Taking the Whole Toolbox Approach
Once called “alternative” medicine, then “holistic” or “complementary” and later “integrative”, the newest evolution is “functional” medicine, designed to search out the underlying causes of illnesses in order to carry out effective treatment.
"Conventional medicine is like a carpenter that only has a hammer to work with, while functional medicine doctors are working with a full toolkit,” says the author of From Fatigued to Fantastic, National Medical Director of Fibromyalgia & Fatigue Centers, Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, of Kona, Hawaii.
Conventional medicine addresses symptoms instead of diseases, explains Los Angeles functional medicine practitioner Dr. Hyla Cass, author of 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health: A Take Charge Plan for Women. “It tends to treat the symptoms with more and more medications that cause a host of other side effects that also need to be treated and can result in declining health, rather than increased vitality.”
“Functional medicine, rather than simply ‘chasing symptoms’ while ignoring the causes, searches for and addresses environmental factors, nutritional deficiencies, genetic tendencies, biochemical dysfunctions and emotional and social stressors that can together cause the development of symptoms,” adds Dr. Adiel Tel-Oren. He operates Eco-Health Clinics internationally (the U.S. site is in Minneapolis, Minnesota) and serves as president emeritus and professor of nutrition and functional medicine with the California-based University of Natural Medicine.
In every case, it takes some investigation to get to the heart of the problems, and the solutions can take many forms. “For example, depression, insomnia and obesity aren’t diseases; they are symptoms,” says Cass. “If we can find the underlying cause of these symptoms, we can address the problem permanently.”
An allopathic approach, on the other hand, would routinely recommend a pill to lower temperature for high fever, prescribe a synthetic pill to elevate mood in treating depression, or look to pharmacological anti-inflammatory drugs for simple immune reactions.
Tel-Oren is among those that link a vast number of illnesses to stress: “Diverse conditions such as fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease, diabetes, mood and cognitive disorders, various autoimmune disorders, premenstrual syndrome, temporomandibular joint issues, chronic pelvic pain, interstitial cystitis, chronic low back pain, chemical and food sensitivities, allergies, asthma and cancer all seem to share common courses of formation. The common denominator for these disturbances appears to be chronic stress.”
Dr. Mark Hyman, chair of the Institute for Functional Medicine, in Lenox, Massachusetts, elaborates: “Functional medicine seeks to create balance in the body by looking at seven keys to achieving wellness: nutrition, hormones, inflammation, digestion, detoxification, energy metabolism and a calm mind. We work through the entire system, help people identify patterns and return the body to balance.”
Hyman is a strong advocate of nutrition as the basis for restoring balance to the body. “Food is the most powerful medicine we have, more powerful than any drug, more powerful than anything you’ll ever find in a pill bottle,” he says.
Teitelbaum notes, “Conventional medicine is basically run on economics, so doctors are too often influenced by drug company marketing messages masquerading as science that encourage expensive treatments, regardless of their toxicity.” In stark contrast, “Functional medicine instead looks for the lowest cost treatment that is supported by medical evidence.”
Conventional Medicine Case in Point
Fibromyalgia, for example, encompasses a basket of symptoms, usually beginning with overall body pain with specific pain points. Other common symptoms can include extreme fatigue, facial pain, irritable bowel syndrome, memory loss and brain fog, depression, numbness and tingling, palpitations, insomnia and headaches, including migraines.
“Until a few years ago, conventional medicine decided you were crazy if you complained of these symptoms,” advises Teitelbaum. “Then some expensive medications came out—promoted by $210 million a year in advertising; so now, patients are instead being told to take medications with lots of side effects.”
The most common conventionally prescribed drugs for fibromyalgia target symptoms of insomnia, depression, nerve pain and inflammation. According to Teitelbaum, the vast majority of people treating with these medications continue to experience the same symptoms over a five-year period; only 25 to 35 percent report some improvement.
It’s difficult to determine how many Americans suffer from fibromyalgia because many go undiagnosed (the average time from onset of symptoms to diagnosis is five years). Cure4Fibromyalgia.com estimates that 5 million Americans, or approximately 2 percent of the population, suffer from this disease.
Functional Medicine Alternative
“Functional medicine practitioners recognize that fibromyalgia represents an energy crisis in the body and use simple, appropriate and effective treatments with no harmful side effects,” says Teitelbaum. “Most often I use a SHINE protocol that I developed, based on 30 years of treating patients with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, with a 90 percent success rate.”
His is just one example of the way functional medicine would treat a difficult-to-diagnose and to treat disease. Cass uses functional medicine very effectively against depression, addiction and a host of women’s health issues. Hyman specializes in managing diabetes and obesity with the tools of functional medicine.
“If other medicines worked as well as treatments used in functional medicine, I’d use them, but they don’t,” concludes Hyman. “My Hippocratic Oath says I must help relieve suffering. I can do that with the tools that functional medicine gives me.”
Kathleen Barnes is a natural health advocate, author and publisher. Eight Weeks to Vibrant Health: A Take Charge Plan for Women is among her many books. Visit KathleenBarnes.com.