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Functional Medicine

Functional Medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach and engaging both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership. By shifting the traditional disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, Functional Medicine addresses the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms. By addressing root cause, rather than symptoms, practitioners become oriented to identifying the complexity of disease.


The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) is the official body that offer the Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner programme and describes Functional Medicine as addressing the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach and engaging both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership. By shifting the traditional disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, Functional Medicine addresses the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms. By addressing root cause, rather than symptoms, practitioners become oriented to identifying the complexity of disease.(1)

Functional Medicine is a systems biology–based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. Each symptom or differential diagnosis may be one of many contributing to an individual’s illness. (1) Functional medicine embraces much of the philosophy of Integrative Medicine but also employs a systems-oriented medical approach that works to identify and understand the underlying or root causes of a disease. Although integrative medicine and functional medicine have similarities, there is one important distinction. Functional medicine strives to determine the root cause of each and every disease. Rather than simply making a diagnosis and then determining which drugs or surgery will best treat the condition, Functional Medicine practitioners dive deep into the patient’s history and biochemistry and ask why this patient is ill. (2)

When you visit a Functional Medicine practitioner, you can expect to spend a lot more time with them than you would with a conventional provider. You can also expect to do a lot of talking, as a large part of Functional Medicine is exploring your detailed personal and family history, the circumstances around your first symptoms, and the experiences you may have had with other healthcare providers. (1)

The system of medicine practised by most physicians is oriented toward acute care, the diagnosis and treatment of trauma or illness that is of short duration and in need of urgent care, such as appendicitis or a broken leg. Physicians apply specific, prescribed treatments such as drugs or surgery that aim to treat the immediate problem or symptom.

Unfortunately, the acute-care approach to medicine lacks the methodology and tools for preventing and treating complex, chronic disease. In most cases it does not take into account the unique genetic makeup of each individual or factors such as environmental exposures to toxins and the aspects of today’s lifestyle that have a direct influence on the rise in chronic disease in modern Western society.

Functional medicine integrates traditional Western medical practices with “alternative” or “integrative” medicine, creating a focus on prevention through nutrition, diet, and exercise; use of the latest laboratory testing and other diagnostic techniques; and prescribed combinations of drugs and/or botanical medicines, supplements, therapeutic diets, detoxification programs, or stress-management techniques. (3)


In 1991, the Institute for Functional Medicine was founded with seven defining characteristics of functional medicine. These included:

  • Patient centered versus disease centered
  • Systems biology approach: web-like interconnections of physiological factors
  • Dynamic balance of gene-environment interactions
  • Personalised based on biochemical individuality
  • Promotion of organ reserve and sustained health span
  • Health as a positive vitality—not merely the absence of disease
  • Function versus pathology focused

It was the recognition in 1991 that the definition of functional in medicine was changing from a singular focus on psychosomatic to an integrated focus including the whole biological system that led to the founding of the Institute for Functional Medicine. (4)

The information that emerged over several decades revolutionised medicine by creating a framework for the understanding that the origin of disease in the individual resulted from the interaction of their unique genome/epigenome with their environment, diet, and lifestyle.(5)

Learning about functional medicine and the history and origins of the work takes us back to the 50s, 60s and 70s. During that era certain progressive healers were starting to look at “natural medicine” or “alternative medicine”. Discoveries were being made about the nature of our bodies and the nutrients we need. A small and dedicated group of health care professionals started to use nutrients in the form of supplements, combined with herbal treatments that have for the most part been around for thousands of years and they wrapped all that into the new technology of the day – lab based data. (6)

The founding of the Institute for Functional Medicine marked the start of the formalisation of an approach to healing that had taken several decades to develop though the largely unacknowledged initiatives of physicians in many countries, and the inception of training courses that resulted was to go on to create a recognised and established path to the acquisition of the necessary skills and understanding to practise in this manner. As the principle of identifying disease processes upstream and correcting causative factors of disease has become increasingly established as a more useful approach to the prevalent chronic conditions of our time, many other parallel initiatives are gaining recognition for their contributions to this revolution in healthcare.


Published Sources:

(4) The National Center for Biotechnology Information , US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bland J. Defining Function in the Functional Medicine Model. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2017;16(1):22‐25.
(5) Bland JS. The Natural Roots of Functional Medicine. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2018;17(1):12‐17 The Natural Roots of Functional Medicine

Other Sources:

(1) The Institute for Functional Medicine IFM
(2) Functional Medicine vs Integrative Medicine, Patronus Medical Blog
(3) Dr. Mark Hyman, Why do we need Functional Medicine?
(6) Kalish Institute, The History Of Functional Medicine

Last Updated:28/05/2020
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Ms Catherine Arnold
Peckham , England

Catherine Arnold is a Registered Nutritional Therapist with a special interest in gut health, fertility and cancer. ...
Leonie Ash
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Dr Tavakkoli provides integrative support for adult patients with previous or current cancer in her clinic Quantum Clinic ...
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