Functional medicine and holistic health – quackery or science?

Many people think holistic health is all quackery. But, in fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth! The reason I became a holistic health practitioner was because I started doing my own research as a skeptical scientist for my own health.

From my journey, here are 3 things that I find amazing about functional medicine, which agrees with common knowledge in biological sciences.

  1. Everything is important. Nothing is not important.

Every time a biologist observes something in nature, we know that Mother Nature creates that for a reason. Perhaps evolution selects for the best. Then, we proceed to try to dissect the reasons and to understand how something happens.

This applies to every field in biology, and it is a beautiful thing. The DNA molecule, for example, is perfectly crafted for its function. Every detail, every angle, had good reasons. There are reasons why the plants in a forest are spaced apart the way they are, and why the smaller plants exist in their shades. Numerous examples exists that Mother Nature always has her reasons for creating something.

Yet this common knowledge had been lost in the translation from research to clinical applications. When Mother Nature creates pain, depression, cancer, fatigue, and many other health problems, there are underlying causes. We as a culture have been conditioned for instant gratification, to expect that a pill would take all the problems away rather than to seek to understand Mother Nature’s reasons (the mechanisms) and resolve the root causes. Although much of medicine is based in science, from discovery to clinical trials, the practice of suppressing symptoms and ignoring the root causes are far from scientific because it is a big departure from common knowledge.

  1. Everything is connected.

Systems biology is a new field in where engineers use engineering methodologies to explain biology. These engineers often look at things that they work on in a circuit-like manner, by drawing diagrams and then creating mathematical models in order to understand the system. System biologists typically find that the connectivity or interactions between components are important to the overall function of the organism. Also, biological systems are more powerful than the sum of its parts, which is why synthetic biologists still can’t yet create the simplest cell from chemicals alone.

Scientists are still discovering these connections every day. Because biology is complex, we will never completely understand how everything is connected. Years ago we didn’t know our gut bacteria is connected to so many aspects of our health – mental health, metabolic health, nutritional status, skin health, hormonal status – just to name a few. We used to think that it is okay to just kill these bacteria, because they didn’t matter, but now we do and many are repairing the damages to their health from overuse of antibiotics. With this general trend that “things are connected,” it is usually safe to assume that changing one thing in a system will have ripple effects on other component of the systems.

With this in mind, it is counterintuitive to care for different body systems as separate units because everything in our body is connected. Since gut integrity affects the brain and skin functions, it may no longer make sense to separately visit a gasteroenterologist, a neurologist, and a dermatologist.

This is also why whole foods are much more powerful than the individual nutrients they contain. There are connections inside of those natural foods, such as antioxidant levels that synergize with vitamin C in fruits, giving us more benefits than the same dose of vitamin C alone. Omega-3 obtained by eating fish is also more bioavailable than by supplementation. Whole food natural nutrition is better and more powerful than synthetic (fortified or supplement) nutrition, and long term supplementation of single nutrients is not optimal.

  1. Biological systems are robust.
Image from Nature Reviews Genetics 5, 826-837 (November 2004).

Image from Nature Reviews Genetics 5, 826-837 (November 2004).

System biologists also find that biological systems can take on a lot of insults before they break down. Without this robustness, any species can and will go extinct. We get stronger against the insult, unless we have too many of those that our bodies break down.

For example, in order to keep warm, humans naturally store more fat as we approach winter. We also have the ability to generate heat inside of our body to keep warm, which is why we feel warmer in the spring than in the fall at the same temperature. When we do a resistance-training exercise, after our bodies recover from it, it will feel much easier to do the same lift. This is called hormesis.

Those small insults or stressors trigger us to grow, become stronger, and become more resilient. However, we have a limit to how much we can handle and adapt positively to these insults. Too many of them at a time, or if one of them become too big, will break down our health. Generally, symptoms are a sign that the system is breaking down or is lagging in its adaptive capability. Also, if you are constantly feeling run-down, it usually means that multiple different stressors have been attacking you from all directions for a long time. This is often why a pill, a crash diet, or one single quick-fix action is usually not the best cure for chronic health problems.

Many of us, however, can feel significant benefits from removing a few or even one of these insults. For example, just by making sure that I sleep well before midnight, I lose weight and my skin improves. Many of my friends experience significantly less PMS symptoms when they stop eating conventionally raised meats.

Functional medicine didn’t emerge as a pseudoscientific quackery because functional medicine explanation of human physiology is based on solid science.

Arguably, many “natural” treatments haven’t been tested through large double-blind placebo-controlled trials, which is considered gold standard for testing medical treatments. The fact that something hasn’t been through a clinical trial doesn’t mean that a treatment is ineffective, or unsafe. Often, when a treatment option is not patentable, there is less incentive for funding to do the clinical trials. Also, for some natural treatments, it is simply impossible to design perfect placebo-controlled studies. For example, there is no fake sugar pill for a whole foods diet. Prescribing medical treatments has always been based on risk vs. benefits analysis because most pharmaceutical interventions or surgeries come with risks of danger. However, with less invasive, lower risks treatment options, often the benefit of trying a natural option prior to resorting to conventional options may far outweigh the risks. For example, many people with autoimmune diseases have better success managing their diseases with diet and lifestyle changes than with medications.

However, this doesn’t mean that all functional medicine practitioners are created equal, nor that the (mostly unregulated) natural health industry are not tainted by pseudoscientific claims. It is wise to always be challenging what you learn, seek to be informed, and exercise good judgments for your own health.

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