What is the Functional Medicine Model?
Functional medicine – and the functional medicine model – is a patient-centered approach to chronic disease management. By using a nutrition-first methodology, practitioners are able to identify and treat root causes and triggers. They consider unique, individual factors including nutrition, exercise, and sleep, as well as mental and emotional stressors related to their social, work, and community life. Functional medicine physicians also factor in a patient’s genetic makeup, their environment, and overall lifestyle to create a “living-and-breathing plan” that adapts based on the patient’s changing circumstances.
Functional Medicine vs. Conventional Medicine
When it comes to traditional or conventional medicine, there are specialists for every area of the body, such as neurologists (brain and nervous system), cardiologists (heart), and gastroenterologists (GI tract). Traditional practices in conventional medicine are essential in dealing with severe or emergency symptoms.
Functional medicine practitioners focus on the body as an interconnected system of parts, which requires a holistic approach and comprehensive treatment plan. Functional medicine is very effective in treating long-term chronic illness and pain.
Areas functional doctors can consider when creating personalized health plans include:
- Nutrigenomics – Nutrigenomics is the study of how food affects gene expression and vice versa. Functional doctors may use genetic testing to determine how certain foods you eat interact with your genes. This testing can also take family history into account, especially when determining if you’re at higher risk for conditions like type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
- Microbiome health – Your microbiome contains about 70% of the cells that make up your immune system! Functional doctors will often perform a GI assessment to measure the diversity of microbes that inhabit your gut. From these results, they’ll work to identify the foods, medication, activities, and environments that may better support gut health.
- Allergens – Whether you experience chronic migraines, itchiness, or sinus congestion, allergens, from food to environment, are often the culprit. Functional doctors offer detailed assessments and testing procedures to determine the source of these allergic reactions.
- Poor nutrition – Functional doctors will measure your nutrient levels to identify any potential vitamin or mineral deficiencies. Poor nutrition can be the cause of many health issues, such as anemia (too little iron), thyroid dysfunction (too little iodine), or even hormonal imbalances. A personalized nutrition plan can address your unique nutritional needs and help eliminate many conditions at the source.
- Stress – Some chronic conditions are the result of excess stress, and functional medicine takes stress, and how one experiences stress, very seriously. Whether stress is caused by a person’s personal life or work life – or both – a functional doctor can provide personalized lifestyle modifications to help patients create sustainable stress-management techniques for better health.
The GOTOIT framework is a system that allows doctors to discover the root causes of patients’ issues and then apply individualized treatments. It stands for Gather, Organize, Tell, Order, Initiate, and Track, and helps doctors identify potentially unhealthy patterns, find the root cause of problems, and propose personalized treatments. The GOTOIT model is a teaching tool developed by the Institute for Functional Medicine.
- Gather: Informed is gathered through intake forms, questionnaires, the initial consultation, physical exam, and objective data. A detailed functional medicine history includes age, gender, and nature of presenting problems.
- Organize: Organize the subjective and objective details from the patient’s story within the functional medicine paradigm. Position the patient’s presenting signs, symptoms, and ATMs (antecedents, triggers, mediators), along with the details of the case history on the timeline and functional medicine matrix.
- Tell: Tell the story back to the patient in your own words to ensure accuracy and understanding. The re-telling of the patient’s story is a dialogue about the case highlights, including the antecedents, triggers, and mediators identified in the history, correlating them to the timeline and matrix.
- Acknowledge the patient’s goals
- Identify the predisposing factors (antecedents)
- Identify the triggers or triggering events
- Identify the perpetuating factors (mediators)
- Explore the effects of lifestyle factors
- Identify clinical imbalances or disruptions in the organizing physiological systems of the matrix
Ask the patient to join in correcting and amplifying the story, creating true partnership.
- Order: Order refers to the prioritization that emerges from the dialogue of professional and patient. The patient’s mental, emotional, and spiritual perspective is of primary importance for prioritizing the ‘next steps.’
- Initiate: Initiate further functional assessment and intervention based upon the above work:
- Perform further assessment
- Initiate patient education and therapeutic intervention
- Referral to adjunctive care if needed, including nutrition professionals such as dietitians, lifestyle educators such as Health Coaches, healthcare providers, and other specialists
- Track: Track further assessments, note the effectiveness of the therapeutic approach, and identify clinical outcomes at each visit—in partnership with the patient.
Four Benefits of Functional Medicine
1. Patient-focused care and treatment
The functional medicine model is gaining recognition in healthcare because of the patient-centered approach – people want to be seen and heard when they go to the doctor, not waved away with a prescription. By inspiring patients to take control of their own health through sustainable diet and lifestyle changes as well as other health practices, such as acupuncture and adopting a meditation practice, functional medicine empowers people to be more involved in their experience and explore alternatives and complements to conventional medicine.
2. Multidisciplinary, holistic approach
Functional medicine recognizes that healthcare solutions are not always a one-size-fits-all approach! Rather, it’s important to address the bio-individual needs of a person – otherwise known as the nutrition plan, activities, and environment that help them not just survive, but thrive.
3. Treatment of chronic conditions
Six in ten adults in the United States have one chronic disease, and four in ten adults have two or more. Treatment of chronic illnesses can be a long, frustrating process, especially when symptoms can point to a wide variety of ailments.
For example, suppose a patient presents with symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, acid reflux, and trouble sleeping. In that case, a traditional medicine doctor may prescribe medication for the acid reflux and a sleep aid, as well as recommending exercise and an improved diet. Functional medicine doctors may go further, looking for the root cause of these symptoms, discovering an autoimmune disease in the process.
4. Alternative treatments
Instead of a quick diagnosis and prescribed drug, functional medicine practitioners start by developing a thorough understanding of their patient, acquiring a detailed medical history, and learning about how they eat and what their lifestyle is like. From there, diet and lifestyle changes are recommended to address symptoms holistically. If needed, prescribing a drug would be one of the last paths to explore. This can also look like creating comprehensive treatment plans that are inclusive of holistic, alternative, as well as conventional measures.
The Bottom Line
Functional medicine treats the whole individual, considering how all bodily systems communicate with one another. A comprehensive and holistic approach to treating these interconnected systems can transform a person’s health – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Wondering where Health Coaches fit in? A functional medicine practitioner provides patients with a detailed protocol to follow based on lab work and medical assessments; a Health Coach can provide support in making the recommended changes from the protocol as part of their daily routine. Health Coaches also provide accountability and a safe space to explore what these changes mean for a client’s daily life, which is incredibly helpful on their health journey.
Taking control of your health is an empowering endeavor, and it all starts with seeking the answers and opening yourself up to improving your health holistically. A holistic health education can introduce you to health concepts beyond traditional or conventional medicine, helping you learn to tune in to your body and its needs!