Functional medicine is defined as a holistic, personalized, science-based medicine that identifies the underlying biochemical causes of chronic physical and psychiatric conditions, disorders, illnesses, syndromes, and disease instead of treating the individual symptoms themselves.
Science-based, because its approach is grounded in thousands of peer-reviewed studies from the worlds of genetics, biochemistry, toxicology, physiology, and anatomy and relies heavily on the use of a variety of laboratory tests (saliva, blood, urine, hair, stool) that uncover the root cause of the condition or disorder.
Personalized, because instead of prescribing a cookie-cutter treatment plan, your path for healing is designed for your unique biochemistry based not only on your lab results, but your individual story, experiences, and the manner in which your body responds to treatment.
Holistic, because it integrates knowledge bases from many different fields of thought and forms them into a comprehensive approach that attempts to help us achieve optimal physical, emotional, and spiritual health simultaneously.
Functional medicine is based on the premise that chronic health conditions, symptoms, disorders, etc. don’t have just one causative factor or one sole treatment, but many, and when these underlying factors are identified then health can be improved or restored and suffering can be alleviated. Regardless of the condition, some of those core factors that may be at the root of poor health would include:
- Environmental toxins
- Heavy metal toxicity
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Gut Dysbiosis
- Hormone Imbalances
- Neurotransmitter imbalances or depletion
- Impaired detoxification
- Metabolic abnormalities
- Genetic polymorphisms
- Digestive disruptions
- Autonomic nervous system dysfunction
- Structural imbalances
- Oxidative stress
- Mitochondria dysfunction
- Impaired immunity
- Chronic stress
Instead of treating a symptom like addiction, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, heart disease, headaches, migraines, insomnia, acid reflux, obesity or even the more serious ones like autism, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, MS and cancer, a vast array of laboratory tests are used to identify which of the core factors above are contributing to the symptom.
The core factors may not always be the same from individual to individual even when they have the same diagnoses. For example, one person with high blood pressure may have deficiencies in their minerals, while another may have a genetic polymorphism. One person with chronic fatigue or depression may have mercury toxicity as their core problem, while another person with these same symptoms may have insufficient cortisol or an amino acid deficiency as their core cause. One person may have a bucket full of core causes, while another only has one or two.
Additionally, the core issues do not necessarily express themselves in the same manner from individual to individual. For example, a deficiency in fatty acids may be exhibited as depression in one individual and heart disease in another, while an overgrowth of an unfriendly organism may be exhibited as psoriasis or eczema in one individual and mental confusion or acid reflux in another.
All of this can be determined with the use of functional medicine, which enables the practitioner and the individual to know exactly what steps are needed to achieve optimal health.
What Does a Functional Medicine Practitioner Do?
Once the core factors are identified as the underlying biochemical cause of a particular condition, symptom, disease, or disorder, then a variety of methods are used by a functional medicine practitioner to restore balance. The primary treatment methods used in functional medicine are nutritional supplements, bio-identical hormones, herbs, and prescription medication as a last resort, in that order.
However, at this point, the functional medicine practitioner often incorporates many different modalities of healing together from the worlds of alternative medicine and conventional medicine, which can collectively be referred to as integrative medicine. Some of those methods would consist of the following:
- nutritional supplements
- bio-identical hormones
- changes in diet
- changes in lifestyle
- avoidance of environmental toxins
- stress management techniques
- energy medicine
- prescription medication (only as a last resort)
The combination of modalities and dosages is based on the unique biochemical needs of each individual and derived from a combination of the test results and the experiences of the individual. Again, this may vary somewhat from person to person even with the same diagnosis.
How Does Functional Medicine Differ from Conventional Medicine?
Dr. Charles Gant, a leading pioneer in the world of functional and integrative medicine tells us that functional medicine adheres to a more rigorous “code of scientific method” than either conventional or alternative medicine, by relying heavily on the sciences of toxicology, biochemistry, physiology, anatomy and genetics, peer-reviewed studies and laboratory results to form their hypothesis, diagnosis, and treatment plan.
The information gathered in this process provides the practitioner and the client the knowledge they need to identify which methods from conventional and alternative medicine are called for in their situation and will be most effective. Essentially, it provides a road map for healing based on scientific facts.
Furthermore, according to Gant, Functional medicine “tests for the epigenetic expression in the now” and a primary goal of the Functional Medicine practitioner is to “optimize the genetic expression of their patient to the extent that their symptoms and/or disorder will disappear.”
