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What is a Functional Medicine Doctor?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 17, 2020

Functional medicine doctors use specialized training and techniques to find the root causes of complex illnesses. They may investigate multiple factors causing a condition, or they may look into multiple conditions causing one symptom.

A doctor in functional medicine works holistically, considering the full picture of your physical, mental, emotional, and sometimes even spiritual health.

They consider factors like diet, genetics, hormonal changes, prescription and over the counter medications, and other lifestyle components. This type of doctor may be ideal for people with chronic illnesses that aren't easily managed by conventional medical techniques.

Functional medicine doctors decide to specialize in functional medicine after completing conventional medical training. Other types of health practitioners—including chiropractors and naturopaths—may focus on functional medicine.

What Does a Functional Medicine Doctor Do?

Functional medicine doctors look at your full history to identify the root causes of an illness. They usually spend more time with you than conventional doctors. They collect detailed information about the disease and your overall lifestyle.

A functional medicine doctor may ask about:

  • A timeline of symptoms
  • Sleep patterns
  • Exercise habits
  • Nutrition
  • Stressors
  • Personal relationships
  • Emotional wellbeing

Continued

Then, they come up with a treatment plan to manage multiple factors that may be contributing to chronic conditions. It may include prescription medications, supplements, or other therapies.

Finally, they track the progress of treatment and make changes as needed. The functional medicine approach is different for each person since each treatment is tailored to that person's specific illness.

Your relationship with a functional medicine doctor may also be different than with your primary care doctor. According to The Institute For Functional Medicine, it’s a more collaborative partnership: the doctor considers your input while still keeping you responsible for your choices as they relate to your condition and treatment.

With functional medicine, the care given is based on the system affected, not the condition diagnosed. For example, a diagnosis of depression may have multiple causes. A functional medicine doctor will research and treat each cause, leading to a personalized treatment approach.

Education & Training

Functional medicine doctors have gone through traditional medical school training. They may then choose to get additional certification from an organization such as The Institute for Functional Medicine. Doctors then apply functional medicine teachings to their original field of practice.

Additional certification does not give these doctors any further legal status, but proves they have trained and are committed to working within this modality. A functional medicine certification is also open to other types of practitioners like acupuncturists, dentists, nurse practitioners, and more.

What Conditions Does a Functional Medicine Doctor Treat?

Most functional medicine doctors solve complex and multifaceted health issues. Examples include depression, chronic pain conditions like arthritis, and inflammatory diseases like Celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The unique processes used by these doctors may help people manage the daily symptoms of chronic disease.

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

Reasons to See a Functional Medicine Doctor

  1. You Want Longer Appointments
    Functional medicine doctors typically spend more time with you because their process involves recording a detailed history.
  2. You Are Open to Alternative Treatments
    In addition to prescription drugs, functional medicine doctors may also prescribe alternative treatments like acupuncture, meditation, or herbal remedies.
  3. You Have a Chronic Illness
    Functional medicine is well suited to treating chronic illnesses. Doctors in this field seek to find the causes of chronic disease, as opposed to treating the symptoms.
  4. You Want a Personalized Experience
    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.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

The Institute for Functional Medicine: "What is Functional Medicine?"

Cleveland Clinic: “What is Functional Medicine.”

The Institute for Functional Medicine: "Certification Program."

The Institute for Functional Medicine: "Frequently Asked Questions."

The Institute for Functional Medicine: "Eligibility."

The Institute for Functional Medicine: "Reversing the Chronic Disease Trend: Six Steps to Better Wellness."

Functional Medicine Center of the Carolinas: “What is Functional Medicine.”

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