Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Is Functional Medicine the Key to Healing You for Good?

Do you ever feel like doctors treat you like a bundle of symptoms, and not like a whole person? That’s a complaint a lot of people have, especially if they’re dealing with a complex or little-understood condition; this approach by some doctors can be especially frustrating if you feel like you’re never really getting any better. Sure, you might get temporary relief from symptoms that are bothering you, but it can start to feel like a game of whack-a-mole if your symptoms return, or if new ones crop up. 

So is there a different approach out there? Yes – well, actually there are a few. But some require taking a leap of faith and abandoning many of the principles of Western medicine altogether, and that might not feel right for everyone. But there is an approach that some doctors are now taking, which feels like a less “alternative-y” alternative to traditional medicine, known as functional medicine. So what does this mean, and could it be worth looking into?

What Is Functional Medicine? skeletons with organs

Simply put, functional medicine is all about treating your body as a whole, and not just trying to alleviate one or more symptoms that you might be experiencing. Now, that sounds like what all medicine should be trying to accomplish, right? But in many cases, patients feel like doctors have moved away from that way of looking at things. 

For example, if you go to your doctor with chronic heartburn, you’re most likely going to come away with a prescription for an antacid. And that might be very helpful for giving you some relief at that moment (and for getting some sleep that night!), but it’s not actually getting to the root of the problem. It’s treating a symptom, most likely temporarily, and not figuring out why you have heartburn – what might be going on in other parts of your body, how your lifestyle is contributing to it, etc – so you can have a chance to get well in a more comprehensive way. 

And while heartburn is a pretty simple example, using these principles could possibly make a big difference in the lives of people suffering from more complex conditions, like:

  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Esophageal reflux disorder syndrome
  • Erectile dysfunction syndrome
  • Attention deficit disorder
  • Depression
  • Chronic pain

The above conditions are actually some of the most common conditions for which people seek medical attention, and can be some of the toughest to treat. So a functional approach could be worth a shot, especially since these conditions are usually all about how the body’s systems work together. 

According to Amanda Malachesky, a functional nutrition coach based in Petrolia, California, “Functional medicine is helpful for anyone, but it is most useful for people who have been to many doctors, tried a lot of possible solutions, and are no closer to solving their health challenges.” That might sound familiar if you’ve struggled with something like chronic fatigue syndrome!

The Principles of Functional Medicine

person with an outline of a heart in front of the person
Functional medicine is patient-centered rather than disease-centered.

So let’s take a closer look at what it actually means to be treated by a functional medicine practitioner. During your first visit, they’ll take a detailed medical and family history, and ask you about your symptoms as well as your overall health before they consider treatment. And those treatments will generally be personalized plans that might seem a little “different” at first, since functional medicine practitioners usually hold off on prescriptions and surgeries until they have tried more holistic approaches. So that might mean, for example, looking at the possibility of a gut imbalance for mental health issues, and suggesting diet and movement changes in your lifestyle.

Again according to Malachesky, “Functional medicine works towards root-cause resolution, works to use tools and frameworks to help us identify these root causes … and honors each client or patient as a truly unique individual, and tailors recommendations and treatments to the individual…And while people often want to go straight to treating the root causes, functional practitioners begin always with the foundations of health: diet, sleep, exercise, stress reduction, and blood sugar management…”

To break it down even further, the Institute of Functional Medicine (IMF) lays out the following 7 defining characteristics of functional medicine:

  1. Patient-centered versus disease-centered
  2. Systems biology approach: web-like interconnections of physiological factors
  3. Dynamic balance of gene-environment interactions
  4. Personalized based on biochemical individuality
  5. Promotion of organ reserve and sustained health span
  6. Health as a positive vitality—not merely the absence of disease.
  7. Function versus pathology focused

If all of that sounds a little intense, the most important things you might want to focus on when considering this type of treatment approach is that it is “patient-centered” as opposed to “disease-centered” and that it considers being actively “healthy” more than just being free of disease. Sounds good – but is it “real” medicine? 

Who Practices Functional Medicine?

We can just feel some of you out there getting turned off, thinking that this is one of those fads that’s practiced by people with questionable training. But that’s actually not the case at all. Doctors who practice functional medicine are just that: “real” doctors who have been to medical school, and are fully licensed (but of course, always check to make sure that’s true for your doctor, no matter what their approach). They have simply decided to take a functional approach to their practice.

How do they do that? They need to take additional training that’s not offered in medical schools. To become certified in functional medicine, a healthcare provider must have already received a healthcare degree from an accredited university and hold up-to-date licensure in their area of practice, then they must complete coursework, generally through the IFM, which is currently one of the few training centers for functional medicine. Their coursework will be in six areas: gastrointestinal, detox, immune, hormone, cardiometabolic, and energy. They take exams, and need to retake exams every six years, as well as stay up-to-date with their licensure. 

When it comes to choosing a functional medicine provider, you just need to do your homework as you would with any provider – the only difference is you’ll also have to check if their certification in functional medicine comes from a reputable organization, like the IFM. 

And, since medical care is so expensive, and this type of practice might sound a little extra expensive, you might be wondering if insurance will cover it. In most cases, yes, because you would be seeing a “real” doctor for treatment. But, it is true that functional medicine practitioners might order a lot more tests than other doctors might, and they might refer you to specialists like nutritionists, so you could end up paying more out-of-pocket if your insurance company doesn’t cover everything.

Could It Be Right for You?

golden question mark
Functional medicine might be a good fit for you if you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into how your body systems work together.