Conventional medicine uses a disease model that sees disorders and symptoms as pathological that need to be fixed with a cookie-cutter approach. While Functional Medicine views abnormalities, conditions and symptoms as an adaptive attempt by the organism to cope or maintain integrity and homeostasis and their treatment approach is diverse and personalized to the individual, rather than relying on one single treatment.
Conventional medicine practices palliative care, which attempts to suppress the symptoms with medication, while functional medicine attempts to remove them by identifying their underlying cause.
Although conventional medicine and palliative care can certainly be the best course of action in certain circumstances, like end-stage disease, infectious disease, surgery, emergency or acute situations, they are not the best choice for most of the chronic medical and psychiatric conditions we see in society today. These are better served by identifying the underlying biochemical causes.
Functional medicine strives to transform primary care with a paradigm shift that they believe will be more effective than either conventional medicine or alternative medicine alone in alleviating the suffering caused by both physical and psychiatric health conditions.
Types of Functional Medicine Tests
The functional medicine practitioner likes to use an abundance of lab tests in their assessment of the client. There are literally hundreds of different kinds of functional medicine tests to choose from. The type of symptoms you are experiencing will be the major factor in determining which tests are appropriate for you. One test or set of tests may produce results that indicate other tests would be helpful.
Most practitioners like to monitor your progress by retesting every six months or so, however, some people can’t afford this option. So I’d like to point out that the first round of tests is what is most important so that you know what you should be working on and which direction to go. You can skip the Retesting if need be. If you can’t afford to retest, don’t let that be a reason to stop you from getting started.
In my experience, most health conditions have several things in common which include, nutritional deficiencies, gut dysbiosis, adrenal insufficiency, toxicity, and food sensitivities. Therefore, regardless of which health condition you have, these are the tests I have found most to be most helpful in not only my client’s life but my own life as well:
The ALCAT is my favorite test. Since I believe that diet is the foundation on which everything else is built in the process of optimizing health, the ALCAT test helps us fine-tune our diet to meet our unique biochemical dietary needs. After testing is finished, there is nothing else to take or buy. No prescriptions, no nutritional supplements, no doctor’s visits, etc., The improvements in health, regardless of which condition exists, can be astounding with simple changes in the diet alone and the results are immediate.
Organic Acids Test
The Organic Acids test is my second favorite test. If there is only one test you can afford, this is the test you should get. It provides the most bang for your buck. Everyone with a chronic health condition can benefit from this test. It provides us with an abundance of information to identify numerous underlying biochemical causes of a vast number of symptoms. The Organic Acids test looks at vascular health, oxidation, the Krebs cycle, detoxification, metabolism, neurotransmitter production and function, bacterial overgrowth, nervous system function, antioxidants, nutritional deficiencies, and much more.
RBC Mineral Test
Having your minerals in balance is crucial for healing, regardless of which health condition you are dealing with. Too little or too much of a particular mineral will result in the degradation of health in many different systems and organs. Mineral imbalances are a major contributing factor to most chronic psychiatric and medical health disorders. Use the RBC Mineral Test to assess your nutrient mineral levels as well as ongoing or recent exposure to toxic metals.
Amino Acids Plasma Test
Running neck and neck in importance, The Amino Acids Plasma Test provides us crucial information about our detoxification system, immune system, neurotransmitters, digestion, and much more. Often called the “building blocks of life,” sufficient levels of amino acids are essential in virtually all chemical processes involved in mental and physical functioning. Much of the population is deficient in amino acids, which results in poor mental and physical health. Assessing your amino acid levels is absolutely essential for any and all medical or psychiatric disorders.
Amino acids should be tested through plasma and not urine because plasma more accurately reflects what the cells are doing and avoids the changes that the kidneys can produce through urine testing.
The hair analysis is an invaluable tool for letting you know if your body is storing toxic metals and if so, to what degree. Heavy metal toxicity is an underlying factor in many mental health disorders and chronic and degenerative health conditions, diseases, and syndromes.
GI Effects Stool Test
The GI Effects Stool test is good for identifying harmful organisms you may be harboring. Gut dysbiosis plays a crucial role in all health conditions, and gut dysbiosis is often caused by the proliferation of pathogenic parasites, yeast and bacteria. The GI Effects Stool test, is a more advanced method of stool testing because it looks for the DNA of the organism.
Adrenal Stress Test (Cortisol Saliva Test)
Adrenal insufficiency is rampant within the population and is not only at the root of many chronic health disorders but is a disorder in and of itself. Knowing the status of your adrenal functioning is a crucial component in designing your healing path. Testing the adrenals should be done through saliva and not urine, as saliva provides more accurate and reliable results. Use the cortisol saliva test, also known as the adrenal stress test to assess the health of your adrenal glands.
