Your body is a network of systems. We speak of the circulatory system, the digestive system, the nervous system, the endocrine system, the immune system -- the list goes on. When we think about how our bodies work -- something we usually do when they're not working very well -- we ought to be thinking about how the component parts of these systems relate to one another and to all the other systems. Yet our current medical model -- the way health care professionals are trained and the strategy of therapy they apply -- is not based in such systems thinking. The current model derives from germ theory (a 19th century concept that gained momentum in the 20th century with advancement of the pharmaceutical industry): Find the bug and nuke it with a drug developed for just that purpose. Period. As brilliantly as the model works in providing acute and "disease" care, it clearly does nothing to restore or maintain balance among functional systems or the networks that connect them.
But functional medicine does exactly that, and functional medicine is the foundation of a paradigm built upon creating and maintaining health rather than treating disease with a "pill for an ill" approach. What do I mean by "functional medicine"? Where the standard medical model addresses the symptoms of an illness and focuses on coming up with a diagnosis, and where integrative or alternative models offer a cafeteria list of historical healing approaches to health problems, functional medicine accesses the newest scientific biomedical discoveries to focus on the underlying causes of an individual's health problems. Functional medicine looks at the patterns of dysfunction underlying the chronic diseases -- cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and numerous other illnesses with complex symptoms and no single origin -- that are shadowing our lives. What's more, functional medicine offers a model of care that can prevent or reverse these illnesses.
How does that model of care work? It is based on the way our genes are stimulated by and respond to what is going on around us and the kinds of behaviors we practice. Basically, if we can change the latter -- our environment and our behavior -- we can change the former. That is, we can -- through our lifestyle choices -- change the way our genes get stimulated and the way they respond, and since genes regulate or direct our biological functions, that can also change our pattern of health.
This is new science. It comes out of the genomic revolution that is rewriting our understanding of how our genes form our individuality, from the latent genetic possibilities we're born with to the unique individuals we become, with the particular observable characteristics that make us who we are. The new science tells us that this does not happen according to a fixed blueprint incised at conception into our genes; rather, it happens because of the way our genotype interacts with our environment, stimulating responses in our core physiological processes throughout our lifetime. The takeaway: Our health is not predetermined by our genes.
The new science of "health" care that has emerged in the 21st century is creating the opportunity to be successful in preventing and treating chronic diseases. In a successful therapeutic relationship, practitioner and patient work in partnership to create health rather than treat disease. To determine if your doctor is focused on health care or disease care, here are five questions you need to ask yourself:
• Does your doctor discuss your diet, activity patterns, work place environment, and stress patterns with you?
• Does your doctor do a comprehensive health history including all of your signs and symptoms?
• Does your doctor ask you whether your overall health has changed over the past year?
• Does your doctor discuss connections with you about how your various signs and symptoms might relate to a specific cause?
• Does your doctor discuss a personalized lifestyle medicine program for you?
More and more of us are living with chronic illness, and it is an expensive proposition. In fact, unless we implement drastic change, the numbers tell us we could be on a headlong course toward a frail, sick old age in which we will spend much of our time going to doctors and popping pills. It doesn't have to happen. Dramatic scientific discoveries have put in our hands the power to avoid the collision with debilitation and illness, setting the stage for a veritable revolution in health care.
Dr. Jeffrey Bland is the author of The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life.