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Moving Forward with Functional Medicine—The Future of Healthcare is Now

Medically Reviewed by

Imagine a world where healthy foods are readily available at a fraction of their current cost; where health insurance companies pay you to exercise, and weekend retreats for rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation are encouraged.

If you could name this new healthier, preventative approach to wellness, what would you call it?

Functional Medicine for the Future

Functional medicine takes a whole body approach to health that incorporates lifestyle and choices, disease prevention, and patient centered treatment. It essentially puts the individual in the driver’s seat, not the healthcare system.
The functional medicine model for health and healthcare focuses on the various systems within the body and partners patients with practitioners in efforts to bring about balance and an overall state of well-being. It encourages and empowers the individual to take an active role in his or her health by preventative practices and choices.

Conventional Medicine in the United States—The Realities, The Past

The United States spends over 17% of its GDP (gross domestic product) on medical care. This figure is 50% higher than the next biggest healthcare spender, France. In spite of healthcare spending, Americans go to the doctor and hospital less than many other populations around the world. One might also assume that all this spending for medical care makes Americans at least live longer? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The U.S. actually has a fairly low average life expectancy (78 years) as compared to countries like Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Japan that project their residents to live well beyond 80 years.(2)

Chronic disease is much higher in the United States than other countries as well, with 68% of adults over age 65 having two or more chronic medical conditions. (Nations other than the U.S. have 33%-56% chronic conditions).

At the beginning of the 20th century, the highest rate of mortality was caused by infectious diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. This resulted in the development of many pharmaceuticals, and hygiene practices. By the beginning of the 21st century, chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer, and lower respiratory disease were on the rise, causing most deaths in the United States.

Clearly a new way of looking at healthcare is in order.

Top Ten Reasons Individuals Visit Doctors

According to one Mayo Clinic study individuals primarily seek healthcare for the following reasons:

  • Skin problems
  • Osteoarthritis/joint problems
  • Back problems
  • Cholesterol issues
  • Upper respiratory conditions
  • Anxiety/depression
  • Neurological issues
  • High blood pressure
  • Headache/migraines
  • Diabetes

Many of these health conditions can be prevented, so a functional medicine approach must be considered, helping patients rebalance systems within the body that may’ve become dysfunctional over time.

What is Functional Medicine?—The Intuitive Healthcare Model

The functional medicine movement focuses on not just treating the symptoms that may or may not be tied to disease or other pathology, but examining the underlying causes driving the condition. Functional medicine treats the whole body as a complete system where the standard is prevention before disease begins to take hold, causing the body to break down as a result of poor diet, stress, sedentary life style etc.

Side-by-Side Comparison of Functional VS. Conventional Medicine(4)

Complementary VS. Alternative Medicine

Complementary medicine refers to products and practices that work together with conventional healthcare practices to treat or cure disease, or other medical conditions. Alternative medicine works to help individuals by supporting a different approach to health and wellness, one that explores unconventional practices for Western medicine.

The FDA classifies complimentary and alternative therapies into categories including the following:

Biologically based practices
According to National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “biologically based practices” may include but is botanicals, products derived from animals, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, proteins, prebiotics and probiotics and whole diets.

Energy Therapies

Energy therapies consist of “veritable energy fields” and “putative energy fields”. Veritable energy can be measured through mechanical vibrations or electromagnetic forces that include light, magnetism, or laser light. Putative energy fields pertain to therapies that include energy work not influenced by any outer source of electricity, magnet, or vibration. Instead practitioners work with subtle biofields naturally emitted from the human body.

Manipulative and Body-based Methods

These include chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation, massage therapy, Tui Na, reflexology, rolfing, Brown technique, Trager bodywork, Alexander technique, Feldenkrais method, and many more. Body work and manipulation focuses on the structures of the body such as bones and joints, soft tissue, the circulatory system, and the lymphatic system. Much of the work is done without machinery or devices, however physical stimulation with massage devices and lotions, creams, or oils is sometimes done.

Mind-body Medicine

Mind-body medicine refers to the way in which the brain, mind and body interact to affect health. Mind-body medicine takes into account the emotional, mental, social, spiritual and behavioral factors that promote or protect the body from stress and in some cases disease. This type of medicine may incorporate such practices as relaxation, hypnosis, visual imagery, meditation, yoga, biofeedback, tai chi, qi gong, cognitive-behavioral therapies, group support, autogenic training (deep relaxation through verbal commands) and spiritual practices.(1)

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, over one-third of Americans seek Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States, and visits to these practitioners exceed those to conventional primary care physicians.

Complementary and Alternative healthcare practices include:

  • Acupressure. Acupressure is similar in practice to acupuncture (see below), only no needles are involved
  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Ayurvedic Medicine
  • Balneotherapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Chiropractic
  • Homeopathy
  • Naturopathy
  • Reflexology
  • Reiki(1)

The most common complimentary therapies Americans use include:

Natural products: 17.7 percent
Deep breathing: 10.9 percent
Yoga, tai chi, or qi gong: 10.1 percent
Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation: 8.4 percent
Meditation: 8.0 percent
Massage: 6.9 percent
Special diets: 3.0 percent
Homeopathy: 2.2 percent
Progressive relaxation: 2.1 percent
Guided imagery: 1.7 percent(3)

Following the Future of Functional Medicine

Much has changed in the past quarter century, since Congress established the Office of Unconventional Therapies (now the National Center for Complementary and Alternative medicine) in 1992. The fact that so many new substances and treatments have flooded the Internet marketplace over a very short period of time creates confusion among users, practitioners and lawmakers alike.

Federal Oversight for CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) Products(3)

Ushering in new therapies, treatment protocols, and practices presents unique challenges to federal regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, responsible for the safety, efficacy, and security of drugs and biological products. Traditionally, conventional medicine could be put through the rigors of research and testing before being offered to the American public. Today, widespread acceptance by individuals and mass distribution from companies (many of them overseas) makes this very difficult.

The model for functional medicine and systemic wellness continues to be met with some resistance from both the medical sector and health insurance companies as well. As with many health-related reforms, it takes time and information to create the kind of change necessary for a shift in thinking and policy over how we treat illness and injury in the U.S.

Finding a functional medicine practitioner who integrates and understands your individual health history and how it impacts your current state of wellness can take time. Interviewing more than one provider may be necessary to get the kind of treatment and care you deserve.


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