Your Guide to the 6 Core Principles of Functional Medicine

For people who are tired of visiting the doctor for the same symptoms only to receive yet another prescription that doesn’t seem to help, functional medicine may be the solution. After months or years of battling health issues, you need to know that another drug — complete with its own unique side effects — isn’t the only option. 

You are not a disease: You’re a living, breathing, whole human with complicated biochemical individuality that requires attention and treatment specific to you. This is where functional medicine shines.

Defining Functional Medicine

Functional medicine approaches health through whole-body wellness. Unlike conventional medicine, which looks at specific symptoms and is quick to label a person with a condition, functional medicine takes a look at the individual as a whole human and considers the underlying causes. It’s person-focused rather than disease-focused.

Functional medicine practitioners recognize that one condition can have many causes, and one root cause can contribute to many conditions. Working with a functional medicine doctor is truly a partnership, where the physician cares about you and has a deep desire to understand the root cause of your ailment. 

In 2014, Cleveland Clinic became the country’s first academic medical center with a functional medicine program in partnership with Dr. Mark Hyman. This human-centric, science-rooted approach has since been garnering support across the medical community because it delivers results and promotes true wellness.

The 6 Core Principles of Functional Medicine

The six principles of functional medicine help define the field and show what sets it apart from conventional medicine:

1. Gene-Environment Interaction

Everyone is different. Functional medicine physicians treat the whole person by understanding, at the deep cellular level, how each individual’s genetic makeup and lifestyle/environment come together to create a human body unlike any other. This may include:

  • Genetic testing and sampling to understand your unique biochemical make-up and processes, such as your methylation cycle
  • Conversations and questions about your lifestyle and environment
  • Identifying triggers, like allergens, toxins, and more, that may be contributing to chronic conditions

2. Upstream Signal Modulation

Rather than using a drug to block a reaction in your body at the moment right before that reaction would cause real damage, functional medical care goes upstream to find what’s igniting that reaction in the first place and stops it at its source. It:

  • Focuses on supporting the body’s innate ability to heal.
  • Recognizes that health is not merely the absence of disease: it’s a vibrant, positive vitality, where you feel good in your body and are truly thriving.

3. Multimodal Treatment Plans

naturopathic herbs

This is integrative medicine that pulls from conventional medicine’s pharmaceutical solutions when appropriate, but functional medicine doctors take a holistic approach to well-being. This may include:

  • Diet and nutrition, including supplementation with vitamins and herbs
  • Exercise and daily movement
  • Stress management tools and techniques
  • Appropriate rest and high-quality sleep
  • Mind-body care and spiritual considerations
  • Detoxification
  • Chiropractic care, massage, and other therapies

4. Understanding the Patient in Context

The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) has a set of tools to help functional medicine physicians learn about a patient’s lifestyle factors and significant events in the patient’s history to better understand who this person is. They:

  • Take a thorough medical history as well as a personal patient’s history.
  • Use IFM tools like the Timeline, which helps explore the cause-and-effect relationship of events in your life, and the Functional Medicine Matrix, which helps your functional medicine physician organize and prioritize your health concerns.
  • Build a long-term patient/physician relationship.

5. Systems Biology-Based Approach

functional medicine

This looks at how the body’s systems interact, with an understanding that an imbalance in one area can have an effect on another part of the body. Systems biology is a holistic approach to health problems “…based on the understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” The Functional Medicine Matrix is used to map and understand the connections across seven biological systems:

  • Assimilation: digestion and absorption
  • Defense and Repair: inflammation, infection, and immunity
  • Energy: energy regulation and mitochondrial function
  • Biotransformation and Elimination: detoxification
  • Transport: cardiovascular and lymphatic systems
  • Communication: endocrine system and neurotransmitters
  • Structural Integrity: from subcellular membranes to muscles and bones

6. Patient-Centered and Directed

In the functional medicine model, the patient and the physician are a team, working together to uncover the root cause of the patient’s chronic pain, depression, or any other illness or dysfunction. Together, they develop a treatment plan that may include significant lifestyle changes as the patient works toward his or her health goals. This means:

  • You’re in charge of your own health.
  • Your body wants to be well, and you can support its journey to positive vitality and optimal health — whatever “optimal” is for your unique body and mind.

What to Look for in a Functional Medicine Practitioner

Navigating the medical system is no easy task, and you have to do what’s right for your own health. Working with a good functional medicine practitioner may be a great option for you in combating chronic disease and other health concerns you may have.

First, make sure you’re working with a physician who is both a certified practitioner and a licensed doctor, someone who has gone to medical school and received additional education in a holistic approach to therapy, chronic illness management, and well-being — with a focus on prevention. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how the physician takes a holistic approach (i.e. what other types of practitioners do they work with?), how they diagnose and treat chronic conditions, and how they balance the use of pharmaceuticals with lifestyle changes and natural solutions. 

Naturopathic Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Karen Threlkel offers a full range of naturopathic medical services to patients seeking a well-rounded approach to their own health and well-being. The holistic model allows her to approach each patient as an individual. She works closely with her patients to identify the root cause of their chronic conditions and map out a plan for treatment and healing. 

Contact Dr. Karen Threlkel today to ask about naturopathic medicine, or to speak with an expert about other related medicine questions you might have.

About The Author:

Dr. Karen Threlkel, Naturopathic Physician, Washington DC

Dr. Karen Threlkel, Naturopathic Physician, Washington DC

Dr. Threlkel received her degree of Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine from The National College for Naturopathic Medicine (now called The National University of Natural Medicine) in Portland, Oregon. She also holds a Bachelor Degree in Kinesiology from The University of Maryland. She is licensed in Naturopathic Medicine by the Government of the District of Columbia Department of Health. Dr. Threlkel is a member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, past president & current member of the Washington DC Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

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