medicine sees the body as a set of interconnected systems and aims for root cause resolution. It has been described as the medicine of “why” not “what.”
Be prepared for a different kind of conversation—broader fact-finding, curiosity about the history of your condition, and openness to alternative practices you’ve experienced (chiropractic, acupuncture, naturopathic, emotional healing techniques like tapping, etc). Functional medicine actively supports people in self-discovery and self-management.
Why is the conversation so different? Dr. Kelly Brogan expressed it very well at the March Functional Forum 2016 in New York City. Her ten-minute presentation begins just after the 42-minute mark.
Dr. Brogan, a holistic psychiatrist, is author of A Mind of Your Own. In her Forum presentation, she described what she used to believe, the beliefs nurtured by her traditional training.
- Science is truth.
- The one who knows the most science is right.
- There is a right and a wrong, good and bad.
- There is a rational explanation for everything that deviates from what science would predict.
As she points out, this story encourages a warring stance against what we have labeled as bad, wrong, and in need of domination. The type of medicine that this culture supports is one where the human body is viewed as a machine, made up of bags of different parts and largely under the control of predetermined genes. The environment is largely irrelevant because we’re impervious to it. This results in a predetermined medicalized system that is applied to an impersonal “patient” rather than a unique person.
However, we are on the verge of change. She described the new story as one of co-operativity, co-creation, concern for the good of all, and recognition of non-hierarchical connectedness. This viewpoint engenders a culture in which symptoms are a message, an invitation to examine what is causing the system to be out of harmony with itself and the larger environment. Practitioners are looking to inspire intuitive knowing in people so they can experience what their bodies are capable of. As Dr. Brogan says, she wants her patients not to need her any more.
Finding a practitioner
If this leaves you thinking “I want what they’re having,” you can search for functional practitioners at
The Institute for Functional Medicine
Ideally you’ll find one in your city or town. If not, be thankful for the internet because many practitioners offer online consultations. When you watch a health summit interview you may feel an affinity for the speaker—a story that parallels yours, an approach that “sits right” with you, or a gut feeling that you’ve finally found the help that has eluded you for so long. You may feel in your bones that this is a person you could work with.
On the other hand, you might listen to a speaker who seems pushy or gives a lot of detail that is more confusing than clarifying. If a little voice in you says “this person isn’t for me,” pay attention to that prompting.
Cultivate these inner knowings. They will be your best friend on your journey through the healthcare culture.
When I think about working with a doctor, I’m reminded of an eye-opening exchange I had with my new mother-in-law many years ago. She had been to the doctor after a flare-up of a chronic issue and complained that he hadn’t helped her. So I asked, “What did he say when you told him about your stomach pain?” Her reply: “Why would I tell him? He’s the expert. He should be able to figure it out.”
I was dumbfounded. How did she expect him to help if she didn’t do her part? Young and inexperienced though I was, I knew this couldn’t be a productive approach. I prefer to make the best possible use of my doctor’s time and expertise by arriving prepared.
I bring information such as a written summary of highlights since the last appointment, bottles of supplements I’ve been taking (especially new ones), printouts regarding supplements or approaches I wonder about and want to discuss, and key words about how I’ve been feeling. From my point of view, it seems sensible to bring as many clues to the table as I can. Then she has something to work with and can apply her expertise more efficiently to sorting things out.
I’ve found the functional approach both empowering and hopeful. But what kept me going in the ten years before I discovered there was this new way of thinking about health?