It is a phrase that’s often been heard that the first step in fixing a problem is recognising that there is one. Sometimes, that comes in the form of self-acceptance or intensive data analysis, but those words ring particularly true when it comes to our health, both mental and physical. But when it comes to physical health, perhaps “recognising” isn’t the best-suited word.
After all, if something is wrong, we must rely on a Doctor’s expertise to figure out and tell us the problem. Doctors go through years and years of study and practice, and in exchange for their efforts, we, as patients, reward them with trust. And when it comes to the health of our bodies, the significance of that trust is monumental. They know better, so listen to what they say.
But the sad fact of the matter is, sometimes that trust is… shall we say, too liberally given. Try to think of a few speciality areas in medicine: ortho, oncology, obstetrics, endocrinology, gastrointestinal, dermatology… and we’ve barely scratched the surface (pardon the pun). The sheer amount of information that has to be absorbed in order to be an expert in your chosen field is enormous. In order to be an outstanding respiratory consultant, you won’t be able to be an expert in proctology.
A medical degree of course gives you an overview of the whole human body, but there’s a reason doctors specialise down the road. You simply cannot learn to be an expert on everything – it’s too much. In a way, this streamlines medicine. If your ear hurts, your GP will refer you to an ENT specialist, not start doing random tests for everything.
However, the biggest drawback to this compartmentalisation of disciplines is that those specialists will be rockstars in their specific field, but this will give them tunnel vision. They will know their area of expertise inside and out, but very rarely, if ever, will they give way to lateral thinking and consider other causes of a problem that lie outside their particular knowledge base. The rule of thumb when it comes to diagnostics tends to be: you hear hooves, you think horses, not zebras.
And therein lies the problem. So many medical conditions are complex, interwoven with other issues, have overlapping symptoms, very subtle symptoms or maybe even no visible symptoms at all. For those more complex issues, you need a doctor to consider not just the zebras, but the whole zoo. So many illnesses go undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed, for years and years, because of a failure to look at the bigger picture.
To that end, in recent years there has been the rise of something known as functional medicine. It’s not yet a popular specialisation and comparatively speaking, not all that much is known about it as yet. But the idea with this approach is to get to the root of a problem and diagnose a disease by considering all the symptoms and how they interrelate, instead of dealing with symptoms on an individual basis.
Symptoms may be caused by many different factors, that need to be dealt with together, or conversely, one particular cause can lead to the onset of many different symptoms, which may at a glance not appear related. If you go to a GP and complain about fatigue, trouble sleeping and struggling to concentrate, they might write it up as a vitamin D deficiency, low iron or an unhealthy lifestyle and send you home with some vitamins. But what if those symptoms are actually caused by depression, a hormonal imbalance or digestive problems.
The aim of functional medicine is not to disregard any smaller symptoms, just because they might seem irrelevant or less serious in the context of an obvious explanation. Any deviation from a healthy status has to have an underlying reason, and it’s crucial to understand the root cause of this, not to treat symptoms on a piecemeal basis. Tougher diseases to diagnose, like endometriosis or hypothyroidism, are so often missed and go untreated for years precisely because all the symptoms are not considered as part of a whole.
There are still many scientists and medical professionals that disregard functional medicine as “hippie nonsense”. This isn’t necessarily unfair, because many companies have sprung up, claiming functional medicine as their speciality, when in fact they’re just pushing supplements or life coaching and charge a lot of money to basically tell you to go on a diet. Functional medicine is a more holistic approach to treatment, so doctors who favour drugs and fancy modern medicine to traditional cures may be sceptical of this approach.
However, there are more and more case studies of how patients that suffered for years with symptoms that couldn’t be explained or didn’t respond to typical treatment plans wound up reaching out to functional medicine specialists and finally got an accurate diagnosis and specialised test results that allowed them to make the necessary changes in their lives to drastically improve their health.