Functional Medicine: A Whole Body Approach to Autoimmune Disease
Functional medicine is a form of Western alternative medicine that views the body as one whole, integrated system. Using functional medicine for autoimmune disease could help to treat what often present as mysterious health symptoms.
Unlike conventional Western medicine, which divides the body up into multiple systems, functional medicine looks for the root cause of a collection of symptoms. Functional medicine also falls into a different category than alternative medicine, complementary medicine, and integrative medicine. Alternative medicine focuses on “unconventional” treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractics, massage, and herbal remedies; complementary medicine refers to these alternative practices used alongside Western medicine; integrative medicine aims to combine alternative and conventional medicine, like prescribing medication and meditation to reduce stress; functional medicine goes a step further than integrative medicine by using science and lifestyle factors to treat an imbalance that can cause disease.1
Oftentimes, multiple symptoms of disease can arise in several places at once. This is especially true of chronic diseases, which can take years, usually decades, to fully develop.
For example, disease symptoms could show up in the immune system, in the gut, and in the musculoskeletal system all at the same time. While conventional Western medicine may send you to three different specialists, a functional medicine practitioner looks at how all of these symptoms relate to each other.
Functional medicine is a form of Western alternative medicine that looks at the body as a whole to treat symptoms of disease. Nutrition is a critical component of functional healthcare to keep the body in balance, with support from superfood supplements like Vitality SuperGreen.
Extensive scientific backing for functional medicine exists, says The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), in countless studies that support the whole-body approach: focusing on the proven benefits of nutrition, botanicals, exercise, detoxification, acupuncture, manual medicine, stress management, and mind/body techniques.2 IFM continues to support academic initiatives and the development of medical school curricula to “establish the need for a new model of care” that includes a functional view of disease in the 21st century.3
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Functional medicine practitioners believe that three factors play an important role in health and wellness:
- Diet and nutrition
- Environmental input, including sleep, exercise, and toxin exposure
- Mind-body connection, related to psychological and social factors
This is why patient care relies heavily on lab analysis and testing for diagnosis. Treatment usually involves changes in lifestyle and diet. While supplements may be used initially, the long-term goal is to support the body by finding a state of balance that can be maintained with diet alone. Dr. Mark Hyman, chairman of IFM, famously exhibited this approach in his recent work with the Clintons, covered by The New York Times.4 Dr. Hyman calls functional medicine the “future of conventional medicine,” needed by our society more than ever as rates of chronic disease continue to spike.5
Functional Medicine for Autoimmune Disease: Help for Autoimmune Disorders
The difference between treating symptoms and treating the cause of symptoms is trying to treat a tree at the branches instead of at the root.
For the estimated 50 million Americans suffering from autoimmune disease, which includes anywhere from 80 to 100 different disorders that first present with unspecific and seemingly random symptoms, the functional approach to medicine has a special significance.6
For example, the most classic sign of an autoimmune flare-up is inflammation.
Conventional medicine will often prescribe immune-suppressing drugs, which can provide considerable relief but also may:
- Set the body up for future health problems.
- Not treat the root cause of the disorder.
- Provide a temporary Band-Aid, not a real solution.
Because functional medicine looks at how the body functions as a whole system, those practicing this form of medicine will instead seek to balance the immune system, rather than suppress it.
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Leona West, a certified nutritionist, herbalist, fitness trainer, and birth doula who specializes in reading blood work and incorporates a functional medical approach to health with her clients, tells us that:
“When it comes to autoimmune conditions, there is not a lot available to people. So people feel really lost, and they don’t really have a lot of options. So working from a nutritional standpoint and a functional standpoint… actually gives more options than they would be able to get otherwise.”
3 Functional Steps You Can Take for Optimal Health
- Find a routine. Leona explains that, “We work on what’s called a circadian rhythm. The body thrives on routine. When we sleep, and wake, and eat at similar times during the day, the body comes into balance. We tend to lose weight easier and have more sustained energy.”
- Maximize your diet. Focus on eating a few things each day that are high in antioxidants and dense in nutrients. This is easier to do when you choose fresh, local food that is not shipped across countries or even across states. Including probiotic-rich fermented vegetables, fermented dairy, or fermented Spirulina in your diet increases the bioavailability of the nutrients your body craves.
- Get regular lab work. Consider optimizing your health with regular lab work. It’s a good way to check in and get a snapshot of what may be happening in your body. Functional medicine practitioners interpret your lab work through a different lens than traditional Western medicine, which often does not see red flags until numbers are already out of a predetermined range of acceptability.
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Leona reminds us that, “In order to cultivate good health, it is about these small, little things we do every day that accumulate into good health. They are ultimately preventative measures.”
What To Remember Most About This Article:
Functional medicine is a type of Western alternative medicine that views the body as a complete system. Functional medicine is different from traditional Western medicine because it looks for the root cause of symptoms in the body instead of dividing the body up into multiple systems.
Functional medicine practitioners focus on diet, environment, and the mind-body connection to promote internal balance and support overall health. Since functional medicine treats the cause of symptoms within a whole body system, it can often be used to treat serious autoimmune disorders.
Based on the principles of functional medicine, you can take three steps today to promote optimal health:
- Stick to a healthy routine. Sleeping, eating, and waking at the same time each day can keep your body in balance, increasing energy and making it easier to lose weight.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet. Adding probiotic-rich foods to your diet, from sources like fermented vegetables, fermented dairy, and fermented Spirulina, can make the nutrients in the food you eat more bioavailable.
- Get lab work done regularly. When you get lab work back from your annual checkup, optimize your results by checking in with a functional medicine practitioner to receive a broader perspective.
- “What Exactly Is Integrative Medicine?” Greatist.
- “What About the Evidence for Functional Medicine?” The Institute for Functional Medicine.
- “21st century medicine: A New Model for Medical Education and Practice.” The Institute for Functional Medicine.
- Chozick, Amy. “He Tells the Clintons How to Lose a Little.” The New York Times.
- “About Functional Medicine – Dr. Mark Hyman.” Mark Hyman.
- “Autoimmune Statistics.” AARDA.