Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the (re)FIND Health event on Functional Medicine, with Dr Mark Hyman (practicing family doctor, bestselling author, director of the Cleveland Clinic Centre for Functional Medicine and chairman of the board of the Institute of Functional Medicine) and Dr Rangan Chatterjee (NHS and Functional Medicine GP and presenter of the BBC’s acclaimed programme ‘Doctor in the House’).
Dr Hyman was here to talk both to the public and to health professionals about the Functional Medicine model and how it differs from conventional medicine as we know it. I had my first introduction to Functional Medicine back in 2011 when I completed the first ever UK course “Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice (AFMCP)” created by The Institute for Functional Medicine in the US and I have been using the Functional medicine tools in my practice with my clients ever since, hence why I was invited to participate.
In a nutshell, Functional Medicine seeks to identify and address the root causes of disease, viewing the body as one integrated system, rather than a collection of independent organs divided up by medical specialties. It is about the whole person, and the context of their individual life, rather than just their symptoms.
Functional medicine is medicine by cause, not by symptom. Practitioners don’t, in fact, treat disease. We treat your body’s ecosytem. We get rid of the bad stuff, put back the good stuff, and because your body is an intelligent system – it does the rest” Dr Mark Hyman MD
Although Functional Medicine may seem like a fairly radical new approach for medical practitioners, focusing on the root causes and imbalances that lead to ill-health have been the cornerstones of nutritional therapy for a long time. Indeed, optimum nutrition is a central pillar of Functional Medicine treatment plans. We work to very similar principles as those taught in Functional Medicine – using a comprehensive history and functional tests to help us identify possible triggers, and then working alongside the client to implement a considered diet and supplement programme where necessary. This patient-centered (rather than disease-centered) approach helps us to guide our clients towards vibrant health, hopefully for good.
The pursuit of optimum nutrition, taken together with other cornerstones of health such a physical and psychological balance, is the means to health at its most profound level – not merely the absence of pain or tension, but a joy of living, a real appreciation of what it is to have a healthy body with which to taste the many pleasures of this world.” Adapted from Patrick Holford’s book, Optimum Nutrition.
Although, of course, nutritional therapists are not doctors, we can work alongside medical and other healthcare practitioners to help implement the Functional Medicine model of disease prevention and management. This approach may be particularly helpful in the management of the increasing burden of lifestyle-related chronic (i.e., long-term) diseases, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease that we are facing both globally and in the UK. In my opinion, we may well find in the future that we cannot afford NOT to tackle their root causes through a more Functional Medicine and nutritional therapy based approach. Food for thought!
The drawbacks of this approach are sometimes obvious – if you are in a car crash, it is not the time to start considering how your diet might be impacting on your health! Conventional medicine is brilliant at acute care, where standardised treatments save time and therefore lives. The conventional approach is also a very efficient method of delivering high quality emergency care to the entire population on an extremely tight budget. But perhaps there may be false economy in relying on a conventional model which can sometimes feel like it is just ‘patching up’ those with chronic diseases, without first addressing the lifestyle factors which may have lead to the disease in the first place. But in order to do this, many health practitioners feel that they need more time, support and training to deliver this sort of care.
Functional Medical doctors such as Dr Hyman are therefore proving to be outstanding educators in this field, inspiring and motivating those of us who attend their many conferences. There is also a growing community of like-minded practitioners (many of whom attended the event) and educational resources now available, enabling us to keep up-to-date with the latest research and constantly expand and develop our knowledge. I am currently a member of IFM, having completed AFMCP and hence I appear on their list of practitioners. I am also slowly working my way through the IFM modules to become a fully certified member, which might yet take me a few more years, but my learning continues to grow and evolve as the field does too.
Finally, a couple of take home messages from Dr Hyman:
– “Disease does not exist”. Controversial, I know, but an interesting statement to consider nonetheless. We have become so used to assuming that a disease is the cause, instead of accepting that it is merely just the name for the recognised pattern of symptoms. For example, depression does not cause depression, it is the name given to the feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and sadness present for a prolonged period of time. Likewise, the cause of depression is also not a Prozac deficiency! So what is the cause?
Well, that is a big question, but it could be caused by a number of imbalances ranging from inadequate neurotransmitters (which need enough of certain vitamins and minerals to be metabolised properly), to imbalance of the gut flora (which influences the production of neurotransmitters) to vitamin D deficiency, low omega-3 fatty acids, excessive sugar, or even chronic inflammation amongst many more. If appropriate, Functional Medicine would therefore work to alleviate these potential causes in the first instance, rather than jumping straight in with antidepressants. So the question then is, does the disease really exist at all, or is it just a symptom itself of another, imbalance further upstream?
– After two days of talking about obesity, diabeties, brain health and autoimmune disease, what was the ultimate solution? Food. Pure, recognisable, unadulterated food. This is coming from a doctor who works this way with all of his patients. You can imagine how that makes my heart sing!
Think of food as information – because that is exactly what it is, affecting your biology on the most fundamental level. So consider this. What message do you want to tell your body?” Dr Mark Hyman, MD
- For more information on functional medicine, do take a look at my blog post ‘What is Functional Medicine?’, or check out the Institute of Functional Medicine’s website: functionalmedicine.org.
- Dr Mark Hyman is a renowned practitioner for the USA. His website is really easy to navigate and is full of handy videos and articles explaining the functional approach to a wide range of diseases and conditions: drhyman.com/
- For more information on Nutritional Therapy, this is the collage where I studied: www.ion.ac.uk