When does Functional Medicine fail?


So I loved the original Rocky from 1976 and I am looking forward to seeing Creed when I get around to it. In general, I love a story  about overcoming obstacles and reaching your goals against all odds. I especially love that every day I can run up the Art museum steps and look out over this great city. But what does this have to do with Functional Medicine. I think everything.

It seems an odd thing to talk about the shortcomings of Functional Medicine since obviously I think it’s the bomb. That is – it’s the best approach for relieving chronic health issues as well as reaching and maintaining optimum wellness. All the emphasis on the individual biochemically, nutritionally and genetically, all the amazing tests at our disposal to look for underlying root causes, as well as the emphasis on the mind-body connection. What could go wrong?

Well, from my experience, a lot of it is up to us. I have found that the people who benefit the most from this type of approach are “all in” as they say. They come on their own volition, are prepared to work hard and stay the course in order to reach their goals. Now this seems like a philosophy for any goal in life right? Let’s say you want to run a marathon.  So you buy some expensive cool running shoes, some awesome dri-fit reflective clothes and maybe even a fancy watch that does everything but the dishes. You might hire a coach, join the local running club, or buy an online training program. You even sign up for some 5 and 10K races and draw up a nutrition plan to fuel your efforts. But then…reality kicks in. It gets cold and dark in the winter. The streets are icy. At 5 am  your bed is just way too warm and cozy. You hate the rain. You are starving and tired when you get home from work. Happy hour beckons. Your 15 mile training run falls on your best friend’s wedding. Shin splints develop. You realize that you actually hate running. This list goes on and on. In other words, it sounds like a really great idea when you see the videos of people crossing the finish line with their hands in the air and  the svelte bodies in Runners World magazine. The idea of getting fit and healthy and placing a 26.2 sticker on your bumper is really appealing. But the road there isn’t always fun. You have to make sacrifices, dig deep for motivation, and feel some pain and discomfort in order to grab that golden ring.

The same goes for my clients who have had the best outcomes in their health and always reach their goals. There are several factors that I always notice in my most successful patients.

  1. No one is forcing them to be there. It’s like anything else. If it’s someone else’s idea for you to be healthy and not your own, it’s much easier to throw in the towel, or blame your failure on something else. Even if you are motivated by a family member or friend, you have to be there for yourself- 100%.
  2. They are patient. Arnold Palmer said, “The road to success is always under construction.” When we are sick, we want to be better yesterday. Unfortunately functional medicine is not a quick fix. We are trying to rebuild things from the ground up. Although, usually there are early noticeable improvements with tweaks in diet and lifestyle, it takes time to reverse sometimes decades of damage. This can take many months or over a year. It’s  not the same as taking a prescription  drug and calling it a day. But give it time and great things will happen.
  3. They are willing to make changes even if they don’t want to. Listen, it’s no fun giving up sugar, gluten, alcohol or whatever is asked of you. Changing your bedtime hour? Cutting out the double mocha lattes? Taking 10 supplements? You have to understand that change is hard and not always fun. But it’s also not always permanent. Elimination diets end, vitamin regimens change, all as you improve and heal. You must embrace the process.
  4. They understand that you can’t pick and choose. It’s easy to say, well, I am going to take out dairy but not sugar . Or, I can’t not be on my computer 24-7 , it’s my job. I don’t have time to exercise, meditate, sleep or whatever. One of my mentors Dan Kalish used to say that lifestyle was 85% of getting better.  It doesn’t matter how many fancy tests you take and how many supplements you swallow, if you don’t  address lifestyle changes seriously, it’s almost impossible to really make appreciable gains and reach your goals.

Functional medicine is not a magic bullet. It’s a process that takes motivation, responsibility, time and patience. But at the finish line you can throw your arms over your head and realize that it was your effort and determination that got you there.