Do you ever feel like you have some nagging health complaints but don’t know where to start? Maybe you’ve tried a few different supplements; you’ve worked with your doctor and tried some medications; you’ve changed your diet and exercise routine but you still don’t feel 100 percent. Look no further—there is a way to stop guessing! Have you ever heard the buzzwords, “Functional Medicine?” It’s a new term that defines a small group of physicians that look at the smallest portions of a human’s chemistry that affects the whole ecosystem of the body. Functional Medicine consists of some basic therapeutics: Looking at blood tests and labs to determine health status, looking at diet and nutritional habits, assessing exercise and fitness levels and determining mental/cognitive well-being. Functional Medicine is like holistic ancient medicine (like Chinese Medicine) meets new-age chemistry and modern medicine. Functional medicine was a primary focus during doctoral training, many traditional acupuncturists never get exposed to functional medicine. I feel it’s one of the most important aspects of my practice.
Acupuncture itself is a fantastic way to help ease a multitude of symptoms and side effects quickly—especially when all else fails. But how do you really know how those symptoms flourished in the first place? How do you prevent them from returning? The answer is Functional Medicine.
People often ask me: 1.) Can’t my doctor just tell me all these things from blood tests? 2.) Are you sure this is a part of the scope of your practice? 3.) How does this affect our goals for the acupuncture treatment? Such great questions! To answer the first question, your medical doctor is one of the most trained individuals that supports your health. His/her job is to keep you alive, prevent major catastrophes and save your life when you need it most. Because this task often entails such in-depth knowledge of medicine, the human body, chemical agents and surgical techniques, his/her focus and training is often on the big stuff. Many doctors simply don’t have the time or resources to focus on preventative medicine, which is okay because that’s my job, along with others. I certainly have no training in performing surgery or saving a life when it’s hanging on the line—that is the job of a M.D. "Medical Doctor". Doctors look at your blood tests and assess for imminent danger. They have a range that indicates the possibility of diagnosing a disease (such as heart failure, multiple sclerosis or diabetes). A functional lab analysis looks at the path to disease. We look at the progression and possibility of certain functions that aren’t ideal. We do not diagnosis diseases, but we can see where small changes can be made to prevent the onset of disease from occurring. We can often spot things such as low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria), acute or chronic food allergies, iron or B12 deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances, dietary habits such as not eating frequently enough, eating too many carbohydrates, systemic inflammation, not enough nutrient dense foods or even genetic mutations. We can basically see how well your body is handling your lifestyle and habits. This type of blood test reading requires special Functional Medicine training.
Secondly, yes, as an Oriental Medicine Doctor (DAOM), I spent 2,000 more hours than a licensed acupuncturist learning about how to use different types of therapies and how to provide the best care for patients. We learned how to work with modern western medical doctors to help assist them in certain areas like reading X-rays and MRI's to better treat pain. We assisted in the labor and delivery of babies using acupuncture while the medical staff did their jobs, and most important to my practice we learned to read blood tests. We learned how to do a basic physical exam; we dove deep into nutrition and exercise medicine and learned all about up and coming research and how to be more involved in moving traditional medicines forward into integration. I am like the connoisseur of acupuncture and I can catch and assess disease and health status to give a patient the best referral. One example of this might be that I have a patient who comes in with back pain. We administer acupuncture. The acupuncture works only slightly well. I do a physical exam and rule out physical pathology; I look at the patient’s blood test and can confirm abnormal functional numbers that confirm why that patient is having pain that isn’t responding well to other therapies. Then I can send the patient to a naturopathic doctor who can do further testing and prescribe a natural antidote. Without being able to correctly assess this, any other acupuncturist who doesn’t practice functional medicine might continue to treat the patient until frustration sets in, and then the patient returns to his/her M.D. who says the labs look normal.
Lastly, how does Functional Medicine assist the process of acupuncture? With the ability to assess lab panels, do physical exams, assess nutrition and dietary habits and exercise routine, I can apply acupuncture with a more targeted diagnosis in mind. Let’s say we see on a lab analysis that a person’s cholesterol is high and his/her liver isn’t converting glucose well. Instead of just sticking needles where their knee pain is, we can affect the liver as a secondary focus to help with converting glucose to decrease inflammation. We can add in dietary and exercise routines that can also help with it. What I love the most about this process, however, is two things: When someone comes to me and he/she doesn’t know where to start—we can do a full exam and I write up a game plan based on that lab exam, physical exam, diet and exercise routine, and apply acupuncture and other physical medicines to improve well-being. Then, after a period of time (usually 3-9 months), we retest and re-evaluate to see how much improvement has been made. I hope to see functional medicine change the way the world approaches preventative medicine so we can all stop guessing how to improve our health!
Check out this awesome Ted Talk by Dr. Mark Hyman for an even deeper explanation about functional medicine!
Dr. Christina Fick (DAOM)