Functional medicine has been a thing since the early 1990s, and it is practiced by licensed professionals, so it is not, as we pointed out above, a new fad or a woo-woo practice meant to part you from your money. It really does seem to be meant to help you get to the root of what’s ailing you, and to treat you as a whole person, which can only be a good thing, especially if you’re suffering from a complex, chronic issue that doctors are struggling to find the correct treatments for. It also might be a good fit for you if you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into how your body systems work together, in conjunction with your genetics, and having questions answered as opposed to just symptoms treated.

On the other hand, though, if you’re looking for a quicker fix for relief of your symptoms, or feel more comfortable starting a course of treatment with prescription medications (or other more traditional treatments), this type of practice might not be for you. Hey, in some cases, heading to the doctor, having them take a look, and sending you on your way with the right medication is the best thing for you at that time! 

So, however you choose to get treatment for whatever’s ailing you, make sure you feel comfortable with the care you’re being offered! And let us know: have you considered trying functional medicine, or have you tried it? What was your experience?

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Is A Real Thing

Have you been feeling more tired than usual? Sure, getting older sometimes means lower energy levels, but if you are excessively fatigued, what you are experiencing might actually be more than just tiredness: it could be a medical condition. Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), which was once the subject of controversy, is now recognized as a real disorder that is characterized by extreme fatigue or exhaustion that doesn’t go away even after resting. So, if you are one of the up to 2.5 million Americans who suffer from chronic fatigue, know that it is not “all in your head”; it is a serious and complex condition, and if you are experiencing symptoms of it, you should speak to your doctor so you can find ways to deal with it and live a normal life. 

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Explainedolder caucasian man with his hand to his head

Chronic fatigue syndrome is not the same as simple tiredness, which is short-term and goes away after resting. CFS is a more long-term condition, which makes you feel sleepy, as well as lacking in energy and motivation, even after getting more sleep. CFS can affect anyone, but it is 2-4 times more common among older women. There is no exact known cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, but experts believe it could be triggered by viruses, a weak immune system, stress, or other factors. However the fatigue presents itself, whether it is physical, mental, or both, CFS requires treatment. 

What Causes CFS?

Getting older does not mean that being fatigued everyday is normal. Experts do not know what causes CFS, but there are some potential triggers that have been linked to it, such as:

  • Viral infections– The Epstein-Barr virus, human herpes virus 6, Ross River virus (RRV), and rubella virus are all linked to CFS. 
  • Hormonal imbalances– People who have experienced CFS have sometimes also experienced abnormal levels of hormones produced in the hypothalamus, pituitary glands or adrenal glands.
  • Physical or emotional trauma– Some people report that they experienced an injury, surgery or significant emotional stress before their symptoms began.
  • Weakened immune system
  • Medications– If you are experiencing more fatigue than normal, certain medications you are taking might be the culprit.

Other factors that could increase your risk for CFS include:

caucasian woman blowing her nose into a tissue
Allergies can increase your risk of chronic fatigue syndrome.
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Stress
  • Environmental factors

Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Symptoms of CFS can be classified in two different ways: physical symptoms and mental symptoms. Physical fatigue means not having enough physical strength to perform an activity, while mental fatigue is when you do not have enough mental energy to perform an activity. 

Some of the physical symptoms include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Sleepiness
  • Vision problems
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Frequent headaches
  • Muscle pain
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Frequent sore throat

Mental symptoms of fatigue include:

a caucasian man with his hand on his head with a question mark and exclamation mark next to him
Memory problems and reduced concentration are mental symptoms of fatigue.
  • Memory problems
  • Lack of motivation
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Slowed response times
  • Reduced concentration
  • Depression

Diagnosing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

According to the Institute of Medicine, CFS affects anywhere from 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans, but it is estimated that 84 to 91% have yet to receive a diagnosis, possibly because there are no tests to screen for the condition. According to a 2015 Institute of Medicine report, doctors usually give a CFS diagnosis if you experience:

  • A decrease in your ability to do activities at previous levels which lasts for more than 6 months, and doesn’t improve with rest.
  • Worsening of symptoms after any type of activity.
  • Difficulty thinking.
  • Dizziness that hits when you stand up, but that is relieved by lying back down. 
  • Sleep that does not refresh you.

There is no specific cure for CFS, so if your doctor diagnoses you based on the above criteria, they will treat you based on your specific symptoms. 

Preventing CFS

two older adults riding bicycles next to each othercyc
Exercising, drinking water, and eating nutritious foods can help prevent CFS.

One of the best ways to prevent fatigue is to make some lifestyle changes. This includes:

  • Eating nutritious foods, and focusing on eating smaller meals throughout the day to have a constant source of energy.
  • Drinking enough water.
  • Exercising, which can help you feel less fatigued by preventing muscle loss, providing energy, and improving your mood. Always talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program, so you can discuss with them what type of movement is right for you.
  • Practice yoga, tai chi, or pick up a new hobby that will help to reduce stress.

Being tired is normal, especially as you age, but being extremely fatigued even after getting enough sleep is not normal; this is a red flag that you should consider speaking to your doctor about. Chronic fatigue is real, and can progress, leading to a decline in your physical and mental health – but it can be treated and prevented. Seek help from your doctor, and rest assured that Medicare will cover your medical expenses for this visit, or for any further visits with specialists or therapists. Be aware, though, that you will have some out-of-pocket expenses, including your  deductible and coinsurance, so you should consider a Medicare Supplement Plan to help you, because the last thing you want to do is worry about money while dealing with a condition that takes a lot out of you, like CFS. A Medicare Supplement Plan will cover your out-of-pocket expenses and help you save money. 

To get free Medicare Supplement Plan quotes, simply enter your zip code in the bar above, or to speak to a trained EZ agent in your area, call 888-753-7207. No obligation, no hassle.