Functional Medicine 101 Part 3—Systems Theory

In this multi-part series of articles on Functional Medicine, I’m trying to give a solid foundation so you can understand why I do what I do. Functional Medicine is yet poorly understood by many people, so it’s my hope that this primer will help you with a better grasp of this exciting, emerging field.

Let’s start today by looking at the differences between acute, infectious diseases and chronic illnesses and why an approach to helping the first often fails to help the second.

Germ Theory

In the beginning, there was germ theory—we learned that little teeny, tiny organisms could get into our bodies and make us sick. Solution? Kill them! The advent of antibiotics began a revolution in healthcare that has saved countless lives.

In the germ theory model, the ultimate goal is to find the culprit and destroy it using a drug tailored to that exact pathogen. We continually make new drugs to kill the offending bugs, and for the treatment of acute issues this works wonderfully.

However, an increasing number of afflictions are chronic in nature—they are ongoing, lasting issues that may never really go away on their own. The germ theory model of medicine and its acute treatments are a very poor way of treating these chronic illnesses, which some studies say may affect as many as 50% of Americans.

The answer, as I see it, is Functional Medicine—a completely different model than the germ theory. Put simply Functional Medicine is the science of health, and helping the chronic problems is actually a side effect of being healthy rather than a focus on using a treatment to remove a disease. It’s a huge difference in thinking, and in the world of chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, auto-immune diseases, and even cancer.

Systems Theory

At the heart of Functional Medicine is the concept that in order to be healthy, we must help our bodies’ various systems to work well and interact smoothly with one another. Our bodies are composed of many different systems, from the nervous system, to the endocrine system, to the respiratory system, to the circulation system, to the digestive system, and many others.

Each system consists of various organs that work in harmony to perform a given function. For instance, our brains, central nervous system, and peripheral nervous system are all part of a system for receiving and processing information. It lets us move, process sensory stimulation, etc.

Each system is very complex, and they each interact, creating a very complex network—and problems at any given point in that network can cause symptoms.

Functional Medicine looks at these systems and how they interact and seeks to restore balance among them if they are out of whack or to address the functioning of each body system. Looking at these systems together and at underlying dysfunctions and patterns, practitioners of Functional Medicine can see how the individual symptoms we are experience relate to the bigger whole.

Body systems are full of interrelated metabolic processes, and when these processes are not operating ideally, we experience conditions we typically call chronic illnesses. These are not conditions related to infectious diseases; these are issues within our own bodies, where they are not working optimally. If health is the optimal functioning of our bodies physiologically, it’s important for healthcare professionals to see all those processes as they work together.

With this system knowledge—as well as knowledge of how outside influences (our environment), our behavior (lifestyle), and our genetics—practitioners of Functional Medicine are creating personalized treatment for individuals, not simply treating symptoms or “diseases.”

Now that you’re armed with a better understanding of infectious diseases, chronic illnesses, and bodily systems, it’s time to add one more basic component—genetics. In our next article, we’ll look at this more closely.