A few weeks ago, I was enjoying a nice dinner with friends at a winter retreat. I was sitting next to a friend who is also an MD and we were talking about various healthcare topics. Eventually it came up that I am interested in a field known as functional medicine. Then came his inevitable question:
“Cool! So what is functional medicine?”
I took a deep breath as my mind was thrown into a mad scramble to come up with an intelligent-ish reply. I’ve been asked this question over and over again. While I don’t mind it one bit, I often have a hard time knowing how to answer. Not because I don’t know what to say, but because I have a difficult time putting into a few words a concept that I feel is incredibly comprehensive and has many facets, not to mention how it relates to my role as a nurse. To thoroughly explain what functional medicine is would take me far longer than the acceptably brief response in a casual social setting, so I still grapple for words.
In order to best answer this question and to give you guys an update on my current projects, I wanted to use this space to create a post about what functional medicine is from my perspective and how I’m using it these days.
So. What exactly is functional medicine?
Let’s first start with a definition. If you were to google “functional medicine definition,” you would get something like this:
A medical practice or treatments that focus on optimal functioning of the body and its organs, usually involving systems of holistic or alternative medicine. English Oxford Dictionary
You may also come across words like “holistic medicine,” “alternative medicine,” and “integrative medicine.” While there are certainly differences and specifics to each of these, I’m not going to discuss the nuances, rather I’ll refer to them collectively as functional medicine.
At its core, functional medicine targets the prevention of chronic disease by looking at how body systems are connected and how implementing various lifestyle changes allows a person to reach their fullest potential for health. It looks at symptoms which often drive us to doctors, such as acne, bloating, weight gain, pain, and anxiety, to name a few, as signals of a greater problem needing to addressed. For example, did you know that many skin problems, including acne, can stem from an imbalance in the bacteria in our gut? Or that poor sleep causes an increase in cortisol, our “fight or flight” hormone, which keeps our blood sugar levels high and can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, and inflammation? While the current medical system continues to advance in technology and there is most certainly a place for conventional therapies, the first-line treatment of symptoms often includes a prescription for a drug or invasive medical procedure which can lead to other side effects.
Functional medicine takes a whole-person approach and starts with the understanding that our bodies are marvelously created to be able to heal themselves given the right environment and helps equip people with tools like proper stress management, getting high-quality sleep, nourishing food, and appropriate supplementation. It doesn’t promise instant results with a quick-fix approach. Rather, healing is the result of the cumulative effect of small changes as the body bring itself back into balance and symptoms are alleviated.
Why Do We Need Functional Medicine?
If this sounds really heady and abstract, I totally get it. But before you dismiss functional medicine as something only for the very nerdy or the very sick or hypochondriacs, let me share with you a quote from Dr. Frank Lipman’s book, How to Be Well. In regards to this very topic, he says,
“(Functional) Good Medicine uses a wide and inclusive aperture to look at the state of your body and mind, and it looks for fundamental causes of weaknesses and imbalance before throwing drugs and medical interventions at a problem. It asks lots of questions: What are you eating? How are you sleeping? Do you wake up each day, raring to go? How sedentary is your work day? Who cares about you and how do you feel when you’re alone? The elements that either create good health or deplete it are largely the very ordinary parts of life – our food, rhythms, environment, and relationships – and they all interrelate, all the time.” How to Be Well: The 6 Keys to a Happy and Healthy Life, by Frank Lipman
Functional medicine applies to every person because the environment in which we live today poses many stressors, from the demands and pressure we deal with at work to the technology we use on a consistent basis. We would all benefit from considering our daily habits and how those things may be contributing to the state of our overall health. While every single person is unique with differing needs, there are principles of wellness that are so often overlooked and underestimated for their potency. The goal is to create small, reasonable changes within every person’s lifestyle that are not only attainable, but sustainable for long-term wellness. As people experience the reversal of symptoms by putting their bodies back into balance, they are empowered to create more lasting change for themselves.
