Sophia Wachner, MD, is an internist and functional medicine specialist. She runs a practice for functional medicine, orthomolecular medicine and nutritional medicine and is a partner in the MoleQlar consulting program.
The figures are disturbing: In Germany, 40 percent of the total population currently suffer from one or more chronic diseases. Almost one in three of them has been living with these conditions for 20 years or more (study by Stiftung Gesundheitswissen, 2021). This means that almost every second inhabitant of Germany is now affected.
The number of people suffering from complex, chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular or autoimmune diseases (for example, rheumatoid arthritis) and psychological limitations continues to rise - not only in Germany, but globally. However, while other countries have mediocre healthcare systems, the German counterpart is among the best in the world. This raises the legitimate question, how can this happen? The answer is as simple as it is frightening:
Our way of life is less and less in line with what our human body actually needs.
Mismatch between body and environment
We are not designed to be stressed, surrounded by toxins, inflamed, infected, undersupplied with essential micronutrients, and unrested. Yet we expect (also driven by our society) to be full of energy, to grow, to reproduce, to be slim, to feel good, to eat whatever we want, to digest perfectly, and to have great sex. A combination of desires that is a contradiction in terms.
All organisms on earth are adapted to a certain living environment. Maladaptation occurs when this environment changes dramatically and the organism does not have time to adapt. This mismatch between our genes and our modern life is the main reason that chronic diseases have become the huge problem they are today.
The conventional approach
The conventional approach of our health care system focuses on curation - treating disease and individual symptoms. Instead of promoting true health, conventional doctors simply diagnose a disease and try to suppress the symptoms (usually) with prescription drugs. These drugs rarely address the root cause of the problem. Instead, they often only suppress symptoms and do so at the expense of vital bodily functions. To treat these unintended side effects, the medication is in turn extended. This creates a vicious cycle of medications for the rest of life without addressing the root of the disease.
The eternal recipe cycle
To illustrate, let's take a quick look at an everyday example of conventional health care: A person with high blood pressure comes to the family doctor for a 10-minute appointment. The doctor measures the blood pressure and the patient goes home with a prescription for a new medication. After that, she is on her own until her next appointment. At this appointment, she will probably only be given a follow-up prescription, perhaps without even seeing the family doctor. The causes of her complaints in terms of diet, lifestyle and environment would be completely disregarded. And thus the possibility of working with health advisors and other trained professionals to create an individualized treatment plan for her cardiovascular health that would not only alleviate the discomfort, but actually bring the cure she craves.
The functional approach
Functional medicine follows this very path, which focuses on the cause of a disease rather than relying on drugs to suppress symptoms. It corrects the mismatch between our body and our environment through dietary and lifestyle measures.
In short, functional medicine is our best weapon against chronic diseases.
It views the body as an interconnected system, not as a collection of individual organs assigned to medical specialties. And functional medicine treats the whole system, not just the symptoms. In doing so, it addresses the underlying causes of disease, taking a systems approach that focuses on the interaction of the system body (metabolism, nutrition, routines, ...) and the environment, and involves both the patient and the treating physician in a therapeutic partnership.
Functional medicine for the 21st century
Functional medicine is an evolution of the prevailing university medical practice that is much more responsive to the needs of 21st century health care. In it, practitioners take time with their patients, listen to their stories, and examine the interactions between genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence health and disease. The goal is to empower patients to take responsibility for their own health through a deep understanding of the complex interactions.
Acute care pointless for chronic diseases
The medicine practiced by most doctors is mainly focused on acute care, i.e. the diagnosis and treatment of injuries or illnesses that are of short duration and require urgent treatment. Anyone who has had appendicitis, for example, or once suffered a broken leg can gratefully attest to this. Doctors act according to specific, prescribed guidelines and treat with medications or surgeries aimed at addressing the immediate problem or symptom. Unfortunately, however, acute care medicine does not have the appropriate methods and tools to prevent and treat complex, chronic diseases. In most cases, it does not take into account the unique genetic makeup of each individual, nor factors such as exposure to environmental toxins and aspects of contemporary lifestyle that have a direct impact on the rise of chronic disease in modern Western society.
Only a few doctors work functionally
There is a large time gap between medical theory and medical practice. The time gap between the findings of the latest basic research and their integration into medical practice is enormous. In some cases, it can be as long as 50 years, especially in the area of complex, chronic disease patterns. As a result, most physicians are not adequately trained to recognize the causes of such conditions and to apply strategies such as diet, nutrition, and exercise to ultimately treat and prevent them.
Holistic instead of symptomatic
Functional medicine addresses the development, prevention and treatment of complex, chronic diseases based on patient-centered care. The focus of functional medicine is to promote health in the form of optimal quality of life and vitality, not just the absence of disease.
By listening to the patient and learning his or her entire story, the doctor involves the patient in the treatment process and puts together a therapy concept tailored to the patient's individual needs. This results in an integrative, scientifically based approach to health.
Functional medicine practitioners look "upstream" to consider the complex web of interactions in the patient's medical history, physiology and lifestyle that can trigger disease. Each patient's unique genetic makeup is considered, as well as internal (body, mind and spirit) and external (physical and social environment) factors that impact overall function.
Innovative and traditional
Functional medicine integrates the best medical practices. It combines traditional Western medical therapies with what is sometimes called "integrative" medicine. It emphasizes prevention through diet and exercise, the use of state-of-the-art laboratory tests and other diagnostic techniques, and combinations of prescription and/or herbal medicines, nutritional supplements, therapeutic diets, detoxification programs, or stress management techniques.
Healing the system - rethinking medicine
Our society is spending more and more money on "health care," yet we have less and less health to show for it. Today's healthcare industry has largely resigned itself to the belief that managing or alleviating disease is the best we can do. But now is the time to wake up and rethink medicine:
Good medicine that can provide real healing maximizes functional health and consequently minimizes disease by restoring human vitality, potential and balance. And that is precisely why functional medicine must be the approach that will guide us into the future.