There are a lot of different ways I could describe the difference between conventional and functional medicine, but ultimately, conventional medicine is designed to focus on treatment, while functional medicine is designed to focus on prevention. We need both. Functional medicine isn’t necessarily meant to replace conventional and traditional approaches. I fully believe in an integrative approach, which is where both conventional and functional methodologies can come together to create the best healing opportunity for a patient. With that being said, there are a lot of holes in our conventional medical model. People are being told their markers and symptoms are “normal” even though they’re far from it. Here are some key differences between the two that I think need to be called out.
Unfortunately, most people go through medical school with very little training on nutrition. When I say little I’m talking under an hour over the course of 4 years. Given that our food is the best form of medicine, that’s pretty crazy. When patients go to their primary care doctor with chronic symptoms, an antibiotic might be prescribed and a few blood tests may be ran, but there is not a focus on how we can work to correct those symptoms through food. I’m grateful that society as a whole is becoming more aware of how what we put in our bodies affects how we feel, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
2. Available Testing Methods
In the functional medicine world, we have some incredivle lab tests were able to run that help us get closer to the root cause of your symptoms. These include GI Maps, DUTCH tests, mold tests, mucosal barrier assessments, metabolic wellness panels, and more. Conventional medicines’ primary way of testing is through blood work which is not always the best method. Don’t get me wrong, blood work can be an amazing tool, and I plan on using it in my practice, but it’s not the best tool for testing things like your gut and hormones. In order to get a really good snapshot of our gut, we need to test stool, and in order to get a really comprehensive view of our sex hormones, we need to test urine or saliva. These new functional lab tests give us an immense amount of data about someone’s body and behaviors, but unfortunately, they’re not used in conventional medicine. Why? I’m not exactly sure, but my guess is that they’re because they’re relatively new and can be costly.
3. Lab Ranges & Markers
This is a big one. Have you ever told the doctor your symptoms, gotten blood work done and then they say, “well everything looks normal”, and sent you on your way? Well, that’s because, to them, it is normal. The lab ranges they’re looking at are based on a large subset of the population which includes people who are taking care of themselves and are relatively healthy, but it also includes people who are paying no attention to their health or are even sick. So, when conventional doctors are looking at your numbers and determining if you fall into the large range of people who are both healthy and unwell, yeah, you’re going to fall into that range and they’re going to classify you as normal. In order to really assess how the body is functioning, what it may be lacking, or what it has too much of, we need to see if you fall into the optimal ranges, not the normal ones. The optimal ranges that functional medicine uses are focused on a much smaller subset of people who are most likely taking care of themselves. That is what we should be looking at to truly assess your health. No matter what symptoms you are struggling with, they’re not “normal”. Society might mistake them as common, like bloating or anxiety, but they’re not normal!
On top of the different ranges, conventional medicine also isn’t testing all of the markers needed. The most common example of this is thyroid markers. Your doctor is probably only looking at a few thyroid markers to assess if your symptoms are valid, but we need a FULL workup of your thyroid hormones to really make an assessment! Also…your symptoms are always valid. Remember that!
4. Emotional Behavior
Alright, stay with me on this one. Health is not just physical, it’s emotional. When we’re really trying to get to the root cause, we can’t skip over one’s emotional behavior, mental state, and thought patterns, because they heavily correlate to what we see in their labs. Many conventional doctors just look at what they see on the paper, but not the person behind the paper. In functional medicine, we’re not here to simply provide relief care, we’re here to create mindset shifts and change past behaviors that simply haven’t been serving you. Which, by the way, is much harder than just giving you a few supplements and sending you on your way. We can’t always rely on supplements, medications, and treatments to do the work for us, ya know? If you’re needing some more proof of how our emotional health is so intricately intertwined with our physical health, let me try and set the scene. A gut infection can cause a hormonal imbalance, but so can chronic stress and overthinking. So let’s say you’re a very type A person who is always worried about the little things and trying to instill perfection into every part of your life. You’re suffering from symptoms of a hormonal imbalance which we validate through lab testing. We also see that you’re suffering from some gut infections. I can work to heal your gut and get rid of the infections, but if we don’t address the thoughts running through your head every day, we’re not going to be able to restore balance in your hormones. Make sense?
Before we wrap this up I want to make two more things very clear. The first is that I am continuously grateful for our doctors, surgeons, nurses, and ANYONE who works in the conventional medicine field. We absolutely need them and I never want my passion and belief in functional medicine to overshadow that. Secondly, just because someone says they’re a functional doctor or practitioner doesn’t necessarily mean they’re taking the best approaches. There are a lot of functional providers out there who are still not looking deep enough to get to the root cause, and working to connect the dots. I encourage you to do research on whichever practitioner you are seeing. Make sure they are passionate, continuously learning, and not just treating what they see on the paper, but treating you as a person. Remember, health does not just include our physical health, but it also involves our emotional health. It’s of utmost importance that your practitioner understands that when helping you heal and achieve optimal health.