How exactly does functional and integrative healthcare differ from conventional medicine?

Functional Medicine vs Traditional Doctoring

It’s a question I’m often asked by prospective patients and family and friends alike. Here’s the difference in a nutshell:

  • Conventional medicine treats symptoms and diseases with medication, radiation, or surgery. When you see a conventional doctor, you’ll likely get a diagnosis and then a treatment for eliminating the illness or alleviating symptoms.
  • Functional medicine strives to optimize health by identifying and treating the underlying causes of poor health, which can be traced to interactions among genetics, nutrition, lifestyle, and environment.

For example, suppose you have high blood pressure. You’re likely to have two very different experiences depending on the type of doctor you see:

  • The conventional doctor diagnoses high blood pressure and prescribes a drug to lower it and perhaps another drug to lower cholesterol. To be fair, the doctor may also recommend dietary changes (low-sodium, low-fat) and lifestyle changes (reduce consumption of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, and increase physical activity), but if the drug works, few patients are willing to make long-term changes to their diet and lifestyle.
  • A functional medicine doctor interviews you to gather a complete medical history to determine when the symptoms began and what may be causing them. The doctor is likely to order a series of tests to figure out why your blood pressure is high. Underlying causes of high blood pressure include the following:
    • Insufficient physical activity
    • Excess caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol
    • Emotional stress
    • Excess weight
    • Nutritional deficiencies, including biotin vitamin B1, vitamin C, vitamin D, choline, magnesium, or coQ10
    • Toxic levels of mercury
    • Hypothyroidism
    • Excess sodium and insufficient potassium
    • Magnesium deficiency
    • Chronic systemic inflammation
    • Elevated blood sugar
    • Hormone imbalances, such as estrogen deficiency

Functional healthcare targets the underlying causes, which not only eliminates the illness but also restores health and prevents future illness. The table below compares the two approaches side-by-side.

Conventional (Allopathic) Medicine Functional, Integrative Medicine
Diagnoses illness Identifies the source of illness
Treats illness Restores healthy function to enable the body to eliminate illness
Relies primarily on pharmaceuticals, surgery, and medical procedures to treat illness Employs numerous approaches, including conventional, functional, chiropractic, osteopathic, nutrient infusion, weight loss, orthopedic, exercise, environmental intervention, and lifestyle changes
Treats all patients with similar symptoms alike Tailors the treatment plan to each individual
Patient passively receives treatment Patient actively participates in diagnosis and treatment, which often requires attending to environmental and lifestyle factors
Treats from the outside in to alleviate symptoms and illness Treats from the inside out to remove the source of illness and restore health

Addressing the Rise in Chronic Conditions

Modern (Western) medicine has a long history dating back to Hippocrates, who died around 375 BCE, but it started to see significant advances in the 1800s with the discovery of infectious agents as the primary causes of illness and death. In 1900, the two leading causes of death in the U.S. were acute, infectious diseases — pneumonia/influenza and tuberculosis. Modern medicine developed two very effective methods to combat these and other infectious diseases: vaccinations and antibiotics. Conventional medicine relied primarily on a two-step model for treating disease:

  1. Diagnose
  2. Prescribe

Times have changed. Although infectious diseases continue to pose a threat, we now face a growing epidemic of chronic illnesses that the conventional medicine model is ill-equipped or refuses to address. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Chronic diseases and conditions — such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and arthritis — are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems.” Specifically, the CDC cites the following statistics:

  • As of 2012, about half of all adults (117 million people) had one or more chronic health conditions. One in four adults had two or more chronic health conditions.
  • Seven of the top ten causes of death in 2014 were chronic diseases. Two of these chronic diseases (heart disease and cancer) accounted for nearly 46 percent of all deaths.
  • From 2011 to 2014, more than one-third of adults (36 percent), or about 84 million people, were obese. About one in six youths (17 percent) aged 2 to 19 years was obese.
  • Arthritis is the most common cause of disability. Of the 54 million adults with doctor-diagnosed arthritis, more than 23 million say they have trouble with their usual activities because of arthritis.
  • Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure, lower-limb amputations other than those caused by injury, and new cases of blindness among adults.
  • Eighty-six percent of the nation’s $2.7 trillion annual health care expenditures are for people with chronic and mental health conditions.

As these statistics demonstrate, modern medicine is losing the battle against chronic illnesses, many of which are products of a modern world that modern medicine wasn’t developed to deal with.

As a result, people are living longer and feeling worse. Obesity is now an epidemic. More and more children are suffering from allergies, asthma, and other serious chronic conditions. More patients are showing up with digestive disorders and a host of chronic illnesses, including bowel disease, chronic fatigue, and cancer.

Functional and integrative medicine is different — and dare I say better in many ways — primarily because it focuses on health, giving the body what it needs not only to eliminate illness but also to optimize health. As a result, patients generally feel considerably better after receiving treatment and can return to activities they assumed they would never be able to engage in ever again or at the level they once did.

The Five Principles of Functional Medicine

Doctors like myself who practice functional and integrative healthcare embrace the following five principles:

  1. Treat the patient, not the illness. Everyone is unique, so treatments must be tailored to each patient.
  2. Test, don’t guess. Although all doctors order tests to fine-tune their diagnoses, functional medicine tests deeper to identify deficiencies at the cellular level.
  3. Your body has the capacity for self-regulation (homeostasis), expressed through the dynamic balance of all your body’s systems.
  4. Your body has the ability to heal itself and to prevent all diseases of aging.
  5. Health is not merely the absence of disease but a state of immense vitality.

If you are struggling with chronic or long-term health issues and have not found satisfactory solutions through conventional medical treatment, I strongly encourage you to consult with a functional medicine doctor. After carefully reviewing your medical history, conducting a physical examination, talking with you about your health issues and goals, ordering tests, and analysing the results, your functional doctor will provide you with a detailed list of deficiencies that need to be addressed and a personalize treatment plan. With plan in hand, you’ll have taken the first and most important step to restoring your health and fitness. Please contact me for additional information and to schedule an appointment.

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About the Author: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®, specializes in diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of the symptoms related to chronic and unexplained illness through nutrition, lifestyle, chiropractic, and other natural approaches to whole-health healing in Tampa, Florida. He earned his B.S. in Biology from Shenandoah University, his Doctorate in Chiropractic from Life University, his Diplomate status in Clinical Nutrition from the American Clinical Board of Nutrition, his CFMP® from Functional Medicine University, and his certification as a Digestive Health Specialist (DHS) through the Food Enzyme Institute. Dr. Lewis’ passion for health and wellness stems from his own personal experience. With a family history of autoimmune conditions and diabetes, and his own lab tests showing his genetic susceptibility to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmune thyroid), he has learned how to restore his own health and vigor to prevent the onset of these and other illnesses and live an incredibly active life. Through this process, he acquired a deeper understanding of health and wellness, which he now offers his patients in Tampa.