“Functional Medicine”–Care to Elaborate?

When I first got into procurement as a profession a billion years ago, my best friend, a teacher, found it a little challenging to effectively describe my job to people. After all, “strategic sourcing” and “procurement” both sound a bit like corporate speak to begin with, and “buyer” can mean basically anything. So in the end, after several highly entertaining rounds of word charades, she threw in the towel and borrowed a line from one of our favorite Friends episodes. She now refers to me simply as a “transpondster”(and if that reference resonates, you’re welcome).

Functional medicine can be a bit like that too. Over the past several years, the blossoming of the wellness field has brought with it all of its not-quite-mutually-exclusive terms and definitions. Words like integrative, holistic, allopathic, alternative and functional now all float together in a lovely bowl of wellness word soup, and and it can be a challenge to clearly discern one from another. I get this on a personal level–in addition to my corporate and yoga roles, I’m a health coach certified in the functional medicine space, a role which begs questions like these:

  1. Which “function” does this pertain to, precisely?
  2. Did she study medicine at some point?
  3. Is there fitness training or a specific sport involved?
  4. What type of health does this kind of thing support, anyway?

Given the generous well of question marks on the topic, I thought it might be a good idea to take a few minutes to walk through the ways in which functional medicine differs from other areas of the wellness community … and from transpondsters, for that matter.

What is Functional Medicine?

Per the Cleveland Clinic, “Functional medicine is a personalized, systems-oriented model that empowers patients and practitioners to achieve the highest expression of health by working in collaboration to address the underlying causes of disease.” All righty, then. There’s a lot to chew on here (and chewing is important), so let’s break down this definition into it’s key components:

  • Systems-Oriented: This field focuses on the integrative nature of the body and its systems rather than taking a “single system” approach. For example, a functional medicine practitioner will likely want to understand neurological and gut health when treating a hormone imbalance. We humans are a company of many dancers all twirling simultaneously, and we must tailor our wellness approaches to benefit each and every person on the stage.
  • Personalized: Care is taken to understand the unique construct of each patient or client, from diet to lifestyle to life history and beyond, based on the belief that each individual is just that— an individual—and the congregation of a person’s life experiences have a key role in explaining that person’s current state. This is N = 1 medicine.
  • Underlying Causes: A basic tenet of functional medicine is its work to identify and address the root cause of disease rather than treating symptoms alone. And this root cause may involve several distinct but interrelating system factors, some that might even come as a surprise to the individual, and some that may require a bit of professional detective work to uncover.
  • Highest Expression of Health: Functional medicine integrates therapeutic approaches across all areas of life—mind, body and spirit. One of the trade jokes is that you may be just as likely to walk out of your functional medicine doctor’s office with a prescription for meditation as you are for medication. In healing as well as in root cause identification, all systems and areas of a person dance together to build wellness.

One additional note here. When we talk about a functional medicine practitioner, it is any medical professional that has been trained in the clinical aspects of functional medicine through one of several recognized organizations, such as the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). These practitioners may be MDs, RNs, PAs, acupuncturists, nutritionists, chiropractors or medical professionals of other stripes. Their overall clinical scope of practice will vary based on their license, so it’s key for you as a patient to review a potential provider’s credentials, think about what you’re looking for in that medical relationship, and assess that against the type of care and consult that practitioner is permitted to provide.

Now that we’ve talked a little bit about practitioners, let’s shift to coaches, the other side of the collaborative wellness offering. If the functional medicine practitioner is the car, the coach provides the wheels, in the form of an ongoing partnership with the client to support their wellness journey and goals. Per the IFM, we “guide patients to optimum wellness using Functional Medicine, Functional Nutrition, Mind-Body Medicine, and Positive Psychology Coaching,” which “embraces and enhances people’s higher selves to achieve optimal functioning.” That’s the common denominator (though admittedly a lot of words).

Equally compelling, though, are the unique skills that each coach brings to the mix. My training cohort at the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy (FMCA) included a nurse, a social worker, a marketing exec, an holistic nutritionist, and a PhD in English literature, among others. Like our clients, like the diverse array of practitioners in the field, each coach is N = 1, and that provides us with a fantastic opportunity to serve and support those individuals for whom our background most resonates. For me, as a yoga teacher and longtime transpondster, I focus on workplace wellbeing, self-care programs, and the incorporation of yoga into overall wellbeing.

So there you have it. The definition of Functional Medicine may still be a bit of a mouthful, but that’s simply because the offering is so very rich and deep. My friend may read this piece, but I’m not holding my breath in anticipation that she’ll let go of that Friends reference anytime soon. It really is good writing, after all. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go call my invisible friend Maurice. If you know what his profession is, comment below! 😉

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