Recently, I was privileged to attend a one-day seminar lead by the “Father of Functional Medicine” Dr Jeffrey Bland. Besides holding a biochemistry PhD and being the author of several books and research papers in nutritional biochemistry and medicine, he also co-founded the Institute of Functional Medicine in 1991, which is now the go-to resource for education and certification in Functional Medicine. So really, he’s a big deal! And if the world of medicine as we know it is set to change, it is this man’s impetus that will set the new approach in motion. So I consider myself incredibly lucky to have attended his lectures on his visit to South Africa.
But why am I telling you all of this? Who cares, right? You’re not in the field of medicine, and quite frankly you might not care about some arbitrary chemical processes in your body – if you did, you probably would have studied it! But I’m telling you this because this is the future of medicine – one day, you will go to your doctor and they will not ignore your vague complaints of fatigue, they will not quiz you and examine you in fifteen minutes so that they can give you a disease label, and they may not even have a prescription pad. Instead, you will have an hour initial appointment, they will actually listen to your complaints, they will explain to you how your body works as a system and not individual organs, they will run tests that currently don’t even appear on those forms you get at the pathology lab, and they will treat you with foods and supplementation. Ultimately, they will put YOU back in control of your health and your life, instead of you being a slave to medication that treats the symptoms of your disease but ignores the cause. THIS is Functional Medicine – it is HEALTH care instead of DISEASE care.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a product of allopathic medicine and I wholeheartedly believe in it and the incredible developments that have been made in medicine over the years – they have saved countless lives! I am in no way touting that we should be treating your heart attack with plants and food. But I am saying that you should never have got there in the first place if we truly treated the chronic diseases that caused it. The current system is incredibly successful – but in acute and crisis care, not in chronic disease care. We need a new model of treating chronic disease, and I dare say it doesn’t involve the basket of drugs we currently prescribe patients. Evidence shows that drugs have had no effect on the PREVALENCE of disease (i.e. how many people are living with the condition) – what they do is treat the symptoms. Metformin is a drug prescribed to diabetics to control blood sugar – it does this very well, but it doesn’t change the fact that they have diabetes. Steroids are prescribed to many patients with autoimmune disorders to stop the immune system from overreacting to the host’s tissue – in addition to their unwanted side-effects, they don’t change the fact that you have an immune system dysfunction. See where I’m going with this?
Chronic disease is a product of three aspects: your genes, your diet and lifestyle, and the environmental toxins to which you are exposed. We are not simply a product of our genes – we have genetic ‘plasticity’ which means we have the power to manipulate what and how our genes are expressed by changing our lifestyle, including our diet, exposure to toxins, and our social constructs and relationships. That is powerful – if you eat junk, you will become junk… and surely you’d rather be a superhero unicorn?!
So my message is two-fold:
- Yes, your genetics are important, but they are not your fate. How you construct your lifestyle has a huge influence on how those genes are expressed and the health state (or dis-ease) through which they manifest
- The future of chronic care medicine will be focused on finding the underlying cause for your symptoms, will be system-based rather than organ-based, and will employ diet and lifestyle modifications as treatments instead of drugs. You will be in control.
In future, don’t expect a disease label and don’t expect a prescription. Expect a longer initial consultation. Expect future consultations to be held in groups with people with the same overall biochemical dysfunction but perhaps different outward manifestations. Expect new words such as microbiome and leaky gut. Expect a new grocery list, exercise program, and practicing meditation in the morning. But mostly, expect to be in control of your own health; expect to have your function back.