Though the word “chronic” is often associated with illness, it simply means anything that lasts a long time. Many people battling long-term illnesses—like diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, or chronic fatigue syndrome—haven’t felt the energy and vitality that comes from good health in years. They may manage their symptoms with medicines, but they are not truly getting well.
Functional medicine takes a different approach to illness in that it works to restore your body’s balance so you go from chronically ill to chronically well. Asthma sufferers are a good example of the treatment differences between functional and traditional medicine. According to the CDC, about one in 12 people in the United States has asthma. When a person goes to a traditional doctor due to asthma symptoms (shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, chest tightness), that doctor is likely to prescribe a rescue medicine to relieve immediate symptoms and perhaps a second long-term medicine. These medicines may help to manage the symptoms indefinitely—but that treatment plan is usually where traditional medicine ends.
Functional medicine would manage the symptoms and find out why this person has asthma. What in the patient’s genetics, environment, lifestyle, or diet causes the lungs to be sensitive to inflammation? These questions can lead a patient beyond treatment and back to wellness.
One of the first things I ask a new patient is, “When was the last time you felt really well?” That is a fundamentally different question than “When did you first start feeling sick?” Often several illnesses preceded the one that finally brought them into my office. As we talk, we often discover that these illnesses have a common link.
The person with asthma may also have had trouble with ear infections or irritable bowel syndrome. Though seemingly unrelated, they are all types of inflammation, including the asthma that brought them in to see me. Finding the true source of the inflammation allows us to effectively handle it and its varying symptoms.
Addressing a chronic illness requires time. Functional medicine goes beyond treating a patient’s problems to determine the underlying cause of imbalance, or dis-ease. Only when we have this deep level of understanding of the patient and the illness can we begin to help the patient achieve “chronic wellness.”