The Explainer: What Is Functional Medicine?

Here’s what you need to know about this integrative form of healthcare.
what is functional medicine

When Kristen Kellogg was in her early 20s, she came down with a severe case of eczema all over her legs. Her doctor at the time prescribed steroid cream to treat the symptoms and sent her on her way. She continued to use the cream for 10 years but endured a host of other health problems during that time, including exhaustion, low back pain, and ovarian cysts.

After ending up in the hospital twice with no real answers, she decided to seek out a functional medicine doctor—a type of health practitioner who is specially trained to find and treat the root causes of health problems instead of just the symptoms. After extensive testing and working with her new doctor, she discovered she had parasites and chronic mold overgrowth that were likely causing not only her eczema, but most of her other symptoms, too. 

Since addressing those core issues with a mix of conventional medication, herbal supplements, and diet changes, she has been symptom-free for two years. Her experience inspired her to become an IIN-certified health coach at Mapped Wellness, and she’s in the process of receiving functional medicine certification as well.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Homeopathic Remedies for Women’s Health Issues

What to expect from a functional medicine visit

If you’re visiting a functional medicine doctor for the first time, be prepared to answer a slew of questions, ranging on topics from physical symptoms to emotional stressors. It’s important to be as honest as possible on these, so that your doctor can help identify the best places to look for solutions, says Kellogg. Depending on your answers, your practitioner might recommend a number of different tests. During her experience, Kellogg underwent a heavy metals test, a hair tissue mineral analysis (HTMA) test, and an Acupuncture Meridian Assessment (AMA) to help identify possible imbalances. 

Treatments options tend to be holistic—from changing your diet, exercise, or sleep routine to managing stressors to herbal supplements or other body-balancing medication. Unlike some alternative medicines, functional medicine doesn’t necessarily eschew traditional and conventional therapies; rather, functional medicine practitioners take an integrative approach, aiming to give your body the tools to help heal itself. “I use the term ‘dis-ease’ instead of disease,” says Kellogg, “because most chronic illnesses can be reversed when you get to the root cause.”

functional medicine

What can functional medicine help treat?

Women’s health issues like exhaustion and fatigue, painful periods, hormone imbalances, and gut issues are all great reasons to see a functional medicine practitioner, notes Kellogg, since they tend to have whole-body interactions that aren’t easily treated with a single remedy. Functional medicine can also be especially helpful for women in their late 30s or 40s who are going through perimenopause. If you’re dealing with one or more of the debilitating symptoms that can pop up during this time leading up to your last menstrual cycle—everything from mood and sleep disturbances to hot flashes and heart palpitations—a functional medicine doctor can assess your symptoms and help you find solutions that work.

Related: What is Normal Vaginal pH? And When Should You Test Yours?

When it comes to finding a great functional medicine practitioner, trust your intuition. Your doctor or health coach should be someone you want on your healthcare team—and someone with whom you can be fully honest. Kellogg recommends being wary of those who might prescribe supplements without an end-date, or those who aren’t making dietary suggestions to get the minerals you might need, since most people shouldn’t need to be on a supplement forever. 

At its heart, functional medicine provides the body the opportunity and resources it needs to heal on its own. “If you give your body the chance to slow down, you can allow yourself to balance and fight off what’s ailing you,” said Kellogg. “Instead of just letting your body survive, functional medicine shows you how to give your body the things it needs to thrive.”

Lindsay Galloway is a writer and editor with more than 15 years experience covering health, beauty, travel, and business. Her work has been published in major online news outlets like BBC and The New York Times, as well as print magazines and travel guidebooks. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she enjoys local food, walking her dogs—a Shiba Inu and pug—and making fun art in her spare time. 
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