Functional medicine in action | Guest column

Submitted by Gavin Guard

In a recent guest column, I discussed the necessity for a new model of healthcare to address the epidemic of chronic diseases our country faces. I argued that the current way of practicing medicine (15-minute visits, limited treatment options and little focus on diet and lifestyle) is not set up to optimally handle managing chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and autoimmune diseases. I then introduced an alternative that I believe is a better way of managing chronic diseases. Functional medicine aims at treating the root cause of the disease rather than just masking symptoms with specific medications. But how does this new paradigm of medicine achieve this end result? Let me give an example.

Let’s examine how functional medicine would address a patient who has high cholesterol. Conventionally, high cholesterol is managed with medications called statins. However, I question the validity of this treatment option as many studies refute the simplified hypothesis that high levels of “bad cholesterol” cause heart disease. Also, there’s a better way of fixing this problem — one without medications that carry a set of potential side effects and a list of dysfunctions they can cause in the body. Certainly, medications have their place, but is this the first thing we should go to when there’s a problem in the body?

Functional medicine looks at this same condition with a different lens. Instead of looking at high cholesterol as a disease itself, it sees it as a symptom of some other underlying cause. As a functional medicine clinician, I would look at this same issue of high cholesterol and simply ask, “why?” Why does this person have high cholesterol? Is there something going on in the gut? Do they have a thyroid disorder? How does their diet play into this? Are they not getting enough or too many nutrients in their diet that can cause this symptom? Are they inflamed from an underlying chronic infection that has yet to be identified? How might stress they are experiencing be affecting their cholesterol levels?

Once I’ve identified the root cause of their high cholesterol, I would then ask more “whys” until I can come up with a set of interventions that can be implemented to correct and reverse these underlying causes. This takes a very thorough and complete understanding of the complexity of human physiology and biochemistry and assumes that the body is capable of maintaining health if given the proper environment. If early enough in the disease process, this new model of medicine has the potential to halt or reverse chronic disease, save patients thousands of dollars in medications and surgeries and provide the tools to allow patients to thrive and not just survive.

Guard will soon be graduating from the University of Colorado as a physician assistant. His vision is to work in collaboration with Dr. William F. House at San Juan Healthcare clinic to transform the health of the island community.