If this still sounds lofty, let me give you a few statistics. I’ve mentioned a couple of times that functional medicine targets chronic disease. Chronic disease is defined by the CDC as “conditions that last 1 year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.” You don’t need a medical degree to see that there is a high prevalence of heart disease and stroke, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease in our society. According to the CDC, 90% of the nation’s 3.3 trillion annual healthcare expenditures are for people with chronic and mental health conditions. And the real kicker? While chronic disease is complex and there are many contributing factors, the CDC attributes the cause of most chronic disease to a very short list of lifestyle choices, including smoking, alcohol consumption, poor diet, and lack of physical activity (source). In other words, we can take active steps (pun intended) to lessen our chances of chronic disease later down the road. Whether we’re 18 or 68, we all want to be healthy and strong, knowing how to best care for ourselves so that we can live life to the fullest.
Okay, so that’s all find and dandy, but when it comes to taking care of ourselves, there is SO. MUCH. INFORMATION. in the wellness world right now. And frankly, it’s confusing and conflicting, to say the least. We are bombarded by advertisements for magic pills, supplements, diet regimes, and exercise plans which promise extraordinary results. It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good, realistic, or scientifically-based, either. A key role of any person using principles of functional medicine is to help evaluate and support the client or patient in his or her own health journey, taking into consideration that person’s unique state of health, symptoms, financial state, and overall lifestyle. As a nurse working in healthcare, I have the responsibility of providing the best information for my patients and clients within my scope of practice. While I don’t have all the answers, I am taking active steps to learn from whom I think are the best voices in the wellness community so I can pass along pearls of wellness wisdom to my patients and clients.
What I’m Up To These Days
So this leads to me discussing my current and future nursing endeavors. I am specifically interested in women’s health because I think this is a huge need. Women want to be really truly heard and symptoms that are just written off as annoyances don’t have to be considered “normal.” I want to use heart-centered principles of nourishment to encourage women towards wholeness in a society that is driven by disease and persistent pill-popping. I want to help empower women to take their health back into their own hands by equipping them with the knowledge and tools they need to make a lasting difference.
I am taking a course by Dr. Aviva Romm called the Women’s Functional & Integrative Medicine Professional Training Program. Through this program, I am learning the ins and outs of women’s chronic health concerns. I am learning the art and science of using food, supplements, and herbs effectively for health and healing throughout women’s entire life cycles. Secondly, I am choosing to further my education by completing a 6-month certificate program in nurse coaching, so I can use many of the concepts I’ve discussed in this post. This program will give me the coaching skills I need in order to effectively coach my clients through the principles of wellness, as well as allow me to take the certification exam to be a Board-Certified Nurse Coach from the American Holistic Nurses Credential Corporation. My goal with these educational programs is to use my coaching skills not only to be more effective in my role as a bedside nurse at the hospital, but also to work with clients individually to help them reach optimal health.
I am continuing to work in my job of 2.5 years as an RN in the Women’s Center at a local hospital. I enjoy the challenge of caring for a variety of patients, as well as connecting with my coworkers and maintaining my hard-earned skills like labor and postpartum care, fetal heart monitoring, starting IVs and basic assessments. I finished my Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing last December after 1.5 years of online education through Western Governors University and am thankful to have the somewhat obligatory 4-year degree behind me.
In conclusion to this long post, nursing has my heart and my passion. I am so thankful that I chose nursing as a career because it enables me to do so many different things, reach vulnerable spaces, and help fill a need in a unique way. Wholeness-centered nursing is truly an art and will take years of practice, but my hope and prayer is that I will be able to make a lasting impact in the lives of those around me. God has so graciously opened the doors to pursue this path and I can’t to see where He leads me in the years to come.
So that’s it for now! This post turned out to be much longer than I’d originally planned, but I had a lot to share with you guys! Feel free to reach out if you have any questions or want to chat more about it. Hope your day is FILLED to the brim with inspiration and until next time!