Conventional and Functional Medicine: What’s the Difference?

Our patients and prospective patients often ask us, “How does functional medicine differ from conventional medicine?” Or, they wonder why they should choose us over a conventional medical doctor. After all, conventional medicine is cutting edge and has made significant progress in preventing, diagnosing, and treating a host of diseases and illnesses. Now, conventional medicine can even map your genes to identify markers for disease and more effectively target treatments to specific patients.

The trouble is, people are living longer and feeling worse. Chronic conditions are on the rise. Obesity is now an epidemic. More and more children are suffering from allergies, asthma, and autism. More patients are showing up with digestive disorders and a host of chronic illnesses, including bowel disease, chronic fatigue, and cancer. Long story short, conventional medicine has not made us any healthier.

Functional and integrative medicine is different and better primarily because it focuses on health. When you report your symptoms to a conventional doctor, the doctor either prescribes medication or a medical procedure to alleviate your symptoms and, perhaps, eliminate the illness. With functional/integrative medicine, our diagnosis doesn’t stop at the symptom or illness level; we continue to peel away the layers of the onion to identify the source of that illness, which is almost always at the cellular level.

By restoring health instead of merely eliminating illness, we give the body what it needs not only to eliminate the reported illness but also to eliminate other underlying illnesses that may not be showing symptoms and to prevent the onset of future illness. As a result, our patients generally feel considerably better overall after receiving treatment and can return to activities they assumed they would never be able to engage in ever again or at the level they once did.

The Functional Medicine Tree

The Institute of Functional Medicine uses a tree analogy (see below) to describe functional medicine and highlight the differences between conventional and functional medicine. While conventional (allopathic) medicine diagnoses and treats what’s above the surface — symptoms and disease — functional medicine also attends to what’s below the surface, at the root of the disease — environmental and lifestyle factors, including sleep and relaxation, physical activity (exercise), nutrition, stress, relationships, clean air and water, and so forth.

The table below compares the two approaches side-by-side.

Conventional (Allopathic) Medicine Functional, Integrative Medicine
Diagnoses illness Identifies the source of illness
Treats illness Restores healthy function to enable the body to eliminate illness
Relies primarily on pharmaceuticals, surgery, and medical procedures to treat illness Employs numerous approaches, including conventional, functional, chiropractic, osteopathic, nutrient infusion, weight loss, orthopedic, foundation training, environmental intervention, and lifestyle changes
Treats all patients with similar symptoms alike Tailors the treatment plan to each individual
Patient passively receives treatment Patient actively participates in diagnosis and treatment, which often requires attending to environmental and lifestyle factors
Treats from the outside in to alleviate symptoms and illness Treats from the inside out to remove the source of illness and restore health

Scientific and Data-Driven: Functional Medicine in Action

A key principle of functional medicine is this: “Test, don’t guess.” Nothing new, here, right? Doctors who practice conventional medicine certainly rely on a variety of diagnostic procedures and lab tests to identify the underlying cause of an illness and evaluate treatment options. However, traditional medical testing often falls short in two important ways:

  • Traditional testing fails to dig deep enough to reveal the root cause of the condition. For example, testing may reveal that you have allergies, but it stops there. With functional medicine, we dig deeper. We know that allergies are caused by inflammation, and we investigate to identify the cause of that inflammation.
  • The ranges used to interpret test results shift the traditional doctor’s focus to determining whether you are sick, rather than gauging how healthy you are. With functional medicine, we work toward bringing levels into ranges that indicate health and vitality.

Prior to treatment, we conduct a thorough examination aimed at identifying the root cause of compromised health. Although our choices vary according to each patient’s physiological portrait, we use a variety of diagnostic tests and procedures, including:

  • Your list of symptoms
  • A physical examination
  • Your Functional Medicine Timeline — your medical history from preconception to now
  • An evaluation of your autonomic nervous system (ANS) — the part of your nervous system that controls unconscious bodily functions, such as breathing, heartbeat, and digestion
  • The InBody analyzer, which measures not only your weight but the composition of your body broken down by water, fat, muscle, and bone
  • Conventional labs — yes, we are doctors, and we use conventional lab tests to measure levels of hormones, blood sugar, red and white blood cell counts, and so on
  • Specialty labs, such as tests to identify nutrient deficiencies and food sensitivities
  • Functional neurology assessment — this assessment can determine whether and to what extent brain function is playing a role

Results from the examination and tests provide us with the information we need to make an accurate diagnosis and choose the best treatments. With the test results, we can:

  • Gauge your toxic load (from heavy metals, biotoxins, and so forth) and your body’s detox capacity
  • Identify signs and effects of exposure to mold
  • Measure inflammation and begin to identify possible contributing factors
  • Develop a clearer understanding of your thyroid function
  • Analyze your metabolism
  • Personalize supplementation recommendations
  • Assess your genetic susceptibility to inheritable diseases and explore ways to reduce your susceptibility

As a patient, you receive a treatment plan that’s tailored to what your body needs to be healthy and energetic. Throughout treatment and afterwards, we continue to monitor your physical condition and tweak your treatment plan for continued performance. Our goal is to reset your physiology back to what it was in the prime of your life. If you share that goal, please contact us for additional information and for details about enrolling in our five-step Active Care Program (ACP).