What is Functional Medicine?

I have friends that get excited about a new restaurant opening in their neighborhood, their most recent investment opportunity, or the bold hair color they’re trying out next week. What I get excited about is a far stretch from these matters, but nonetheless, I love it.

What is functional medicine? We get that question often when telling our profession in passing. We understand it can be confusing and vague. If you have heard about it, you’ve probably heard it most often described as “getting to the root cause”. This is indeed true. But what does that mean and how is that done?

This is where I get excited (ahem…nerd out) about explaining one of my favorite topics – functional medicine.

The Development of Functional Medicine

Functional medicine evolved originally from a group of concerned and inquisitive leaders within the health and wellness industry who began seeing the need to address the actual cause of all the diseases they were seeing. As continued research and discoveries were made concerning nutritional science, genomics, and epigenetics, professionals began realizing the magnitude of the implications that this research was uncovering. In other words, they were surprised at the realization that disease is often closely related to controllable factors. This realization led to the creation of the functional medicine model. Here’s a deeper dive into the science for you (because I know that’s what you were waiting for).

As mentioned, three areas of study were instrumental in the foundation of functional medicine care – nutritional science, genomics, and epigenetics.

Stay with me…I promise this gets interesting.

Nutritional Science

“Let your food be thy medicine and your medicine be thy food.” -Aristotle

It’s funny how an ancient philosopher that lived a few thousand years ago had a better understanding of health than many of our twentieth-century experts. Thankfully, nutritional science has returned to its roots and confirmed what the few knew all along – that what we eat truly does matter. Nutritional science is a multifaceted discipline, rooted in chemistry, biology, and a social understanding of how food and nutrients affect our body.

Nutritional science has been able to prove the chemical and biological effects that certain foods have on our bodies. Foods that cause free radicals in our body (cancer-causing agents), foods that cause inflammation, nutrient deficiencies that cause a bodily system to stop working, or eating habits that prohibit proper body functions – all of these cause and effects are now documented and observed, with scientific evidence that what we put in our body directly affects how our body functions.


This sounds like something you’d hear in one of Stan Lee’s Marvel comics, but it’s no fiction story. Genomics is a more recent term developed in genetics studies that refer to the study of the entirety of a person’s genes (the genome). Specifically, this looks at how a person’s genes interact with each other and the person’s environment. These “interactions” can sometimes end up producing unwanted complexities or diseases such as asthma, diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. While there is some genetic predisposition, genomics has uncovered the relationship that these predispositions have to controllable factors such as environment and nutrition.


Similar to genomics, epigenetics studies the relationship that your behaviors and environment have on your health – specifically your genes. This addresses many diet and lifestyle concerns, with surprising discoveries that mental environmental factors can play just as heavily into the outcome of health. Such things as physical activity, stress levels, relaxation methods, diet, and community connection all contribute to your ultimate health and wellness.

So functional medicine evolved from this understanding that our environment, our lifestyle, and our genetics all work together to create the landscape of our health. While we can’t change our genetics, we can change our environment (within reason) and our lifestyle. This is great news for the epidemic of “incurable” diseases we see throughout our nation.

But I digress…back to our question – “What is functional medicine?”

Functional Medicine Explained

Functional medicine uses a systems-based approach to wellness, backed by science, comprehensive testing, and original tools to find and address the root cause of an issue. A functional medicine doctor looks at the whole person, treating the individual, not the symptom.

The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) says it well. “Functional Medicine asks how and why illness occurs and restores health by addressing the root causes of disease for each individual.”

That systems-based approach we mentioned? That has to do with the following core methods that all functional medicine doctors use in some form or another:

  1. Paint the full picture – find out the patient’s complete story before ever prescribing a treatment or making a plan. This is key. Because issues today could have stemmed from a small issue 20 years ago, it’s imperative to know the full story before proceeding.
  2. Base it on science – Comprehensive biological testing is important as it contributes to a better understanding of the whole picture. This is where the stories and the science begin to intersect.
  3. Identify the root cause – a condition can cause many imbalances and an imbalance can cause many conditions. It’s important to identify all of the imbalances and potential causes in a systems biology matrix in order to develop the treatment plan.
  4. Develop the plan – The causes must be addressed by change – both internal and external. This part of the process involves identifying the lifestyle and environmental factors that must change in order to reverse the disease. This plan may also involve the oversight of current prescription medicine and the strategy for a gradual decrease of usage.
  5. Establish a collaboration – the best functional medicine approach works when both patient and doctor see the relationship as a partnership. Open communication allows the doctor’s treatments to pivot effectively with digression or improvements.

What is Functional Medicine About?

In the end, a functional medicine approach to wellness is about full healing of the body in all aspects – spiritually, chemically, emotionally, socially, and structurally. At 5 Journeys, we base our treatments on that multifaceted approach to health and wellness. We believe life is too short to live in pain. And it’s certainly far too beautiful to live in fear. We would be happy to help you on your journey to a life of vitality. Contact us today to get started.


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