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What Is Functional Medicine?

By Rachael Cullins
Updated May 17, 2024
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Functional medicine is a field that focuses on individual, personalized approaches to healthcare and places a heavy emphasis on preventive care. Whereas traditional Western medicine treats symptoms of diseases and conditions, practitioners of functional medicine believe in treating root causes of health problems before they start. These root causes can include environmental factors, diet and exercise deficiencies, hormonal imbalances and more. Functional medicine focuses on treating the body as a whole, rather than responding to medical needs in specific parts of the body, and it is similar in nature to holistic medicine.

Balancing basic biological processes is a core value of functional medicine. It is believed that properly balancing the body’s various functions — such as the immune system, digestion and nutrient intake — is key to preventing chronic conditions such as heart disease and arthritis. Functional medicine practitioners believe that diseases are caused when these delicate balances are disrupted. Intervention to restore these balances in order to prevent disease is a primary purpose of functional medicine.

When treating patients, practitioners of this type of medicine assess the entire body and make health decisions based on a wider variety of factors than a traditional physician might. Functional medicine factors in health history, genetics and the patient’s living environment to make treatment decisions. After the patient has been fully assessed, treatments might include lifestyle changes, traditional drug therapies, nutritional supplements or various forms of detoxification.

Mental health is also a strong component of functional medicine. Psychological and spiritual elements are given strong significance in the role of overall health. Good health is not judged merely by the absence of disease. Rather, functional medicine practitioners believe that true healthfulness stems from overall positivity and vitality.

The concept of functional medicine was first developed in 1990 as a way to address increasing numbers of patients suffering from chronic diseases. The first functional medicine research center was established in 1992. Practitioners of this type of medicine can now be found around the world.

Many functional medicine practitioners hold a doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree or are dietitians or registered nurses. There is no specific degree available in functional medicine; rather, those with other healthcare qualifications integrate facets of functional medicine into their practices. Many health professionals who wish to incorporate functional medicine techniques into their practices participate in learning courses before doing so.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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