Functional Medicine Doctors: 4 Important Answers You Should Know

Who are functional medicine doctors? When our four-year-old was diagnosed with alopecia, we were told by the dermatologist there was nothing that could be done to make her hair grow back. Alopecia is a non-contagious auto-immune disease. When it flairs up, the immune system attacks the hair follicles and they stop growing. While we were grateful her hair loss wasn’t caused by a more serious disease, it was still devastating to hear there was nothing we could do about her hair.

The dermatologist recommended we find a support group and wished us the best of luck. Because we live in the age of social media, we turned to Facebook for help and found a ton of support groups for kids and adults living with alopecia. Many people in these groups recommended we take her to see a functional medicine doctor. That recommendation left us with a ton of questions. What is a functional medicine doctor? What do they practice? Are they medical doctors or do they have a different education? If you’re interested in learning more about functional medicine doctors, keep reading!

What Are Functional Medicine Doctors?

Functional Medicine Doctors: 4 Important Answers You Should Know

The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) is an excellent resource, to begin with. They define functional medicine doctors as individuals who look for a root cause of a disease or illness. How is that different from what medical doctors do? Dr. Neil Spiegel noted that medical doctors treat the symptoms of an illness whereas functional medicine doctors dig deeper to look for a cause. In many cases of alopecia, the dermatologist offers topical or oral steroids to stop the inflammation and possibly some medication to help hair growth. The functional medicine doctor would dig deeper to find out what caused the inflammation by running a lot of different laboratory tests and treating the root cause.

The further I dug into this research, the more questions I had. The medical doctor I see doesn’t only treat my symptoms. When I saw my doctor because I was having issues with anxiety, she did prescribe medication to control the symptoms. But, she also asked what was causing the anxiety, asked how I was sleeping at night, suggested I see a therapist, and recommended I cut back on caffeine (Rude!). She’s not the only doctor I’ve seen who’s dug deeper than just the symptoms. So, if there are medical doctors who also treat the underlying cause, how are functional medical doctors different?

How Are Functional Medicine Doctors Different?

Functional Medicine Doctors: 4 Important Answers You Should Know

Functional medicine doctors differ from traditional medical doctors in their education as well as their practice. While it’s not accurate to say that traditional medical doctors only treat the symptoms, it might be fair to say that functional medicine doctors spend more time getting to know their patients’ lifestyle, eating habits, exercise habits, screen time habits, genetics, and more so they can treat the whole person and not just the symptoms. Mindd noted that functional medicine doctors embrace western medicine but also spend time looking at how an individual’s genetic makeup is affected by their lifestyle and environment.

Functional medicine doctors do share one common requirement with traditional medical doctors. In the United States, every state has its medical board that determines licensing requirements for medical practitioners. No doctor – not even functional medicine doctors can practice without a license. Most – if not all states – require physicians to complete some kind of post-graduate work – like an internship – to apply for a license.

The AMA Journal of Ethics noted that in addition to post-graduate work, physicians seeking a license also need to graduate from a medical school or program that’s recognized by the state issuing the license. This means that functional medicine doctors might not have to attend a traditional medical school but are required to attend a school recognized by the state.

READ MORE: Why the Medical Community is Failing Us with Their “Standard of Care”

What Illnesses Do They Treat?

Functional Medicine Doctors: 4 Important Answers You Should Know

The Cleveland Clinic listed several conditions that functional medicine doctors treat. Among those are asthma, arthritis, diabetes, and thyroid disorders. Specialists at The Cleveland Clinic believe that anyone suffering from a chronic condition can be helped by a functional medicine doctor. Their initial assessment includes gathering information on family medical history, and current lifestyle, as well as gathering information on possible toxins present in the home environment. Functional medicine doctors rely heavily on lab work to make a diagnosis and also encourage patients to use certain supplements – depending on what the diagnosis is.

READ MORE: The Silent Struggle: Life with a Spouse Suffering from Crohn’s Autoimmune Disease

What is the Functional Medicine Controversy?

Functional Medicine Doctors: 4 Important Answers You Should Know

As with any healthcare provider, there are several red flags you should be wary of when choosing a functional medicine doctor. Dr. Daniel advised that if a functional medicine doctor requires you to purchase a healthcare package before treatment begins, that’s a major red flag. He also recommends patients use extreme caution when supplements are the doctor’s go-to treatment for every ailment.

U.S. News noted a few other red flags that could be applied to any healthcare practitioner. Those red flags included practitioners who push patients to stop seeing traditional medical doctors. Also if they promise you a magical cure to ailments like cancer or heart disease – chronic conditions that have never had a cure – you’ll probably want to reconsider using them. One final red flag listed by U.S. News is when practitioners push expensive testing – such as genetic testing – rather than using the knowledge they should have acquired from their education and experience.

Back in 2014, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), raised an alarm when they placed a moratorium on all continuing education classes related to functional medicine. Specifically, the AAFP expressed concern over the number of laboratory tests functional medicine doctors were conducting on patients. Some of those tests were believed to be unvalidated and at times there were concerns that the results of the laboratory testing done by functional medicine doctors were often misinterpreted. The Institute of Functional Medicine reported this moratorium was lifted in 2019.

Functional Medicine Doctors: 4 Important Answers You Should Know

Our quest to find out more about functional medicine doctors and their medical specialties was fruitful. Should we choose to take our daughter to see a functional medicine doctor in the future, we have a lot of solid information to help us make an informed choice. Have you been treated by a functional medicine doctor? What was your experience like? Let us know on Facebook!

Check out Daily Mom’s Alternative Medicine for Moms: How it Can Make All the Difference on Your Wellness Journey.

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Functional Medicine Doctors: 4 Important Answers You Should Know

Photo Credits: UnsplashPexels

SOURCES: Institute for Functional Medicine | Dr. Neil Spiegel | Mindd | AMA Journal of Ethics | The Cleveland Clinic | Dr. Daniel | U.S. News | American Academy of Family Physicians | Institute of Functional Medicine



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A.Marie Silver
A.Marie Silver
A. Marie Silver is a mother to three dragons, wife to a Navy man, and author of Snark, Sass, & Sarcasm - a blog dedicated to putting a humurous twist on the mundane. In her spare time she fantasizes about taking naps, is a contributor for Daily Mom, and is working on her first novel.