Western medicine can be very good at certain things – fixing broken bones, providing vaccines for deadly diseases and more. But sometimes, people can go to the doctor complaining of certain issues and be told that they are fine, even though they know something just isn’t quite right.
That’s where functional medicine comes into play. “I can’t tell you how many patients come to me and tell me that they’ve been to the doctor and the doctor tells them nothing is wrong with them, but they just don’t feel like themselves,” says Tanya Tanzillo, DNP, a functional medicine practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine. “The whole idea behind functional medicine is how are you functioning? I look at four pillars of health – nutrition, sleep, exercise and stress – and if any one of those is not optimized, we work to get it into balance.”
Instead of prescribing a medication to improve the symptoms, functional medicine practitioners instead try to discover the root cause of the problem by getting a detailed look at the patient’s diet, lifestyle, stress level, hormone levels and other factors that may be contributing to the problem. Then they’ll recommend dietary, lifestyle or other changes you can make to resolve the issue.
“Functional medicine is a more effective way of treating chronic conditions, because very often people’s issues are related to stress, diet, lack of sleep, and sedentary habits. And changing those things are much cheaper than taking a pill, although changing your habits can be hard,” says Dr. Frances Baxley, MD, another functional medicine practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine.
And because every person’s daily habits, nutritional needs and chemical makeup are different, Tanzillo says every treatment plan is different, too. “It is an extremely personal care plan for that person,” she says.
Here are a few of the most common chronic conditions that functional medicine doctors treat, and how they go about treating each problem.
- Chronic Fatigue
Feeling tired all of the time is not normal. And while it may strictly have to do with how many hours of sleep you’re getting at night, there may be more factors at play as to what is causing you to be tired. It may be due to sleep apnea, depression, stress, a nutritional insufficiency, or hormone imbalance. Baxley says she usually begins by having a detailed conversation with each patient about their sleep habits, diet, lifestyle and more to figure out where to begin making changes. “I think that’s what functional medicine doctors do differently. We get the patient’s full story,” Baxley says. “By doing active listening and reflecting back what they are saying, that can motivate their own insights. We’re just a guide holding the lantern.”
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
If you’ve been suffering from chronic diarrhea, constipation, bloating or cramping with an unknown cause, you’re not alone. In fact, 6 to 18% of people experience IBS. Similar to chronic fatigue syndrome, IBS may have multiple underlying causes – such as food intollerances, a gut bacteria imbalance, stress, and sleep problems. To determine the real culprit, Tanzillo starts with a detailed initial conversation asking about the patient’s sleep, stress and diet, and then she usually does food intolerance and gut microbiome testing. After Tanzillo gets the results of the tests, she may recommend dietary changes or suggest certain herbs or supplements to help get the patient’s gut flora back in balance.
- Perimenopausal Symptoms
Menopause – when you stop having your actual period – usually happens when women hit age 50 to 55. But for about 10 to 15 years before that, women’s menstrual cycles starts to change as they begin to ovulate less frequently (called perimenopause). These hormone changes can cause everything from weight gain to trouble sleeping, irritability, a foggy brain and more. So if a patient in her 40s comes in complaining of one of those issues, Tanzillo says she’ll start by asking about their diet, exercise, stress and sleep, but then she’ll also run some hormone testing to determine if their hormone levels may really be the underlying cause of the problem. If so, Tanzillo may recommend bioidentical hormone replacement therapy, as well as dietary and lifestyle changes to mitigate the symptoms.
- Chronic Allergies
Another chronic condition that often leads people to seek help from a functional medicine doctor is allergy symptoms. “Often times people are told to use antihistamines or nasal sprays on a continuous basis and sometimes people aren’t sure about that,” Baxley says. “A lot of times those allergy problems can be helped by addressing their food sensitivities.”
Baxley explains that unlike food allergies, which cause an immediate response such as a swollen face or trouble breathing, food sensitivities can be subtler and harder to detect, but can cause increased inflammation and lead to a host of issues, including post-nasal drip, chronic sinus congestion and more.
To determine what’s causing the inflammatory response, Baxley says she’ll usually begin by suggesting that the patient follow an elimination diet for four weeks, cutting out all dairy, gluten, sugar, nuts, alcohol, eggs, corn, soy, chocolate and coffee, and then gradually adding foods back in one at a time to see if they may be contributing to the problem. Or, if a patient doesn’t want to go through the elimination diet, they can choose to get tested for food sensitivities instead. “A food elimination diet can be really hard, but often once people do it, they’ll feel better and realize that all of their issues have gone away,” she says.