Functional Medicine vs. Conventional Medicine: What’s the Difference?

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Medicine is the field of keeping people healthy, treating illnesses, and preventing diseases. It's like a vast puzzle where doctors and healthcare professionals work together to understand how our bodies function and what can go wrong. 

Several approaches come to light in terms of following the methods of diagnosing and treating disease. But two have gained the most popularity among other approaches. One is evidence-based conventional medicine, and the other is patient-based functional medicine. 

Both treatment approaches have the same goal: to make sure you feel your best and live a happy, healthy life.

Let's examine their differences and see what happens if both treatment approaches come together. 

Overview of Functional and Conventional Medicine

According to the Institute for Functional Medicine, functional medicine is a biology-based and comprehensive approach that aims to identify and treat the underlying cause of a variety of physical and mental health conditions. 

Functional Medicine sees the body as an interconnected system that strives for balance and overall health. With this approach, the patient takes an active role in making informed decisions and participating in the entire healthcare journey. 

On the other hand, conventional medicine, often called Western medicine or modern medicine, is the mainstream approach widely practiced in most Western nations. It relies solely on evidence-based methods to diagnose and treat diseases. 

Physicians focus on symptoms and use medications, surgeries, and other medical interventions to address health issues effectively. This approach forms the foundation of modern healthcare, providing patients with proven treatments and therapies.

Conventional medicine works well with life-saving interventions such as organ transplantation or providing patients with emergency treatment. This medical approach significantly impacts public health, such as the development of vaccines to control infectious diseases such as COVID.  

What are the differences between conventional medicine and functional medicine?

The two different approaches to healthcare—functional medicine and conventional medicine—each have their own philosophies and ways of doing things. 

Here is a quick breakdown on this side-by-side comparison table of how the two differ:

Functional Medicine

Conventional Medicine

Determines the root cause of illness.

Diagnoses an illness based on symptoms.

Restore the healthy function to allow the body to function. 

Medication, surgeries, and medical intervention are used to treat illness.

From the diagnosis to the healing process, the patient actively participates.

Patients passively receive treatments

Adjusts the treatment strategy based on the causes.

Treat patients with similar symptoms in the same way.  

It basically involves a patient's long-term treatment, which does not work well in emergency care.

It is immediate and effective for emergency care.


Diagnostic Approach: Functional vs Conventional

Conventional medicine frequently relies on identifying specific symptoms. It uses laboratory tests and imaging studies to confirm or rule out a specific disease or condition. 

Functional medicine requires comprehensive patient histories, extensive lab testing, and analyzes factors such as genetics, lifestyle, environment, and diet to understand the root causes of health issues.

Treatment Methods: Functional vs Conventional

Conventional medicine heavily relies on pharmaceutical drugs, surgical interventions, and other medical procedures to manage and treat those symptoms. 

Functional medicine treatment plans frequently combine dietary adjustments, lifestyle modifications, nutritional supplements, stress reduction techniques, and other natural therapies to support the body's innate healing processes and re-establish balance in patients' lives.

Time and Relationship with Patients: Functional vs Conventional

Due to the demands of a busy schedule, doctors in conventional medicine frequently have little time to spend with patients. Essentially, treatment plans can be standardized and based on established protocols.

Functional medicine practitioners typically spend more time with their patients, attempting to understand each person's unique health history, lifestyle, and genetic factors. This personalized approach allows for a better understanding of the patient's health and the development of tailored treatment plans.

Emergency Care: Functional vs Conventional

Conventional medicine is extremely effective in acute and emergency situations. For example, if someone has fractured or broken their leg or been burned, no other treatment is as effective as conventional. 

Functional medicine, on the other hand, excels at treating chronic conditions by addressing the underlying causes. It supports the body's natural healing mechanisms. It is incompatible with emergency treatment. 

Where Conventional Medicine Needs Functional Medicine

Both conventional and functional medicine have their own approaches to disease treatment and healing strategies. However, some fields demand the coexistence of the two treatment philosophies. 

Such as:

  • Autoimmune diseases supplement conventional treatment, where functional focuses on identifying triggers and immune dysregulation. 
  • Pain management, particularly orthopedic or physical medicine, addresses the root cause of chronic pain, while conventional medicine provides pain relief medications. 
  • In chronic disease management, like cardiology, endocrinology, or gastroenterology, functional medicine addresses the root cause and contributes to diet, lifestyle, and stress, along with conventional medicine.
  • In terms of mental health, although functional medicine focuses on nutrition, gut health, and hormonal imbalances, it is ineffective without conventional medication and talk therapy.
  • Functional medicine can benefit gynecology, in particular women's health, where women need to balance their stress, lifestyle, and even hormonal imbalances, recognizing that women's health does not rely solely on conventional medicine. 

Moreover, Functional medicine can help conventional medicine improve patient care, especially in managing chronic diseases, preventive care, and treatment plans. 

Collaboration with functional medicine specialists can promote a more extensive and patient-centered care approach, ultimately improving patient outcomes.

Final thoughts

Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages; the best approach often depends on the individual's health and preferences.

Some health practitioners combine aspects of functional and conventional medicine to provide patients with a comprehensive and balanced approach to care.  It is best to consult with qualified healthcare professionals who will determine the best course of action for the patient's specific health needs.

To summarize, functional medicine teaches you how to minimize the dysfunction that leads to disease first, and then utilizes conventional medication when it is necessary.

Don't forget to share your thoughts!

Image by gpointstudio on Freepik

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I'm Alice and I live with a dizzying assortment of invisible disabilities, including ADHD and fibromyalgia. I write to raise awareness and end the stigma surrounding mental and chronic illnesses of all kinds. 

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Dr. Wilson graduated from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and completed her residency in Internal Medicine at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, IL. Dr. Wilson specializes in providing culturally competent and trauma-informed care to patients with physical disabilities. In addition to her private practice, she works as a science communicator, teaching health literacy to middle school and high school students in her local school district. 

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