Food for thought: Functional medicine

Most attenders and readers of WellFest are well versed in the benefits of living well, incorporating movement, good nutrition and relaxation into their daily lives, but what if illness strikes? And what if the health problem is a chronic condition and requires ongoing medical care?

As modern healthcare has made dramatic advances in surgery and trauma care, treatment and management of chronic illnesses remains largely stagnant. Medical thinking seems to be stuck in seeking the ‘magic bullet’ drug. It’s as though we are stuck in the antibiotic era, when we made the remarkable discovery of penicillin and other antibiotic drugs that had such a massive impact on infectious disease. So, as each medical challenge came along throughout the 20th century, the focus was always on a single pharmacologic solution.

In our modern epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancers, there is little focus on looking behind the symptoms to try to address the root causes of poor health. This became obvious to a group of doctors in the US almost 30 years ago, who decided to pursue a different approach. This has been formalised into what has become known as functional medicine and is gaining significant headway as innovative health professionals despair at the poor outcomes of the modern approaches to chronic illness.

Where this differs from conventional medical thinking is in seeing the big picture, treating the whole patient, not just their symptoms, and getting to the root causes of the problem. This is often illustrated using the image of a tree, where the branches and leaves are the many sub-specialties of modern medical care, but the real causes of the imbalances that lead to disease are in the roots. This approach moves beyond lifestyle medicine and is a systems-oriented, science-based approach that involves taking a patient’s biochemistry, physiology, genetics, and environmental exposures into account when looking for the cause of a specific medical issue or set of symptoms. In modern medical education most doctors aren’t trained to think about the underlying causes of disease, such as toxins, allergens, microbes, nutrition, or stress. Nor do they have the tools to help patients in these multiple ways.

Let’s take the example of a person who suffers chronic migraine headaches. In conventional medicine, the emphasis is on finding the right combination of medications to control the symptoms when the attacks occur. A functional medicine practioner would have you complete an extensive questionnaire about possible triggers of the migraines, including your diet, your digestive and elimination patterns, your sleep and stress levels and your exercise and lifestyle choices, like smoking and alcohol use. They might also suggest specific lab tests beyond the standard blood work to seek further clues as a medical detective. The root causes of migraines can be due to anything from bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine to a simple magnesium deficiency to gluten sensitivity or estrogen-progesterone imbalance. The key is that the approach to every patient is highly individual – we are all so unique in our genetic makeup, lifestyle, and environment that there simply cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to health challenges.


John Collins is a pharmacist and functional health practitioner, in Kinsale, Co Cork as well as an active surfer, scuba diver and yoga teacher trainee. For more information visit functionalhealth.ie