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What is Functional Medicine

Dec 13, 2022
Functional Medicine, Functional Medicine Provider Portland

What is Functional Medicine?

I found Functional Medicine kind of by accident and it was one of the best, unexpected surprises of my life. 

As a young twenty something nurse, I thought I knew a lot about health. However, there was just a small (well... big) problem.  I didn't feel healthy. I had a hard time sleeping, struggled with stress, was tired all the time, couldn't get rid of acne, had severe neck pain, and terrible bloating.  I felt quite uncomfortable in my body.  And the things I had been taught about health were not helping me get better.

I had my first breakthrough when I went gluten free, discovering that the severe neck pain and headaches I was having totally disappeared when I stopped eating gluten.  Intrigued by this improvement, I asked my PCP to be tested for celiac.  I was perplexed when the results came back negative because I had such a clear and profound reaction to gluten containing foods.  When I avoided them, no headaches or neck pain.  When I ate them the headaches and neck pain would return within 24-48 hours. My PCP was totally unimpressed and acted like I was making it up.  This was my first inkling that traditional medicine and what I had been taught, was missing something.

Fast forward years later and my interest in alternative diet strategies lead me to the world of bio-hacking and trying to understand the levers within my control that I could use to improve my physiology. I felt better than I did years before, but I still felt something was off.  I could sleep 10+ hours and still wake up feeling like I had been run over by a truck.  It would take all my initial strength just to role out of bed. I was still met by disinterested doctors when I mentioned the way I felt. On the outside I looked like a high-performer. I had my doctorate and was working as an NP. I obviously couldn't be feeling that bad, could I?

I continued by own search for wellness, trusting that I knew my body. And finally I stumbled upon Functional Medicine; this is when things really began to change for me. As I began to research and get training in Functional Medicine, it was a like a light bulb turned on and illuminated so much of what had been hidden in the dark.  

So... what is Functional Medicine? And what does it offer that makes it unique from traditional medicine?

The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), considered the leading organization for training in the field, defines Functional Medicine as "an individualized, patient- centered, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness." 

In essence, while traditional medicine asks, "What is it?", Functional Medicine asks, "Why is it?"

This video by Dr. Mark Hyman as he describes this key difference.

In my health journey, I found myself frustrated by the experience of looking for answers and being met with diagnoses and prescriptions.  Medicines and diagnoses aren't a bad thing, they have been the backbone of the practice of medicine since its birth.  But I can remember learning the art of diagnosis while getting my doctorate and thinking to myself, "Wait a minute, diagnoses are nothing but a constellation of symptoms put together."  Oh you have trouble sleeping, intrusive worried thoughts, change in your appetite *ding ding* you have anxiety and you're in luck- the fix for anxiety is an anti-depressant.  

I always wondered, but why? Most of the time textbooks will give cursory attention to the causes.  Often a one liner like "Anxiety is often caused by a combination of genetics, stress, and lifestyle."  Wow, enlightening.  It doesn't really attract much attention does it.  But did you catch it- there are CAUSES.  And if there are causes, then there are things you can do about it.

When I discovered Functional Medicine, I knew immediately that it was the approach I was looking for.  I wanted to know why I could sleep for hours and still feel tired, why I was having cystic acne in my 30s, why I was carrying abdominal fat when ate healthy, why I developed PTSD symptoms. 

This perspective aligned with my philosophy that the body is wise and doing everything for a good reason.  The body speaks in symptoms, sometimes subtle and quiet and sometimes big and loud.  When we can truly listen to our body and begin to interpret what it is communicating accurately, then we can enter a new space where greater healing and improvement in wellbeing becomes possible. 

Personalization Before Prescription

Easily one of my favorite things about Functional Medicine is how it personalizes everything. Where traditional medicine slaps a quick label and jumps to fix (by suppressing the body's natural physiology with pills), Functional Medicine digs deeper.  

Functional Medicine takes a comprehensive look at the body through an incredibly thorough assessment and history and then uses that wealth of information to determine what speciality tests may provide more insight.  Are there signs of nutrient deficiencies or hormone imbalances that should be looked into? A history of stress or trauma that would make certain gut pathologies more likely? And so on. Functional Medicine uses the constellations of symptom as guide posts to direct deeper investigation.

Once the deeper whys are uncovered, Functional Medicine begins to look for the antidotes.  If food triggers are found as a culprit of inflammation (which for example in me caused headaches, generalized pain, and bloating), helping the person remove them from their diet then reduces the inflammation naturally.  When I presented with those symptoms to a traditional PCP I was given prescriptions for Imitrex, massage, and laxatives. Functional Medicine found one treatment that worked better than all of them.  Learn more about the benefits of Functional Medicine Testing in this blog post

In traditional medicine, you could have 5 patients come in with different symptoms that all get labeled as depression and then all 5 are offered iterations of the same anti-depressant.  With Functional Medicine, 5 patients who come in with different symptoms that indicate depression occurring may get similar speciality testing that then identifies unique root causes for each of them. Each of them would get different health plans.  

 Now don't get me wrong, there are things that traditional medicine excels at and there are really good drugs out there.  I personally find that these two approaches work well together, complementing one another, and ensuring that nothing gets lost or missed. In my own practice, I tend to use a both/and approach where I draw on both traditional medicine and functional medicine. 

If you are looking for someone to guide you through your personal journey to vitality and wellness I am happy to help as a functional medicine consultant.

May you have everything you need to heal.

Christine Patterson

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