When asked about what I do, I usually first take a deep breath in. It’s not because I don’t like talking about what I do. In fact it’s one of the things I like to talk about the most. The sigh comes because it can be complicated to explain the concept of functional medicine in just a few words.

The way I most often describe the functional medicine approach is as “root cause medicine”. I explain that functional medicine practitioners address chronic illness by first questioning why did these symptoms present in the first place and then working to trace back and address the root cause of illness. This is in contrast to the conventional medicine approach that primarily focuses on naming what disease you have and matching the disease to the medication that will best treat your symptoms. Functional medicine is a new way of thinking that requires us to take into account the whole person and the complex interconnectedness between the body systems of each individual.

After I’m done with my spiel, the person I’m speaking to will usually nod in understanding and say something like, “Oh so you do holistic medicine”. Holistic. Integrative. Natural. These are all words that can be applied to functional medicine in one way or another.

One word often used to describe functional medicine is “alternative” as in alternative medicine. This is a totally inaccurate way to describe the functional medicine approach because alternative medicine, by definition, is any of a range of medical therapies that are not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession. It is usually applied to therapeutics that are not widely supported in research. These practices are therefore often dismissed by mainstream clinicians for not being “evidence based” or worse yet as “quackery”.

Categorizing functional medicine in the “alternative medicine” column is simply a way to dismiss it. But how do you dismiss science? The functional medicine approach is heavily based in research and requires an in depth knowledge of physiology and pathophysiology. One must be able to apply that knowledge in order to treat each patient’s individual condition.

Another thing to consider is that functional medicine is not any single test, supplement, therapy or eating plan that can be studied. It is a new way of thinking about disease, serving as a road map of sorts, to navigate each individual away from disease and towards health. It is not a fad that will soon fade.  It is the future of medicine.

I believe many medical professionals have become imprisoned by the term “evidence based”. Subscribing to the belief that a double-blind placebo controlled trial is the primary way we determine the relevance of a therapy has taken from us the ability to think for ourselves and use common sense in our practice. The pharmaceutical industry is able to manipulate the studies that are released to the FDA, which allows them to submit only the trials that show a medication to be effective and not the 20 that showed nothing. This manipulation of data combined with a lack of funding to study the effectiveness of therapies like diet, herbals remedies, and supplements, has led practitioners and patients alike to truly believe that medications are the most powerful (or only) intervention to treat chronic illness.

It is strange how we have come to believe it is more “evidence based” to say depression, for example, is caused by a chemical imbalance, then to deduce these symptoms may more likely be multi-factorial and linked to modifiable triggers. It is more likely that 10 people having an identical diagnosis may have 10 different causes ranging from nutrient deficiency, hormonal imbalance, digestive dysfunction, inflammation, or chronic stress, then to assume all of these people simply have a Prozac deficiency.

So one could then argue that it is more accurate to say one is practicing “alternative medicine” when they simply write a prescription for Prozac instead of educating patients on nutrition, exercise, proper sleep and stress management to treat the symptoms we call depression. This is not to say you can’t also treat with Prozac! That is the beauty of functional medicine.

We as medical professionals often never receive education on the power of lifestyle changes in our training and therefore conclude that it must not be very effective. After all if it were surely someone would have provided information and instruction on how to use these therapeutics as medicine during our medical education. The truth is, lifestyle changes are the only way to actually cure chronic illness.  Medication can delay progression and dull symptoms but diet, exercise, sleep and stress management truly heal.

So maybe we need to rethink our definition of what “alternative” medicine really means. And when we do this, we may actually find real health.