Functional Medicine: A New Paradigm for the 21st Century

I have a long to do list this week as I start meeting with all my clients, so I’ll be republishing some of my original posts from way back before anyone knew this blog existed.  Hope you enjoy them!

“Modern medicine is like taking your car to a mechanic who has no idea what’s under the hood and is trying to fix the car based on listening to the noises it makes.” -Eric Lander, MIT Center for Genome Research

What if our understanding of medicine and disease is wrong?  What if we’ve been treating “diseases” that are actually just symptoms, and what if those “treatments” are actually just suppressing our body’s attempts to adapt to an underlying abnormality, and not really fixing the problem?  According to Dr. Mark Hyman, chairman of the institute of functional medicine, this is exactly what we’re doing, and the reason why we aren’t seeing results.

Dr. Hyman practices what is now being called “functional medicine.”  He is a medical doctor whose transition to this new approach started after he was diagnosed with what is traditionally viewed as an incurable disease: chronic fatigue syndrome.  After he was able to completely eliminate his symptoms using functional medicine, he changed his practice and began treating his patients using a systems model, and has had great success.  So what is functional medicine, and how is it different?

Conventional medicine is all about labeling and following treatment protocols.  When you start to question this approach, you realize just how ingrained it is in our current model.  A person who has diabetes is “a diabetic”.  Rather than figuring out why this specific person has diabetes and their unique biological disruptions that caused it, we label them as having a disease and then seek to control it.  We give them insulin to bring their blood sugar down, or oral medications to alter the way normal biochemistry and metabolic processes work.  Functional medicine differs from conventional medicine in that the physician no longer seeks to give you a diagnosis of a specific illness, they seek to find the underlying cause of it.

According to Dr. Hyman, functional medicine follows a 2/5/7 model of illness.  There are two questions, 5 causes of illness, and 7 clinical imbalances to be examined.  Each person has their own unique internal milieu, and what causes thyroid imbalance in one may lead to intestinal disease in another.  The two questions are:

Does this person need to be rid of something, such as toxins, allergy, infection, poor diet, or stress?

Does this person have some unmet individual need that must be filled for optimal function, such as food, nature-made molecules (vitamins, minerals, hormones), light, water, air, sleep, deep relaxation, movement, rhythm, love, community, connection, meaning, and purpose?

At first glance, this may seem like way too much of an oversimplification of disease.  But as I learn more about the effects of all these different things such as food, stress, unmet psychological needs, lack of sleep, etc., it doesn’t seem so far fetched.  Numerous research studies have proven the effectiveness of primary prevention in the avoidance of disease.  Dr. Willet, primary researcher of numerous well received studies out of Harvard, demonstrated in his research that 91% of all cases of diabetes in those studied could have  been avoided based on lifestyle choices alone: improved dietary pattern, moderate to vigorous exercise 30 minutes per day, no current smoking, and consuming half an alcoholic beverage a day.  Other than in the rare cases of severe genetic abnormalities, no one was born to be a diabetic.  Some imbalance in their life caused their biochemistry to change, and diabetes is a symptom of their altered metabolism.

If you’re still skeptical, consider this: none of these healthy habits have side effects.  Improving your diet, including more exercise, reducing exposure to allergens and toxins, keeping stress to a minimum and protecting your emotional health are all beneficial practices.  Try it out for yourself, and see what happens.  You may find that certain symptoms that seemed completely unrelated start to resolve.  As you learn to live in a way that supports health, your body will return to a state of balance.

As Voltaire said “Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little to cure diseases of which they know less for human beings of which they know nothing.”  We can’t depend on physicians alone to change our current healthcare system.  As more people turn to lifestyle management to cure and prevent disease, our healthcare model will have to change in the face of the profound results that will inevitably follow.


Hu FB, Manson JE, Stampfer MJ, et al. Diet, lifestyle, and the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus in women.  New England Journal of Medicine. 2001; (11): 790-797.

Hyman, M. Functional Diagnostics: Redefining Disease. Alternative Therapies. 2008; Jul/Aug. Vol 14, No4. 10-14


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