I find that a degree of confusion is commonly encountered around the terminology used to define different styles of medicine. Certainly in the era of “natural” foods, cosmetics, fabrics and the like, there is a growing tendency, and a greater consumer drive, towards products and services that are more “natural”. But what exactly defines “natural”, and how does this translate to the practice of medicine? Specifically, is Functional Medicine equivalent to, or different from Natural Medicine?
A “natural” provider is prone to reach for treatments and interventions that originate in nature. Clearly a powder or a tincture made from a plant is natural, as is a food or a mineral. What I appreciate about a natural approach to health is that it is not limited to creams, tinctures, supplements or diets. A natural practitioner could also tap into other components of nature that may well have healing applications. This may include the use of sound, light, vibrational energy or touch. Natural medicine bases treatments in that which is found in nature exclusively; modalities that incorporate any degree of pharmacology, such as the use of conventional allopathic medicines, are specifically excluded from the practitioner’s armamentarium, whether by choice or by law.
Functional Medicine similarly tends towards a purely natural approach. The well versed Functional Medicine provider understands and utilizes the benefits of a this approach, and will frequently utilize many of these modalities. I believe that the ability to tap into the complexity of the human physiology and spirit using purely natural approaches is powerful, and in many cases this could provide the single intervention that allows the patient to regain a state of optimized health. I will unquestionably reach for a food, plant, nutrient, hormone or supplement first in working towards a patient’s health. In a majority of my cases this is all that is required to repair and realign one’s health, or to modify the risk of a chronic illness. Ideally we can attain a state of balance, a state of wellness, that can then be maintained with the basics; clean water, organic foods, tranquility and community.
However I feel that a primary factor that differentiates a Functional from a purely “natural” provider is the understanding that on occasion one needs to utilize the advancements in science and medicine to rectify a severely damaged or unbalanced physiology that is contributing to one’s illness. Yes, I prefer to utilize herbal approaches to rectify a yeast overgrowth. But if this fails, on occasion a person needs an aggressive course of anti-fungal drugs to rebalance the gut’s ecosystems. A severe case of Bacterial Overgrowth of the Small Intestine (BOSI) may respond to probiotics, but on occasion the use of a prescriptive, non-absorbed antibiotic like Rifaximin is the best recourse. Severe adrenal depletion frequently responds to adaptogenic herbs, but rarely the individual requires Cortef, a drug used to directly replace cortisol.
In conclusion, I believe that a Functional approach offers the best of both worlds. In my practice I can go weeks without writing a “conventional” prescription, emphasizing the use of natural treatments, herbs, hormones and foods. But a functional approach to health really delves into the vast complexities of human biological and physiological systems. I strongly believe that the “Western”, purely allopathic, symptom-based and medicine-driven approach is generally doing more harm than good. In my practice I make every effort to pursue health from a different, more “natural” perspective. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. With a hybrid, Functional approach, we can optimize our patients’ lives, health and longevity.
If I am poised to rupture my appendix, I can assure you that I will gladly take general anesthesia, surgery and antibiotics to save my life. We need to remember that conventional medicine offers many lifesaving possibilities. But like so many things, these possibilities need to be understood in the perspective of their mechanisms, limitations, and their influences on the entire organism; on the entire body. When we embrace the capacity to blend a “natural” with a scientific and modern approach, it is at this point that we can begin to embrace a state of true health and longevity.
Dr. Scott Resnick
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