Functional Medicine 101 Part 4: It’s in the Genes

In this four-part series Functional Medicine 101, I’m trying to lay a groundwork for understanding what Functional Medicine has to offer us. In the first article, we looked at why a new approach is necessary; in the second, we talked about the way Functional Medicine approaches health and the causes of chronic illnesses. In the third, we looked at infections vs chronic diseases. In this, the last of this introduction to Functional Medicine, I want to take a look at a topic we have yet to address in these articles: how Functional Medicine sees health and disease in terms of our genetics.

Though Swiss physiological chemist Friedrich Miescher first identified what would become DNA in 1869, the age of DNA perhaps came to maturity in 1950 when American biologist James Watson and English physicist Francis Crick identified the double helix we all got to see in colorful 3-D in high school. Since DNA research really took off, the predominant thought has been that our genetic makeup determines what kind of chronic diseases we’re most likely to get. Think of the questionnaires that ask about family history of stroke, heart disease, asthma, cataracts, diabetes, and other conditions. These represent an overall way of thinking that theorizes your genes determine your health.

Functional Medicine breaks from this way of thinking, too, as well as the disease-centered model we talked about in previous posts. Instead of thinking we’re destined to have trouble with certain conditions because of our genetics, Functional Medicine believes that the conditions we experience are based on how our genes are stimulated. This line of thinking says that while we may have certain hereditary predispositions, specific stimulators can trigger our genes—and our environment and our lifestyle chief among these.

Think about it for a moment: if your potential for chronic illnesses, which may be in your genes, is affected by what’s going on around you and the behaviors you practice, then we can affect the system. We can change the way our genes are stimulated or triggered, because we can alter what is in our control: our lifestyle. Lifestyle and environment influence our biological functions, but more than that, it impacts our genetic predispositions.

You Can Change the Story

Medical practitioners aren’t supposed to be gamblers looking for the right drug combination that will actually work and change the out-of-whack metabolic processes that cause your chronic disease. In the Functional Medicine model, they’re detectives who listen to patients’ stories, look at their environment, lifestyle, and heritage and help determine a course of action to change the course of their future history.

Perhaps you don’t think our genes change based on external circumstances? This is the very mechanism that fires up your immune system when you’re exposed to a flu or cold—environmental factors.

But there’s more: environment isn’t the only thing that triggers genes. Lifestyle does too, which Dr. Dean Ornish proved with a landmark study on heart disease. In his study, a control group suffering from cardiovascular disease continued their current lifestyle. A test group with the same condition changed their lifestyle to include a healthier diet richer in whole grains and vegetables and light on fat. They also exercised regularly and practiced stress-management techniques.

After five years, the results surprised those who think genetics determine it all. The group who’d changed their lifestyle overall saw improvement and reduction of plaque, a trend that only continued and improved more dramatically as time went on. The control group, however, continued to worsen and suffered more cardiac events on average. Through a lifestyle change of diet and exercise, the test group had effectively changed the story of their future by taking control of the some of the factors influencing their genes.

The same way we’d try to change jobs to avoid breathing asbestos or get away from second hand smoke to prevent getting lung cancer (changing our environment), we can change our lifestyle by learning to eat right for our body’s particular needs. Just as no two of us are alike genetically, no two of our needs are identical, either.

The growing field of Functional Medicine is at the forefront of helping patients take control of some of the factors that impact their health by carefully listening and partnering with patients; treating patients as people, not symptoms; and helping them identify the environmental and lifestyle factors they can control.

We can influence our metabolic processes at the genetic level through changes like diet, exercise, and supplementation. No other field of medicine is pioneering new, holistic approaches like this, and I am excited to be part of a new way of thinking that puts power back in people’s hands instead of just looking for a drug to combat a fate of chronic illness that genes predestine us to have.

In these articles, we have only barely scratched the surface of understanding the changes in thinking, treatment, and model that Functional Medicine offers patients. I’ll try to break down more of this emerging field of hope for you in future articles, but I hope that you now have a better understanding of Functional Medicine.