How is Functional Medicine Different from Conventional Medicine?
In order to understand the differences between functional medicine and conventional medicine, you need to understand the specific goals of care.
Imagine that you are on a canoe and there's a leak.
At first you don't notice the water is leaking into the canoe, but it's certainly a problem none the less. This is conventional medicine's first mistake; it really worries about problems when they're really bad.
This is exactly why someone can go from being considered healthy, to having a sudden heart attack and dropping dead the very next day.
As is the case with every major chronic disease, eventually the water leaking into your canoe becomes a major problem. And it's at this point where it becomes essential to bail the water out.
Bailing the water out will keep the canoe from sinking, but if the leaks are still there, you'll have limited success in trying to stay afloat. Bailing water out is similar to just treating a symptom.
Conventional medicine aims to treat our symptoms (rising water) and not the root cause (the actual leak) of our problems.
Here are a few key differences between Functional Medicine and Conventional Medicine:
- Functional Medicine is health-oriented rather than disease-oriented. This means that doctors of Functional Medicine are interested in building health, not simply fighting disease.
- Functional Medicine is patient-centered. It focuses on you, the person, rather than what’s easy or convenient for the doctor.
- Functional Medicine is biochemically & genetically individualized whereas Conventional Medicine prescribes the same drugs for every person with the same condition.
- Functional Medicine has a proactive, preventive approach while Conventional Medicine is more reactive to problems that arise.
Functional Medicine is Health Oriented
Conventional Medicine Isn't Healthcare – It's Disease Management.
Rather than optimize wellness through preventive and restorative treatments and strategies, it focuses on managing illness once it has occurred by suppressing symptoms with prescription drugs or surgeries.
One of the best examples of disease management, rather than delivering true healthcare, is when someone suffers from high blood pressure.
If you have high blood pressure, a conventional medical doctor will most likely prescribe a drug to lower it. There's rarely any investigation into what is causing the high blood pressure in the first place.
Even if the doctor recommends a change in diet or other lifestyle factors – the primary treatment will continue to be prescription medications.
Here are a few statistics that help to demonstrate this process:
- Studies suggest that more than half of all Americans take at least one prescription drug, with some studies estimating as high as 70%. [1, 2]
- Between 1988 and 2010, the number of older adults taking more than five prescription medications tripled. 
- More than twenty percent of children under the age of 18 are on at least one prescription drug every month. [4, 5, 6].
There is absolutely a time and place for prescription medications; the problem is that we have based our entire healthcare system on prescribing them.
And when you create a healthcare system that relies entirely on medications you never truly get to the heart of a problem. Drugs almost never address the underlying causes of disease or health problems. Worse, prescription drugs don't simply mask symptoms, they also suppress vital health functions. This means that you might reduce a particular symptom but exchange it for something else.
By treating our healthcare problems with medications and never truly getting to the root cause of a health condition, the conventional model of care has created patients for life.
Functional Medicine on the other hand is health oriented. A functional medicine doctor will aim to prevent disease in the first place, and when it does show up, they will seek to reverse it by investigating the underlying cause. In this manner, functional medicine doctors and practitioners act as health investigators rather a quick-fix clean up crew.
Functional Medicine is Patient Centered.
Conventional Medicine Focuses on the doctor or “Expert”.
In Functional Medicine, patients are encouraged to play an active role in their health and treatment because behavior is one of the biggest contributors to chronic disease. Health is about the individual and the choices they make, not the doctor that patient sees.
Functional medicine physicians treat the patient, not the disease.
More importantly, functional medicine understands that the patient is their own best doctor. This means that we are all individuals, and individual treatments are necessary.
Because conventional medicine is doctor or “expert” focused, you'll find that there are many specialists and specialties that conventional medicine relies on.
This is why you can move from doctor to doctor, getting prescription after prescription and nothing is ever assessed cohesively under one roof.
In this manner, your health is more about what expert you'll see next, not how you'll get better.
Functional Medicine is Biochemically and Genetically Individualized.
Conventional Medicine treats every medical condition the same way.
Functional medicine practitioners understand that we are all biochemically and genetically different. Everyone will responds to treatments differently including diet, supplements, lifestyle behaviors and medications.
Would a teenage boy buy the same clothes as a 65 year old female? Probably not. But if they both get sick, chances are they will receive the same medical treatment despite their obvious differences.
This is because conventional medicine has a one-size-fits-all approach.
