What’s the Deal with Functional Medicine (and Should You Try It)?

functional medicine doctor filling out paperwork

In our quest for wellness, we’ll try pretty much anything. Adaptogens? Been there, done that. A crystal-infused water bottle? We didn’t hate it. But when one of our friends couldn’t stop gushing about her new functional doctor, we were a little skeptical. But then we did some digging, and it’s actually pretty cool. Here’s what we learned.

What is functional medicine? “[Functional medicine is] an individualized, patient-centered, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness,” says The Institute for Functional Medicine. Confused? Let’s think about functional medicine in relation to conventional medicine—more about that below. 

How are functional and conventional medicine different? In conventional medicine, there’s a doctor for every different organ system (cardiologists for the heart, dermatologists for the skin, etc.). Functional medicine, on the other hand, takes a look at the body as an interconnected whole. “While the conventional model excels at naming and categorizing groups of symptoms into diagnoses, it doesn’t help us uncover the root cause of the symptoms, especially when a single root cause manifests across numerous body systems,” says Alexandra Palma, MD, from Parsley Health. In other words, functional medicine takes a more holistic approach in order to focus on the triggers of poor health, whereas conventional medicine tends to focuses on the consequences (i.e., symptoms) of poor health.

I’m intrigued—walk me through a session. A functional doctor will typically sit with a patient for about an hour, asking detailed questions about their health and medical history. At the end of the session, patients are often prescribed lifestyle changes instead of medication. And while it’s true that you might leave a session with some slightly more alternative treatment suggestions like acupuncture, supplements or an elimination diet, functional doctors are actual doctors. They use the same tools as regular doctors to figure out what’s wrong, including blood tests if necessary. The downside? A visit to a functional doctor may not be covered by your health insurance, and it’s usually more expensive than other medical appointments.

So, should I see a functional doctor? If you’re dealing with a chronic condition and don’t feel like visits to your regular doc are helping, giving functional medicine a go certainly can’t hurt (even if the jury is out on certain treatments, most of them come with no risk). Dealing with an acute disease or an emergency? Now is not the time to start thinking about how your diet could be impacting your health. For the immediate stuff, go see your nearest doctor ASAP.

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...