What is Functional Medicine?

Vitopia defines “Functional Medicine” as patient-centered, medical healing at its best. The practice looks to find the root cause for any loss of function, and assess how best to restore that function by correcting imbalances within the body. This process is a science-based, natural way to be healthy.

Instead of looking at and treating health problems as isolated diseases, the health practitioner treats individual’s symptoms, imbalances, and dysfunctions. For example, a named disease such as diabetes, cancer, or fibromyalgia might be visible above the surface, but according to functional medicine, the cause lies in the altered physiology below the surface. Almost always, the cause of the disease and its symptoms are an underlying dysfunction and/or an imbalance in bodily systems.

When traditional healthcare treats the symptom, it rarely leads to long-term relief and healing. Identifying and treating the underlying causes, as functional medicine does, has a much better chance of successfully restoring health. Using scientific principles, advanced diagnostic testing, and treatments other than drugs or surgery, functional medicine restores balance to the body’s primary physiological processes.

Functional medicine practitioners look at interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex, chronic disease. In this way, functional medicine supports each person’s unique expression of health and vitality.

Why do we need Functional Medicine?

  • As a society we are experiencing a sharp increase in the number of people who suffer from complex, chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
  • The system of medicine practiced by most physicians is oriented toward acute care. Physicians apply specific, prescribed treatments such as drugs or surgery that aim to treat the immediate problem or symptom.
  • The acute care approach to medicine does not work in preventing and treating chronic disease. In most cases it does not consider the unique genetic makeup of each individual or factors such as environmental exposures to toxins and the aspects of today’s lifestyle that have a direct influence on the rise in chronic disease.
  • A huge gap exists between research and the way doctors practice. The gap between emerging research in basic science and integration into medical practice is enormous, particularly in the area of chronic illness.
  • Most physicians are not adequately trained to assess the underlying causes of complex, chronic disease and to apply strategies such as nutrition, diet, and exercise to both treat and prevent these illnesses.

How is Functional Medicine different from traditional medicine?

Functional medicine involves understanding the origins, prevention, and treatment of complex, chronic disease.

In the conventional health care model today, medication is used to get rid of symptoms. If the patient stops taking the medication, symptoms generally return. Functional Medicine approaches health problems differently. Instead of masking the problem, it aims to restore the body’s natural functioning.

Broken Arm Analogy


The symptoms of a broken arm are pain, likely swelling, perhaps bone protruding through skin, possibly fever. You wouldn’t just treat with antibiotics and pain killers; those just mask some of the symptoms. Nor would you set the limb in a cast and never remove the cast.
Looking to restore arm function means setting the arm correctly, thus treating the root problem. Additionally, using modern medications to cope with pain, fever, infection, and swelling.
The symptoms are important as they help us know something is wrong, but they are just indicators of system imbalance.

Although Functional Medicine practitioners may prescribe pharmaceuticals, they are used to gently nudge the patient’s physiology in a positive direction so the patient will no longer need them. For example, conventional doctors would normally prescribe a pharmaceutical like Prilosec or Nexium to treat acid reflux or heartburn. When the patient stops taking such drugs, the heart burn symptoms return. In contrast, a Functional Medicine practitioner might find that a patient’s acid reflux is caused by Helicobacter pylori bacteria. Eradicating the Helicobacter pylori may very well lead to the end of heartburn symptoms, permanently.

It is also important to know that in Functional Medicine, treatment for similar symptoms might vary tremendously for different patients, according to their medical history and results of laboratory tests. Factors that can come into play in producing the same symptoms include toxic chemicals, pathogenic bacteria, parasites, viral infections, food allergies, nutrient depletions, poor sleep, physical or emotional stress, and toxic emotions like anger.

There are 5 basic principles that define Functional Medicine:

  1. Functional Medicine understands we are all different, genetically and biochemically unique. This personalized approach treats the individual, not the disease. It supports the normal healing mechanisms of the body, naturally, rather than attacking disease directly.
  2. Functional Medicine is deeply science based. The latest research shows us that what happens within us is connected in a complicated network of relationships. Understanding those relationships allows us to see deep into the functioning of the body.
  3. Your body is intelligent and has the capacity for self-regulation, which expresses itself through a dynamic balance of all your body systems.
  4. Your body has the ability to heal and prevent nearly all the diseases of aging.
  5. Health is not just the absence of disease, but a state of immense vitality.

Instead of asking “What drug matches up with this disease?” Functional Medicine asks the vital questions that very few conventional medicine doctors ask: “Why has function been lost?” and “What can we do to restore function?” In other words, Functional Medicine looks to find the root cause or mechanism involved with any loss of function, which ultimately reveals why a set of symptoms is there in the first place, or why the patient has a particular disease label.

Healing Help

Please check out our in-depth articles on preventing and healing chronic diseases utilizing a Functional Medicine approach. We also encourage you to subscribe to our distribution list so you can receive the most current scientific information on preventing and treating chronic disease.


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