What is Functional Medicine?

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Medical studies and understanding how the human body works both provide doctors and health care practitioners with reference points for their patient care. One matrix of patient care involves functional medicine, which is the belief that restoring balance to the human body is one key to start the healing process.

Functional medicine includes a deep understanding of the root cause of someone’s illness by studying a patient’s dietary habits, genetics and lifestyle. The overall goal is to restore balance to the body’s systems so it can help heal the patient.

Overview of Functional Medicine

Functional medicine is a modern approach utilizing unique approaches to evaluating patients and offering treatment plans. By incorporating systems biology, genetic evaluation and considering environmental impact, functional medicine providers empower patients to take a proactive approach to their health and well-being.

Doctors have different tools and strategies that apply functional medicine to the care team/patient relationship. There is the Functional Medicine Matrix, the Process of Care, and a Comprehensive Tool Kit that can all lead to healing the patient without fully relying on medication to combat chronic conditions.

One important aspect of functional medicine is that doctors employ this strategy to treat chronic conditions. The get the bigger picture of an illness, doctors may take a look at the Functional Medicine Matrix as a starting point.


The Functional Medicine Matrix

The functional medicine matrix is used by most practitioners who take this approach to patient care. The matrix focuses on the areas of potential imbalance. Consideration is made for concepts such as transport of nutrients throughout the body, biotransformation, energy (mitochondrial), structural integrity, communication and assimilation. This encompasses the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of being alive.

All of these processes, if out of balance, may lead to chronic illnesses and create a comprehensive image of a patient’s overall health. Doctors begin by examining a patient’s life, medical difficulties and lifestyle. These parts are called antecedents-triggers-mediators (ATMs) of disease, core clinical imbalances and modifiable lifestyle factors.

Functional medicine works like the illustration of a tree. Whereas conventional medicine may look at the leaves and branches of a disease and look to treat one branch with one medication, functional medicine aims to get to the roots of the core problem. Practitioners look to the core clinical imbalances, but then also try to understand a person’s sleep habits, exercise, nutrition, stress and relationships at the roots of someone’s overall health. To get to the bottom of someone’s healing, doctors first ask questions.



Functional medicine physicians ask a unique set of historical questions when meeting a patient for the first time. It is important to find out what antecedents are behind the illness, what triggers exacerbations of the illness and what keeps the illness persisting into everyday life. Antecedents are genetics and environmental factors that predisposes the individual to the illness. Triggers are what activates the illness. Mediators are what perpetuates the disease.

The aim of ATMs is identify how an illness bears out in a patient’s life. Knowing all possible ATMs allows a physician to create a personalized strategy of care for an individual patient, which is one of the core principles of functional medicine. After looking at ATMs, a doctor moves on to core clinical imbalances.


Core Clinical Imbalances

By understanding physiological pathway imbalances, the practitioner can come up with a roadmap to determine how the disease moves and affects someone’s different organ systems. Once a doctor maps out the core critical imbalances in a patient’s body, the care team implements a better and more comprehensive treatment plan.

The idea here is to properly identifying these pathways to understand how the disease spreads throughout the body and even pinpoint a source. Getting to the root source of the disease does several things in that it heals the patient, but also prevents the illness from coming back once a healing regimen solves the problem.


Modifiable Lifestyle Factors

Functional medicine puts a heavy emphasis on how lifestyle factors can affect a patient’s health. Examples of these factors can include things like relationships, overall stress, diet and exercise, and sleep (or lack thereof). Theoretically, these are all modifiable to a certain degree, meaning that if one or more is causing an issue, the patient can adjust accordingly and see better results.

A doctor may pinpoint diet as an underlying cause for metabolic problems, and the physician may therefore recommend healthy dietary changes to help heal the problem. A chronic illness may stem from too much stress or too little sleep, both of which the patient can take better control of by eliminating things that cause the stress or insomnia, or the patient can use methods that help the person deal with stress and lack of sleep.

This is why part of the key to how functional medicine works is that patients have a direct influence on their own health. A doctor can point the way to how a patient might heal, but the final decision of trying to heal is up to the patient taking control of the factors that moved their bodies out of balance in the first place.



Another unique aspect of the functional medicine approach is the formulation of a timeline.  This includes mapping out prior traumatic events, significant childhood illness, prior surgeries and more into a linear map.  Sometimes, it can be quite profound to see a bird’s eye view of our individual journey.

When a timeline has more details, the doctor has a better idea of what might cause a chronic illness. Functional medicine uses a systematic approach to this called GOTOIT



Throughout the gathering of information, understanding how the matrix/ATM’s, the timeline applies to the patient and the implementation of a plan, a functional medicine practitioner usually employs the GOTOIT approach.

The GOTOIT System stands for:

  • Gathering Information
  • Organization of that information
  • Telling the story to the patient
  • Ordering and prioritizing the information
  • Initiating treatment
  • Tracking the outcomes

Rather than see a patient for just a few minutes and relying on a few forms that explain someone’s basic medical history, a functional medicine practitioner’s main job is to listen to the patient, ask the right questions and start a conversation.

This way, doctors can figure out what is really going on and walk the patient through the process so that each party is on board. The GOTOIT System involves every possible method of treating a patient from start to finish, no matter what the source and treatment plan may entail.


Comprehensive Tool Kit

A comprehensive tool kit for functional medicine doctors tries have as many details about a patient as possible while also making everything easy to understand. Items may include questionnaires, surveys, forms and functional nutrition tools. In the end, these tools help doctors better understand their patients by keeping them focused on what matters most. These tools things streamlined and easy to comprehend. While forms and surveys may seem impersonal, they can be immeasurable when finding out information about a person and his or her chronic disease.


Functional Medicine Core Principles

The Institute of Functional Medicine prepares practitioners to help guide the doctor/patient relationship to a better path toward health and healing. This happens based on six core principles.

  • An understanding of the biochemical individuality of each human being, based on the concepts of genetic and environmental uniqueness. What works for one person may not for another;
  • Awareness of the evidence that supports a patient-centered rather than a disease-centered approach to treatment. Doctors treat patients, not a disease or illness;
  • Search for a dynamic balance among the internal and external body, mind, and spirit together as a whole;
  • Interconnections of internal physiological factors, because one aspect of a patient’s life or body may affect another;
  • Identification of health as a positive vitality, not merely the absence of disease, and emphasizing those factors that encourage the enhancement of a vigorous physiology;
  • Promotion of organ reserve as the means to enhance the health span, not just the lifespan, of each patient. Enhancing the health span of organs reduces the likelihood of chronic conditions.

At its roots, a patient-centered approach in functional medicine refers to health care that respects and responds to individual patient preferences, needs, and values. These principles ensure that patient values guide all clinical decisions. This therapeutic partnership is the relationship that forms between a patient and clinician that empowers the patient to take ownership of a person’s own healing.

The power of the therapeutic partnership comes from the idea that patients who actively participate in the development of their own healing feel more in control of their own well-being. Therefore, patients of functional medicine are more likely to make sustained lifestyle changes to improve their health.

In the end, functional medicine exists as a means of allowing health care to become more people-centric rather than profit or disease-centered. By understanding the individual reasons that people get sick, functional medicine focuses on true healing rather than dispensing medications to try to get rid of a chronic disease.

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