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Functional Medicine 101: What is it, is it Right for You & What to Expect?

If you’ve come to the end of your rope with conventional medicine.  You aren’t alone!  The frustration we universally have with conventional medicine is far reaching!  Most people are tired of having less than 8 minutes with their doctor (the current average in the US).  And, you can’t even seem to get a word in.  The average amount of time a patient can speak without interruption is under 20 seconds!   We’ve had it with the lack of answers!  But, we’re even more frustrated with the number and cost of prescription drugs that are the end result of these often fruitless visits. 

Even if you aren’t currently ill or suffering from some undiagnosable set of symptoms. And, you aren’t on any medication at all. You might still be seeking an alternative to conventional medicine to help you stay in your best possible health! Maybe you want patient focused health care instead of disease focused.

Either way, functional medicine might be right for you!

What is Functional Medicine?

Functional medicine may be the wave of the future.  The philosophy is that the body functions together as a whole.  When we have a symptom, it is imperative to find out what is causing the symptom rather than just treating it to make it go away.  This can require extensive tests and often a lot of blood work and homework! But most patients find it worthwhile!

Functional medicine puts the focus on the patient not the disease. Often digging deep into the patient’s lifestyle to help them obtain or maintain optimal health! It isn’t just for people with chronic diseases. Many people see functional medicine doctors for anti-aging and disease prevention. Or simply because they want to achieve ideal health!

Testing for the Whole Body

Functional medicine doctors take everything into consideration.  They don’t segment the body by systems.  Your headaches or asthma could be coming from a digestive issue or vitamin deficiency, for example.  This makes the work they do extensive and it can be time consuming. 

If you see a functional medicine doctor you are likely to be working with a team of professional staff.  There are often a battery of standard up front tests that they will want to run and blood and urine samples may be taken.  The idea that all of your systems are independent from the others is completely outdated and dismissed.  This can be frustrating for some patients and a relief for others! 

Unlike Anything Else

Sometimes people who are more accustomed to the conventional medicine approach can be put off by the number of tests being done that seem to be unrelated.  However if you suffer from a chronic illness or set of symptoms and have had little luck with conventional treatment you are likely to appreciate this level of digging to get to the root of your issues.

Cooperative Approach and Homework

You, the patient, work cooperatively with the doctors and staff!  Functional medicine puts a high level of responsibility on the patient.  There tends to be a lot of cooperative work and homework.  You shouldn’t expect to be given a prescription and sent on your way. 

Documentation

In order to treat the underlying cause of your illness or symptoms you are likely to be asked to keep extensive documentation between appointments.  You may be asked to keep a food and water log, a sleep log and even a bowel movement log.  You’ll likely be asked to track your moods and productivity levels as well! 

Get a head start by tracking your health symptoms with your Non-Scale Victory Tracker!

Nothing is Irrelevant

Your doctors and their staff will want to know everything about your day to day life.  They will want to know where you live, what your job is, what your family relationships are like.  The deep probing of your life is likely to lead to the root cause of your symptoms. 

Making Adjustments

Then like any good scientist they will want to tweak these lifestyle factors!  You may be asked to do an elimination diet, to drink more water or even to turn off all screens an hour before bedtime.  And, the tracking will begin again!

Yes, this can be a long process but at the end of it you typically have an answer and much improved health, functionality and outlook!

Group Work

It has been proven that people do better with lifestyle change when they have a supportive community and accountability.  For this reason functional medicine doctors will sometimes assign patients to groups.  They then work within their group to support one another.  Having this community helps alleviate a lot of stress.  It also enables members to share techniques they have found successful. 

Being in a patient group has been shown to have much better outcomes than going it alone!  These groups are set up in an assortment of different ways.  Some practices require group participation.  And, some have you evaluated based on your symptoms and assign you to a lifestyle change group before you even see a doctor.  Don’t be put off by this.  It is a valuable experience.  Many patients find symptom relief before even seeing a doctor which saves them a ton of time and money!

The Team

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The team of caretakers you may be working with obviously includes doctors and nurses.  But functional medicine takes a much broader approach than conventional.  You can expect to be working with a lab as well for testing (which is not all that uncommon or unexpected).  But you may also have a dietician or nutritionist, massage therapist and even health coach on your team (among others)!

