Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Functional Medicine: A Radical and Revolutionary Approach to Chronic Diseases

Live Healthy and Active
There is a not so quiet revolution in medicine occurring that has the potential to greatly extend your lifespan while, at the same time, make that extended life free of chronic pain and the ravages of illness or disease. Imagine attending your great grandchild's college graduation, and doing so without aid of walker or wheelchair.

  Consider the opportunity of living into your 90's or even 100's while remaining productive, coherent and happy.

These are all real possibilities with the amazing discoveries currently being made related to our understanding of the human genome, dna, molecular science and biology, as well as the practical application of this knowledge through the revolutionary practice of functional medicine.

     I am in my early fifties, and as I have seen my parents age they began suffering with the same chronic illnesses that plague so many of our parents and grandparents:  heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, digestive disorders, to name a few.  I had seen them taking over the counter pain relievers and prescriptions for other issues for many years, rarely ever thinking about why or if that could have any detrimental effects.

     I watched, (I thought, helplessly), as my Father, deteriorated from the picture of health and strength to a frailty which barely allowed him to hold himself upright.  Even though he remained free of any diagnosed disease, he suffered from chronic nausea, loss of appetite, depression, memory loss and, of course, his quality of life deteriorated right along with him.  Unfortunately, I relied, solely, on his well-meaning doctors and specialists to diagnose his illness or disease and prescribe the "magic pill" which would cure him, and bring back the health to him that we all so desired.

 He has had multiple tests, surgeries, and further complications, which I believe were all connected to his ongoing ailment.  These included hospitalization for depleted nutritional levels,  gallstones, requiring removal of his gallbladder, as well as hospitalization with kidney stones.

     In addition to my parents ailments, I began having a few issues of my own.  Having been an athlete, I have always been somewhat concerned about trying to live a healthy lifestyle.  At the same time,  I have struggled most of my adult  life with being "fat".  I know that's not the politically correct term, but since I'm talking about myself, I'll be frank.  I like to think I "carry it well", but I seem to  fluctuate between 20-60 lbs overweight, while occasionally reaching the vicinity of my ideal weight (or at least a point of feeling good about myself).

   I'm a Southern boy, so I always have enjoyed everything fried and smothered in gravy.  Like everyone else, I know I can't eat that way all the time, and for many years I have attempted to modify my palate toward a more healthful diet, with varying degrees of success. Along with my diet, I have attempted to exercise regularly, including aerobics and weight training, also with varying degrees of success.  Thankfully, I had avoided any serious disease or ailments up until my 50's. Of course, then my doctor starts talking about concerns of pre-diabetes, high cholesterol and the possible need for statin drugs to regulate that.  Blood pressure was beginning to creep up.

 Then I get slammed with gallstones, spending a week in the hospital and having surgery to remove the "bastard" organ, since,  "I don't really need it anyway."  That's just a little sarcasm, if you didn't recognize it.  Seeing my parents deal with issues that I thought were just a part of aging, and nothing I could do anything about was one thing, but now I'm beginning to see the same things coming my way.  This, along with some other providential events in my life, prompted me to begin seeking out more information on  these chronic ailments, with which my parents suffered, and whether or not they could be improved or eliminated, as well as avoiding them all together in my life and those I love.
     One final note before we dig into the subject matter.  Not being a medical professional or scientist, my information and explanation that follows are based on my reading and research.  I will be attempting to give a brief overview of the subject and an explanation for the average person who, like me, is seeking a solution for his/her own health issues and/or of those they love.  It is not intended to be a scientific treatise, and I am sure I may get some technical issues wrong.  However, my purpose is to simply inform and to encourage you to do your own research.

 This is not intended in any manner or form to be medical advice, I will leave that to the professionals, hopefully your local medical professional who practices functional medicine.

     The Institute for Functional Medicine defines functional medicine as 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.  I believe breaking down and expanding on the parts of that definition will give us a good introduction and overview to the subject of functional medicine.                    
The Body's Systems
     First of all, we will tackle the "personalized" section of the definition.  The phenomenal advancements over the last few decades in the study of the human genome and in our understanding of the inner workings of the human body, especially at the cellular level, has allowed us to see that our individuality and uniqueness on the outside extends to the inside of our bodies, all the way down to the molecular level.  This is called bio individuality.

