What Is Functional Medicine and Is This Practice Legitimate?

In the absence of any other knowledge on the subject, it sounds like "functional medicine" is a good thing. After all, you want your medicine to work, right? You want it to function, rather than not function. Though, when you think about it, isn't that what all medicine does, except placebos? And even then, the placebo effect means even the placebo can help.

So what even is "functional medicine", and is it a real thing? 

The History of Functional Medicine

The term "functional medicine" is relatively new, at least as far as health treatments go. It was invented back in 1991 by a guy named Jeffrey Bland. He owned a couple of companies focused on weight loss, and he created another company called the Institute for Functional Medicine.

At the same time, the FTC investigated Bland and discovered that pretty much all of the products he sold were quackery. He violated false advertising claims and was selling products that claimed to do everything from help you lose weight to treat arthritis and kidney disease, all at once. Obviously, none of this was true, and his companies were issued a slap on the wrist fine.

Since then, people like Mark Hyman have taken up the mantle of proponents of functional medicine, and have positively filled the airwaves and the internet with propaganda about it.

What Even Is Functional Medicine?

So what is functional medicine? Ultimately, it's just a buzzword. Every person who practices some aspect of functional medicine will tell you their own definition, but none of those definitions will match. Everyone has their own set of practices.

On its own, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Three different doctors might have three different ways of treating a particular disease, and that doesn't necessarily make two of them wrong, per se. The thing that makes them wrong is if one of them is using a scientifically-studied and proven pill, one of them is using a set of herbs they found in Mongolia, and one of them is using quartz crystals attuned to the red-gold aura frequencies of your bones.

"Functional medicine" is just a modern-day rebranding of what we consider "alternative medicine", meant to make it seem just as legitimate, just as proven, and just as backed by science as modern medicine. The reality is that, while there may be some forms of alternative medicine that have some effect, the majority of it is just grifters trying to take your money and convince you you're getting something out of the deal.

Part of the problem is the internet. These days, it's incredibly easy to throw a website online and make it look authoritative. You can buy photos of doctors to use, you can call yourself a doctor without ever having taken a class on medicine, and you can say whatever you want to say. "It's up to my readers to decide what they want to believe" is a pretty common defense, all while the author is doing their best to be extremely convincing.

Here, let's do a brief experiment. Take a look at some articles from proponents of functional medicine. Here's one, and here's another. Go ahead and give those a read, and then tell me: what is their treatment? What do they do, what do they give you?

They don't tell you. Everything they write is meaningless. They "listen to your history" and they write a lot about being part of nature, but nowhere do they actually tell you what practices they preach. 

The reason for this is, as mentioned above, they all practice different sets of alternative medicine. And boy, are there a lot of them. We've all heard of the major alternative practices, like acupuncture, energy medicine, charcoal cleanses, and so on. 

Throughout human history, there have been dozens if not hundreds more. Look up things like ear candling, black salve, "rolfing", or some of the more absurd uses of vision therapy for some examples.

Black salve is a good example of people who are more than willing to sell you out for a dime. If you have a small skin cancer, the general treatment is a surgical removal, which cuts out the affected portion of skin. Scans can search for instances of cancer elsewhere in your body, which can then be treated with chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or another systemic treatment.

Black salve is a "cancer cure" that, when applied to the skin, will certainly get rid of the cancer. It does this by being highly corrosive. It literally just burns off the affected portion of your skin. The cancer is gone, as is any other skin you put it on. Of course, if you don't use it long enough, it might not penetrate deep enough to get all of the cancer, so the cancer can come back and spread unmonitored, because of course the people selling you black salve aren't going to be giving you MRIs.

Now, not all forms of alternative medicine are part of functional medicine. The idea of functional medicine is to get an overall impression of your body, your ailments, and your habits, and treat the causes of the issues you're having.

The Kernel of Truth

The best lies have a grain of truth in them, so they seem more plausible. Take the anti-vaccine movement; mercury is toxic, so obviously anything with mercury in it is toxic too, including vaccines, right? Well, no; first off, a mercury compound is not the same thing as mercury, the amount of actual mercury in a vaccine is less than what you get seafood, and the leading proponents of the anti-vaccine movement are making millions of dollars a year selling you alternatives to vaccines.