Dieticians & Nutritionists

A dietician and / or nutritionist may be utilized to help you build a healthy nutrition plan or to assist with an elimination diet. Functional Medicine doctors are usually trained in nutrition (unlike their conventional counterparts).  But to give you additional time and the benefit of this specialty it is possible that you will have someone on your team who specializes in nutrition.  This is especially likely if you are addressing a chronic condition like diabetes. 

Massage Therapist

Most of us only see massage therapists for relaxation or because we have a “knot” somewhere. And while these can both be very valuable reasons for a visit, massage therapists can do a whole lot more.

Massage can be extremely beneficial to both your lymphatic and cardiovascular systems. It is even good for your immune system. It can also help to regulate hormones and increases oxytocin levels in patients. And this is just the tip of the ice burg!

This modality can be incredibly beneficial to promote healing and overall wellness!

Health Coaches

There are many certification programs you can go through to become a health coach.  Some are clearly more rigorous than others.  If you acquire a health coach from your functional medicine doctor you can be assured that they are well trained and qualified for the job!  Health coaches help you set goals and hold you accountable.   They may also hold informational sessions or help you get to the bottom of your struggles with your health.  I’ve even heard of health coaches helping with pantry clean outs and grocery shopping.  You should count on them as your partner during the course of your treatment.  They are a true asset to you and the team!

What Would Make You See a Functional Medicine Doctor?

Some people simply prefer functional medicine doctors.  That is perfectly fine!  But many end up seeing them because they have a chronic condition or set of symptoms and they aren’t satisfied with conventional medicine.  Many people want to stop being reliant on prescription drugs or being told there is no hope.  This leads to exploration into alternatives.  Unfortunately there are many undiagnosable or “hopeless” chronic illnesses today.  Seeking the root cause of the illness can lead down the path of functional medicine. As can the hope of following a treatment plan that leads to improvement, remission or even recovery!

It’s Not a Good Fit for Everyone

Functional medicine isn’t a good fit for everyone!  If, for example you prefer surgery or a drug regimen this isn’t likely your cup of tea.  That may sound strange but there are a lot of people who prefer to put their health care into their doctor’s hands and not their own.  If you are most concerned about relieving your symptoms rather than getting to the root of the problem this isn’t likely for you.  It isn’t that functional medicine doctors won’t support, give or allow medication or surgical treatment if that’s necessary.  But they will also be doing a battery of tests and have protocols for you to follow.  This isn’t for everyone.

Are You Willing to do the Work

If you know that you aren’t willing to change your diet or lifestyle and take your health into your own hands even when it’s inconvenient this might not be ideal for you.  Functional medicine emphasizes your participation in your own health and wellness.  You get a lot of guidance, support and medical testing that will provide answers but you have to do the work. 

As a person who has benefitted significantly from functional medicine, I have to tell you that I feel it’s worth it.  However, despite my own transformation and incredible results many people around me are unwilling to pursue this path.  That’s ok, functional medicine isn’t for everyone!

What You Can Expect

The Wait

Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of functional medicine doctors.  So, the first thing you can expect is a long wait!  Many doctors are booked up to 6 months out! If you are considering functional medicine I recommend you start looking into it now and possibly even schedule an appointment.  Be sure that you know their cancellation policy.  Due to the shortage and long waits there can be significant fees for canceling and some even require a non-refundable deposit.

Paperwork

You can expect A LOT of paperwork!  This is often sent in advance!  It will likely feel daunting and possibly even invasive.  You can expect to be asked about every area of your life physically, mentally and spiritually.  Answer ALL of the questions to the best of your ability!  This information is important to creating your profile and helping your care team get to the root of your problem and create treatment recommendations.

Pre-appointment Assignments or Groups

You may be assigned to a group and / or given work to do before your appointment.  If this happens follow the instructions, you are given to a tee!  Even it you feel uncomfortable joining a group you should still participate to the best of your ability. Not following protocol might sideline your progress. For example, you might not be able to meet with your care team until you’ve completed group sessions!  If you are assigned work before your appointment and you are struggling with it or uncomfortable be sure to mention it immediately.  Don’t just skip it!  Often this advanced work gives your doctor a head start on your care plan!

