What Is a Functional Medicine Doctor?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on December 18, 2023
7 min read

Functional medicine doctors use specialized training and techniques to find the root causes of chronic illnesses. They work holistically, considering the full picture of your physical, mental, emotional, and sometimes even your spiritual health. They provide "patient-centered" care, which means they spend time learning about you, your lifestyle, your medical history, family history, and your needs in order to find a solution to your heath problems that's personalized to you.

Are functional medicine doctors MDs?

There are a wide variety of functional medicine “practitioners,” but not all of them are Doctors of Medicine, or MDs. Physicians assistants and chiropractors might practice functional medicine, for example, but they haven’t gone to medical school to earn an MD degree. 

A Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, or DO, is another type of medical professional that might practice functional medicine and be referred to as a functional medicine “doctor.” Like MDs, DOs have similar education and credentials to practice medicine. They have done residencies, can prescribe medication, and they are licensed to practice medicine in their state. They may also become board-certified like doctors. 

Both MDs and DOs – as well as functional medicine practitioners who aren’t medical doctors – who practice functional medicine may take additional courses specific to functional medicine. The American Association of Family Physicians has accredited some, but not all, functional medicine courses.

Because the field of functional medicine isn’t standardized like traditional medicine, it’s important to do your research when choosing a doctor. Some functional medicine practitioners who aren’t medical doctors may provide treatment for chronic illness, but these methods often have little scientific evidence to support them. In some cases, they could also be dangerous for you. If you decide to go to a functional medicine doctor for treatment, make sure they have MD or DO credentials and are licensed to practice medicine in your state. 

Functional medicine doctors look at your full history to identify the root causes of an illness. They collect detailed information about the disease and your overall lifestyle. Functional medicine doctors often spend more time with their patients in order to get all the information they need.

A functional medicine doctor may ask you about:

  • A timeline of symptoms
  • Sleep patterns
  • Exercise habits
  • Nutrition
  • Stressors
  • Personal relationships
  • Emotional well-being

Then, they come up with a treatment plan to manage the many factors that may be contributing to your chronic condition. Unlike traditional doctors, who might prescribe prescription medicine or surgical procedures as the main treatment, functional medicine doctors often first look to improve things like diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction. Of course, if there is an immediate medical need, your functional medicine doctor can also prescribe medication and recommend conventional medical procedures. 

Finally, your functional medicine doctor will track your progress and make changes as needed. The approach is different for each person, since functional medicine is centered around personalized treatment plans.

Your relationship with your functional medicine doctor may also be different than with your primary care doctor. Functional medicine tends to be a more collaborative partnership between you and your doctor. Your doctor considers your input while still keeping you responsible for your choices as they relate to your condition and treatment.

Functional medicine vs. integrative medicine

Functional medicine and integrative medicine are very similar. For example, both use diet and nutrition as primary tools for fighting chronic illness and take a holistic, individualized approach to your health. Both are also often considered “alternative medicine” by the mainstream medical community. 

But there are a few key differences between the two. Functional medicine still relies on tools such as blood tests, allergy tests, and genetic testing. With integrative medicine you’re less likely to have those tests; instead, your health care provider focuses on the mind-body aspects of health. Integrative medicine doctors are more likely to recommend noninvasive treatments for you and are less likely to prescribe "non-natural" medications. 

Functional medicine is based on the idea that every patient is unique and that many factors such as family history, lifestyle, and environment interact with each other. For example, if you are diagnosed with heart disease, this could be due to a combination of genetics, diet, stress, and other lifestyle factors. Your treatment plan would take all of these into consideration to get to the root cause of your disease.

Rather than just treating your heart disease with medication or surgery, your treatment plan would also try to treat the things that are causing your heart disease. That could be changing your diet, getting more exercise, and reducing your stress levels. While some mainstream doctors also incorporate these elements into their treatment plans, it is not as common. In functional medicine, this is central to your treatment. 

To be a functional medicine doctor (MD or DO), you have to go through traditional medical school training. You can then choose to get additional certification from an organization such as The Institute for Functional Medicine. Then you can apply functional medicine teachings to your medical field of practice.

Additional certification does not give you any further legal status, but it shows that you have trained and are committed to working within this field of medicine. 

Functional medicine doctors can treat a variety of health issues. They normally focus on chronic conditions that affect physical and mental health, such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Celiac disease 
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Asthma
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer prevention
  • Allergies
  • Chronic pain
  • Thyroid disorders

If you do not have a chronic illness, you can still visit a functional medicine doctor. Many also focus on preventative care.

Seeing a functional medicine doctor might be right for you if:

You want a more personalized type of health care. Functional medicine doctors typically spend more time with you and more time assessing all the factors that affect your health. Functional medicine addresses each person individually. Using different methods than a conventional medical doctor, a functional medicine doctor will help you figure out which specific treatments are right for you.

You're interested in how things like genetics, mental health and lifestyle habits contribute to your illness. Your treatment will address all of these things individually, which will improve your whole health.

Your chronic illness hasn't responded well to traditional treatment. You might continue to receive conventional treatment, but functional medicine can open up other options that could be better than or work well with your existing treatment plan.

Functional medicine is not as widely practiced as regular medicine, and there are fewer functional medicine doctors to choose from. If you live far from a major city, it can be more difficult to find one. 

A good place to start is with the The Institute for Functional Medicine's online provider search tool. You can put in your ZIP code and see which doctors are closest to you. You can also read reviews from patients that can help you decide whether the doctor is right for you. 

Functional medicine seeks to treat patients holistically and individually. Many people find it to be a helpful approach to treating chronic conditions that conventional medicine hasn't been able to treat. But some of the foundational principles of functional medicine are not yet scientifically proven, and there is less standardization in the quality of care you might receive. For these reasons, you may wish to proceed cautiously when seeking functional medical care. 

What does a functional medicine doctor do?

Functional medicine doctors use a more holistic approach to treat chronic conditions. This includes taking your lifestyle, genetics, mental health, and environment into account when making a treatment plan. 

Are functional medicine doctors legitimate?

Functional medicine doctors need to go through conventional medical school training. They can then choose to practice functional medicine. Since the standards aren't as well established in the functional medicine field, people may pass themselves off as doctors without having the necessary credentials. It's important to do your research and check that your functional medicine doctor has legitimate education and licensure. 

Functional medicine itself is sometimes questioned for its legitimacy. There isn't as much scientific research to prove that the methods it uses are effective. That's why many people prefer to stick to conventional medicine. In the future, there may be more studies that prove the effectiveness of functional medicine. 

Of course, just because an approach hasn't been verified yet through rigorous research doesn't mean it's junk – but it does mean that you should be cautious if you decide to proceed with a functional medicine professional. Ask for their credentials and seek other treatment options if their suggestions raise any red flags.

Is a functional doctor the same as a holistic doctor?

While there is some overlap between a functional medicine doctor and a holistic doctor, there are also a couple of important differences. Both types of professionals try to treat patients by taking a multifaceted, individualized approach. However, holistic doctors typically avoid prescribing conventional medications or recommending surgery. Functional medicine doctors may be more open to these options.