What is Functional Medicine and How It Can Change Your Life

What is Functional Medicine and How It Can Change Your Life

Functional medicine and functional medicine doctors are exploding in popularity - and for good reason. A skilled functional medicine practitioner can oftentimes help patients with complex, chronic conditions that their traditional Western doctors haven’t been able to cure.

Navigating the world of functional medicine can be confusing, though, so we built this guide to answer all your questions, starting with the basics.

What is functional medicine?

Functional medicine is an approach to healthcare that looks at getting to the root cause of symptoms instead of just masking or treating the symptoms. It’s a way of approaching medicine rather than a defined medical specialty. It focuses on whole body healing and is holistic in nature.

When should I go see a functional medicine practitioner? What is it good for?

Most patients who go to functional medicine practitioners are usually going to figure out their “mystery illness” or chronic condition, after not having much luck with conventional medicine.

Functional medicine is generally best suited for chronic conditions as opposed to acute ones, including digestive issues, autoimmune conditions, women’s health issues, hormonal imbalances, mental health, stress related issues.

Are functional medicine practitioners all doctors?

No. In fact, most aren’t. The term is still new, and it’s not regulated in any sort of way. Anyone can call themselves a “functional medicine practitioner”. This is a huge reason why finding a functional medicine provider can be so confusing.

Not all functional medicine practitioners have the same education or even the same scope of practice (what they’re allowed to do with you as a patient). The scope of practice is dependent on their original training and licensure (are they a dietician or an acupuncturist?) and which state they’re practicing in (an acupuncturist in California can prescribe herbs, while an acupuncturist in Alabama cannot).

For example, an MD trained in functional medicine has the ability to diagnose and treat conditions and can order all labs and bill through insurance, while a health coach trained in functional medicine won’t be able to do any of these things. A health coach will typically only be able to suggest supplements, build a meal plan, and coach you through it.

Bottom line: having a functional medicine certificate doesn’t change what your practitioner is able to do for you. It just means they have been trained in a certain style of thinking.

Ok, so how are these people getting trained?

There are institutions that are offering training and providing certificates for functional medicine. They allow anyone who is a licensed healthcare practitioner (MD’s, DOs, dietitians, acupuncturists, chiropractors, naturopaths, nurses, PAs, NPs, etc.) to receive this training.

There are a few different institutions that offer this training, with the biggest player being the Institute of Functional Medicine.

How is it different from integrative medicine?

Many people use the terms interchangeably. They’re similar but slightly different.

Both are focused on getting to the root cause, are holistic and individualized, and prioritize lifestyle, nutritional, and behavioral changes over pharmaceuticals.

The differences come with the approach to getting at the root cause. Functional medicine uses in-depth bloodwork and specialty lab testing to get at the root cause, while integrative practitioners rely less heavily on this. Functional medicine also tends to focus more on supplements than integrative practitioners.

Additionally, the credentialing is different. Integrative medicine is a board certified fellowship that MDs and DOs can take and obtain as an official credential.

How expensive is this? Will my insurance cover it?

You should expect to pay $200 - $400 for an initial appointment with a functional medicine practitioner, excluding the lab costs and follow-up appointments. Practitioners in high demand can range from $800 - $1000 for an initial appointment.

Since functional medicine is not an official license (remember, it’s just a training on top), insurance coverage is dependent on what type of provider you’re seeing. If the functional medicine practitioner is an MD or DO or a few others, they can bill insurance for the visit. However, in reality, most functional medicine practitioners operate out-of-network on a cash only basis.  

Beyond the visits themselves, lab testing and supplements are not negligible. Sometimes, supplements themselves can be hundreds of dollars per month. The specialty lab testing (stool, hormone, etc) done with functional medicine won’t be covered in most cases, and they can range anywhere from $50 to $500 per test.

The bottom line - functional medicine costs more up front, but often patients report that it’s worth the investment long term - avoiding surgery, medication and chronic illness down the line ends up saving money.

Why should I choose functional medicine over a traditional doctor?

Functional medicine is not the cure-all for everything, and you should always consult your licensed medical doctor before you make a decision. However, for certain patients, working with a functional medicine practitioner can be life changing. Patients with chronic and complex conditions who haven’t been able to solve their “mystery illnesses” oftentimes can get to the root cause of their issues and ultimately get their quality of life back. Functional medicine is also game-changing for people that want specialty, in-depth lab testing done.

Pros:

  • Get to the root cause of why you feel sick

  • Get time with your practitioner - most initial visits are 60 - 90mins long, as compared to 15 mins from a PCP

  • Relies primarily on lifestyle, diet, and supplements rather than drugs or surgery

  • Preventative -- can save you money down the road

  • Takes into account the whole person in healing

  • Get in-depth lab testing done and gain insights

  • Allows you too find ways to optimize your health - often without pharmaceuticals or procedures

  • Many work jointly with Western doctors so you get someone who understands both worlds

Cons:

  • It can be expensive ($200 - $400 for an initial appointment)

  • It takes a while to see results (3 months to a year)

  • Isn’t meant to help with acute health issues

  • Can be difficult to find a good functional medicine provider

  • Many providers have waitlists for new patients

  • This field and its associated credentials aren’t highly regulated

  • Generally are paying out of pocket, very rare that practitioners accept insurance

I’m in! How do I find a great functional medicine practitioner?

That’s what we’re here for!

We at Rupa Health understand how overwhelming it can be to navigate the whole system. Our goal is to make it seamless for you to find a trusted, credible functional medicine practitioner that best fits your needs.

We’ve found that it’s important to find someone with expertise in your specific condition, which is why we categorize & organize practitioners by specialty. We also note which insurance companies practitioners are in- network with. Just reach out to us below, and we’ll help you find the right fit for whatever you’re dealing with.

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References & Further Reading

What is Functional Medicine?, Institute for Functional Medicine

About Functional Medicine, Dr. Mark Hyman

What is Functional Medicine, Chris Kresser


At Rupa Health, we are on a mission to make integrative and alternative healthcare more accessible. We are passionate about finding you trusted holistic healthcare information you can trust.

Are you a patient looking for an integrative practitioner? We’re here to help! All of our Rupa Health certified practitioners go through a multi-level vetting process to curate the perfect match(es) for our patients. If you’re an integrative practitioner or MD looking to know more, please contact us here. We’d love to connect!


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