High blood pressure patients will get high blood pressure medication. High cholesterol patients will get high cholesterol medication. Autoimmune patients get immune suppressants and depressed patients will get antidepressants.
In order to provide individualized treatment, Functional Medicine uses a high touch and high tech approach to identify the best course of action for each individual (not necessarily their health condition).
Our growing understanding of genetics, genomics and how our environment impacts the expression of DNA – and how it all drives health, disease and the response to treatment – is enabling functional medicine doctors to provide better prevention and personalized treatments.
It begins with a deep dive into someone's health history, to really listen to what's going on in your life. It almost always involves a comprehensive analysis of diet, lifestyle and current blood test results; things that are rarely addressed in a 10-15 minute conversation with a conventional medical doctor.
And after the doctor has determined an appropriate course of action, it doesn't stop there. Functional medicine doctors will re-evaluate your condition over and over and continuously tweak and refine your treatment plan.
Functional Medicine is Proactive, not Reactive.
Conventional Medicine waits for problem to occur before treating.
Functional medicine practitioners are trained to identify patterns and problems long before they become a disease process.
Throughout history, the practice of medicine has largely been reactive.
Reactive healthcare involves reacting to adverse symptoms, diseases and injuries. Generally speaking, if you have no symptoms, it's assumed that you're healthy.
Proactive healthcare on the other hand doesn't base your health on how you feel, but how your body is functioning.
Most people assume that they're healthy as long as they don't have symptoms. This is the reason why heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the US.
Worse is the fact that people assume they're safe from heart disease as long as their blood pressure and cholesterol are under control. Despite the fact that we consume more heart medications and undergo more heart surgery procedures, the number of deaths attributed to heart disease continue to skyrocket.
Why? Because while medications and surgical procedures might take a symptom away, they don't correct the underlying disease processes.
The truth is, drugs and treatments used for heart disease have been tested on broad populations and prescribed using statistical averages. Consequently, these treatments may work for some patients, but not for many others.
Functional medicine, because it's based on each patient's unique circumstance and individual makeup, is beginning to overcome the limitations of traditional medicine.
Why We Need Functional Medicine
Conventional medicine is absolutely necessary for critical care and emergencies.
In fact, the United States has the best trained urgent care doctors and facilities in the world.
These doctors and facilities shine when someone has a serious infection, is injured from an accident or is suffering from a critical condition.
The problem is that these same doctors and facilities are not equipped to treat and or handle chronic disease.
We are in the midst of a chronic disease epidemic. This is not an exaggeration and we have arrived at such a critical time in history where the very survival of our species is at stake. For example:
- 60% of US adult now suffer from a chronic disease, with 40% suffering from two or more chronic conditions. 
- 70% of the current top 10 causes of death are chronic diseases. [8, 9]
- 6 million Americans are currently living with Alzhiemer's and this number is expected to reach 14 million by 2050. To put this into perspective, Alzhiemer's kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined! 
- More than 100 million Americans – 1 out of 3 – have prediabetes or diabetes, the seventh leading cause of death and 50 million have an autoimmune condition. [11, 12]
It's apparent that chronic disease is now the biggest threat to our existence. At best, conventional medicine can only drug us into submission; it can't stop or even reverse it.
To its defense, conventional medicine was never designed to do that. Conventional medicine was historically and still is today, structured to address trauma, acute infection and end-of-life care.
Why Functional Medicine Works
Functional Medicine is Evidence Based.
Functional Medicine offers a methodology for addressing the root cause of chronic disease so patients can get well—and stay well—without unnecessary drugs and surgery.
Functional medicine is fully capable of not simply stopping, but reversing chronic disease.
If you were to dig into the medical literature and search for the areas that are most likely to have the biggest impact on the largest range of chronic health conditions, you would find that it is all based on diet, lifestyle and environment.
We now know from hard scientific evidence that the mismatches between our modern diet, lifestyle and environment is the driving force behind chronic disease.
In other words, what our bodies need biologically, is not what our bodies get in the modern world.
Fortunately, functional medicine doctors and practitioners have the knowledge, tools and resources to help you get back to a more biologically congruent lifestyle.
I hope the information in this article helps you to understand more about how Functional Medicine differs from a conventional medical approach.
More importantly, I hope this article helps to shed light on Why Functional Medicine is necessary in the treatment of the chronic disease epidemic we're currently in.