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Functional Medicine: How Does it Work and Why Is It Needed

patient centered approach to health

Functional medicine is a whole person, patient-centered approach to health care that seeks to identify the underlying root cause of health conditions and disease. 

Functional medicine embraces the fact that your body has the innate ability to heal itself if given the proper environment for health restoration.

Even if you’re feeling great, exercising, and eating well, you can still benefit from a functional medicine approach, because no one is completely sheltered from physiologic stress in the form of genetics, toxic exposures, and the demands of modern life. Over time, these stressors overwhelm your body’s ability to compensate, and you will likely have a medical issue.  At that point, the question becomes, “Do I want to simply alleviate the symptom(s) or do I want to fix it for good?”

Here is a really common example of a person everyone would consider “healthy”.  A lean woman in her early 40’s, active and eating well, has mild symptoms that have become her “new normal”.  She has been exhausted, irritable, and dealing with brain fog for a few years.  Then she starts gaining weight and having skin rashes despite no change in her lifestyle or stressors.  The symptoms evolved slowly, so it was hard to recognize that something was wrong.  Besides, aren’t these symptoms “normal” or “average” for someone her age?

From a common conventional medicine standpoint, this patient may be considered “healthy” or “normal”, because her BMI is normal, her blood counts and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) are normal, and she has no cardiac risk factors or significant medical history.  She may or may not get treatment for her symptoms.  The clinical approach may vary widely depending on the practitioner.   In this patient’s case, she was told “everything is normal” and sent on her merry way.  Several times. 

From a functional medicine or integrative perspective, this patient has symptoms that could be related to a myriad of underlying issues.  The functional medicine perspective takes the time to tease out the details, find the root causes of the symptoms, and cure them, ideally naturally, and ideally before they become a full blown disease.  In this patient’s case, a careful history revealed toxic exposure several years prior with evidence of downstream side effects of the exposure and its treatment, among other things.  A perfect storm.  There were complicated physiologic processes that were not functioning.

This example not only illustrates the differences between a conventional approach and a functional approach, but it also demonstrates how little niggling symptoms often get ignored until they snowball into something that is debilitating.  It’s human nature to adapt to current conditions.  The value of seeking a functional approach even if you feel okay is in its ability to stop that snowball while it’s small and easily managed.  

I know intimately how a person can get to such a place, and the differences between the conventional approach and the functional or integrative approach, because I experienced it.  My vague, niggling symptoms had become my “new normal”; yet my family could see my suffering and the way the symptoms had taken over my life.  My [conventional] doctors kept telling me “nothing is wrong”, while my mother, husband, and children were all in my face with, “something is wrong with you”.  It took one last try – seeing a new physician who practiced functional and integrative medicine – to diagnose and treat my illness.  I felt better and had my life back surprisingly quickly.  I still have to work hard and pay attention to what I’m doing to stay healthy, but I have support and feel so much better than before, so it’s doable.  

Sometimes when you seek care from a functional medicine doctor, that doctor will become your main doctor, or even your primary care doctor.  Other times, the functional medicine doctor will act more as a consultant. It depends on your own needs, the doctor’s way of practicing, and the financial arrangements of the medical practice.

At Table Health, we recommend that you keep your primary care physician when you work with us.  Primary care physicians play an important role on your healthcare team. This is especially true if you want to use your medical insurance for annual routine health maintenance exams, if you have medical needs that require frequent prescription refills or after hours care, or if you need referrals for diagnostic testing or specialty care that will be covered by your insurance. 

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We believe that primary care physicians and functional medicine physicians can work together for your benefit.  Primary care doctors are focused on helping you lower your risk of disease, by maintaining health blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol, for example.  Functional medicine physicians excel at helping you reach these health measures by identifying the underlying causes and using a natural, lifestyle-based, multidisciplinary approach to fixing the problems, often allowing you to reverse the disease process and get off your medication.  

In other words, we don’t compete with primary care physicians but believe we play different, complementary roles.  Certain individuals are a good fit for having only a primary care doctor.  Others might want only a functional medicine doctor for their needs at this time.  But for most people, having both types of physicians is the most advantageous long term health care situation, even if they are healthy.


Jill Butryn, MD