Many people with autoimmune or chronic health conditions find themselves dissatisfied with the conventional medical system. Our symptoms are often varied and non-specific, changing and affecting multiple body systems. Because so many of the symptoms overlap autoimmune disease can be incredibly hard to diagnose. Many of us spend years visiting multiple doctors and specialists speaking answers.
I suspect that my autoimmune issues really kicked up when I was 18 or 19 after years of chronic childhood stress, birth control use, and a surgery to remove my gallbladder. 9 years and 12+ doctors later I received my first AI diagnosis and discovered the role that food was playing in my life. I tried conventional medications, but they had side effects, and for the most part left me feeling worse. I started to experience new symptoms and deep down I knew there was something else going on. My rheumatologist told me I needed to accept that I was my disease and that conventional medicine had nothing left to offer me. I was not new to the paleo & holistic health world, so I knew it was time to kick the insurance and reach out to a functional medicine doctor.
Functional medicine is often used interchangeably with Integrative or Holistic Medicine. While conventional medicine seeks to “manage” illness by treating & masking symptoms, functional or integrative medicine focuses on optimal wellness by identifying and correcting the underlying root causes of disease. They use a systems oriented approach that looks at the whole person instead of the disease itself. These specialists can be particularly helpful in issues of autoimmunity, where we’d otherwise be sent to 10 specialists to manage all the different systems being affected by a single disease. At the heart of functional medicine is a focus on the relationship between physician and patient, the therapeutic partnership, which is an essential and empowering piece of a healing journey.
The emphasis on the relationship between patient and doctor was salient to me upon starting with my own physician. The introduction paperwork made specific references to my role in the process and the expectation for me to be engaged, ask questions, research, and participate in the development of my treatment plan. I was even given a folder, a sheet to jot down information and questions, and a pen! After years of being told what I should be doing without much say in the matter it was an empowering difference. Right now I’m lucky to have some excellent conventional medicine doctors that appreciate when I engage and ask questions, but overall my experience with this has been quite negative. They often don’t have the time and/or do not appreciate the value that this type of interaction has on patient success. I’ve worked in the medical field so I understand the limits that insurance places on the time spent with a patient in a traditional practice. Functional/integrative medicine physicians often do not accept insurance, which allows them to spend more time with patients, order specialized testing, and really get to the root issues at play. They often use the least harmful treatments first, which means changes in diet, lifestyle, the use of supplements, and other alternative modalities prior to the use of conventional pharmaceutical medications.
Types of Functional Medicine Practitioners
Medical Doctor (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O)
Many traditionally trained doctors later pursue eduction and training in functional/integrative medicine. I went this route for my integrative doctor as it was important for me to have someone that could blend conventional and alternative practices by prescribing conventional medications & ordering testing if necessary.
Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.)
While we think of chiropractors as treating injuries and orthopedic dysfunction, some chiropractors focus more on functional medicine, using comprehensive testing along with nutritional and lifestyle approaches on a quest for optimal wellness. With the exception of New Mexico, chiropractors are not authorized to prescribe medications. Some will work closely with medical doctors when medications or traditional approaches are needed.
Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (N.D.)
Naturopathy is a field of alternative medicine that focuses on natural modalities such as homeopathy, herbalism, acupuncture, nutrition, and lifestyle coaching. Unlike the above credentials, licensing and education requirements vary greatly by state. N.D.’s generally cannot prescribe medications and focus more on alternative therapies.
Other providers that often seek additional training and practice functional medicine include oriental medicine practitioners, acupuncturists, and nutritionists (licensing/certification varies). Their approaches may be limited compared to a MD or DO due to education and practicing laws.
How to find a functional medicine doctor
Not all doctors are created equal. When I was choosing my physician I took a lot of time to research doctors in my area. I was expecting to pay out of pocket and I wanted to make sure my money, and time, was going to be well spent. Through google searches, consulting support groups, and using some of the physician finders listed below I narrowed my options to a few top choices. Many autoimmune related support groups have files with lists of doctors recommended by members.
I looked for doctors with a good web presence so I could get to know my options. I read reviews and browsed the physicians web content. I read what to expect at a visit and their financial policies on their websites. I wanted a doctor that was fee for service, opposed to the package deals or memberships that some holistic clinics provide. If a doctor had mediocre reviews, appeared to have a packaged approach (opposed to individualized), or seemed like they wouldn’t take the proper time with me I crossed them off my list. After narrowing my options to my top two I listened to podcasts, watched interviews, and read blog posts written by the doctors and chose the one that I seemed to connect with best.
Check out these resources to help find doctors in your area:
If you are in Florida I recommend integrative medicine physician Dr. Erika Bradshaw. She’s located in Tarpon Springs and Brandon.
Learn More About Functional Medicine
To learn a little more about my first experience with an integrative medicine physician check out this post: Chronic Illness: A Lesson on Preserverance and Letting Go