Get a head start by tracking your health symptoms with your Non-Scale Victory Tracker!

Working With a Team

When you go you are likely to review your information with another care provider (not the doctor).  It isn’t uncommon to discuss your case with a few different members of your care team.  Don’t worry, this information is all going into your file and being shared so everyone can work together to support your health!

Tests

You will likely have blood drawn.  It felt like A LOT of blood was drawn at my first appointment.  Be sure that you are well hydrated and dressed comfortably for this and any other tests they may want to do.  Don’t be surprised that their approach isn’t like your conventional doctor!  That’s what you came for!

A Note About Labs

You may be sent to a lab to have blood drawn and other testing done.  It isn’t uncommon for functional medicine doctors to have tests run at a different facility.  If this is the case, go where they tell you!  Many labs don’t do the extensive evaluation necessary.  If you know that your insurance will cover a different lab so you’d like to go there, discuss that with your care team.

Time

Make sure that you have plenty of time!  This isn’t your typical 8 minute appointment!  You may wait longer than you’re accustomed to and your appointment will take much more time as well!  When you call to schedule you can ask what to expect.  Add some extra time to that so you won’t be stressed or rushed!

Insurance Coverage

Here’s the big question… will my insurance cover this? Well, to summarize, probably some of it but usually not all!

Oftentimes insurance doesn’t cover the cost of functional medicine.  It will sometimes cover bits and pieces.  And, if your doctor is an MD who is affiliated with a billing hospital your insurance may cover more of the costs. 

For example, Cleveland Clinic has a functional medicine department.  My insurance will cover my appointment and some of the lab work, but it won’t cover all of it.  It also won’t cover the cost of supplements or other alternative treatments.

Alternative Funding

That said, you can work with your insurance and the doctors office to figure out what your financial responsibility will be.  Sometimes HSA’s can be used for alternative care.  You can also talk to your accountant about what portion can be written off on your taxes!

Future Savings

In the long run despite the upfront cost, functional medicine usually saves people money.  It can enable you to stop using prescription medications and over the counter meds. Plus, treatment often results in the ability to return to work and miss less days. Not to mention the money you would have spent on future chronic illness! Overall, it’s often a significant savings, not only financially!

How to Find a Functional Medicine Doctor

The best way to find a functional medicine doctor is through The Institute for Functional Medicine.  Not only will they help you find a doctor but they also have a list of recommended questions to ask to ensure they’re a good fit for you and your family!

The Place Of Conventional Medicine

Now, I have to admit to you that I still have a conventional medicine doctor on my healthcare team!  There is a place for this!  I see him when I need acute care.  This is my first stop if I have an illness or injury that I need treated right away.  I’ve even been to urgent care and the ER a couple times in the past few years for a fall and stitches.  Conventional medicine doctors are still an important part of the picture! 

Find a Supportive Conventional Medicine Doctor

It is very helpful to seek out a conventional medicine doctor that is supportive of functional medicine!  It might sound strange but it’s completely possible.  Have an honest conversation with your doctor about your desire to explore functional medicine.  You can sometimes find out a lot just by asking how they feel about chiropractors and nutritionists!  Your doctor should respect and support your interest in seeing credible professionals.  They should not be supportive of you following the latest health trend, conspiracy theory or quack.  That said, functional medicine isn’t quackery. And any doctor who is keeping up with the latest research and trends in their profession knows that!

Functional Medicine: Hope for the Future

Functional medicine is likely the medicine of the future.  It is where the patient is treated NOT the disease!  In many cases it is where people with chronic and undiagnosable diseases find hope!  But is isn’t only for those who have come to the end of their rope with conventional medicine!  It is also for people who want to be the healthiest they can at any age!  For people who want to not only elongate their lifespan but also their health-span!  And for people who want to slow the aging process for as long as possible! Functional medicine gives us all hope for a future filled with health and wellness!

Is functional medicine for you?  Have you tried it?  Share this with your friends and family!  Give them hope and the knowledge they need to pursue their optimal health!

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Posted in Health, Health & Wellness, Nurtured Self, Self Care, Wellness

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