 It is still a common belief that we are genetically predetermined toward certain health outcomes.  "He is more healthy because he has good genes."  "She obviously got that type of cancer because of an inherited gene, and there was nothing she could do to change that."  This was one of the great hopes of mapping the human genome.  Namely, that once we did so, we would be able to identify genes, or defective genes, which determined or caused certain diseases and then figure out a way to change or repair them.

This particular hope has been all but dashed on the rocks of scientific discovery.   However, what has been learned is that, though each person may or may not be genetically predisposed toward a particular disease or ailment, the activation of those genes can be and are influenced by our individual and unique diet, environment and lifestyle. This is called epigenetics.

To summarize, you and I each has a unique DNA and the expression of our DNA is determined by our diet, environment and lifestyle in a much greater way than previously thought.  In other words, your future health is not written in concrete, and one way or another you will play a most active role in determining the length and quality of your life.

     Moving on to the "systems oriented model" section of the definition.  To better understand the systems oriented model, it is necessary to discuss the prevalent methods of medical care and treatment with which most of us are familiar.

  • You begin having symptoms which cause you to seek the advice of your doctor. 
  •  In the case of minor ailments such as a cold, flu or minor injuries you receive treatment and possibly a prescription to alleviate symptoms. 
  •  For more serious issues, tests will be run to attempt to identify disease or damage within a particular organ or system so that medicine can be prescribed or surgery performed to repair. 
 This would include emergency treatment from trauma and other issues.  In this area, our current system is very effective and performed by many intelligent, proficient, caring and expert practitioners.

     Functional medicine is not in opposition to this system, and qualified functional medicine practitioners use all of the same medical practices in order to identify acute illnesses or disease.  However, where functional medicine differs greatly is in the prevention, diagnoses and/or treatment of chronic diseases.  

This is the particular area where our current system is not effective.  If you deal with aging parents, as I have, you have seen this deficiency first hand.  When it comes to chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes etc...the status quo is to attempt to manage the disease and treat any symptoms with the prescription pad.  This is indicated by counter tops filled with prescription bottles, and patients requiring higher and higher doses as their systems adjust to them, not to mention all the complications associated with long term medication use.

     It is this "systems oriented model" or approach toward our general health and the treatment and prevention of chronic diseases that sets functional medicine apart.  These are the same chronic diseases that are increasing to epidemic proportions throughout the developed world in spite of incredible advances in medical technology, treatment and the billions of dollars spent to fight and treat them.

  A functional medicine practioner will seek to identify imbalances in the body's systems and help the patient to address these imbalances through nutrition, including medical foods,  exercise, supplementation and psychological support.  This helps both to prevent these chronic illnesses as well as treating and in many cases reversing chronic illnesses.

    The final part of our definition "empowers patients and practitioners to achieve the highest expression of health by working in collaboration to address the underlying causes of disease".

 Functional medicine puts responsibility and power back in the hands of each of us for our health.  With the help and advice of your doctor practicing in this way, you and I can control and do the things that will give us optimal health.  It is our responsibility:

  •  To take charge
  •  Inform ourselves of the latest health information
  •  Working with our doctor to make the lifestyle changes that current science shows will help prevent chronic diseases and the horrible damage that they do to our bodies.
  If you are already dealing with one or more of these chronic diseases, I encourage you to seek out a qualified, functional medicine practitioner and follow their advice.  Take charge of your own health. There is hope and help available.
     Take these steps as soon as possible:

  1. Start informing yourself.  
  2. Immediately begin providing your body with the foods you already know are good for you. Then start learning more about the most healthy eating styles. (Hint:  low glycemic)  Reduce or eliminate the things that you know are not good for you. 
  3.  Find a high quality multivitamin/mineral supplement and make it a daily habit. I use The Essentials from USANA Health Sciences
  4. Start walking everyday at least 20-30 minutes at a brisk pace. 
  5.  Get 15-20 minutes of sunshine sans sunscreen per day.(yes, you heard me right.  NO SUNSCREEN, but just 15-20 minutes..) 
  6. Put a pad and pen on your nightstand and end each day by jotting down 3 things from your day for which you are grateful.  
These are some relatively small changes that we can each do now that can pay huge dividends towards optimal health.
    Now go, start planning your great grandchild's graduation party.....


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great post Sam!

    When we take a personal approach to wellness, then chronic illness decrease and quality of life goes up.

    1. Thanks for the nice comment, Claudia. Sorry for the delay in responding, but somehow had missed your remarks. Thanks again.