Functional Medicine – How it Can Help Your Healing Journey

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Do you feel like you’ve tried every method of therapy and you’re still not where you want to be, mental health-wise? You’re not alone. When patients have done everything in the protocols and tried every potential type of therapy or medication that their doctors are suggesting might be a good fit, that’s when it might be time to look into other options like integrative or functional medicine.

What is Functional Medicine? 

Functional medicine is a field of medicine that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of diseases – mental and physical. This is particularly relevant for people who might be completely healthy according to traditional medicine and whose lab work comes back normal, but who still have symptoms and who don’t feel well. That’s when functional medicine comes in. 

How Does Functional Medicine Work?

Genomic testing makes functional medicine as we know it today possible. Thanks to genomics, health providers can look at an individual person’s biochemistry and find correlations between their symptoms. This allows for a scientific, tailored approach that joins conventional medicine and more naturopathic methods. It’s a blend of “old-school” medical traditions you’re probably familiar with (like what you get when you see your doctor) and new scientific advancements. 

The Relationship Between Psychiatry and Functional Medicine

Functional medicine doesn’t reject traditional medicine. Rather, it uses all the tools available to help patients feel better. This involves supplementing and supporting the natural processes to help people feel their best as well as using medication when appropriate. For a long time, these fields existed separately without overlapping. Today, they’re starting to converge more often. 

A functional medicine practitioner starts by running extensive, detailed labs looking at your endocrine (hormonal) levels and your nutrition, then incorporating those findings into your treatment plan.

What Does Functional Medicine Have to Do With Mental Health?

When you look at a mental health condition and see symptoms of depression or anxiety, what you’re really seeing is the tip of the iceberg. While it’s possible to diagnose and treat those symptoms at face value, it may not help the underlying causes.

In mental health, there are multiple underlying factors contributing to people having the conditions that they have. A person’s genome, nutrition, inflammation, and gut health can play a strong role in the brain’s behaviors. The more a functional medicine practitioner delves into these issues, the better they can help their patient feel more in balance.

What Mental Illness Symptoms Can Have Roots in Physical Causes?

Here are just a few examples of physical conditions that can affect your mental health:

  • Viral infections or gut microbial imbalances can affect mood or contribute to depression.
  • Lyme disease has been associated with a variety of psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety and suicidal ideation.
  • Diets high in very processed foods and refined carbohydrates have been linked to depression or anxious behaviors. It’s worth noting that people dealing with depression or anxiety may be more likely to rely too heavily on these types of foods, which can create a loop that’s hard to break out of without support.
  • Hypoglycemia, also known as low blood sugar, can exacerbate ADHD symptoms.

Remember, this list is just for the sake of helping you understand how your physical and mental health affect one another. Don’t try to diagnose or treat yourself without the help of a qualified medical professional. If you suspect you might have one of these conditions (or if you think your mental symptoms have other roots in your physical health), bring it up with your psychiatrist or mental health care provider.

Can Functional Medicine be Used with Traditional Medication and Therapy?

Functional medicine and traditional medicine are sometimes seen as conflicting, but they don’t have to be! In fact, they can be very complementary. 

Traditional doctors and therapists often urge patients to enact certain lifestyle changes like incorporating a healthy diet, hydration, and regular exercise. Some even encourage their patients to take multivitamins and other supplements. So, functional medicine can be seen as the logical next step. 

Everything doctors learn in biochemistry and nutrition is part of functional medicine. It’s not reinventing the wheel; functional medicine is simply taking the logical next step and diving deeper.

If you’ve ever noticed your mental health improving after taking a walk or a delicious, well-rounded meal, you’ve already seen some of the positive effects of functional medicine in your life (physical activity and nutrition). By working with a functional medicine expert, you can get help targeting specific symptoms and find ways to incorporate healing into your everyday life. 

Incorporating Traditional Medications

Functional medicine practitioners often use medication from the get-go. When appropriate, they still use SSRIs or other medications according to their guidelines. 

At the same time, they can look into what’s causing those emotions and their symptoms. These can happen simultaneously. This helps patients feel better right away (often with therapy and medication) while identifying the root cause (through functional medicine) and alleviating the root causes long-term.

Some people need medication indefinitely, just like some people need glasses for their entire lives. But some people find that after treating the root causes of their symptoms, they no longer need psychiatric medication.

What Role can Supplements Play?

A functional medicine treatment plan generally starts with a combination of sleep, body movements/exercise, relaxation work, therapy, nutrition, and supplements. Using them in combination usually yields the best results, as opposed to simply using one method. 

This is a very different approach from the traditional medical model for treating mental health concerns, where you might tinker with your therapy and medications, but more or less stop there. Instead, try to think of every component in a functional medicine routine as one piece of the whole treatment puzzle.

Supplements can be very useful when selected after comprehensive lab work. A functional medicine provider can use lab tests as a helpful guide to figure out what supplements might be most helpful to rebalance specific hormonal or nutritional levels.

Remember, many prescription medications originally came from supplements and natural substances. Scientists often isolate the active ingredients found in specific types of tree bark or other substances, then turn them into a medication. You’ve probably already used a handful of modern medications that have their roots in nature, such as:

  • Caffeine, which is used to relieve migraine symptoms or as a natural pain reliever
  • Aspirin (derived from the bark of the willow tree), an almost ubiquitous pain reliever
  • Salicylic acid (derived from the bark of the willow tree), often used to treat acne and skin issues
  • Codeine (derived from the opium poppy), a powerful and useful pain reliever

So if you’re initially skeptical about alternative treatments, supplements, or natural remedies, you can take comfort in knowing you’re taking part in a time-honored human tradition of making the most of the natural world’s healing properties.

How Do I Know Which Supplements Will Make Me Feel Better?

Using supplements as part of a mental health treatment plan can help address specific issues. But for best results, you always want to select and take supplements as part of a larger conversation with your psychiatrist or mental health provider. 

The reasons for doing this are twofold:

  1. Like any medication or health practice, natural supplements can have side effects, risks, or interactions with other medications. While these are generally mild, a qualified functional medicine provider can inform you of any risk factors to watch out for, side effects to anticipate, or interactions to avoid.
  2. Natural supplements aren’t magic. They have specific functions that can support your body’s natural processes, treat imbalances, and regulate functioning. But in order to get those benefits, you need to know which supplements to take, how often, and in what quantities. The best supplement in the world won’t help you if it’s targeting an area you don’t need support in, or if you’re taking it in the wrong amount.

The idea isn’t to give a supplement or medication to cover up a symptom; it’s about using them judiciously to help you feel better, then identifying and treating the underlying cause.

How Long Will it Take for Me to Feel Better?

It’s different for everyone, but your provider will be able to give you an estimate.

Keep in mind that as you start to feel better, your improvements will mostly be incremental. You may experience some setbacks, but don’t get discouraged! Talk to your provider before you give up on your new changes. Your progress might feel gradual, but those gradual improvements are usually what indicate lasting change.

Think of setbacks as opportunities to pinpoint new factors you and your provider may not have considered yet. You can even ask, “what new factors haven’t been uncovered?” or “what underlying causes haven’t been addressed yet?

The Long-Term Perspective

Overall, the goal of functional medicine is lofty: to help each person get on the path to achieving their dreams and their purpose in life. Just like glasses bring visual clarity, functional medicine’s goal is to give mental and emotional clarity. That’s a big goal, but it’s a worthwhile one.

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