Back when I was in medical school or when I started residency, if I’d been told that one day I’d be a Functional Medicine doctor, I wouldn’t have believed it. Now I’d say it’s by far and away the best career decision I’ve ever made. So how did I get here? And why is Functional Medicine the best way to achieve your health goals?
Almost every MD like me who is now practicing Functional Medicine got here for one reason — they got sick and couldn’t get better using the traditional medicine toolbox we were taught. Whether it’s Hashimoto’s, or lupus, or eczema, or migraines, or infertility, doctors who are now the patient try all the medications they prescribe to their patients with no-to-minimal results, but terrible side effects. They start searching for alternatives and one way or another come across Functional Medicine. And everything changes.
At least that’s what happened to me. My story is a little different; I didn’t have a physical disease but a mental health disease. I’m an alcoholic in recovery, but not by choice. I went down kicking and screaming that I didn’t have an issue. I’ve had serious struggles trying to deal with life without alcohol.
When I was an intern in residency, I took six weeks of medical leave and went to an inpatient treatment for addiction. It was the best thing I’ve ever done. The craziest part about the treatment program I went through is that we never focused on alcohol. It was always about why. Why do you drink? And by getting rid of the reason, I wouldn’t want to drink.
We had group therapy for hours each day, along with yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and exercise — all things I thought were a waste of time. But despite my reluctance, they worked for me. I learned why I drank and had a plan how to deal with those issues.
When I went back to residency with a much more open mind than when I left, I was introduced to Functional Medicine. One of the attending physicians, Dr. Batra, who trained us would always have us start patients admitted to the hospital on a multivitamin and vitamin D. We thought it was ridiculous. Why waste time on supplements when we could be prescribing medications? One day Dr. Batra explained to me why. He was studying Functional Medicine, and it was all about uncovering the root cause. The focus was not on treating symptoms but on treating the underlying issue. If you identified that and treated it, the symptoms go away naturally.
Why is this segment of the heath industry called Functional Medicine? Because if you’ve had any experience following a traditional medicine protocol, you’ve likely experienced some dysfunction. Functional Medicine is a response to that “generalized dysfunction.”
As a Family Medicine practitioner (a.k.a. general practitioner or G.P.), I was taught to observe a patient’s symptoms and determine which medication would improve them. However, in my training as a Functional Medicine practitioner, I was taught to not only understand your symptoms, but to listen to you and your story. In working together, we identify, typically through lab testing, what led to your symptoms. Once we pinpoint what has led to your underlying symptoms, we create a treatment plan to help you eliminate whatever is making you sick.
As a Functional Medicine practitioner, I don’t give my patients medications to make them feel better, I give them the tools and a prescription plan to fix any underlying imbalances. In doing so, I help increase their energy, reduce their stress, feel better, and heal naturally.
I always tell my patients that Functional Medicine works if they work it. And now there’s evidence to prove it! In a study of 7,552 patients at the Cleveland Clinic comparing overall physical health, 1,595 of the participants went to the Functional Medicine clinic at the Cleveland Clinic, and the rest went to the traditional family health center. Researchers found that Functional Medicine patients exhibited significantly larger improvements in patient-reported physical health at six months than the matched patients at the family health center. So yes, Functional Medicine works if you work it!
No matter whether your diagnosis is high blood pressure, autism, or lupus, there are five main areas we look to for dysfunction:
Start With The Gut
Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Did you know that you have somewhere between 3 to 5 pounds of bacteria growing in your large intestine? In the gut we asses digestion, the immune response, and imbalances in gut bacteria — like small intestine bacterial overgrowth, dysbiosis due to candida (a yeast infection), and parasites.
Ascertaining gut health always starts with identifying food sensitivities through an elimination diet. If you are eating something that is inflaming your body, you will never get better no matter how many medications you take.
Assess Hormone Levels
Hormonal imbalances can be another contributor to poor health. I look at the adrenal glands, thyroid, reproductive hormones and more for clues to underlying issues.
Exposure to mold, heavy metals, and other toxins in the environment are also part of a Functional Medicine doctor’s investigation. It’s rare that we find imbalance in just one area, as there are typically multiple factors contributing to disease.
Explore Mental, Emotional, And Spiritual Health
This one area is the most important of all. It’s key to being able to heal. Most patients come to me expecting to be put on strict diets, to undergo lots of lab tests, and start a long list of supplements. I may do those things, but most people are surprised when I tell them that the true path to healing is identifying and treating your past traumas. (My favorite definition of trauma is “anything less than nurturing.”)
Functional Medicine is a more interactive and comprehensive route to health. It’s easier to take a pill to make the symptoms go away. But if you’re ready to truly heal, Functional Medicine is the only way.
Peter Kozlowski, MD, is a Family Medicine Residency graduate who has devoted his career to helping uncover the underlying cause of chronic disease through Functional Medicine. He serves patients in person and online via his Montana- and Chicago-based practices. His new book, Unfunc Your Gut: Boost Your Immune System, Heal Your Gut, and Unlock Your Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Health (Citrine Publishing, May 19, 2021), empowers readers to start their healing journey. Learn more at www.doc-koz.com.
How does functional medicine work with breast cancer, if at all?
I had a lumpectomy to remove the DCIS and small micro invasion. Treatment prescribed is 4 weeks of radiation, and after radiation 5 years of daily med, like Exemestane (post-menopausal) or Tamoxifen (pre-menopausal). Side effects of these include hot flashes and/or night sweats, joint or muscle pain, fatigue, nausea/vomiting, hair loss, mood swings, brain fog, high blood pressure, etc. None sound good to me, and certainly not for 5 years!
Seems that there should be a better way to control this after being told I don’t have the very small cancer cell (stage 0) anymore (after surgery), and the radiation treatments are preventative.
Any ideas for alternatives?