Fatty Acids Test
Too much or too little Omega-6 or Omega-3 is at the root of many chronic and degenerative health conditions and psychiatric disorders. Sufficient levels of each are essential for your emotional and physical health. A Fatty Acids Bloodspot Test is an easy-to-use self-screening tool that will provide you with the knowledge you need to bring your Omegas into balance.
Other tests that should accompany your protocol to provide the most complete overview of your unique biochemistry and enhance optimization of your health include vitamin D levels, homocysteine levels and lipid peroxide levels. I actually prefer to use a test called the ION Profile, which includes all of these plus the organic acids, fatty acids, RBC mineral and amino acids, thus providing us with a complete biochemical picture.
The Detoxigenomics Profile is not really a Functional Medicine test, it is a genomics test. However, it is frequently accompanied by Functional medicine testing to acquire a more comprehensive understanding of an individuals biochemistry and create a more complete health care plan.
The Detoxigenomics test assesses risk factors in one’s ability to detoxify by identifying where genetic weaknesses lie within the detoxification system, especially in association to an increased exposure to toxins, while Functional Medicine tests identify what types and how many toxins and/or stressors each person’s detoxification system must deal with and how the gene is expressing itself.
Together, they help you develop interventions that optimize your epigenetic expression and improve your detoxification system, which optimizes your overall physical, emotional and spiritual health.
Which Tests Should You Use?
If one can afford all the tests above, then I recommend them all, because each one provides you with something unique and important to know in creating your path for optimal health. Together they provide a complete picture of the basics of your biochemistry. The more information you gather, the clearer your picture will be.
Alternatively, you can work through the list one or two at a time as they can be afforded and rank them in priority according to what symptoms you are experiencing. For example, the test I recommend first and foremost in most cases is the Organic Acids test or ALCAT, however, some gastrointestinal symptoms may be indicative that a GI Effects Test might be higher in priority.
With all that being said, I have a couple words of caution. Although I believe functional medicine tests are a necessary and very valuable tool that you should take full advantage of, like all medicine or science, it has its limits. I encourage you to use it as a guide and not a God.
What is true in science, does not always prove to be true in real life within all individuals and just because something hasn’t been proven in science doesn’t mean it isn’t true. To quote Dr. Carl Sagan, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Although there are many times I do see science to be true in the lives of my clients and myself, there have been plenty of times where science has not played out in our experiences in exactly the same way. Flexibility and an open mind in one’s approach to healing is crucial.
Adhering so strictly to the science that you don’t see the individual or their unique experience is counterproductive and can close the door to finding solutions. Unfortunately, there are many practitioners who are guilty of this mindset from all fields — Functional, Conventional, and Alternative. You should always listen to the wisdom of your body and use it as your primary guide. There may be times when your symptoms or experiences conflict with the science or the results you expect from a particular recommendation based on your test results may not occur. Don’t let any practitioner shove you inside a neat little box if it doesn’t feel like it fits.
Additionally, Functional Medicine is not a miracle “cure.” Sometimes astonishing results can be achieved, while other times they are more subtle. The healing process takes time and work, no matter which route one takes — it is rarely quick, easy, or painless. Testing will provide with you an abundance of information to assist you through your process, but it is not “the” cure. It’s important to have realistic expectations so that you don’t get discouraged or lose sight of the value that testing does offer.
How to Order Functional Medicine Tests
One of the greatest aspects of functional medicine tests is that they are now available directly to the consumer and you can purchase them online by clicking right here. Many of them, like the Organic Acids, the Adrenal Stress Test, the Fatty Acids test, and the GI Effects test can be performed in the privacy of your own home. No doctor or lab visit is necessary. A kit will be mailed directly to you, and depending on which test you purchase, you’ll collect your urine, saliva, blood spot, or stool and mail it back to the lab.
Some tests like the RBC Mineral test and the Amino Acids Plasma test require a visit to your local Labcorp, but your purchase of the kit will come with the doctor’s order included. All you must do is go to Labcorp with the paperwork that will be provided. The results will be sent to you electronically and hard copy. It’s easy and hassle-free.
If you have questions about testing, contact me for a consultation. I hold a certificate of completion in functional medicine and incorporate that knowledge and principles into my coaching practice. Together we can assess which tests might be most beneficial for you to restore or maintain optimal health, prioritize importance based on your symptoms, go over specific test details, and answer any questions you may have.
Alternatively, once you have your results, we can set up an appointment for a test interpretation and phone consultation to create a personalized healing plan for your unique biochemical needs.
The Institute for Functional Medicine https://www.functionalmedicine.org