The truth is, some of functional medicine is correct. People ARE a part of nature. Things like sleep, an adequate and healthy diet, and appropriate levels of exercise CAN do a lot to help you heal from many diseases. Many forms of cancer are caused by environmental pollution and horrible diets. 

What that means is that making changes to your diet, to your exercise habits, and to your sleep can have a beneficial impact on your health. What this doesn't mean is that by eating a few exotic-sounding plants, rubbing rocks on your skin, or getting stabbed with tiny needles is going to cure cancer.

On this blog, we always try to keep things as close to scientific as we can. Admittedly, we're not always experts on the subjects at hand. We didn't go to medical school, we don't have first-hand research experience, and we're not conducting huge studies into the efficacy of various treatments. The best we can do is use what science exists and temper expectations accordingly. That's what we call ethics.

Unfortunately, there are many unethical people out there, people who don't care about your health when their pocketbook can profit instead. 

Where Functional Medicine Works

Functional medicine has a small core of value in it. The idea of listening to your issues, examining your entire lifestyle, and looking for the root cause of what ails you is a good one.

It's also what doctors do.

When you go to a doctor's office for a checkup, they do a few things. They might draw some blood and run a metabolic panel. They'll take your weight and blood pressure. They might check your blood sugar. They'll have you fill out some paperwork, where you can answer questions about issues you've been experiencing.

All of this? That's "listening to your history." That, combined with your medical history in your charts, gives the doctors a more total impression of what might be wrong with you.

For example, if you go to a doctor and fill out your forms and take your tests, and you complain of frequent urination, general tiredness, slow healing wounds, nausea, and tingling in your hands and feet, what do you think is going to happen?

A terrible doctor might give you a pill with caffeine in it to treat your tiredness, a pill with bismuth in it to treat your nausea, and some kind of heated gloves and socks to help with the tingling. 

A good doctor will recognize that all of those symptoms are pointing at diabetes, and will check your blood sugar a few times, monitor your diet, and possibly prescribe insulin to help. 

This is a doctor looking at the root cause of your ailments, not just at the symptoms. In other words, it's exactly what functional medicine claims to do.

The problem is, when you go to a practitioner of functional medicine, they aren't going to recognize it as diabetes. They're going to, perhaps correctly, identify that your diet and sedentary lifestyle may be the cause, and they're going to prescribe you a mixture of herbal supplements – maybe some that even work – and dietary adjustments, exercise, and sleep. Those might help to treat diabetes, but they don't properly monitor diabetes, and if the disease is too far progressed, they won't reverse it.

Is Functional Medicine Dangerous?

The point where we draw the line is an ethical standpoint. It's one thing to promote herbal remedies that have some measure of beneficial effect when coupled with eating healthy and exercising. It's quite another to claim that getting more sleep is going to cure cancer.

When an alternative treatment will put your life at risk, we're not going to recommend it. When an herbal supplement will interfere with a drug you're taking and could lead to a dangerous outcome, we won't recommend it in that situation. And when a self-labeled "doctor" comes along and recommends that you abandon chemotherapy and try out some salads instead, it kills people.

Context is everything. If you're suffering from fatigue, muscle soreness, and stress, then sure. Functional medicine is fine. Shifting focus away from symptoms and starting to treat the root causes is probably going to be fine. 

It might not be as effective as some medications, but here's the thing. There's a common misconception that doctors just try to throw pills at you until your disease goes away. The reality is, most doctors try to start with the bare minimum, be it psychological treatment, dietary changes, or very low doses of medication, and they try to make those work before they progress to more treatments. 

Meanwhile, if you have a potentially life-threatening disease, doctors are going to do whatever they can to save you. Whether this is a gunshot wound, an aggressive cancer, or a slow-progressing dementia, they're going to try any treatment they can to first cure, then treat, then manage the issue.

Functional medicine has the start of a good idea, then goes off the rails by distrusting science. If you go to a functional medicine clinic with a gunshot wound, they're going to tell you to go to the emergency room. If they don't, they're putting your life at risk. They're certainly not going to be very effective treating a gunshot with "healing energy" or bed rest. You need to get the bullet out first!

So is functional medicine legitimate? Well, no, pretty much not. It's primarily practiced by people who just want to sell the latest alternative medical treatment they heard about, and while sure, sometimes those treatments can help, a doctor is going to have a more holistic, total view of your health and will actually treat the root cause of your ailments. It's always better to rely on treatments with actual proof behind them, after all.

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