As I keep being asked this question, I thought I might say a little about what I am studying.
Officially, I’m studying for my third degree. This time around it’s in “Nutritional Therapy”, which to most of us means “Nutrition”. I will (if I can keep going) get a diploma in 3 years and a degree in 4 years from now. However, despite it’s name, our course is thoroughly founded on the principles of Functional Medicine (FM), which is what I want to explain.
The Institute of Functional Medicine was founded in America where a growing group of doctors are practising a “new” paradigm of medicine. It began way back in 1949 by a double nobel prize winning physician called Linus Pauling. The new paradigm is the belief that it isn’t our genes themselves that cause our health or otherwise, but how those genes are “expressed”. “Gene expression” means how our genes interact with our environment to cause or suppress disease. Dr Pauling firmly believed that one day, we would be able to manipulate or modify the expression of our genes to prevent disease.
Today, functional medicine is a system of medicine which seeks to prevent chronic diseases, those diseases we are so familiar with like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. FM seeks to find the cause of our symptoms because it is believed that symptoms are the body’s attempt at correcting itself… they should not necessarily be suppressed without understanding what purpose they serve. FM practitioners don’t necessarily group all the symptoms together, give it a name or diagnosis and then prescribe drugs to suppress the symptoms. Rather, they search for the causes of the symptoms, i.e. which body systems are suffering and how your genes are being affected by your environment. What are you doing to your body that is causing it not to work properly? Once those processes have been identified, the treatment is to provide the body with what it needs to correct itself and remove any factors that are stopping the body from recovering. Each person is a new case and different to the last, even though the conventional medical diagnosis may be the same. The reason for this is that each person has his or her own unique biochemical makeup which must be treated individually.
FM is about giving the patient treatment choices to help themselves to achieve better health. FM practitioners believe that the body’s systems are a web of connections and to uncover the real causes, one must understand these complicated connections that span across gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, immunological and neurological systems. FM practitioners are therefore not specialists in cardiology, urology, neurology, focusing on just one body part or system as in conventional medicine.
FM works particularly well for preventing and treating chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, ulcerative colitis, arthritis, rather than treating sudden illness or trauma where conventional medicine excels. Disease is not seen as a separate entity which exists alone. Instead, health and disease are seen as points on a continuum between optimal wellness and ill-health. I particularly like this because it has always perplexed and frustrated me that conventional medicine says that you either have arteriosclerosis or you don’t…but surely, the build up of plaques on the inside of your artery walls is a gradual process, occurring slowly and often imperceptibly over decades, eventually reaching a point which requires treatment…either drugs or life saving surgery to open the blockage. Surely, it is better to catch small problems early rather then wait for them to be big problems later on?
I believe that prevention is better then cure and I very much hope that my efforts, in due course, will afford me the privilege of helping people help themselves, sooner rather than later!