What is Functional Medicine?
Our relationship with medication is complicated: we get sick, we see the doctor, we get prescribed a cocktail of pills, the pills run out, the symptoms return, and we’re back at the doctor’s office, asking for more pills. Sound familiar? This is what happens when we treat the symptoms of disease rather than the cause; which inevitably leads to a vicious cycle of illness, and what we can call pill-ness.
Modern medicine has improved our lives in many ways, but it’s often used as a quick fix or bandaid without actually addressing the underlying health issues. And while meds can help suppress or block symptoms in the short term, they’re not a permanent solution. Enter functional medicine: a different paradigm and approach that’s turning conventional medicine on its head.
What is functional medicine?
“Functional medicine is basically treating an illness or disease by finding its root cause, instead of treating just its symptoms,” says Damien Mouellic, founder of Central & Stanley Wellness in Hong Kong. “It’s an intricate process where we work upstream to find the cause of the illness and understand how and why the symptoms first started.”
Taking into account a person’s overall lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and environment, functional-medicine practitioners create a detailed and personalised treatment plan to help patients not only prevent and treat illness but also to achieve optimal health.
While it might sound commonsensical to treat the cause of an illness rather than its symptoms, conventional medicine has always been doctor- and disease-focused, rather than patient- and health-focused. Think about it: in the five minutes that you usually have with your GP, how much do they really ask about your medical history, lifestyle factors and other health issues before writing you a prescription? The truth is, it’s not their job to find out the root cause of your symptoms – nor do they have the time to.
“Functional medicine is not properly understood by conventional doctors,” says Mouellic, whose personal practice has moved from traditional medicine towards osteopathy and functional medicine. “Doctors tend to look at the cause and effect, which is a very Cartesian approach. Symptomatic relief does not always work, and it does not address the root cause of the issue.” With functional medicine, the belief is that one condition can have many different causes, and that one cause can result in many different conditions. By getting a detailed understanding of one’s hereditary, biochemical and lifestyle factors, functional medicine takes a patient-centred care approach to understanding symptoms and underlying root causes.
How does functional medicine work?
Seeing a functional medicine practitioner is similar to seeing your regular doctor, in the sense that they’ll start by taking a detailed medical history before prescribing appropriate tests. They’ll also ask you a lot of questions about your lifestyle, including how you eat, sleep and exercise, as well as about your work, relationships, stress levels, mental health and more – so be prepared to tell all.
Kenneth Chu, a naturopath who practices functional medicine says, “We might start with some standard blood draws before moving onto things like hormone testing, gut testing, stool analysis, saliva testing and cortisol measurements to assess stress levels, which can change throughout the day.”
Mouellic offers a real-life example: “If someone walks in with joint pain for no apparent reason, we’d look at the person’s family history, stress levels, digestion and lifestyle. The cause of systemic inflammation usually starts from the gut, and a leaky gut could potentially cascade systemically to affect the joints and the skin. It’s usually never just one problem,” he adds. “Once you start digging, there’s often multiple issues. We’d then tackle them one by one by mainly focusing on the primary issue.” Functional medicine treatment plans are fully customised to an individual and may include a variety of methods and modalities such as incorporating adjustments to diet, exercise and supplements, and integrating meditation, acupuncture, breathing exercises, homeopathy, naturopathy, hypnotherapy and more. Depending on the severity of the root cause, treatment can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few years.
“The idea is to get all their systems back on track,” says Mouellic – adding that people tend to fall off the wagon all too easily and need guidance and support.
What does functional medicine treat?
According to Chu, four of the most common issues that he’s been treating Hongkongers for are sleep, stress, gut and hormonal issues. Many of them may have already gone down the conventional medicine path, only to be told by doctors that there wasn’t much to be done for their so-called “subclinical conditions” such as gas, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), thyroid issues and/or heavy metal toxicity.
“If you have a chronic gut issue like gas and bloating, doctors might just label it IBS and then you’re on your own,” says Chu. “With functional medicine, we’d work backwards with testing to find out what exactly was causing these symptoms.”
Mouellic has also been treating people who are highly stressed, overworked and sleep-deprived in Hong Kong, all of which can lead to chronic fatigue, digestive issues and hormonal dysfunction. “If left untreated, these things can easily turn into more serious illnesses, as everything is linked,” he says.
Whether you’re suffering from chronic illness or feeling perfectly healthy, Chu believes that functional medicine can help anyone, at any time. “Some people use functional medicine to maintain their lifestyle or simply to improve it,” he says. “Our goal is to ultimately help them reach optimal health.”
At the end of the day, functional medicine is about treating the person, not the disease; and one of its many benefits includes being seen as such. If you’re tired of being treated like another statistic, it might be time to give functional medicine a try.