What is Functional Medicine?

Functional Medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach and engaging both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership. It is an evolution in the practice of medicine that better addresses the healthcare needs of the 21st century. By shifting the traditional disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, Functional Medicine addresses the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms. Functional Medicine practitioners spend time with their patients, listening to their histories and looking at the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex, chronic disease. In this way, Functional Medicine supports the unique expression of health and vitality for each individual.

Functional Medicine offers a powerful new operating system and clinical model for assessment, treatment, and prevention of chronic disease to replace the outdated and ineffective acute-care models carried forward from the 20th century.Functional Medicine incorporates the latest in genetic science, systems biology, and understanding of how environmental and lifestyle factors influence the emergence and progression of disease. Functional Medicine enables physicians and other health professionals to practice proactive, predictive, personalized medicine and empowers patients to take an active role in their own health.

Functional Medicine is a personalized, systems-oriented model that empowers patients and practitioners to achieve the highest expression of health by working in collaboration to address the underlying causes of disease.

Core Principles of Functional Medicine:

1. An understanding of the biochemical individuality of each human being, based on the concepts of genetic and environmental uniqueness;

2. Awareness of the evidence that supports a patient-centered rather than a disease-centered approach to treatment;

3. Search for a dynamic balance among the internal and external body, mind, and spirit;

4. Interconnections of internal physiological factors;

5. Identification of health as a positive vitality, not merely the absence of disease, and emphasizing those factors that encourage the enhancement of a vigorous physiology;

6. Promotion of organ reserve as the means to enhance the health span, not just the life span, of each patient.

The Functional Medicine Tree

The illustration to the right uses a tree to visually represent the core aspects of the Functional Medicine paradigm and highlight the difference between conventional medical care and Functional Medicine. The graphic itself has undergone some changes through the years, but its essence remains the same. In order to keep a tree healthy and allow it to flourish, you need to support the most basic and essential elements first; the foundation: the roots and soil. Similarly, if a tree is not healthy, the first place you should look for answers is those same foundational elements.

The illustration to the right uses a tree to visually represent the core aspects of the Functional Medicine paradigm and highlight the difference between conventional medical care and Functional Medicine. The graphic itself has undergone some changes through the years, but its essence remains the same. In order to keep a tree healthy and allow it to flourish, you need to support the most basic and essential elements first; the foundation: the roots and soil. Similarly, if a tree is not healthy, the first place you should look for answers is those same foundational elements.

Conventional medicine tends to look at the constellation of symptoms first (the branches and leaves), which usually results in a disease diagnosis. Often, this diagnosis is associated with a drug or drugs that can be prescribed to treat this constellation of symptoms, and that is the end of the story. But this approach neglects the more fundamental aspects of health that reside in the roots and the trunk of the tree. It treats all patients that present with similar symptoms the same and completely neglects both the inherent differences among patients as well as the myriad possible causes that a “disease” can have.

If you are tired of spending your time in the leaves and watching as your patients with chronic disease go through the cycle of diagnosis and drugs without getting any better, IFM invites you to climb down from the canopy and join us at ground level. We will provide you with the tools to make your patients better, without ever needing to leave the ground.

A patient-centered approach refers to health care that is respectful of and responsive to individual patient preferences, needs, and values, and that ensures that patient values guide all clinical decisions. At IFM, patient-centered care is the core of what we call the therapeutic partnership; the relationship that forms between a patient and clinician that empowers the patient to take ownership of their own healing. The power of the therapeutic partnership comes from the idea that patients who are active participants in the development of their therapeutic plan feel more in control of their own well-being and are more likely to make sustained lifestyle changes to improve their health.

Practitioners of Functional Medicine use the Functional Medicine model to organize their findings. It’s a kind of flexible and adaptive information-gathering-and-sorting architecture for clinical practice that deepens the clinician’s understanding of the often overlapping ways things can go wrong. The patient’s story is organized according to seven common underlying mechanisms that influence health, which clarifies the level of present understanding and illuminates where further investigation is needed. An operating system guides clinicians through the entire process from gathering information to initiating treatment and tracking the patient’s progress.

Practitioners of Functional Medicine use the Functional Medicine model to organize their findings. It’s a kind of flexible and adaptive information-gathering-and-sorting architecture for clinical practice that deepens the clinician’s understanding of the often overlapping ways things can go wrong. The patient’s story is organized according to seven common underlying mechanisms that influence health, which clarifies the level of present understanding and illuminates where further investigation is needed. An operating system guides clinicians through the entire process from gathering information to initiating treatment and tracking the patient’s progress.

All healthcare disciplines—including integrative medicine—can, to the degree allowed by their training and licensure, use a Functional Medicine approach, including integrating the Functional Medicine operating system and tools to organize knowledge and recognize patterns. Functional Medicine provides a common language and a unified model to facilitate integrated care.

Applying Functional Medicine in Practice

Functional Medicine offers a new approach to management and prevention of chronic disease that embodies the art and science of medicine. It integrates what we know about how the human body works with patient-centered, science-based care. Functional Medicine addresses the causes of chronic disease, which are rooted in lifestyle choices, environmental exposures, and genetic influences. It also emphasizes the therapeutic partnership, which engages the heart, mind, and spirit of both practitioner and client, and encourages moments of deep insight that contribute to more comprehensive answers to stubborn, complex medical problems. Functional Medicine offers a paradigm shift in clinical practice, thus producing a more effective response to chronic disease.

Functional Medicine in Practice

Chronic disease is a food- and lifestyle-driven, environment- and genetics-influenced phenomenon. New approaches to management and prevention are required if we are to stem the rising tide of chronic disease (expected to outpace deaths from infectious disease twofold within the next decade). It can be conquered by integrating what we know about how the human body works with individualized, patient-centered, science-based care that addresses the causes of chronic disease, which are rooted in lifestyle choices, environmental exposures, and genetic influences. This is exactly what Functional Medicine does—it is indeed a medicine appropriate for the challenges of the 21st century.

Functional Medicine also helps clinicians reintegrate the art and science of medicine. In addition to the extensive evidence base supporting Functional Medicine approaches, we now have access to substantive information about what constitutes the art of medicine. Research indicates that insight for both practitioner and client is maximized when an effective therapeutic partnership is established. The therapeutic partnership engages heart, mind, and spirit, and encourages moments of deep insight that contribute to more comprehensive answers to stubborn, complex medical problems.

Functional Medicine and Conventional Medicine

So how is Functional Medicine different from today’s conventional Western medical system? To begin, the focus of care is different. The goal of conventional medicine is for doctors to identify diseases by recognizing patterns of symptoms and to treat those symptoms by prescribing drug-based therapies that are similar for all patients with a given disease. Notice that the words patient and health do not appear in this description. The goal of Functional Medicine is to promote health and vitality in each patient. Practitioners examine each patient’s lifestyle and unique biochemical factors to identify the underlying causes of their disease and find treatments that help return patients to optimal health.

Conventional medicine separates doctors based on their specialties (e.g., neurology, gynecology, endocrinology), effectively arranging medical care into separate silos. Functional Medicine is holistic, in that one clinician looks at all aspects of the patient, instead of saying, “Oh, that sounds like a hormone problem. That’s not my department.”

Functional Medicine is highly cost effective for patients, as it focuses on prevention and health promoting lifestyle changes and sustainable treatments that address the underlying causes of dysfunction, restoring patients to health. Conventional medical treatments are often expensive medications that must be taken indefinitely and do not address the underlying problem, but merely suppress the symptoms.

For more information on Functional Medicine visit:
The Institute for Functional Medicine