What Is Functional Medicine?
What would an ideal visit to your doctor’s office look like?
Would it be an abundance of time to truly explain the way you feel in your body, and how that might have changed over time? Maybe you’d talk about solutions; not only medications to relieve your symptoms, but long-term strategies for addressing—and maybe even reversing— the issues you’ve been experiencing?
What if it wasn’t just your doctor, but a whole team of people available to help you, like a health coach ready to work with you to put a detailed, personalized care plan into action? Maybe it’s not even a visit to the doctor’s office at all, but a comprehensive virtual experience, taking place completely from the comfort of your own home?
“I was looking for a path to healing that could empower me to move beyond my cancer diagnosis and reclaim my sense of wellness, trust, and ease in my body.”
What might sound like a dream doctor’s visit to some is the reality of many integrative and functional medicine practices—and it was exactly what I was looking for when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my early 30s. As a physician who had suddenly, shockingly become a young cancer patient, I was looking for a path to healing that could empower me to move beyond my cancer diagnosis and reclaim my sense of wellness, trust, and ease in my body.
What started as a personal journey towards healing became a professional passion, when I realized the dynamic possibilities of combining my training as a Board Certified Family Physician with the expansive toolkit and holistic approach of functional medicine. What could I accomplish with my patients, if we could identify the root case of their health issues, and work together to devise multimodal solutions that emphasized the true foundations of wellness?
What is functional medicine?
In the simplest terms, functional medicine is a root-cause, whole-body approach to cultivating wellness, and treating and preventing disease. The root-cause approach is the core foundation to functional medicine; it’s the “why is this actually happening?” that comes before the “what can we do about it?” Alongside this approach is the belief that the human body is a dynamic, interconnected system designed to work together.
Part of understanding an individual’s current state of health is context, which is why functional medicine doctors often spend a significant amount of time collecting a detailed past medical history for each new patient. The functional medicine treatment paradigm emphasizes longevity and prevention, which is why care plans also include attention to details like nutrition, movement, sleep optimization, chronic stress, and other lifestyle factors.
“In the simplest terms, functional medicine is a root-cause, whole-body approach to cultivating wellness, and treating and preventing disease.”
The term “functional medicine” was first coined in the early 1990s; since then it has evolved to accommodate practitioners in a variety of clinical disciplines and expanded to incorporate new developments in diagnostic technology and treatment. The beauty of functional medicine is its flexibility; practitioners are afforded the space to utilize leading-edge diagnostic tests or encourage their patients to collect biometric data with wearables, for example.
A comprehensive treatment plan may still involve simple, easy-to-implement solutions like restorative movement or nutritional optimization with whole foods beyond other recommendations. Some of the tools in my toolkit, like breathwork, are grounded in ancient practices, proving that a balanced treatment plan can seamlessly combine both new and old. Functional medicine allows for pulling broadly from both technologically advanced and strikingly simple solutions that, when combined, can create a significant impact on health and healing.
The Benefits of Functional Medicine
One of the most pronounced benefits to a functional medicine approach, something I have seen in both myself and my patients, is the well-honed ability to listen to your body. Functional medicine encourages you to pay attention; how does this make me feel? On a physical level? On an emotional level? These are the factors that contribute to an overall sense of wellness. Understanding the impact that various actions or environmental circumstances can have is a very powerful skill that helps us identify the source of an issue or optimize our lifestyle choices.
“Functional medicine encourages you to pay attention; how does this make me feel? On a physical level? On an emotional level?”
How do those choices translate to tangible benefits? More energy, diminished brain fog, immune resilience, hormonal balance, and improved digestive function are just a few of the improvements patients report after implementing a life-style based, holistic wellness plan.
In clinical practice at Parsley Health, well over 90% of patients that I see report improved satisfaction with their health within their first year of care. This astonishing success rate is a testament to the power of working with patients to educate them on how their body functions and what it needs to properly heal and thrive for years to come.
The Everyday Approach to Functional Medicine
Incorporating functional medicine into your everyday wellness routine doesn’t have to be difficult, because our pillars of health are actually fairly simple. I encourage all my patients to consider the following tips:
- Nourish your body with whole foods—you need optimal nutrient levels to thrive.
- Manage your stress with simple, easy-to-use tools that are available when you need them most.
- Develop a solid sleep routine: high quality, consistent, restorative sleep is crucial to feeling our best every day.
- Move your body—we’re not meant to be sedentary! Any way that feels good to you is a great way to move your body and reap the multitude of benefits from regular exercise.
- Self-assess—how do I feel, what do I need, where can I use more support with my health journey?
Beyond developing a sustainable routine to help you navigate your daily life, you may need the extra layers of support that come from working with an experienced and knowledgeable care team. If you’re looking for a functional medicine provider, I recommend doing some research to identify what options are available to you and who might be the best fit for your specific needs.
“Remember: you are the number one expert when it comes to how your body is feeling.”
Thanks to the growing availability of telehealth practices, functional medicine is becoming more accessible to a larger group of patients. Regardless of who you work with, just remember: you are the number one expert when it comes to how your body is feeling. A great functional medicine provider is someone that will listen to you, help you to trust and hone your own instincts, and empower you to make sustainable choices that will allow you to truly thrive.
Dr. Jaclyn Tolentino is a Board Certified family physician who currently serves as a Senior Doctor at Parsley Health. As a women’s health & hormone expert, she’s been featured in Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, and Women’s Health.